Roy Halladay no-hitting the Reds last week wasn’t huge news around here. Nothing about baseball is anymore. But Dale E. Mitchell comes from a generation that regards the Phillie’s feat with awe. And he comes from a family that didn’t need reminding that Halladay’s was only the second postseason no-hitter in baseball history.
That’s why, after the final pitch, Mitchell found himself thinking about the Cincinnati batter who made the last out. “I guess Brandon Phillips has taken Dad’s place,” says Mitchell, a Spring Valley resident and business consultant.
“Dad” was L. Dale Mitchell. He’s the guy remembered for making the last out in baseball’s only other playoff no-hitter—New York Yankee Don Larsen’s 1956 World Series perfect game, perhaps the most famous baseball game ever played.
The game might have been riveting even if it hadn’t taken place in the media capital of the universe. Over the course of a decade, the Dodgers and the hated Yankees battled in six of 10 World Series. Brooklyn’s roster that day featured four future Hall of Famers (Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Roy Campanella, who went a combined 0-12 that day). The Yankee lineup had three FHOF’ers (Enos Slaughter, Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle).
Back in an era when baseball captivated the whole country, a subway series was no puny parochial concern. Locally, The Washington Post had two stories about Larsen’s appearance on its front page. (On the night of Halladay’s no-no, the two local TV sportscasters I watched led their 11 o’clock reports with an update on Clinton Portis’ groin; the Post only had a small A1 teaser the next morning.)
This prominence may have been great for baseball, but it didn’t work out so well for Mitchell, who came to the plate as a pinch hitter with two outs in the top of the ninth. With the whole world watching, he proceeded to take a called third strike, securing Larsen’s perfect game.
Larsen’s still alive and, even with a pedestrian career stats line—an 81-91 record and a 3.78 ERA—still venerated. The elder Mitchell, a left-handed left-fielder who retired after that 1956 World Series and died in January 1987, is in equal and opposite fashion.
“He understood the historical aspect of this, how he’d be remembered for this,” says Dale E., “and he was pissed about it until the day he died.”
Mitchell being remembered as an all-time goat is understandable. But is it fair? Nah.
An Oklahoma native, Mitchell spent all but the last two months of his 11-year career with the Cleveland Indians. He retired with a .312 career batting average, and was a two-time American League All-Star. In 4,013 at bats, he only struck out 20 times. As of the 2007 record book by the Society for American Baseball Research, Mitchell was tied with Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch for seventh place on the list of most difficult batters to strike out. Of his 29 at bats in three different World Series, the one against Larsen was Mitchell’s only postseason strikeout.
But in Mitchell’s case, one was enough.
When he died, the Los Angeles Times, by then the paper of record for fans of the relocated Dodgers, wrote the most unappreciative appreciation possible. Under the headline, “Dale Mitchell Watched Big One Go By,” writer Scott Ostler opened the obit with savagery: “The most infamous Lookie Lou in baseball history went down for good this week,” Ostler wrote, telling readers that Mitchell “will forever be a goat.”
“When he died,” says Lew Paper, a D.C. lawyer and writer, “it was just as he predicted, and only confirmed everything he feared: The only thing that mattered was striking out.”
Paper knows more about Larsen’s big game than many of the folks who played in it: He authored a whole book about the game, Perfect: Don Larsen’s Miraculous World Series Game and the Men Who Made It Happen, which was released last year to fabulous reviews. He says he was “inspired by Dale Mitchell’s story” to write the book, which also came out in paperback last week.
Paper says everyone around Mitchell knew how angry he was about the strikeout.
“When Dale walked back to the dugout, he was saying that it was high and outside,” says Paper. “Pee Wee Reese said, ‘Hey Dale, forget about it! You’re in the history books now!’ So from the very moment he walked away from the plate, he was bitter.”
And maybe not without reason.
It’s hard to rate any available video evidence about the location of Larsen’s last pitch, since it was shot at the height of the poor-def TV era. But Paper says he collected plenty of oral evidence to back up Mitchell’s contention that he was robbed. Home-plate umpire Babe Pinelli, like Mitchell, retired after the 1956 Series. Calling his final game, could the ump have been trying to write himself and Larsen a ticket to baseball immortality? Mitchell’s career, say conspiracy theorists, could have been collateral damage. Duke Snider told the author that Pinelli, who died in the 1980s, had said that during the final at-bat “anything close was going to be called a strike.” Two Yankees confessed to Paper that they thought the pitch was outside, too.
A lot of baseball folks now say that Mitchell should have at least gotten to see one more pitch. George Will advanced the theory of Mitchell-as-victim as recently as June. The topic of bad umpiring came up on ABC’s Sunday show, This Week, after Detroit pitcher Armando Galarraga was robbed of a perfect game by a botched call on what would have been the last out of the game. Will used Mitchell’s tale to point out baseball’s tradition of historic bad calls. “The umpire (Pinelli)—it was his last game, by the way—called strike three on Dale Mitchell,” he said. “It was a foot and half probably high and outside.”
But even that sort of talk wouldn’t appease Mitchell. “I never heard any ‘It was high!’ or ‘The pitch was outside!’ from him,” says Dale E. “In our house, it was one of those things that you just didn’t talk about. If it came up at all and he was in the room, he was like, ‘See you later!’ and he’d just turn and walk away.”
The elder Mitchell declined invitations to Old Timers Games, which were a big deal in New York baseball during the 1960s and 1970s. He was equally hostile in 1986, when producers from NBC’s Today show called to invite him for a feel-good segment with Larsen to commemorate the perfect game’s 30th anniversary. “I ain’t flying 2,000 miles to talk about striking out,” Mitchell told the producers.
Dale E. will talk, though. He’s so proud of his father’s accomplishments as a ballplayer and businessman—the elder Mitchell began a long run as a Martin Marietta executive shortly after the 1956 Series—that he’ll talk about everything Dad did, including that infamous strikeout. He says he’s often asked to do just that when he introduces himself at business and social functions (he’s married to Cleta Mitchell, a big Oakland A’s fan and one of this town’s rainmakingest GOP lawyers, now all over the news for representing Tea Party darlings Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle).
“I’ll go out to the golf course, and I’ll notice a guy’s watching me,” he says. “And about the third hole he’ll work up the courage and say, ‘You know, there used to be a ballplayer with that name…’ It’s just amazing to me: My dad’s been retired for 54 years and dead for about 24. But baseball people remember!”
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