St. Louis Browns manager Marty Marion wanted to convert rookie pitcher Don Larsen into an outfielder.
Marion reconsidered after Larsen put together a string of wins late in the 1953 season.
Three years later, with the Yankees, Larsen pitched the only World Series perfect game, a feat unlikely to have happened if Marion had implemented his plan.
Larsen died on Jan. 1, 2020, at 90. His professional baseball career was influenced by a couple of former Cardinals, Marion and Harry Brecheen.
Larsen’s father, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was a watchmaker who moved the family from Indiana to San Diego. Larsen, 17, was pitching for an American Legion team when a Browns scout signed him for $850.
After four seasons (1947-50) in the Browns’ farm system, Larsen served stateside in the Army for two years (1951-52). He was on the roster of the San Antonio farm club when he reported to 1953 spring training with the Browns.
A right-hander, Larsen, 23, impressed in spring training and opened the 1953 season in the Browns’ starting rotation.
“He has the confidence and could be a terrific pitcher by the end of the season,” Browns general manager Bill DeWitt Sr. told The Sporting News.
ABC-TV broadcaster and former Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean said Larsen “could retire many of the big sluggers with only his blazing pitches if he could control them.”
Catcher Les Moss said Larsen’s curve and changeup improved with the help of Brecheen, the left-hander who joined the Browns following his release by the Cardinals. Brecheen, 38, mentored multiple Browns pitchers.
Marion, who’d been an all-star shortstop for the Cardinals and managed them in 1951 before joining the Browns, said Larsen “is the best-looking pitching prospect I’ve seen in the American League this season. He’s not a finished product, but he has all the tools to make a great pitcher.”
Preparing an experiment
Larsen struggled to fulfill expectations.
After a loss to the Red Sox at Boston on Aug. 5, 1953, he was 2-10 with a 4.32 ERA, but his batting average was .288. Boxscore
Over a span of three games from July 24 to Aug. 5, Larsen produced hits in seven consecutive at-bats.
Intrigued by the combination of Larsen’s bat and arm, Marion wanted to make him an outfielder.
Immediately after the Aug. 5 game at Fenway Park, Marion “ordered a practice session during which he had Larsen shag flies in the outfield for some 30 minutes,” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported.
“Since spring training, I’ve been toying with the idea of trying Larsen as an outfielder,” Marion said. “The way he’s been hitting of late, I may take a look at him out there in a game in the near future.”
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Marion planned to start Larsen in the outfield the next day, Aug. 6, at Fenway Park.
“I decided against it at the last minute,” Marion said. “I was afraid he might run into the left field fence. As soon as I feel Don is mentally ready for the experiment, I’ll start him.”
Worth a try
After the series at Boston, the Browns went to Washington to play the Senators. In the series opener on Aug. 7, 1953, Browns left fielder Dick Kokos “bungled a fly ball” which fell for a double in the fifth inning, the Post-Dispatch reported. Marion replaced Kokos with Larsen in the sixth. Larsen played the final three innings in left field, had no fielding chances and grounded out in his one at-bat. Boxscore
Facing back-to-back doubleheaders, Marion used Larsen as a starting pitcher in one on Aug. 11 against the Tigers. Larsen was shelled for seven runs in four innings and took the loss, dropping his record to 2-11. Boxscore
The next day, the Globe-Democrat reported Larsen “has been working out afternoons as an outfielder.”
“He might be a better outfielder than a pitcher,” Marion told The Sporting News.
Said Larsen: “I’ll try anything they ask me to try. If I can’t make it in the outfield, I can always go back to pitching.
“If I get to play every day in the outfield, my hitting will improve. It’s worth trying and I’m happy Marty suggested it.”
Change of plans
A turnaround for Larsen occurred on Aug. 20, 1953, at Baltimore when the Browns played the minor-league Orioles in an exhibition game. Baltimore was trying to adopt the Browns and the game was important for the city. Larsen pitched a five hitter, striking out 11, in an 8-2 Browns victory.
On Aug. 30, the Browns were at home to play their third doubleheader in seven days. Brecheen, scheduled to start Game 1 against the Senators, had a sore shoulder, so Marion went with Larsen.
In what the Globe-Democrat described as “the surprise of the day,” Larsen pitched a two-hit shutout for his first win since June. Boxscore
“After being considered seriously for the role of outfielder, Larsen just missed pitching a no-hitter,” the Post-Dispatch reported.
Larsen held the Senators hitless until Wayne Terwilliger singled with one out in the eighth. The other hit was a Pete Runnels single in the ninth.
The first batter of the game, Eddie Yost, walked on four pitches. When Larsen went to a 2-and-0 count on the next batter, Runnels, Marion called for Bob Cain to warm up in the bullpen. Larsen settled down and, starting with Runnels, struck out five batters in a row.
The shutout was the first of five consecutive wins for Larsen.
Browns owner Bill Veeck and Marion “vetoed all plans that had been afoot a few weeks ago to convert Larsen into an outfielder,” The Sporting News reported.
Larsen finished with a 7-12 record for the 1953 Browns and batted .284 with three home runs.
A year later, Larsen was traded to the Yankees and was 45-24 for them in five seasons. His career record in 14 big-league seasons was 81-91.
Larsen was 0-3 with a 3.41 ERA in 19 appearances versus the Cardinals. One loss was in 1963 while with the Giants. The other losses came in 1964 while with the Houston Colt .45s, including one on Aug. 18 in his lone career start against the Cardinals. Boxscore