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Onetime Orioles pitcher Don Larsen was fearless, hard-drinking and quite a character

Don Larsen went 3-21 in 1954, his first season with the Orioles. He would go on to pitch a perfect game for the Yankees in 1956.
Don Larsen went 3-21 in 1954, his first season with the Orioles. He would go on to pitch a perfect game for the Yankees in 1956. (William Klender / Baltimore Sun)

Don Larsen’s baseball career ran the gamut, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Yes, the big right-hander pitched a historic perfect game for the New York Yankees in the 1956 World Series. But he also played for the Orioles on their return to the big leagues in 1954, when Larsen went 3-21 and earned the nickname “Goony Bird” for his oversized ears and zany antics off the field.

Larsen died Wednesday of cancer in Hayden Lake, Idaho. He was 90.

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FILE--New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra leaps into the arms of pitcher Don Larsen after Larsen struck out the last Brooklyn Dodgers batter to complete his perfect game on Oct. 8, 1956. No matter how long they play baseball, nobody will ever pitch a better World Series game than Don Larsen. No runs, no hits, no errors. Larsen has no explanations for baseball's only postseason perfecto, his Game 5 gem in the 1956 Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. ``It just happened,'' he said. (AP Photo/file) Original Filename: NY99
FILE--New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra leaps into the arms of pitcher Don Larsen after Larsen struck out the last Brooklyn Dodgers batter to complete his perfect game on Oct. 8, 1956. No matter how long they play baseball, nobody will ever pitch a better World Series game than Don Larsen. No runs, no hits, no errors. Larsen has no explanations for baseball's only postseason perfecto, his Game 5 gem in the 1956 Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers. ``It just happened,'' he said. (AP Photo/file) Original Filename: NY99 (AP)

Baltimore fans remember him as a hard-drinking, fun-loving character whose frustrations epitomized the team in his single-season here. Larsen lost on Opening Day, 3-0, to the Detroit Tigers. He lost his 20th game in mid-September, becoming the first pitcher to do so that season. And he lost the Orioles’ finale, their 100th defeat in a game preceded by fighter jets roaring over Memorial Stadium and dancing girls in tights performing on the field.

As the losses mounted, so did the stories of Larsen’s exploits. He lived in an apartment above a bar on Charles Street, played pinball until all hours and worried team officials so much that they hired a detective to track him.

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“The only thing Don Larsen fears is sleep,” manager Jimmy Dykes once said.

Teammates described him as “an overgrown kid.” Once, after being knocked from the box, Larsen retired to the clubhouse and promptly threw a fit.

FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2008, file photo, Former New York Yankees picher Don Larsen tips his hat to fans during introduction ceremonies before an old-timers baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York. Larsen, the journeyman pitcher who reached the heights of baseball glory in 1956 for the Yankees when he threw a perfect game and the only no-hitter in World Series history, died Wednesday night, Jan. 1, 2020. He was 90. (AP Photo/Ed Betz, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 2, 2008, file photo, Former New York Yankees picher Don Larsen tips his hat to fans during introduction ceremonies before an old-timers baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York. Larsen, the journeyman pitcher who reached the heights of baseball glory in 1956 for the Yankees when he threw a perfect game and the only no-hitter in World Series history, died Wednesday night, Jan. 1, 2020. He was 90. (AP Photo/Ed Betz, File) (Ed Betz/AP)

“He was kicking lockers and throwing his glove around,” said Dick Armstrong, the club’s publicity director. “I said, ‘Don, tomorrow’s another day.’”

“You don’t understand,” Larsen said. “Somebody stole my Flash Gordon comic book!”

A respectable hitter, his slugging percentage (.409) topped all but one of the Orioles’ regulars. Several times, Larsen was even called upon to pinch-hit.

That winter, he was dealt to New York as part of a 17-player trade, then the largest in major league history. But Larsen returned to Baltimore in 1965 when, at 35, he went 1-2 with a 2.67 earned run average. The following year, he was the last player cut in spring training. The Orioles went on to win the World Series.

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