posted September 11, 2006

Memoir Inspired by Perfect World Series Game

An era of contrasts, a young life experiencing myriad changes and, providing an anchor in the storm, a perfect moment exactly 50 years ago courtesy of the National Pastime.

Dr. Albert A. Bell Jr. of the Hope College history faculty has written "Perfect Game, Imperfect Lives: A Memoir Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Don Larsen's Perfect Game." The book explores the perfect game pitched in the 1956 World Series by Don Larsen of the New York Yankees, setting the event in the context of both its times and Bell's experience as an 11-year-old "everykid" who idolized baseball in general and the Yankees in particular.

The book is being published in October by Almont Books, an imprint of Ingalls Publishing Group, and is designed for a general audience as well as fans of the great American pastime. One advance reader called it "a book women will buy for their husbands and then read themselves."

Larsen pitched his perfect game - retiring 27 Dodgers with no one getting on base - on Oct. 8, 1956. It remains the only perfect game in World Series history, and is one of only 15 perfect games pitched at any time in Major League Baseball since the beginning of the 20th century.

Bell was in the television audience that day. In fact, as detailed in the book, he and a friend played hooky to watch the afternoon game. "It was the first time in my life I had skipped school, the first time I had ever done anything like that," he said.

He treasured Larsen's accomplishment then, and he treasures it now.

"To see somebody stand out there and do something that we can call 'perfect' is really an amazing thing," Bell said. "I don't know that I've ever done anything perfectly, no matter how hard I try."

Bell's book, written in 27 chapters, isn't the first about the game - Larsen himself has even penned a chronicle about it. In addition to chronicling the game as well as an overview of the 1956 season, however, Bell emphasizes social history, viewed particularly through the lens of his own coming of age.

Bell has written several books, including not only scholarly works but also a number of novels. In "Perfect Game, Imperfect Lives" he originally planned to focus on the game and the times, but as he wrote he kept seeing ways that his own experiences related and the book became autobiographical, emphasizing baseball's importance to him throughout.

"As I worked on it I began to realize I was doing a memoir," Bell said. "I began looking at the story as not only the perfect game but my life story at that time."

Bell reflects on the joy of growing up with extended family in South Carolina, the insecurities of a child trying to fit in, the confusion of adolescence, and the pain of moving and being the "new kid." In fact, on that perfect game day in October of 1956 his family had recently moved to an apartment building in Cincinnati, Ohio, where they knew no one. "It really felt like stuff in my life was messed up at that time," he said.

Through baseball, though, he had an identity, and his first and best friend in his new town - the one with whom he skipped school to watch the game - was a fellow devotee of the game, albeit a Dodgers fan recently transplanted from Brooklyn.

"Perfect Game, Imperfect Lives" also examines the state of society and culture at the time. Bell noted that while the 1950s are often remembered in an idealized way, as exemplified by the suburban sitcoms of the day, the era was marked, for example, by the injustice of separate-but-equal, and by uncertainty as fears of communism marched alongside the threat of global nuclear war.

"It was not nearly so serene as people sometimes present it today," he said. "In fact, it was as imperfect as any decade that we've lived through."

Bell also offers sketches of the very-human players who played for the Yankees on that autumn day, with particular emphasis on Larsen, who, he noted, made an unlikely hero. In 1954, for example, Larsen had lost 21 games, and across his entire career in the Majors he finished with an 81-91 record.

"Don Larsen was not a guy that you would have predicted would pitch a perfect game," Bell said.

Bell hasn't met Larsen, who now lives in Idaho with his second wife. He does, however, have an autographed photo showing Larsen being hugged on the field by Yogi Berra immediately after the win. His keepsakes also include a 1956 trading card featuring Larsen - a memento gained, appropriately enough, in trade from the friend with whom Bell watched the game.