Everyone knows that Don Larsen twirled a perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. What very few, including myself, knew before last night is that the legendary performance was aided by a decision to remove the batter's eye in centerfield. Eagle-eyed Keith Olbermann brought this to the world's attention with the help of some archival footage airing on MLB Network.
That certainly changes the conversation. There's quite a difference between picking out a baseball against a dark background and making it out against hundreds of light circle-shaped objects. It's no wonder there were only five hits and two runs combined in the contest considering the circumstances.
Olbermann also made this point back in January when Jay Jaffe wrote about Larsen's perfection for FanGraphs.
[Update: As Keith Olbermann reminded me, Larsen may have had another thing going for him that day: the crowds that day were so great that the Yankees allowed them into the batters’ eye, the empty area in center field against which batters are to be able to see the ball. The photographic evidence is compelling... But such a theory doesn’t explain how there weren’t any other perfect games thrown in the 41 other World Series games during which the Yankees hosted even bigger crowds. Where were they putting fans then?
The announced attendance that day was 64,519, which ranks as the 42nd-biggest gathering at old Yankee Stadium. Where were they putting the excess people if not in the batter's eye? Interestingly, Game 5 had the smallest crowd of the series in the Bronx. Game 3 drew a stunning 73,977 and Game 4 brought in 69,705. Is it possible fans weren't sitting in hitters' eyelines during the previous matchup? That would mean almost 9,000 more people were able to fit in significantly less space, somehow.
A posting on Baseball Reference says:
One example of a batter's background is the black area in the center-field bleachers section of Yankee Stadium, known simply as The Black. At one time, there were seats where the black area is now, but because of distractions the seats were removed and the area painted black. (Before the stadium's mid-1970s renovation, a batter's eye screen was often put up in front of the section.)
This photo from the 1950 World Series and has fans in the area. Highlights from a 1952 game show Mickey Mantle snagging a fly ball in deep center in front of occupied seats.
Perhaps most helpful is this color footage from the day prior showing a similar seating configuration.
Games 3 and 4 at Yankee Stadium saw 16 combined runs. In 1955, the four contests saw a grand total of 25 runs. Previous World Series reflect a relatively low-scoring averages at the House That Ruth Built:
Through the decade, that's an average of 6.83 runs/game at Yankee Stadium during the Fall Classic. There were an unusual amount of shutdown performances, though: a pair of 1-0 games in 1949, a 2-0 game in 1952, Johnny Podres' Game 7 masterpiece in 1955, and Larsen's gem in 1956.
So what can we deduce from all this? Larsen no doubt benefitted from a rough hitting background. But so did other pitchers who took the mound there, none of whom managed to throw a no-hitter, let alone a perfect game.