Big Wins In Spite Of Bad Calls

Photo of Bo Mitchell; © Julia Vandenoever
When Bo Mitchell's dad struck out during the 1956 World Series, many people thought the umpire's decision was wrong. Thirty-five years later, Bo was also on the receiving end of a bad call.

The following article was adapted from Grace Behind Bars: An unexpected path to true freedom, by Bo and Gari Mitchell.

It was the perfect day for the perfect game.

That afternoon, Oct. 8, 1956, found New York City under clear skies with a temperature of 69 degrees. My mother and I sat in the stands at Yankee Stadium, down the first base line, under the overhang. The place was packed with 64,519 fans. After all, it wasn’t just any game. It was game five of the World Series. Even at age 7, I knew that was a very big deal.

Mom and I had been here the day before, too. We’d been treated like celebrities since coming to New York for this event. We had an escort with us from Oklahoma, where we lived. He was there to take care of us, to make sure we got safely around town from the hotel to the ballpark and back.

It was all courtesy of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Yankees’ opponent.

Why? Because my dad — Dale Mitchell — had recently joined the Dodgers.

In the stands, I thought, This is amazing that I get to see this incredible game.

Mom pulled me closer as I looked at the sea of people. They were cheering, eating hot dogs, enjoying the game and each other’s company. Mom and I were hoping for a Dodgers win, of course, but it felt nice, comfortable, fun.

Then things changed.

It wasn’t obvious at first. Nobody thought much of it when Yankees pitcher Don Larsen struck out the first few Dodgers. But when he began to mow them down inning by inning, I felt the excitement build. With every pitch the Yankees fans went wild. Whenever anybody stood up in front of me, I had to stand up even higher or climb on my chair seat.

By the time there were two outs in the ninth inning, the place was about to explode. The crowd was in a frenzy.

It was also growing. Hundreds of thousands of fans nationwide had tuned in as word spread about the perfect game being pitched in New York. If Larsen kept it up, it would be the only such game in World Series history.

A perfect game is one of the rarest feats in all of sports. By definition, it’s way more unlikely than a no-hitter. There have been nearly 300 no-hitters in the half million or so big league games in history, but only 23 perfect games. (In a no-hitter, while obviously no opposing player gets a hit, runners can reach base by walking, being hit by a pitch or because of an error. In a perfect game, no opposing player reaches base at all.)

An astounding 26 Dodgers had been up to bat, only to be retired by Don Larsen. This being 60 years ago, there had been only three perfect games pitched since 1900, and none in the previous 34 years. Then, over the public address system, came the words we’d waited for: “Now batting for Brooklyn, number 8, Dale Mitchell.”

My dad had been a great major-league player for 10 years, achieving a .312 lifetime batting average with the Cleveland Indians and making two all-star teams. He’d hit .336 in 1948 when the Indians won the World Series. Because he’d been such a great hitter, Larsen had to know that getting this last out and securing his place in history wouldn’t be easy.

Dad settled into the batter’s box. The score was 2-0. By now millions of people were listening and watching. If he failed, it would be remembered forever.

I felt more tension in that stadium than I’d ever felt in my long seven years of life! My mother put her arms around me and pulled me closer, but what she murmured in my ear was not comforting.

“Son,” she said, “keep your mouth shut. Because if your dad gets a hit right now, these Yankees fans might kill us.”

I believed her! Suddenly I was no longer just watching a baseball game with my mother. I actually thought I could be killed if my dad got a hit.

Larsen’s first pitch hit the mitt of Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. “Ball one!” yelled the umpire.

Then came the second pitch, followed by the umpire’s call: “Strike one!”

The pressure on Dad was so strong I could almost see it.

My dad fouled off a pitch. Strike two!

The pressure grew even more crushing, and it seemed all 64,519 people in the stadium held their collective breath.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go . . .

“Strike three!”

My heart sank.

Later, people would argue over that call. But as Yogi Berra eventually put it, “The ump called it a strike, so it was a strike.”

Dad turned to debate the umpire, but pandemonium had broken out. Berra ran to the mound, jumping and wrapping both arms and legs around Larsen. The umpire took his mask off and jogged to the dugout. There was no one left for Dad to talk to.

By then the crowd was up and I couldn’t see anything. Holding Mom’s hand, I followed her out of the stadium.

I didn’t say much, but my mind and heart were working on what I’d just seen and heard. Even at age 7 I could see that competition was a big part of life. Winning, succeeding, was very good. Losing was not.

On that day Larsen had won — and my dad had become the answer to a trivia question.

Even a little kid could see that winning made all the difference. It was a lesson I’d have to remember.

Editor’s note:

Winning was indeed Bo’s goal as a young adult, both personally and professionally. He earned his undergraduate degree in marketing, married his wife, Gari, and played minor league baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Organization before building a successful real estate business in the Denver area. Bo and Gari were enjoying family life with two children and helped start a new church in their community. Little did they know that while their son and daughter were growing and Bo was working as a businessman and chaplain for the Denver Nuggets, Bo would be sentenced to prison because of an unusual series of events. Thirty-five years after Bo’s dad struck out — and many people thought the umpire’s decision had been wrong — Bo was also on the receiving end of a bad call.

With God’s grace and the love of his family, Bo would ultimately rebuild his life after his prison experience left his reputation, his career and his finances in shambles. Together, Bo and Gari would build a marriage that was stronger than ever — a relationship that was a definite win for the family.

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