It was a powerful, nonverbal symbol recognized by every player on the old New York Yankees baseball club during their successful 1956 season.
When manager Casey Stengel wanted to signal the identity of the person he had chosen to pitch for the next game, he would get to the locker room early and place a game ball inside the player’s spikes.
As soon as the team checked in to the dressing room and began to prepare for the game, one pitcher would learn in this way that he had been selected.
Indeed, on Oct. 8, 1956, in game five of the World Series – when the Yankees were playing my boyhood favorite team, their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers – the hurler selected by Stengel that night learned his fate in just that way.
Not even Stengel knew that Don Larsen, the fellow who found the ball in his shoes that day, would pitch the only perfect game ever in a World Series contest and one of only 20 such games in major league baseball history.
Larsen took that ball from his shoes, rubbed it in the dirt, spat on his hands, warmed up and proceeded to face only 27 batters. Not one of them made it to first base.
Somehow lost in the back story of Larsen’s perfect game is the reality that on his first trip to the World Series mound, in game two, he had a terrible night.
When he entered the game, the Yankees were ahead 6-0. But Larsen lasted only two innings, giving up four walks and allowing four runs before Stengel had to pull him.
He went to the showers that night convinced that his chance of playing in the 1956 World Series had ended in disgrace.
Thanks, largely, to his ineffective hurling, the Yankees eventually lost the game they had almost sewed up before Larsen came in. After such a disastrous and brief stint, no one in baseball expected to hear from Don Larsen again.
If baseball is anything, it is a sport filled with symbolism and metaphor. In a powerful and nonverbal way, one man, Casey Stengel, signaled his confidence in another man, Don Larsen, despite his earlier failure, by giving him both the ball and a big second chance.
Larsen would later acknowledge that it was precisely Stengel’s willingness to trust him, despite his previous poor performance, that motivated him on that fateful baseball night in October 1956.
It has been a long time since I played baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers have long ago left town. Baseball is certainly a much different game today.
But, I’m convinced that our world, on and off the field of play, needs more people with discernment like Stengel.
We need those who can look beyond a fleeting fiasco to see permanent potential in the lives of others who, like all of us, occasionally botch up the game. In an ironic twist, it is usually true that second chances improve performance.
Do you know someone whose latent possibilities you can still see despite the reality of their throwing a bad game? What would it take for you to hang the game ball in their spikes?