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A look back at Gaylord Perry

that ball slick

MLB Photos Archive Photo by Rich Pilling/ MLB Photos via Getty Images

Even though he only played for the Royals for a short time, Gaylord Perry had one of those classic baseball lives. There were plenty of funny stories surrounding Perry, some of which will be in this story.

Perry, who grew up in Williamston, North Carolina, was a terrific high school athlete. He was all-state in football twice and in his senior season averaged 30 points and 20 rebounds per game for the basketball team. He turned down several college basketball scholarships to play baseball. On his high school team, his older brother Jim was the star pitcher. At least until Gaylord started to pitch. The brothers Perry eventually won more major league games than any other brother combination, save for the Niekro brothers. The final tally was 539 for the Niekro boys, 529 for the Perrys.

Gaylord and Jim both stood 6’4 and despite his athletic prowess, Gaylord was never much of a hitter. In 1964, he was taking batting practice before a game when a reporter mentioned to Giants manager Alvin Dark that Gaylord could swing the bat pretty well. Dark replied with something along these lines, “He’s a terrible hitter. A man will land on the moon before Gaylord hits a home run in the big leagues.”

Fast forward to July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin have just landed on the moon. The Giants and Dodgers paused their Sunday game to pay tribute to the astronauts. In the third inning, Gaylord steps into the batter’s box against Claude Osteen, takes a mighty swing and…you know it, deposits a home run over the center field fence. Afterwards, Gaylord deadpanned that Dark was off by about an hour.

Perry got his start with St. Cloud of the Northern League as a 19-year-old back in 1958. Stops in Corpus Christi and Tacoma followed. He was quite good his last two years in Tacoma, a combined 26-17 with a 2.50 ERA. That was good enough to get him a cup of coffee with the Giants in 1962, where he went 3 and 1 in 13 appearances. By 1966, he was a star, going 21 and 8 and earning his first All-Star berth. Perry was always a workhorse, topping 300 innings pitched six times in his 22-year career. His career-high was 344 innings in 1973. How times have changed. That 344 didn’t even lead the league. He did lead the league with 17 wild pitches that season, some undoubtedly caused by unknown substances.

In November of 1971, the Giants traded him to Cleveland for Sam McDowell, then the ace of the Indians staff. Had modern analytics existed in that age, the Giants would have seen that McDowell was on the downhill side of his career. Sudden Sam would only win 19 more games in his major league career which only lasted four more seasons, while Perry would win 24 games in his first Cleveland season (with a 1.92 ERA to boot), and the American League Cy Young award. Perry would go on to win 184 more games and pitch for twelve more seasons. This was the first bad trade involving Perry, but not the last.

After getting off to a slow start in 1975, Cleveland sent Perry to the Texas Rangers for a trio of pitchers: Jim Bibby, Jackie Brown and Rick Waits. Perry teamed with Ferguson Jenkins to give the Rangers a formidable 1-2 punch on the mound. During the 1980 offseason, the Rangers sent Perry to the Padres for Dave Tomlin and some cash. At the age of 39, Perry found the fountain of youth in San Diego, going 21-6 with a 2.73 ERA and he became the first pitcher to win the Cy Young in both leagues.

Perry was far from being done. After San Diego, he had stops with Texas, again, followed by the Yankees, Braves and Mariners. In Seattle, during the 1982 season, Perry became the 15th member of the 300-win club. The win was a 7-3 complete game victory over the Yankees. Perry became the first pitcher since Early Wynn in 1963 to win 300. At the age of 44, Father Time was knocking on the door. The Mariners released Perry on June 27, 1983.

The Royals, always on the lookout for a reclamation project, signed Perry on July 6th. He appeared in 14 games for the Royals, going 4-4 with a 4.27 ERA over 84 innings of work. His most famous Royal moment came during the Pine Tar game. As George Brett was losing his mind about his reversed home run call, Perry absconded with Brett’s bat. Umpire Joe Brinkman eventually caught him in the clubhouse and retrieved the evidence. The Fleer baseball card company commemorated the event with a card of Brett and Perry in their 1984 set.

In addition to his two Cy Young awards, Perry threw a no-hitter against the Cardinals on September 17th, 1968. In a baseball rarity, the Cardinals’ Ray Washburn no-hit the Giants the very next day.

Of course, no discussion of Perry is complete without talking about the spitball. Perry was long rumored to have doctored his balls, but it wasn’t until a 1982 game against the Red Sox that he was actually caught. He served a ten-game suspension for that infraction.

Did Perry throw spitballs? Almost certainly. He reportedly learned his craft from former pitcher Bob Shaw. Shaw pitched for the Kansas City Athletics in 1961 and was a teammate of Perry’s in San Francisco between 1964 and 1966. Perry had more uses for KY Jelly than a sex addict, but also used Vaseline and probably several other substances. He even made overtures to the makers of Vaseline about endorsing the product. The company replied with a tart, “We soothe baby backsides, not baseballs.”

I remember watching Perry pitch and prior to the pitch he was a man in motion. Hand to the forehead, back of the hair, chest, hat, neck, forehead, back to the hat. It would drive the batter crazy with the distraction and definitely gave Perry the psychological edge.

Perry said when he was scheduled to pitch against Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, ‘I’d shake Johnny Bench’s hand, and Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, and my hand would be full of Vaseline. I’d say, Looking forward to pitching against you tomorrow. They’d be thinking about that all day and night.”

Reggie Jackson was one of Perry’s favorite foils. The duo faced off 93 times. Perry won the war, striking out Mr. October 22 times while only allowing three home runs. Reggie once got so flustered with Perry that he brought a bucket of ice and Gatorade onto the field, splashing some in the direction of Perry, which earned him an ejection. Said Perry, “I’d strike him out on a forkball, and he’d swear it was loaded up. Reggie and I had some great competitions together.”

Despite all the theatrics, Perry was a formidable pitcher, winning 314 games over a 22-year career that spanned parts of four decades. He threw an astounding 303 complete games and 5,350 innings. He was a five-time All-Star and in addition to his two Cy Young awards, he struck out 3,534 batters in his career.

After retiring, he returned to North Carolina where he farmed tobacco and peanuts. He later became the baseball coach at Limestone College, where he had the privilege of coaching his son Jack. Bill James ranked Perry as the 10th best right-hander of all time. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, his third year on the ballot.