Gaylord Perry was a testament to the power of psychological warfare.
As a young pitcher with the San Francisco Giants coming straight out of High School in Williamston, North Carolina he had two so-so seasons. But he saw the way batters reacted to pitchers like Don Drysdale, whose arsenal included a spitball. Spitballs are illegal. The idea is to put a foreign substance (Vaseline, KY Jelly, etc.) on the baseball to make it dance in the air when propelled by someone with a Major League fastball. It is very erratic and very difficult to control.
When Perry started going through mound rituals where he would compulsively wipe the brim of his cap, dab his eyebrows and so forth; then followed it up with a slider that broke downward, batters began to also suspect that he was throwing the forbidden pitch.
The problem was, he wasn’t. At least not at first. But the batters THOUGHT he was. And if a hitter is worried about going up against an illegal pitch, he is wasting precious resources that are usually being used in the already-daunting mental process of trying to hit Major League pitching. Advantage: Perry.
Of course Perry was coy when asked about the pitch. It became something of a game with him and baseball writers. They would ask, and Perry would give a seemingly different evasive answer each day. The game even extended to his family. A reporter once asked Perry’s daughter, Allison, if her daddy threw a spit. She laconically replied, “It’s a hard slider.” She was five years old!
If we are to believe Perry (and there was never any reason for him to lie after he was selected to the Hall of Fame) he threw spitballs VERY infrequently. And why not? His slider was Major League quality. And if batters THOUGHT he was throwing a spitter, well so much the better. It was not uncommon for him to be checked multiple times per game. Ever the jokester, he was known for putting notes in his pocket reading “It’s not here, but you’re getting warmer.”
Those who DID through spitballs with regularity will tell you it puts a tremendous strain on the arm to control it. Perry’s uncanny career longevity suggests he rarely relied on it. His 5,350 innings pitched is the fifth highest total in the history of baseball. Nuff said.
Perry’s career also demonstrates the curious relationship baseball culture has with the prospect of cheating. The unwritten baseball code dictates that if you can get away with throwing a spitball, more power to you. Of course once you develop a reputation for it, you’re going to be a perpetual suspect. This same code also accepts stealing signs, unless you do it by use of equipment (telescopes, binoculars, etc). The same code also addresses when a team can and cannot steal a base, when it’s OK to charge the mound and when it’s not, how long you are supposed to admire a home run. It is a strange code, but the players seem to know it and respect it.
Perry was also part of a wonderful instance of serendipity that only seems to happen in baseball. As a hitter, Perry was a terrific pitcher. At the plate, he was lost. Teammate Alvin Dark once declared “There’ll be a man on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.” On June 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. 34 minutes later, Gaylord Perry hit his first career home run. Oddly enough he would hit five more in his career, including an improbable solo blast at age 42 while pitching for the Atlanta Braves in 1981!
Perry had another interesting intersection with baseball history during his final season as a member of the Kansas City Royals in 1983. If you remember the infamous “Pine Tar Game,” the image you likely remember is George Brett storming out of the Royals dugout to argue an umpire’s ruling that a three-run homer he had just hit off of Goose Gossage was disallowed because Yankees Manager Billy Martin claimed the was pine tar above the 18-inch mark on his bat…a violation of a rule that evidently Martin was the only one who cared about. The three names listed there are part of baseball lore. Well, Perry was involved as well. He tried to hide Brett’s bat in the clubhouse so they wouldn’t be able to measure the pine tar. The same chicanery that paid off on the mount so often for Perry apparently didn’t extend to stealth abilities. The bat was found, the pine tar was measured, and the rest is history.
Perry made what I consider to be a massive contribution to pop culture without even knowing it. If you enjoyed the movie “Major League” you know the character of Eddie Blake, the aging pitcher who now relied on the spitball to get batters out. The actor who played Eddie worked with the script writers on a scene when Blake tells a young Ricky Vaughn (played perfectly by Charlie Sheen) how to throw the spitter. They used one of Perry’s evasive explanations nearly word-for-word. Awesome!
But even if you ignore the spitball intrigue, Perry was still an amazing pitcher who lasted an amazingly long time in the majors. His first game was in 1962 with John Kennedy in the White House and Major League teams just getting used to flying to games. His last game was in 1983, after Disco and Punk Rock, with Ronald Reagan nearing the end of his first term in Washington.
When Perry retired he continued to use the spectre of the spitter to his advantage. He often greased his hand before shaking hands with celebrities, just to give them a laugh. At old timer’s games, he wore a special uniform bearing the logos of the eight teams he played for in the Majors.
I had a chance to meet him in 2000 when the American Legion World Series was played in Danville and he was the lone Hall of Famer in the legends game. I asked him before the game what he was going to show these youngsters on the mound. He smiled and said, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
My Dad met Perry briefly in a liquor store in Perry’s hometown of Williamston-North Carolina. Evidently he was a Wild Turkey man. Dad shook his hand and reported it was 100% dry.
RIP, Gaylord. You made the game I love better and FAR more interesting.