Obituary: Gaylord Perry (1938-2022)

RIP to Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry, who won more than 300 games with more than 3,500 strikeouts and won a Cy Young Award in each league. And yes, he is probably the most famous spitball pitcher who ever lived, though his repertoire went well beyond saliva. Perry died in his home in Gaffney, S.C., on December 1. He was 84 years old. Perry played for the San Francisco Giants (1962-71), Cleveland Indians (1972-75), Texas Rangers (1975-77, 1980), San Diego Padres (1978-79), New York Yankees (1980), Atlanta Braves (1981), Seattle Mariners (1982-83) and Kansas City Royals (1984).

Attitudes toward cheating in baseball have taken a dramatic turn ever since the steroid scandals of the 1990s/2000s. In recent years, the Houston Astros 2017 cheating scandal has dogged the team and several of its key players for years. It cost Carlos Beltran his chance at a managerial career with the Mets, and it may even sink his Hall of Fame chances this year. The Spider Tack uproar of 2021 caused Major League Baseball to alter rules in mid-season, and umpires now have to rub pitchers’ hands to check for excessive stickiness. Much of Perry’s career, though, takes place in the era where cheating in baseball was seen much differently. The entire baseball world KNEW Perry was doing something to the ball, but he was never punished until the very end of his career. Rather than being a stain on the fabric of baseball, it was a battle of wits between the pitcher and the umpire and opposing manager. And Perry almost always won. If you weren’t alive or don’t remember Perry in his prime, just imagine a baseball world where a little bit of cheating was considered — dare I say — fun.

Gaylord Perry in high school. Source: The News and Observer, December 23, 1956.

Gaylord Jackson Perry was born in Williamston, N.C., on September 15, 1938. He and his older brother (by 3 years) Jim Perry both attended Williamstown High School and occasionally played on the same teams. They were excellent athletes, and their father Evan, a tobacco farmer, gave them plenty of opportunities to play. Evan Perry had been a good pitcher in his youth, but his uncle who raised him, insisted that he devote his time to work on the farm over baseball. Evan gave his boys all the opportunity for sports that he never had.

Both brothers grew to be 6’4″ in height and played on the basketball team. They also led the baseball team to the Class A high school championship in 1955, sweeping a 3-game series against Guitford County. Jim Perry won the first game 9-0, and Gaylord threw a 3-hit, 2-0 win in the championship game. Gaylord was also a top area football player and was named as an end on the 1956 News and Observer Class A Eastern All-Star Team.

Jim Perry was well-scouted as a high school pitcher, and many of those scouts would have caught a glimpse of his younger brother. But as Jim moved on to the minor leagues with the Cleveland organization, Gaylord was turning heads back in North Carolina. As a junior in 1957, Perry threw 5 no-hitters (including three in consecutive starts), 2 1-hitters and a 2-hitter. He only lost one game and didn’t give up a single earned run for the entire season. He had an overpowering fastball, a sharp curve and pinpoint control. Baseball coach Lynn Maness said, “If I coached for another 50 years I don’t believe I would find a better coordinated athlete.”

By the time Perry was ready to graduate, more than a dozen pro teams were after him. “I want to play baseball and I’m ready to sign with the fella who talks right,” he said. That fella ended up being San Francisco Giants scout Tim Murchison, who signed him to a team record $80,000 bonus. “He can do it all. If that boy doesn’t make it, I don’t know what use there is in signing anybody,” Murchison said.

Perry started 15 of his 17 appearances with the St. Cloud Rox of the Northern League in 1958. He completed 11 of those starts, including a 17-inning game that was finally called off due to curfew. Perry struck out 17 batters and allowed just 8 hits and 4 walks in that one. Perry wasn’t dominating in the minors, but he was good enough to keep advancing through the ranks, spending the entire 1961 season with the Triple-A Tacoma Giants of the Pacific Coast League. He and teammate Ron Herbel won 16 games each to lead the PCL in wins. Perry also had a 2.55 ERA and led the PCL with 219 innings pitched. The rookie made a highly anticipated debut with the Giants in the spring of 1962.

Perry started the season in the Giants rotation, but he was knocked out of his major-league debut in the third inning, courtesy of the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds scored 4 runs on 5 hits off him on April 14, 1963, though the Giants cruised to a 13-6 win. Perry won each of his next two starts, beating the Pirates twice. However, a couple of short starts and some ineffective relief outings cause the Giants to send him back to Tacoma for most of the season. He returned in September for a few outings, but his most infamous appearance came on October 2.

The Dodgers and Giants tied for first place in the NL with 101 wins, and the teams played a three-game series to determine the NL pennant. The Giants won the first game 8-0, but the teams were tied at 7 going into the bottom of the ninth inning of the second game. Maury Wills led off the inning with a walk against Bobby Bolin, and reliever Dick LeMay came into the game and walked Jim Gilliam. Manager Al Dark summoned his third pitcher of the inning, Perry, to face Daryl Spencer. Spencer was pinch-hitting for slugger Duke Snider, so there was no doubt that he was going to bunt. The Giants used a defense where third baseman Jim Davenport raced in from third base and shortstop Jose Pagan ran over to third base for the force play. Spencer bunted directly to Perry, who turned to third base, where he had an easy force play. Inexplicably, he ignored the play and threw to first base, letting Wills move to third. Mike McCormick was brought in as the fourth pitcher of the inning, and Ron Fairly lined a ball to center field, easily scoring Wills for the game-winning sacrifice fly. The Giants won the final game and reached the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees. Perry avoided infamy as the pitcher who cost the Giants the pennant.

Perry of the Giants and Ray Washburn of the Cardinals after throwing back-to-back no-hitters against each other’s team in 1968. Source: The Times (Shreveport, La.), September 19, 1968.

Perry finished the ’62 season with a 3-1 record and 5.23 ERA. He spent most of 1963 in the Giants bullpen, making 4 starts in 31 games. He won only 1 game against 6 defeats and had a 4.03 ERA. When 1964 came along, Perry changed from the forgotten man in the pen to the team’s best reliever. In one of the best games of his season, he threw 10 shutout innings in relief against the Mets on May 31, in the second game of a doubleheader. He allowed just 7 hits and fanned 9 Mets from the 13th to the 22nd inning. The Giants won in the top of the 23rd inning when Del Crandall, pinch-hitting for Perry, and Jesus Alou had back-to-back run-scoring hits for an 8-6 win. From May 30 to his first career shutout against the Mets on June 30, Perry allowed 2 earned runs in 45 innings of work, for a 0.40 ERA. His excellence in the bullpen made Dark hesitant to move Perry to the starting rotation, but Perry became a starter in August and kept the role to the end of the season. He ended the year with 12 wins and 11 losses, but he also had two no-decisions in games where he threw 10 innings. His 2.75 ERA was second-best on the team to ace Juan Marichal’s 2.48 mark, and he discovered his strikeout pitch in the majors with 170 K’s.

Perry kept the swingman role in 1965 and wasn’t quite as effective, with an 8-12 record and 4.19 ERA. He struck out 170 batters in 195-2/3 innings and… started getting undue attention from umpires. Perry started against the Milwaukee Braves on August 2 and lost 4-2. He gave up all 4 runs on 7 hits, walked 2 and struck out 7. One of those strikeout victims was Mack Jones, who said later that Perry fanned him on “one of the best spitballs I’ve ever seen.” Perry struck out Braves pitcher Ken Johnson to end the sixth inning, and Braves coach Jo-Jo White detected “a spot of slick-um” on the ball. “Jo-Jo said the ball was almost sticking to his finger,” said Braves manager Bobby Bragan. Days before, Bragan had told his pitchers to throw nothing but spitballs to protest the National League’s failure to police the banned pitch, so it was top of mind for him. He accused Perry of using benzoin, a resin compound that pitchers used to treat blisters, and spitting into it to get it to stick to the ball.

“Bragan might say anything. You know how he is,” Perry said about the accusations. His catcher Tom Haller defended the pitcher, saying Perry didn’t throw spitballs. “Bragan must be having bad dreams at night or something,” Haller added.

Perry and his controversial repertoire of pitches became a full-time starter in 1966. He responded by winning 21 games, topping the 200-strikeout mark for the first time, being named to his first All-Star Team and picking up a few MVP votes. Perry pitched 2 scoreless innings in the All-Star Game and earned the win when Wills hit a walk-off RBI single in the bottom of the tenth inning. Reporters asked Jim Perry, then pitching for the Twins, about his brother’s turnaround. Jim admitted that he hadn’t seen his brother pitch much. “I do know the scouts from the other league say that he is throwing a lot harder this year and he has developed a good, hard slider,” he added. “And I also know he went to spring training more determined than ever. I think he’s grown up up a little. — he’s not letting everything bother him.”

Yankees manager Ralph Houk argues with umpires about Perry’s alleged spitballs. Source: The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 1973.

Jim used to joke that his brother got the money, but he got the arm. But thanks to that new attitude and the good, hard slider (ahem), Gaylord seemed to have the best of both worlds. His record dipped to 15-17 in 1967, though his ERA improved to 2.61, and his strikeouts climbed to 230. He was presented with the Will Wynne Award, given to the North Carolinian who had contributed the most to baseball over the previous year. He would win it several times in his career, and the Perry brothers shared it once as well. (Will Wynne was North Carolina’s first major-league pitcher and lived a fascinating life, by the way.) Perry won 16 games in 1968 and no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals on September 17. He outdueled Bob Gibson in the 1-0 win, with the Giants’ only run coming from a Ron Hunt solo homer. Perry struck out 9, including Curt Flood to end the game. Reporters noted that Perry had been searched by umpires a couple times during the season for evidence of illegal pitches, and they asked Flood about Perry’s pitches. “You saw it,” Flood answered. “The guy pitched a great game. What else is there to say?”

The Cardinals got a measure of revenge when Ray Washburn no-hit the Giants the very next day. Nobody questioned what kind of pitches Washburn was throwing.

Perry won 19 games in 1969 and led all of baseball with 325-1/3 innings pitched, as allegations about his spitter usage rose. Perry didn’t admit to anything, but he didn’t deny it, either. “I need all the help I can get,” he said. He acknowledged that the pitch, whether he threw it or not, was becoming his calling card. “My identifier is the spitball. Fans come out to see Mays or Clemente — and I hope a few come to see me now and then.”

Ron Santo, Cubs third baseman, said of Perry, “The last time I faced him, every pitch Perry threw to me was a spitter.” Santo’s teammate, Randy Hundley, who used to be Perry’s teammate on the Giants, denied that every pitch was a spitball. “Only 90 percent of Perry’s pitches are spitters,” he said.

Perry had one of the best seasons of his career in 1970, when he won a league-leading 23 games and led baseball with 41 starts, 5 shutouts and 328-2/3 innings pitched. He also led all pitchers with 292 hits allowed, but hitters only batted .237 against him. He finished second in the NL Cy Young voting behind Bob Gibson, who also won 23 games but struck out 60 more batters (274 to 214), led baseball with 8.9 Wins Above Replacement and, it must be noted, was not being accused of throwing illegal pitches. Jim Perry won the AL Cy Young Award for winning 24 games with the Twins, which is probably as close as baseball will ever come to having two brothers win both Cy Young Awards in the same season.

Source: The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Perry slipped to 16 wins in 1971, though his pitching was as fine as ever. The Giants finished in first place in the NL West and faced the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Championship Series. Perry started Game One and beat the Pirates and Steve Blass 5-4. Pittsburgh won the next two games, and Perry started the must-win Game Four. Both teams scored 5 runs in the first two innings, with Perry giving up a 3-run homer to Richie Hebner. The Pirates blew the game open in the sixth inning, when Perry gave up a go-ahead RBI single to Roberto Clemente and was relieved by ace closer Jerry Johnson. Johnson walked Willie Stargell intentionally after a passed ball moved Clemente to second base, and Al Oliver hit a 3-run homer, making the final score 9-5. Perry had a 1-1 record and 6.14 ERA in his only postseason series.

Baseball’s winter meetings brought a few big trades in late November 1970, and one of the biggest was the deal that sent Perry and shortstop Frank Duffy to Cleveland for All-Star lefty Sam McDowell. McDowell was 29 years old, and Perry was 33, so the Giants felt they won the deal by getting the younger pitcher. “I honestly think the Giants gave up too much for me,” McDowell admitted. His last season would be 1975, and Perry would pitch for eight seasons beyond that.

Perry wasn’t too upset by the deal, said his late first wife, Blanche. “It just hurts me because I’ve seen my husband sweat and pitch for many years with the Giants,” she said. Perry responded by having one of the best iron-man seasons of post-WWII baseball with Cleveland in 1972. He made 40 starts, completed a league-leading 29 games, and finished with a 24-16 record and 1.92 ERA. The 24 wins were tops in the AL, and the ERA was 0.01 behind Luis Tiant for best in the league. Perry also threw 5 shutouts and struck out 234 in 324-2/3 innings. Five of his wins (and 3 of his losses) were extra-inning complete games. At season’s end, he was named the AL Cy Young Award winner, just ahead of fellow 24-game winner Wilbur Wood.

Perry credited his success to the fact that the AL had so few ballparks with Astroturf. “I’m a low ball pitcher and try to get them to hit on the ground. On Astroturf the ball moves through a little quicker. Grass helps out in slowing it down.” He also credited his catcher, Ray Fosse, whom he rated as one of the best in calling a game. Critics, naturally, credited Perry’s spitballs, but by this point in his career, he didn’t even need to throw a spitter to gain a psychological advantage over batters. He made a point of touching his cap and the back of his neck before each pitch. Was he rubbing something onto his hands or just making everybody think he was rubbing something onto his hands? Either way, he had batters across the league muttering about his pitches as they walked to the dugout after the third strike.

American League president Joe Cronin absolved Perry of using illegal pitches during the All-Star break in ’72, after Chicago White Sox manager Chuck Tanner complained about Perry to the media. Perry pitched a couple of innings in the All-Star Game and surrendered a 2-run homer to Henry Aaron. He’d also given up Aaron’s 600th homer the previous year. When asked about the home run pitch in the All-Star Game, Aaron grinned and said, “It was a spitter. It was not one of his best, but it was a spitter.”

Perry spent two more full seasons with Cleveland, winning 19 games in 1973 and 21 in ’74. More and more managers and teams demanded that umpires inspect almost every part of Perry’s anatomy to find out just where he was keeping his stash of Vaseline, hair gel, or whatever else they thought he was using. The Yankees in 1973 threatened to train television cameras on Perry to try and catch him in the act. The pitcher remained defiant.

“You don’t hear a peep when I’m losing,” Perry said after beating the Yankees 4-2. “You didn’t hear [Thurman] Munson say anything when he hit it out.” Munson, who indeed homered in a losing effort, said, “Sure it was a hanging spitter. I hit the dry side.”

Perry lost his first start of 1974, thanks in part to a new rule from Commissioner Bowie Kuhn that allowed an umpire to call any pitch they felt was illegal a ball. Perry had the Yankees’ Graig Nettles struck out on what he called a forkball, but home plate ump Marty Springstad called it a ball under the new rule. Perry walked Nettles on the next pitch, gave up a run in the inning and was knocked out of the game in the next frame. Perry, furious about the call, threatened to sue. “Damn umps don’t know a forkball from a spitter. I don’t throw a spitter anymore.”

Source: The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Cleveland general manager Phil Seghi arranged an umpire “seminar,” in which Perry demonstrated his slider and forkball for a group of umps. AL president Lee MacPhail notified all AL umps about Perry’s forkball, which moved like a spitter but wasn’t. Regardless of what Perry threw, AL batters couldn’t hit it. Perry ripped off a streak of 15 straight wins, not losing another game until July. He began offering an incentive program for his Cleveland teammates; if they helped him win a game, they were treated to a lunch or dinner. On one occasion, Perry’s winning streak was saved by a walk-off base hit, and Cleveland reporter Bob Sudyk wrote, “Jack Brohamer lined a lobster dinner to center field.”

Perry was 35 years old and getting better, throwing faster. He said he had sworn off the illegal pitches, even though he wrote a confessional book, Me and The Spitter, that year. He made his fourth All-Star Team and, though he lost more games than he won in the second half of the season, finished with a 21-13 record and 2.51 ERA. It was his fourth 20-win season, too. Cleveland had acquired Jim Perry via trade, making the brothers major-league teammates for the first time. Perry won 17 games, so the Perrys were responsible for 38 of Cleveland’s 77 wins, or almost 50%.

The next season wasn’t nearly as fun for the brothers. Jim was ineffective at age 39 and was traded to Oakland, where he ended his playing career. Gaylord won his 200th game but was 6-9 for Cleveland. There was friction between him and manager Frank Robinson, who felt he had a negative attitude. Perry countered that Robinson didn’t want veteran players who could spot his mistakes more easily. The Indians traded Perry to the Texas Rangers in June for pitchers Jim Bibby, Jackie Brown, Rick Waits and $100,000 cash. Rangers manager Billy Martin, who had been one of the loudest voices against Perry and his spitter, changed his tune quickly. “I’m happy to have him. I didn’t know how wrong I was when I accused him of cheating,” Martin said.

Martin, true to form, was fired and replaced by Frank Lucchesi before the end of the season. But Perry won 12 games with his new team, giving him 18 on the season, and then he won 15 games in both 1976 and ’77 with the Rangers. He tore a thigh muscle in 1976 but pitched through the pain. He won his 100th American League game on May 19, 1977, beating the Tigers 6-3. It made him just the third pitcher to win 100 games in both the AL and NL, along with Cy Young and Jim Bunning. His remaining hair had gone gray, and he was wondering if he’d reached his end when his poor performances happened a little more frequently, but after his milestone win, he said, “I think I can help this club for several more years.” A reporter asked if he still threw spitballs, and Perry pulled out a tube of Vaseline from his jacket pocket. “You know I just want them to think I do,” he said with a grin.

Texas traded Perry to the San Diego Padres in January of 1978 for pitcher Dave Tomlin and $125,000 cash. He requested the trade, as the Rangers were reportedly going to make him a reliever. The 39-year-old pitcher won 21 games against 6 defeats, leading the NL in both wins and winning percentage (.778). Perry completed just 5 of his 37 starts (because the Padres had closer Rollie Fingers in the bullpen), but he still worked 260-2/3 innings and added 154 strikeouts to his career total. He reached 3,000 strikeouts on October 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He fanned Joe Simpson in the eighth inning for the 3,000th strikeout, though the capacity crowd in San Diego didn’t celebrate. The team had miscounted his career strikeout totals, so everybody thought that the Simpson K was career strikeout 2,999. The game went into extra innings, and manager Roger Craig let Perry continue to pitch. In that 10th inning, Perry faced Simpson again and struck him out again, and the game screeched to a halt as the Padres congratulated Perry for reaching 3,000 (actually 3,001) strikeouts. He joined Cy Young and Bob Gibson as the only pitchers to reach that mark. After the season, Perry was selected at the NL Cy Young Award winner, making him the first pitcher to win the award in both leagues. “I’m dedicating this award to all those people 40 and older,) said Perry, who celebrated his 40th birthday in September. He attributed his remarkable stamina to spending his offseasons working on his North Carolina peanut farm.

Perry didn’t see much consistency for the rest of his career. He was named to his final All-Star team in 1979, but it was a down year for him. He went 12-11 for the Padres, failing to win more than 15 games in a season for the first time since 1965. San Diego traded him back to the Rangers in February 1980, and he won 6 games before being dealt to the Yankees in August for the pennant race. He was 4-4 for the Yankees with a 4.44 ERA, and he was granted free agency after the season. For the first time in his career, Perry was a free agent and signed with the Atlanta Braves for 1981. He was closing in on 300 career wins, but the 1981 players strike limited him to 23 starts and an 8-9 record. He once again found himself a free agent, with 297 career wins.

Perry’s custom Old-Timers uniform. Source: Sacramento Bee, July 21, 1991.

Perry signed with Seattle and immediately was handed the nickname of “The Ancient Mariner.” He wanted that 300th win, but the signing wasn’t a desperate attempt to compile statistics. Perry won 10 games for a Mariners team that finished 10 games under .500 and was the second-winningest pitcher on the team behind Floyd Bannister. Career win Number 300 game against the Yankees on May 6, 1982. It was a 124-pitch complete game, and Perry walked just 1 batter and fanned 4 in the 7-3 win. The Mariners treated him to a champagne-soaked celebration in the locker room. “Maybe you guys will remember be as the winner of 300 games instead of that other pitch,” Perry told reporters, even as a T-shirt in his locker read, “300 wins is nothing to spit at.”

Later that season, Perry was ejected by home plate umpire Dave Phillips for throwing an illegal pitch against the Red Sox. It was the first time in Perry’s long career that he’d ever been kicked out a game for a spitball, and the AL suspended him for 10 games for the infraction. Perry returned to the Mariners in 1983 but pitched poorly, winning just 3 games against 10 losses and an ERA approaching 5. He was released and finished the season with the Kansas City Royals, his eighth major-league team. He split his 8 decisions to end the year with a 7-14 record and 4.64 ERA. He reached one final milestone with his 3,500th strikeout. He was the third pitcher after Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan to reach that plateau. That September, Perry announced his retirement.

“It’s going to be a little drier around the American League,” he said with a smile, before listing all the greats he’d played with and against –Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal down to contemporary greats like Dale Murphy, Dave Winfield and George Brett. “It’s all been great, but now it’s time to get back home to the peanut farm and make a living there.”

In 22 seasons, Perry had a 314-265 record and a 3.11 ERA. He appeared in 777 games, including 690 starts. He threw 303 complete games, with 53 shutouts, and he even recorded 10 saves. At the time of his retirement, his 314 wins were 10th all-time, and his 3,534 strikeouts were third-best. As of this writing, he’s 17th on the all-time wins list, 8th in strikeouts, and 16th in shutouts. As a batter, Perry hit .131, but he managed 6 home runs. Yes, that first homer, against Claude Osteen on July 20, 1969, came just after Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon. So the famous quote attributed to Al Dark in the early 1960s that “Gaylord Perry will hit a home run when man walks on the moon” was true.

Perry declared bankruptcy on his 400-acre peanut and soybean farm in 1986. That year, he was asked to help create a baseball coach at Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C. He did everything for the team from groundskeeper to recruiter to scorekeeper during its initial seasons. Over his four seasons of coaching, the team had an 81-57 record, and he helped secure the funding for the field that the Limestone University Saints still use today. Perry made Gaffney his home for the rest of his life.

All of Perry’s milestones made him a lock for the Hall of Fame, but it still took three years on the ballot before he was inducted in 1991, appearing on 77.2% of the ballots. He is also a part of the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame and the Limestone Athletics Hall of Fame. Perry was a regular attendee at Hall of Fame inductions, and he appeared at numerous Old-Timers days. He had a custom jersey with the names of all of his eight former teams on the front, and he went through his routine of touching his hair, cap, jersey and glove before making a pitch. He attended autograph shows nationwide and may be the only person who regularly autographed jars of Vaseline.

Perry was predeceased by son Jack and wife Blanche. He is survived by his wife Deborah, daughters Allison, Amy and Beth, and stepchildren Gwen, Jonathan and Nicholas.

South Carolina lawmakers honored their native son with “Gaylord Perry Day” when he was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Gaylord Perry Day” was to be January 17, 1991. However, the United States launched Operation Desert Storm that same day, so the honor was pushed back a few weeks to give Perry a day where he could be honored properly. Inside the Columbia, S.C., capitol building, a reporter asked Perry if he ever threw a spitball or doctored a baseball. “Oh no!” he said. “Make them believe I did.”

“So,” the reporter continued, “to your dying day, should fans think of you as a crafty pitcher?”

“That’s it, buddy, you got it,” Perry replied. “That’s a good way to put it.”

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