Gaylord Perry (1938-2022)

Thursday, December 01 2022 @ 12:16 PM EST

Contributed by: Magpie

There was much more to him than the spitball.

He was a horse. He didn't become a full-time starter until he was 27 years old, but over the next fifteen seasons, through his age 41 season, his average year was 18-13, 2.87, pitching 285 innings and completing more than half of his starts. Year after year after year. You'll take that on your team. He never had a bad season - at least not until he had turned 42 and had declined to the level of roughly league average inning eater. He threw strikes and he kept the ball in the yard.

Perry was notorious, if not legendary, for the mind games he played with hitters his whole career. His mid-career autobiography was entitled Me and the Spitter and it blithely catalogues all the various ways Perry knew how to doctor a baseball, tricks he claimed to have learned from Bob Shaw, who was himself a notorious spitballer. Before every pitch, Perry fidgeted endlessly on the mound, touching various parts of his head and his neck and his uniform. It made the opposition crazy, but no one ever caught him until August 1982, by which time he'd already won 300 games.

He was a redneck, a country boy from a very small town in North Carolina called Williamston - back home his name was pronounced "Gay-lerd" (rhymes with "bird".) His big brother Jim preceded him to the majors, and also had trouble establishing himself as a full-time starter. Jim spent the first ten years of his career as a swingman  before finally getting his chance and giving the Twins a couple of 20 win seasons.

Perry was at the centre of one of the game's more lopsided trades. In November 1971, the Giants sent him to Cleveland for Sudden Sam McDowell. Perry was four years older, and  McDowell was the AL's premier fireballer, a big southpaw who had led the league in Ks (and walks) in five of the previous six seasons. But McDowell's strikeout rate had fallen sharply in 1971 (with no improvement whatsoever in his control) and he would go 19-25, 4.16 over what was left of his career. Perry - who had another 180 victories in his future - immediately went out and had one of the greatest seasons a pitcher has had in the last half century, winning 24 games with a 1.92 ERA over 342 IP for a team that won just 72 games. By some weird coincidence, Steve Carlton was doing exactly the same thing in the other league for his new team, and Carlton's achievement was somehow even more spectacular (27 wins, 1.97 ERA in 346 IP for a team that won just 59 games.)

Perry was a lousy hitter, even by the standards we set for pitchers. He hit .054 (3 for 56) for the Giants in 1964. His first manager, Alvin Dark, once prophesied that men would land on the moon before Gaylord Perry ever hit a home run. Well, on 20 July 1969, at 8:17 UCT (which would be 1:17 in California) the Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility. The Giants had just started an afternoon game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and when Perry came up to bat in the third inning he promptly hit his first career homer, off Claude Osteen.