Who Can It Be Now?
Gaylord Jackson Perry was born on September 15, 1938, in Williamston, North Carolina. His parents, Evan and Ruby, were tenant farmers mainly in tobacco, corn, and peanuts for money and then vegetables and animals for food. Gaylord and his brother Jim both worked the fields as early as their 7th birthdays, helping their father with the work around the farm.
As his biography on the North Carolina History Project website mentions, Gaylord was an imposing figure in high school, as his 6'4" frame held 200 pounds of muscle toned by years of working in the fields. He competed at every level and in every sport through Williamston High School, though baseball was always his best sport. As it turned out, Tom Sheehan and the San Francisco Giants won over Perry and his family with the largest contract they had ever given a high school kid -- a $70,000, three-year contract in 1958.
After he signed with the Giants, they sent him to Class-C St. Cloud for his first season, where his teammates included John Orsino, Bobby Bolin, Moose Stubing, and Matty Alou. He pitched well enough at the age of 19 in St. Cloud to be promoted in 1959 to the Double-A Texas League. His numbers in Corpus Christi were not great, so he was back in Double-A in 1960 with Rio Grande Valley.
There, at the age of 21, Perry was learning his craft. In 3 fewer innings (191 in 1959, 188 in 1960), Perry gave up 54 fewer hits and 8 fewer homeruns. Though he walked 8 more batters, his ERA improved from 4.05 in 1959 to 2.82 in 1960. That improvement earned him an inning at Triple-A Tacoma, where he was an incredible 7 years younger than the average player. It also earned him a direct assignment to Triple-A in 1961.
He made the team directly out of spring training in 1962. He pitched sporadically at best -- 3 times in April, 4 times in May -- so the team made the decision after a number of shaky appearances to send him back down to Triple-A Tacoma in 1962. Once again, just as he had improved greatly on a second trip through Double-A, he improved his peripherals in Triple-A in 1962 -- striking out more batters, giving up fewer hits, and improving his K/BB ratio. Yes, his BB/9 jumped, but once again it was a positive change.
In 1963, the Giants used Perry as a swingman and middle reliever. He started 4 games, finished 6, saved 2, and won 1 in 31 appearances. Indeed, over his first four seasons from 1962 to 1965, Perry served in that swingman's role, racking up a less-than-impressive 24-30 record with a 3.68 ERA with 56 starts in 135 appearances.
But, from 1966 until 1971 -- the last 6 years of Perry's San Francisco career, things changed for Gaylord for the better. He was put into the Giants rotation, making perhaps one or two relief appearances a year, and he thrived. From the age of 27 in 1966 to age 32 in 1971, Perry racked up 110 wins against 79 losses, 113 complete games in 227 starts, 19 shutouts, 2 saves, and a 2.75 ERA while walking 425 and striking out 1209.
In that time, Perry was an All-Star twice -- in 1966, which was his first 20-win season (21-8) and again in 1970, when Perry went 23-13, started 41 games, completed 23, had 5 shutouts, pitched 328-2/3 innings, and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting (deservedly so) behind Bob Gibson.
After the 1971 season, however, the Giants decided to cash in on Perry and trade their almost 33-year-old starter to the Cleveland Indians with middle infielder Frank Duffy in exchange for a younger pitcher -- "Sudden" Sam McDowell. McDowell is nearly four years younger than Perry, and he was coming off a string of pretty impressive years himself -- including 6 All-Star Appearances. McDowell was known for being a strikeout pitcher, of course, and at the time of the trade he was 17th on the all-time strikeout list with 2,159. Unfortunately for the Giants, all the mileage on McDowell's arm caught up with McDowell in 1972 and 1973 -- to the point of where the Giants literally just sold his contract in June of 1973 to the Yankees. McDowell was released in mid-1975 by the Pirates, and at age 33 was out of baseball.
Perry, on the other hand, was 33 years old but still 12 years away from retirement. In fact, Perry still had two Cy Young Awards in his future, including his first one in Cleveland in 1972 in a season in which he edged out Wilbur Wood for the crown. Perry had an incredible 24-16 record with a 1.92 ERA and an unbelieveable 11.2 WAR.
Even so, Perry began a peripatetic existence in the 1970s. It seems like all the teams he pitcher for were afraid that his expiration date would arrive. The Indians kept him through 1975, when, on June 13, he went to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Jim Bibby, Jackie Brown, Rick Waits, and $100,000. He pitched in Arlington until the end of the 1977 season, when the Rangers sent him to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Dave Tomlin and $125,000.
He celebrated getting out of the Texas heat by winning his second Cy Young Award in 1978 in San Diego. He was the runaway winner with his 21-6 record and 2.73 ERA, though this time WAR says that Phil Niekro (10.4), Vida Blue (6.2), and Burt Hooton (5.3) all were more deserving of the title than Perry (4.3).
Seeing Perry win the Cy Young Award in 1978 apparently convinced the Rangers that Perry still had gas in the tank after the 1979 season. So, in February of 1980, the Padres sent Perry with outfielder Tucker Ashford and a minor leaguer to the Padres in exchange for Willie Montanez.
He did not pitch badly in Texas; to the contrary, at age 41, he pitched fairly well. But, the Rangers cashed in on Perry and the remaining time on his contract that year to trade him to the New York Yankees for Ken Clay and a minor leaguer. The Yankees appeared to be trying to form the oldest starting rotation in the history of baseball, pairing Perry (41 at midseason) with Jim Kaat (also 41), Luis Tiant (aged 39), Tommy John (37), Rudy May (35), and the kids -- Ron Guidry (29), and Tom Underwood (26).
The Yankees let Perry leave in free agency after the 1982 season. He signed a one-year, $300,000 contract with the Atlanta Braves at the age of 42. That signing paired Perry with a fellow "old guy" in Phil Niekro, who was also 42 (Gaylord was older by 8 months). Perry did not pitch badly in Atlanta, but he gave up a ton of hits and led the league in hits allowed. Perhaps that was because he was around the plate all the time -- he walked just 1.4 batters per nine innings.
The Braves released Perry immediately after the 1981 season ended. At that point, Perry was sitting on 297 wins, and it took quite some time for anyone to give him a chance to get to 300. Eventually, though, on March 5, 1982, the Seattle Mariners gave him that opportunity. The 43-year-old pitched 216-2/3 innings in 1982 with a 10-12 record and a 4.40 ERA (League average: 4.07). Most importantly, though, Perry won #300 on May 6, 1982 against the New York Yankees:
Another incident in 1982 was a first for Perry: he received the only suspension of his entire career for doctoring the baseball. Perry claimed that the umpire, Dave Phillips, "lied" about the ball being doctored. As Perry put it:
If there was anything on the ball, he (Phillips) put it there. He asked for the ball. Why would I throw the umpire the ball with something on it? I threw it directly to him because he wanted to look at it. I've been in the game too long to do anything that stupid.Perry pitched into 1983 for the Mariners, but struggled badly and earned his unconditional release on June 27, 1983. The Kansas City Royals gave him a chance to show he wasn't completely done, and signed him on July 6. His 14 starts there were nondescript and didn't exactly show that Perry had anything left.
Perry's presence with the Royals, however, did allow him to take part in one last bit of baseball lore: The infamous George Brett "Pine Tar Game." For those who don't know the story: On July 24, 1983, George Brett hit a towering home run at Yankee Stadium off Yankee closer Goose Gossage to put the Royals ahead 5-4.
Billy Martin had been tipped off by Graig Nettles two weeks before that Brett had put a ton of pine tar on his bat and that the pine tar probably exceeded the 18-inches-from-the-handle limitation included in the rulebook. The Yankees stormed out of the dugout to challenge the bat. They screamed at the batboy working for the Royals to bring the bat out to let the umpire measure the pine tar. The umpire, Tim McClelland, measured the pine tar on home plate and saw that the tar extended far beyond the 18 inches allowed. McClelland disallowed the home run.
And Brett, to put it nicely, lost his shit.
Indeed, Fleer commemorated Perry's pilfering with a card in its 1984 set:
With his role in history safe both from that incident and, more importantly, with his 314 career wins, Perry retired after the 1983 season.
Mustache Check: Nope.
Most people are aware that Gaylord Perry's brother Jim Perry had a very successful career himself as a major league pitcher. Jim won the AL Cy Young in 1970 before Gaylord won in 1972.
Gaylord's nephew (Jim's son) Chris Perry played golf at Ohio State in the early 1980s and then played on and off on the PGA Tour from 1985 to 1992, then lost his tour card for a couple of years before winning the Nike Tour Player of the Year Award in 1994 and rejoining the PGA tour from 1995 to 2001.
I mean, Gaylord and Jim are so old that Chris Perry, who was born in 1961, is actually playing on the "Champions" (i.e., the Senior PGA Tour) Tour now.
The World According to Garp
In 1974, Gaylord wrote the book Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession. It makes me a bit confused that Perry would continue to avoid questions about whether or not he threw a spitball after writing such a book. His position seems to be that they didn't catch him, so he was okay.
A couple of fun tidbits of trivia popped up about Gaylord Perry in my research. First, he started the baseball program at Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina.
Second, his first major league home run is the subject of a Snopes.com inquiry as to whether he fulfilled manager Alvin Dark's prophecy in 1964 or his own prophecy in 1963 that "they'll put a man on the moon before [Perry] hits a home run." Surprisingly, Perry hit his first major league home run on July 20, 1969 -- just a short time after Neil Armstrong took one small step for a man and one giant leap for mankind.
Next, Gaylord had a "This Is SportsCenter" Commercial many years ago in which he made light of his Vaseline-smudged reputation.
Finally, my favorite random tidbit comes from a combination of the North Carolina history website and the Campbell University athletics site. Gaylord Perry attended Campbell, though there is no record of Gaylord ever pitching there. Apparently in obeisance to Perry's attendance at the school and his baseball success, the Campbell Camel's mascot is named "Gaylord." Click on that link and book the camel for an event -- it's cheaper than golfing with Desi Relaford.
A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Perry seemed really old in 1982. I guess since I'm now 42 myself, his pitching at that age in the major leagues seems far more impressive in retrospect.
So, the elephant in the room with Perry is pretty simple: does he belong in the Hall of Fame?
There's no question that Perry's statistical biography provides him with a strong case for enshrinement in Cooperstown. Let's get that out of the way now. But, he did it on the back of a spitter. Should we reconsider that enshrinement?
The excellent Joe Posnanski argued on his blog last December that Gaylord Perry was a much better pitcher than Nolan Ryan. If you look at that question statistically and at Ryan critically, which Posnanski does, it's pretty clear that Perry was better at not beating himself with allowing stolen bases, throwing wild pitches, walking people, and fielding his position.
The question Posnanski glosses over, however, is one worth considering: is an admitted cheater whose success comes in part from his cheating someone who belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame? Posnanski poses the question as such:
Consider this: What if there was a new drug that allowed a pitcher to throw a fastball that dropped unnaturally at the very last second? Then, let's say that pitcher who openly took the drug year after year won two Cy Young Awards, struck out more than 3,500 batters and won 300 games. Would you elect that pitcher to the Hall of Fame?Posnanski skirts this question by responding, "Somehow, throwing a spitball doesn't seem as unprincipled as taking PEDs. There's something roguish about spitballers . . . ." From there, he argues that sign stealing, bat corking, or even taking greenies/amphetamines is engaging in behavior in which others disapprove but who is nonetheless likeable or attractive.
This logic falls apart a bit for me. I mean, wasn't Sammy Sosa a very likeable, fun-loving player? Posnanski brushes Perry's spitballing aside by saying that his denials were "always given with a little wink" and that Perry had his daughter programmed at age 5 to tell anyone who asked that all Perry was throwing was "a hard slider."
Perry has been asked the very same question -- why isn't a spitter the same as a PED? His response was a non-response, as you'd expect. When he was asked by Syracuse.com, in terms of ethics and cheating, how much difference there is between throwing a spitter and using steroids, his response was: "There's a tremendous amount. You try things, you try to improve (in looking for a small edge). Back in the 1960s and 70s, we played hard. We had a good time."
That's a pretty meaningless answer.
In other interviews, Gaylord shrugs it off as having fun in the game and fun with each other. He claims that he would roll a soaked ball to Sparky Anderson, and Sparky would just laugh. Perry claims that there is "no comparison" between spitters and corked bats and steroid use. He says, "I bent the rules, I didn't break them. Cork in the bat is much different than steroids."
Okay, but when Michael Pineda was ejected for having pine tar on his body in April of 2014, Perry said, "Of course pine tar is a performance-enhancing substance. Why do you think so many pitchers are using it? It absolutely helps your sinkers to sink better and breaking pitches to break better."
On a some levels, Harold Hutchison of the National Review has it correct -- Gaylord Perry should be ejected from the Hall of Fame for his cheating. My agreement with him has nothing to do with the claim at the bottom of his article that he is a "long-suffering Brewers fan" but more with the moral equivalency involved.
However, my conclusion goes the other way. I believe strongly that the players of the "steroid era" -- who were not banned from baseball in any way as a result of their steroid use, so don't use Joe Jackson or Pete Rose for arguments here -- belong in the Hall of Fame so long as their resumes support being in the Hall.
Barry Bonds belongs. Mark McGwire belongs. Sammy Sosa belongs.
Roger Clemens -- though I can't stand the guy generally -- absolutely belongs in the Hall of Fame.
As does Gaylord Perry.