Gaylord Perry, RIP: Grease was the word

Gaylord Perry

What was Gaylord Perry (shown here in his earlier seasons with the Giants) using to live rent-free in the minds of hitters, managers, umpires? Really?

A bit over forty years ago, I was in Air Force basic training on San Antonio’s Lackland Air Force Base. Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry helped me survive that hot June and July. I couldn’t watch baseball games but I could use something for which he was, shall we say, somewhat notorious.

The heat stress factors at that time of year inspired airmen basic in drill formations to develop their own relief when granted brief rest on the drill pads. Since those rests weren’t much more than two minutes, it seemed, I would brush the bill of my hat with each hand’s fingertips, then the sides of my shaven hair, then down the front of my fatigue uniform shirt.

It took my mind off both the metastasising humid heat and my fears that I was just about the worst airman basic ever to pass through the Lackland arterials. It was also noticed by my training flight colleagues asking me where I found such a nutty looking routine. I had nothing to hide. It was Perry’s routine between pitches whenever he wanted a batter to think he was loading, lubing, oiling, waxing, gelling up for the next pitch.

My Air Force career turned out to be eighteen percent as long as Perry’s major league pitching career. I was awarded the Air Force Achievement Medal for work during an exercise by the ancient Strategic Air Command. Perry won a pair of Cy Young Awards—the second at age forty. I went from the Air Force to regional journalism. Perry went to the Hall of Fame.

Longtime manager Gene Mauch notwithstanding, there isn’t a tube of K-Y jelly next to Perry’s plaque. What’s inscribed, instead, is this: “Playing mind games with hitters through array of rituals on mound was part of his arsenal.”

Perry died this morning of natural causes at 84. Maybe the only thing he loved about baseball more than pitching itself was living rent free in the heads of opposing hitters, managers, umpires, and anyone else looking to dope him on the mound and maybe rope him off it.

What the hell was it that Perry got when he went through that once-famous routine—brushing the bill of his hat with his fingertips, then his hair (what remained of it), his jersey, tapping his belt, assorted other little brushes—intended to renew his in-those-heads leases?

Was it K-Y? Was it pine tar? Vaseline? Fishing line wax? Mustache wax? 3-in-1 oil? Pennzoil? Lard? Don’t laugh: according to Thomas Boswell, outfielder-turned-Yankee broadcaster Bobby Murcer once sent Perry a gallon of lard as a gift. Maybe someone going through Perry’s personal effects and family heirlooms will discover the Gunk & Wagnall’s that sent him to Cooperstown, a pitcher who threw back to the era when anything went on the mound as well as in the batter’s box or on the bases.

Perry was an ordinary pitcher with the Giants until they acquired pitcher Bob Shaw from the latter’s fourth team, the Braves. Once a solid World Series pitcher (for the 1959 White Sox), Shaw would leave another, ahem, mark upon Perry during their first spring training together as Giants. Perry admired the way Shaw’s pitches slithered up to the plate. Admired and acquired.

Shaw discovered he had a devoted student and, according to Perry himself, taught him how to lube, grip, and deliver the newly greased sphere, not to mention how to hide the subterfuge from such prying eyes as umpires and even opposing executives. But he waited until 31 May 1964 to try a few of his new toys, in one of the most fabled games of all, the 23-inning marathon in game two of a doubleheader against the Mets in New York.

Perry worked ten shutout innings in that game—in relief. He got credit for the win thanks to an RBI double (Del Crandall, who joined the Giants in the Shaw trade) and a followup RBI single (Jesus Alou, whose older brother Felipé went to the Braves in the deal)–in the top of the 23rd. In due course Perry would write, in his memoir Me and the Spitter, that on that unique day he became an outlaw “in the strictest sense of the word—a man who lives outside the law, in this case the law of baseball.”

The spitball and other loaded and doctored pitches were outlawed in 1920. Incumbent pitchers who lived by them were allowed to continue throwing them; pitchers joining the Show afterward were not. Officially. Unofficially, of course, there were those who continued to discover new and more creative ways to turn baseballs into carpentry experiments.

Few of those post-1920 scofflaws were as unapologetic as the husky righthander from North Carolina who came from solid farming stock and plowed his own baseball yield. The younger brother of a successful enough major league pitcher named Jim, Perry wouldn’t settle for mere success, even if he did become the first to win a Cy Young Award in each league including one on the threshold of his fortieth birthday.

He wasn’t strictly a spitballer. He was actually known for throwing a fine forkball, though my saying so might inspire a few snickers and a few temperatures running up the scales. After he struck thirteen Angels out in a 1982 game, en route his 300th credited pitching win, said Angels weren’t necessarily amused.

“I only saw two pitches all night that were legal,” said outfielder Fred Lynn, once a Red Sox Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season but compromised since by injuries. “I have it on tape. He calls that thing a forkball. There ain’t a forkball alive that does what that pitch does.”

Lynn’s teammate Don Baylor didn’t think it was that terrible a deal. “I don’t take one thing away from him for winning three hundred with the spitter,” the future major league manager said. “There are loopholes in the rules and you get away with what you can get away with.”

Spoken about a man whose little daughter was interviewed with the family on television while Perry pitched a game in 1971. Asked whether Daddy was throwing a naughty pitch, little Allison Perry piped up, without skipping a beat, and insisted, “It’s a hard slider.”

Whether or not you think Perry’s brand of chicanery was engaging or enraging, beyond that maybe the worst thing you could have thought of him was that he had a reputation as a clubhouse lawyer and a clubhouse scold. He’d grown up tough on the farm and by his own admission suffered few fools gladly, especially after defensive miscues that might cost him a game.

“I’m hard on my teammates,” he admitted to Boswell. “I need a lot out of them to win and I drive ’em.” Some said he drove them crazy. Other might have thought he drove them toward fleeting but profound thoughts of murder.

Until he began approaching that 300th win and considered a little image refinement might be a fine thing, Perry was traded five times, released outright once, had a resume of seven teams plus more than a few nasty feelings left behind, including butting heads with groundbreaking Indians manager (and fellow Hall of Famer) Frank Robinson over the latter’s spring training conditioning rules.

Gaylord Perry

Perry’s statue outside the Giants’ home ballpark, known now as Oracle Park. There’s no tube of K-Y there, either.

Robinson insisted on foul line-to-foul line sprints. Perry had spent his career using the foul line-to-dead-center sprint. He fumed, “I’m not training for a marathon race, and I’m not about to let some superstar who never pitched a game in his life tell me how to get ready to pitch.” For his part, Robinson blamed Perry as a primary instigator that led to his firing. Ouch.

By the time Perry joined the Mariners in 1982, he learned how to behave just enough to survive. He’d also been a career-long game student who went to considerable lengths to enhance his pitching mind. He tried new pitches off the mound for about two years’ worth before using them in games. Experience plus attentiveness taught him just as it had growing up on and then working the offseasons on the farm.

“I threw my first screwball to [Hall of Famer] Willie Stargell,” Perry told Boswell. “He hit it over the center field fence. I never threw another one. I learned that you always try out a new pitch to a little guy.” That’s one way to pitch 22 seasons and send yourself to Cooperstown, whether or not you’ve greased your way there.

Seeing Perry on the Hall of Fame induction stages in the years following his own induction, I was struck often by the once-familiar face expressing both pleasure and winking mischief shaded by a trace of sorrow. Perry’s post-baseball life wasn’t always smooth. His beloved peanut farm went bankrupt three years after he retired from pitching. The following year, his wife was killed in a road accident.

He rebounded well enough. He worked as a representative for a snack company and then as the creator of a baseball program at a South Carolina college, remarried to a woman on that college’s board of trustees, and kept close to his children. (Tragically, his only son died of leukemia in 2005.) In time, the memorabilia boom provided Perry with a very comfortable living, perhaps above and beyond his best earning years as a pitcher.

To the end, wherever he went, he’d be asked what he applied, where he hid it, and how often he threw it. To the end, Perry’s answers came from the usual coy non-denying denial. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he’d mastered the dark art of doctoring, maybe what he really did was commit psychological warfare. (It took until he was pushing 44 before he was tossed from any game over a suspect pitch.)

“Just planting the idea in the hitter’s mind is almost as good as having an illegal pitch,” said longtime pitching coach Ray Miller, himself a confessed scofflaw after his minor league pitching career ended. “I was misquoted . . . as saying that [Royals pitcher] Dennis Leonard had a good spitter. He came up to me this spring to chew me out and I said, ‘Dennis, you should thank me. Nobody can do a pitcher a bigger favour than saying they’ve got a hell of a spitter’.”

That was a favour off which Perry made his living for over two decades on the mound and, in time, a decade or two just being himself on the autograph circuit. I’m reasonably sure that he didn’t lay a tube of K-Y in front of him at any signing table.

“When the Perry plaque is put up in Cooperstown,” Boswell concluded in that 1982 observation, “it should not, as Mauch needles, have a tube of grease next to it, nor should Perry’s record have a spitball asterisk beside it.”

However, it might be a good idea to place Perry in a wing of the Hall near those nineteenth-century old-timers who won 300, like Kid Nichols, Pud Galvin, Tim Keefe, John Clarkson, Mickey Welch, Eddie Plank and Ol’ Hoss Radbourne.

Many of them came off the farm, doctored the ball as they wished, glared at any manager who dared to take them out of a game, chewed out their teammates and knocked down hitters who got too comfortable at the plate. The game was hard then, short on manners and long on sweat. And so were they.

Gaylord Perry, who has always looked like he should be pitching in dungarees, not double-knits, would grace their company.

Imagine Elysian Fields confabs of those gentlemen plus such other actual or suspected greasers as Bo Belinsky, Jim Brosnan, Lew Burdette (Belinsky swore Burdette was his teacher), Dean Chance, Tony Cloninger, Don Drysdale (“I watched him pull at the belt so much I was sure it wasn’t just habit,” Perry once said of him), Whitey (Lord of the Ring Ball) Ford, George Hildebrand, Carl Mays, Preacher (Beech-Nut) Roe, Schoolboy Rowe, and Bullet Bob Turley.

It might be worth all the sacrificial lambs on the farms to be invited to listen and learn at even one such Salivation Army briefing.


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