It's heartwarming to report that Gaylord Perry, a self-proclaimed spitballer and one of the game's fiercest and most perceptive competitors, is approaching his 300th career victory in proper style.
Big league hitters from coast to coast once again are cursing The Great Expectorator to the heavens. Even though the ancient Seattle Mariner is now 43, bald and fat, batsmen still admit that they haven't got a square chance against him.
Just two months ago, Perry was seriously worried that no major league team would give him a chance to pitch this season. No matter how cheap. "Every year, it's harder to talk 'em into givin' you a chance," said Perry who, two weeks into spring training, was completely unwanted. "Peanut vendors are making as much as I was askin' for."
Now, after swallowing his considerable pride and signing what he sarcastically calls "a day-to-day contract," Perry once again finds himself the ace of a pitching staff. He is throwing so consistently well, is so beloved by the young Mariners and feels so confident that he's already looking past his 300th win to the day late this season when he figures he'll break Walter Johnson's all-time major league strikeout record.
Sept. 15, Perry's 44th birthday, looks like a plausible target date for strikeout No. 3,509; Perry only needs 147. Some folks, of course, think that what Johnson had were "Ks," while, Perry's strikeouts are often called "KYs," after the pitcher's favorite brand of substance to doctor the baseball.
"They oughta put a tube of that stuff next to his plaque in the Hall of Fame," said California Manager Gene Mauch.
With a Mariner catcher who calls him "Sir" and "Grandpa" and young teammates who ask him to get them dates with his 19-year-old daughter, Perry is so content that he says he intends to continue "until I can't find anybody who'll let me play . . . I love my job. Another thing is there's 10 million people out there unemployed and I don't want to be one of 'em."
When asked point blank this week how many games he'd have won without the spitball, Perry, author of the autobiography, "Me and the Spitter," said, "I'd probably been farmin' about 10 years ago."
Minutes after Perry walked off the Yankee Stadium mound with his 299th career victory Friday night, his right hand was a sight to see.
Every finger and the entire palm was stained the deep, dirty, reddish-orange color that's often seen on the index finger of heavy smokers. What was really on Perry's hand only he knows for sure. It looked as if he'd been digging all day in the red clay of the North Carolina farm where he has raised peanuts, corn and soybeans for years.
If there was any vaseline, grease or jelly on the pitcher's person as he beat the Yankees, 6-3, then nobody caught it. As Mickey Vernon, the Yankee batting coach, said, "Gaylord mixed in the spitter well."
The only time anybody catches Perry is when he wants 'em to. "I put the thought in their heads. You don't have to tell Graig Nettles, Oscar Gamble or Dave Winfield but just a little bit and they'll believe it. If I go over and shake hands with 'em and I got grease in my hand, they think I'm gonna have it there in the seventh inning," said Perry, his face incredulous that opponents would make such a tainted leap of logic. "I don't throw any illegal pitches. I just tend to leave a lotta evidence lyin' around."
On Friday, Perry even went so far as to grease up the palm of a mutual friend of his and Bobby Murcer's, then dispatch the fellow to the Yankee clubhouse with instructions to shake Murcer's hand and tell him, "Gaylord says hello."
"The only absolutely unhittable pitch I've seen in my whole career was Gaylord Perry's hard spitter when he was in his prime," said Murcer, who once sent Perry a gallon of lard as a gift. "I'd rather face a 500 mile-per-hour fast ball than that 85-mph spitter Perry used to have. At least then I'd have a chance."
"Bobby Murcer is not all sugar and spice," said Perry, who, when he faces the Yankees again in Seattle on Thursday, can become the eighth 300-game winner in the 20th century. "Ya know, a few of those hitters have cork in that bat. They can't squeal too much, you see, 'cause I've played with 'em. I know what they're doin'."
"When he struck out 13 of us (in one winning game 10 days ago), he was loading up at least half the pitches," said California Angel Bobby Grich. "Oh, you expect it from him. But I'll admit he's still got a good 'mystery ball'."
"I only saw two pitches all night that were legal," moaned Fred Lynn. "I have it on tape. He calls that thing a fork ball. There ain't a fork ball alive that does what that pitch does."
"I don't take one thing away from him for winning 300 with the spitter," said former California MVP Don Baylor. "There are loopholes in the rules and you get away with what you can."
In a less than completely appetizing way, Perry is one of baseball's few genuinely symbolic players. He's sweat and spit and dirt on the knees of his uniform. He's cunning, intimidation and stubble-bearded meanness. He's practical knowledge, untutored wisdom.
Few men in the sport have such a self-evident, unadorned character. Perry was born in Williamston, N.C., and grew up working hard and long on his daddy Evan's sharecropping farm. Gaylord and brother Jim (214 major league wins) had one outlet from labor: baseball.
Today, Perry lives within spitting distance of the farm where he grew up, but now he owns 400 acres of land that, of course, he works himself five months a year. Working the combine, staying outside in all weather, bending and twisting a thousand times a day, that's the reason Perry thinks he has lasted so long, still has the high leg kick and the full body turn. He still throws like a young man because he still works like one.
Because Perry grew up tough, aggressive and straightforward, he's always approached others that way. Not always with success. Perry has been traded five times, released outright once, played for seven teams and left more than one of them with hard feelings in his wake. Even he admits that "I'm hard on my teammates. I need a lot out of them to win and I drive 'em." Perry's interminable on-field glares at teammates and his cutting remarks about poor fielding support are the standard by which dugout sarcasm is measured.
At Cleveland in the early '70s, Perry and Manager Frank Robinson had a legendary hate relationship. Perry, for instance, insisted that his contract call for $1 more than the manager's. Robinson has always insisted Perry was the clubhouse mind-poisoner who got him fired.
In '79, one year after winning the National League's Cy Young Award at the age of 40, Perry got so mad at San Diego owner Ray Kroc over contract disagreements that he jumped the club with five weeks left in the season, went home and never came back. Since then, Perry has been with five clubs in less than three calendar years. Last season, he actually led all Atlanta Braves starters in victories (with an 8-9 record and 3.91 ERA in the shortened season), yet was given a pink slip.
"People warned me that he was going to be a problem," said Mariner Manager Rene Lachemann, "but as far as I'm concerned, he's been perfect." A man who's only offered a tryout by one of 26 major-league teams--despite having the guaranteed drawing power of a possible 300th win--has a tendency to figure he should be on his best behavior.
Perry's traditional prickliness--completely submerged these days as he does a little image-polishing--is, however, merely an inevitable side effect of a fiercely competitive personality.
At the age of 26, after a 1-6 season in San Francisco, Perry's future looked nonexistent. "I needed another pitch and I needed to learn it fast. It was the spitter," said Perry this week.
Most pitchers are heading down the hill once they pass age 30. Perry has won 223 games since that birthday. The reason: continuing education. "I just try to take the good parts of a lot of pitchers I saw when I was comin' up," said Perry in his molasses-like drawl.
"I got the high leg kick from Juan Marichal, determination from (Bob) Gibson. I watched (Don) Drysdale pull at his belt so much that I was sure it wasn't just habit. So, I picked up goin' to the hat," said Perry, going through his famous series of cap touches and tugs that he uses when he wants batters to think he's getting his grease.
That education never stops. This week, Perry came to Yankee Stadium for a press conference a day before the Mariners, but then left the ballpark so he could go back to his hotel room and watch the game on TV. Perry likes the center field camera angle because it's better for watching hitters' stances--the better to read their minds. Also, he always likes to listen to the hometown radio announcers so he can find out who's particularly hot or cold.
It's hardly a surprise that, with such an omnivorous baseball mind, Perry wants to stay in the game after he retires, perhaps as a manager. "I think I could do better than some I've seen," he offers.
Perry seldom forgets anything--neither the day Pete Rose went five for five off him in long-ago demolished Crosley Field nor how Richie Allen, after striking out four times, learned to hit Perry to right center and went four for four next time. He admires the hitters who adjust, who learn and adapt.
Always, Perry makes his adjustments before he has to, working a year or two on new pitches before working them in. "I threw my first screwball to Willie Stargell. He hit it over the center field fence. I never threw another one," said Perry. "I learned that you always try out a new pitch to a little guy."
This February, Perry the student even telephoned Early Wynn, the last 300-game winner, in '63, to talk about the old right-hander's miserable experiences when he had 299 wins. Wynn tried to hook on with any club, failed to sign until May, then staggered until June before he could get that last homely win. Not long after that conversation, perhaps coincidentally, Perry decided to drop his demands for a "good guaranteed contract" and take the humble Seattle offer, even though Perry says owner George Argyros "is so tight he doesn't want us to eat the peanuts on the airplanes."
Despite his skinflint deal with an expansion franchise that has won only 301 games to Perry's 299, the old right-hander, after 25 professional seasons, is finally getting his short hour in the sunlight of national attention. He'll make an appealing old buzzard.
"I'm 43 years old and proud of every one," he said. "Out of uniform, I look quite a bit different than people might expect, so I can get by a great deal out in the streets or on airplanes. People think a guy who plays baseball has a full head of hair and doesn't need to lose 10 pounds. Or should be wearin' a three-piece suit. So, most of the time, I'm kinda in disguise."
Because he has never pitched in a World Series, and in only one playoff (with the '71 Giants), because he has lost a larger percentage of his games than any other 300-game winner (241 defeats), and because of the twin stigmas of his spitball and his clubhouse-lawyer reputation, Perry has perhaps been baseball's most anonymous great pitcher. After all, since World War II, only Warren Spahn has won more games than Perry, but how many would recognize his face?
Now, looking grizzled and acting mellowed, Perry seems due for a bit of the fan affection that has eluded him. "I think I'm known nationally for certain pitches," he said wryly, "but I think the 300 wins will kind of override that (in time) . . . I think I'll have the credentials to be there (in the Hall of Fame) someday. I'm looking forward to it."
When the Perry plaque is put up in Cooperstown, 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 19th-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.