RIP Gaylord Jackson Perry (1938-2022): spitballer, All-Star, Cy Young Award winner, three hundred game winner, and Hall of Famer
The following is excerpted from The Only Way Is the Steady Way (2021, Invisible Publishing)
Gaylord Perry toiled for twenty-two seasons in the majors, and the look on his face suggests it was hard toil indeed. Wind worn, exasperated, he mutely submits to yet another examination of his cap, his head, his uniform, for a dab of Vaseline, a smear of K-Y. It might or might not have been there—Perry’s success rested on the twin pillars of a doctored ball’s unpredictability, and the thought, instilled in the head of each batter he faced, that the ball might be materially abetted in its tortuous journey from mound to plate.
This scene, captured mid-investigation, is from somewhere between 1972 and ’75, after he and Frank Duffy were traded by the Giants to Cleveland for Sudden Sam McDowell. We don’t know where the game takes place (the photo’s greyscale presentation makes it hard to say if Perry’s uniform is home white or road grey), or precisely when, but we can assert with confidence that the umpire failed to uncover irrefutable evidence of malfeasance; the righty wouldn’t be ejected from a contest for such an offence until late August 1982, his twenty-first season. For that infraction, the American League suspended him ten games and levied a $250 fine.
Not that there wasn’t reason for suspicion on the part of the ump. At that point in his career, Perry had either recently or was soon to publish Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession, confirming in print what everyone had known for a decade or more.
Perry broke in with the Giants in 1962, and remained in San Francisco through the ’71 season, but his initial point of contact with the dark art of the spitball probably came in 1964 when he shared the clubhouse with Bob Shaw. Shaw was a right-handed journeyman who kicked around the league, garnered some Cy Young votes with the White Sox in ’59, then had an All-Star year in ’62 for Milwaukee, but by the time he landed in San Fran he’d become the sort of fungible presence in a bullpen sometimes known as a “warm body.”
You can imagine them out there, can’t you, between Perry’s starts, discussing the finer points of deception, the student and his mentor, all those hours to kill in the bullpen at Candlestick Park, with the cold brine and petrochemical tang of the Bay swirling about them. You get a tube of K-Y Jelly, Shaw would have counselled, and you put a dollop in your hair, on your hat, inside the neck of the jersey, the cuff of your right pant leg. “Load it up in about three different places,” he would later tell a reporter, “so you don’t go to the same place.”
Credit Perry here for recognizing the lay of the land. He was playing baseball, not seeking ordination. So Perry fell into the herky improvisational rhythm of American professional life, reasoning, we might surmise, that the only fault in cheating is when it’s done artlessly.
Perry would run his fingers “across the underside of the bill of that cap, down the right side of his face,” as Dave Niehaus would suggestively narrate while doing the play by play during Perry’s early-eighties stint in Seattle. The mystery pitch, it was sometimes called, a euphemistic bit of doublespeak among the initiated. But everybody knew what it was.
Perry could throw just about anything. He had a forkball, as well as a decent fastball, and could harass batters with a 12-to-6 humpback curveball, but it was the mystery pitch that made the rest of them more effective, dancing and dipping toward home, scrambling a hitter’s eye, shaking his confidence.
“Slider,” the radio and TV announcers would say, “or could have been a changeup.”
“The wet one,” Gaylord’s older brother Jim sometimes called it.
By the time the photo was taken, Perry was halfway through a two-decade career, but he already looks ancient. In San Francisco he kept things pretty trim, or so suggests the photographic record, but once he moved on from the Giants he seems to have achieved a more or less permanent state of dishevelment. Sign of the times, perhaps, or sign of the man’s growing comfort with his place in the world. He prevailed in an era that’s hard for us to parse now, at this remove. It’s too easy to call his appearance avuncular—somebody’s pack-a-day uncle, Oldsmobile and wingtips and dirty jokes, taking slugs of Wild Turkey from a tin flask. But what he really looks like is a father. As a child I’d have looked at him and thought, yes, this is what a man of a certain vintage looks like, coming as he did from a generation of men who looked older than we do now, even at the same age. My father’s peers were naval officers, but they too belonged to this aftershave-rich, golf-spiked branch of humanity.
Perry was a pro ballplayer, but not someone you’d call an athlete. He looks, in the photo, as in most photos, like a man who grunts huffily when he bends over to tie his shoes.
The second figure, the umpire with the bill of Perry’s cap in his hand, deserves some scrutiny, too. I can’t identify him by the back of his head, this employee of the American League, but I know that, on that mound, on that field, in whichever ballpark in whatever junior circuit city, he’s the law.
He’s got what looks to be a couch cushion strapped to his chest, but otherwise he’s dressed like a bus driver in what I’m going to guess is a polyester shirt—there’s a perma-crease on the right sleeve—and wool blend slacks, a bag of balls slung off his belt. As both a precondition and result of his role, he’s as versed in the rules of the game as he is in the tricks men will employ to circumvent them. He’s seen it all. He’s probably even searched Perry before, just like this.
I’m not sure if Perry is our hero or antihero in this scenario, but either way we’re rooting against the umpire. At least I am. In the reductionist Manichean reading of this text, the ump’s a functionary, a heavy, there to stand in for whatever machine you care to picture: the state, the system, the generation ahead of yours. His job is to harsh Perry’s vibe.
With not a little simmering animosity, Perry submits to the inspection, this routine indignity performed by our mystery ump, without conviction but with the practised wiliness and cynicism of a person tasked with arbitrating the daily spike-and-dirt struggle of men paid to outhustle one another. Perry, I have no doubt, shrugged this off, bulldogging his way through, as was his custom.
Time shifts social mores. The spitball was once legal. Then it wasn’t. What trick or tool did that take away from hitters? That’s what Perry might argue. In order to even things out a bit, it can be necessary to fudge the lines, to work outside the margins. Use what you’ve got. And it worked: 314 wins, a Cy Young Award in each league, a plaque in the Hall of Fame. He carved a hard, hoary career out of the murky zone between culpability and deniability.
Is the secret sauce there? Yeah, it’s probably there, though concealed enough to make it hard for the ump to say with any certainty that it’s there. Sometimes Perry would put something on his zipper, because no ump wanted to go poking around there.
Why did Gaylord Perry go to such lengths? Did his success depend on the spitball? Maybe, and maybe not. I suspect, though, that the foreign substance’s presence on all those different uniforms and caps—eight different teams in two leagues, from Kennedy to Reagan, Please Please Me to Thriller—proves that he did depend on it, that Gaylord Perry was not Gaylord Perry if not doing what Gaylord Perry did. A person does not come lightly to such a decision, but rather only after performing some deep and expurgatory self-analysis. This is who I am, a person might eventually conclude, and I’m going to ride this horse until we both expire.