A Photograph of Gaylord Perry Being Investigated for Foreign Substances

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.

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I’m writing this on the first day of autumn, and the weather is right on time; where yesterday was warm and muggy, today is crisp, breezy, there’s a snap in the air. Summer is always too brief, of course. That’s the definition of summer: a glorious season which passes too soon. The tulips, then the lilacs, peonies, black-eyed Susan, and suddenly the chrysanthemums, apples falling to the ground, and the leaves change and begin to fall. Happens every year, but surprises me still.

What to make of this summer? It was beautiful. It was horrible. No, this: it was challenging. It challenged me. It began with grief—my mother passed away, not unexpectedly, but still shockingly, at the end of May. That grief persisted across the summer—it persists. I’m beginning to understand that it always will. But the love shared by family and friends, occasioned by Mom’s passing, was healing and buoying, and it goes on.

And then we were in Italy—hot and dry, but, well, Italy. It did its work on us. We were the pale, bewildered, bedraggled tourists, gaping out from the Palatine, or from atop the dome of the duomo, or from next to a narrow canal, wondering how can any place fairly contain so much beauty?

And then a bout of COVID (mild, mercifully), followed by a trip to the east coast to be with family. Red sand beaches, cemeteries. And whenever we were home in Peterborough, a hectic schedule of soccer games, baseball games, practices, tournaments, drives across the outer reaches of the Greater Toronto Area at golden hour while a child sat next to me tying their cleats, leaving muddy prints on the passenger side dashboard. I sat in a folding chair or on aluminum bleachers, cheering, thinking already about the drive home.

A trip by canoe to a beautiful campsite next to a waterfall. Swimming on hot afternoons, kayaking across an untroubled lake in the early morning as the mist lifts into the warming sky in puffs and ribbons.

Blue Jays games, in person, on TV, on the radio, while driving, while cooking.

Alongside all of it: reading. So much reading. Hardcovers, paperbacks, ring-bound advanced copies, or PDFs on an e-reader. Over a hundred and thirty books, or about a book a day at the height of it.

I was contacted late last year by the Writers’ Trust and asked to serve on the jury for the Atwood Gibson Fiction Prize, alongside David Bergen and Norma Dunning, both far more accomplished writers. I don’t know who at the WT thought I’d be a good addition to this company, but I employed my usual strategy: say yes and sign the papers before they have a chance to think twice.

Boxes arrived intermittently, crammed with books from presses big and small. We’d read them and meet by videocall once a month to discuss, to whittle our choices. David and Norma were kind and thoughtful and intelligent (or rather, they are) and the conversations were wonderful. We defended, and debated, and somehow agreed on some books. Then we read some more.

I had the constant sensation that I had something I had to be doing, because I did. Through grief, and happiness, and discovery, I had to get back to reading. There was always a book I had to be reading.

I want to tell you about all the books we read. I can’t—there are too many—but I’d like to. There were so many exceptionally good novels and story collections. So many good writers, pushing outward, telling new stories, or old stories newly. I’m very, very happy with the shortlist we created, but there are dozens more books I’d love to see acknowledged, books I’m grateful to have encountered.

In late August we held our final meeting, reasoned and bargained and compromised to deliver that shortlist, but named our winner unanimously. That winner will become public on November 2, at an awards ceremony in Toronto, but if it was possible I’d tell all the shortlisted authors, and many others besides, “I loved your book and I’m eager to read what you do next.”

When the role ended I was released to the tail end of summer, and I stood bewildered there, quite surprised that it had all come and gone, and that I was now free to read whatever I wanted. Or somewhat free—I quickly agreed to read a book on the history of the Dodgers in order to interview its author. But that was a choice, and in choosing a baseball book I think its clear that I was trying to milk just a little more summer out of summer, before the light changed and the weather got cold.

We’re there now, or just about, and I’m back at it, writing my own stuff, grateful for that time, and also for the chance to read a hundred-and-thirty-something books, though happy too that I can take a week, or two weeks, or a month to wade slowly through whatever I choose to read next.

I donated most of the books, keeping the shortlisted titles and a few others I loved and might want to read again, or lend out. So that’s my physical proof this happened: a couple of dozen books that I now have to make room for on the shelves, and these glasses on my face. Because somewhere along the way I noticed a blurriness and a fatigue in my eyes and so finally, right around my forty-sixth birthday in August, I made an appointment with the optometrist. She examined me and listened as I told her about reading all those books. “I’m finding it just a little bit harder to read things close up,” I said.

“Yup,” she said, “right on time.”

Catching Up

Bresnahan, catcher, New York (NL)

As it’s been a month or eight since I last updated the site, here’s a roundup of goings on and publications and conversations since I last opened the WordPress editor:

  • For the book recommendation site Shepherd I compiled a list of books that master the trick of placing baseball in a broader historical context
  • For the SABR baseball card research committee blog I wrote about why it can be tempting to not open a pack of baseball cards
  • Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf is a great online repository of publications about the game; I spoke to Ron himself about The Only Way Is the Steady Way, The Utility of Boredom, kids, the Blue Jays, the rules of collecting ballcaps, and more
  • Despite being Yankees fans, the folks over at Start Spreading the News turn out to be nice people, and I spoke to them about Ichiro, how I’d “fix” baseball, etc.

Recent Stuff

Gary Carter shows off his stance in Japan, an image unrelated to this post

The Only Way Is the Steady Way is the Word On the Street Book of the Month for June. I spoke to author/philosopher/professor/Blue Jays fan Mark Kingwell for their Book Talk feature. You can find our conversation here.

For the Pandemic Baseball Book Club I spoke to Dale Jacobs and Heidi LM Jacobs about their book 100 Miles of Baseball: Fifty Games, 1 Summer. Listen here (or wherever you get your podcasts), or watch here.

I was a guest on the Jays From Home podcast with Ottawa’s own Matt and Steve Gower. Listen here (or wherever…).

A Conversation Between Authors

Thanks to the unifying power of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, I had the chance to sit down (virtually) with Devin Gordon (author of the wonderful, sad, funny, and beautiful So Many Ways to Lose: The Amazin’ True Story of the New York Mets — The Best Worst Team in Sports) to talk about The Only Way Is the Steady Way. Devin did a deep, thorough read of the book and came ready with some great questions.

You can watch the conversation on video here (or by clicking the image above), or listen in podcast form at Anchor.fm (or anywhere you get podcasts).

Opening Day Book News Roundup

We here in Ontario are about to go into another lockdown, and the air outside my window is adance with snow flurries, but it’s Opening Day, damn it, and so we rejoice and find gladness in the promise of a new season. Tomorrow, April 2, is the official publication date of The Only Way Is the Steady Way, so chosen because it’s also the twentieth anniversary of Ichiro’s MLB debut. It’s also the fifth anniversary of the publication of The Utility of Boredom. That one was a coincidence, but it’s still worth noting. Regarding the former, there have been some developments—articles, appearances, etc.—that I’ll endeavour to round up here:

  • I appeared on a recent episode of Justin McGuire’s Baseball By the Book podcast (listen to it here or anywhere you get your podcasts)

That’s it for now, but there’ll be a lot more stuff in the near future, including interviews and podcasts. Stay tuned.

In Memoriam NY-Penn League (1939-2020)

IMAGE CREDIT: SHAWN DOWD/DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE VIA IMAGN CONTENT SERVICES, LLC

In ways both literal and figurative the New York-Penn League was born on Main St. and died on Park Ave. Conceived in 1939 in Batavia, New York’s Hotel Richmond (which sat, before demolition, on Main Street), it was the longest continuously operating Class A league left when it was among those low-rung circuits summarily executed by the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball, headquartered at 245 Park Ave, Manhattan.

“In Memoriam NY-Penn League (1939-2020),” for Baseball Prospectus

The Only Way Is the Steady Way

You do this for long enough, and you begin to crave originality like a desert wanderer craves cool clear water. Andrew Forbes’s essays are cool and clear and may well slake the thirst of any thinking baseball fan.

—Rob Neyer, author of Power Ball: Anatomy of a Modern Baseball Game

The Only Way Is the Steady Way: Essays on Baseball, Ichiro, and How We Watch the Game will be available April 2 from Invisible Publishing, but you can pre-order it now.