Hall of Fame hurler Gaylord Perry passes away at 84

December 1st, 2022

Gaylord Perry, whose Hall of Fame pitching career will be forever linked with the spitball, died at his home in Gaffney, S.C., of natural causes on Thursday morning. He was 84.

Perry remained vigorous during most of his retirement, working on his farm in Spruce Pine, N.C. He also religiously attended events, such as statue dedications and World Series ring ceremonies, with fellow Giants Hall of Famers. But his presence at such gatherings became sporadic in recent years.

Perry became the first pitcher to win a Cy Young Award in each league, capturing the honor in 1972 with Cleveland and in '78 with San Diego. In 22 Major League seasons, he compiled a 314-265 record with a 3.11 ERA and 3,534 strikeouts. He was a big league vagabond late in his career, eventually playing for eight teams: Giants, Indians, Rangers, Padres, Yankees, Braves, Mariners and Royals.

“Gaylord Perry was a consistent workhorse and a memorable figure in his Hall of Fame career, highlighted by his 314 wins and 3,534 strikeouts in 22 years," Commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement. "He will be remembered among the most accomplished San Francisco Giants ever, and through his time in Cleveland and San Diego, he became the first pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award in both the American and National Leagues. The five-time 20-game winner pitched for eight different clubs overall and remained a popular teammate and friend throughout his life. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Gaylord’s family, friends and fans across our great game.”

Perry’s penchant for hard work typified his career. He was particularly proud of his lifetime total of 303 complete games in 690 starts. The right-hander rose to prominence during the second half of the 1960s, when a starting pitcher was expected to last through an entire game.

"If you didn't go nine innings," Perry said, "you might not get another start."

That old-school mentality stoked Perry’s competitive fire. He spent the first 10 of his 22 Major League seasons with the Giants, who never shrank from confrontations with their archrivals, the Dodgers -- or any other ballclub.

“If somebody knocked my teammates down, I couldn’t wait to get them,” he said.

Many were convinced that Perry applied more than malevolence to his pitches. Opponents felt certain that he threw a spitball, due to the extreme late movement on his pitches. The spitter was banned from the Major Leagues before the 1920 season.

“I say it was a spitter,” Mets first baseman Ed Kranepool said. “When the dirt would grab onto the ball and stay in one spot, I would say that has nothing to do with circumstance. Everybody knew it. The umpires knew it. The players knew it. They just didn’t enforce the rules.”

Rivals claimed that Vaseline was Perry’s active ingredient, explaining why the grounds crew at Philadelphia’s Connie Mack Stadium devoted extra time and energy to cleaning the plexiglass backstop before one of Perry’s starts against the Phillies. As catcher Dick Dietz recalled in the 1979 book "SF Giants: An Oral History," Philadelphia’s leadoff batter, Johnny Callison, fouled a pitch off the plexiglass that left a noticeable gob of grease on the backstop. Said Dietz, “[Phillies manager] Gene Mauch went out of his mind.”

Giants right-hander Bob Bolin referred to his teammate’s special delivery as a “hard slider.” Bolin added, “Now, Hank Aaron and some of those other guys wouldn’t call it that.”

As a player, Perry never acknowledged throwing the spitball. But he did nothing to silence speculation about it. He titled his 1974 autobiography “Me and the Spitter.” Before every pitch, Perry repeated a series of movements -- tugging the bill of his cap, running his fingers across the lettering of his jersey, dabbing at his temple -- that made observers suspect that he was “loading up” the baseball.

Thus, he would win the mind game against hitters.

“His other pitches became more effective, because you were always looking for a spitter,” Kranepool said. “If he threw it, you couldn’t hit it, the way it reacted. It was a great one.”

In a 1993 interview with Perry, a reporter opened a question by saying, “You allegedly threw the spitter ...” This prompted Perry to playfully mock the reporter.

“Allegedly," Perry said. "Allegedly." With a crafty smile spreading over his face, Perry added, “You’ve been to college, ain’t ya?”

At the conclusion of his remarks when a statue of him was unveiled outside of Oracle Park in 2016, Perry asked seated spectators to look underneath their chairs. There they found a tube of Vaseline securely taped to the seat as a souvenir.

Gaylord Jackson Perry was born to Evan and Ruby Perry on Sept. 15, 1938, in Williamston, N.C. Perry's brother, Jim, who was nearly three years older, also was an accomplished right-hander, breaking into the Major Leagues with Cleveland in 1959. He won 215 games, including 24 with Minnesota in 1970, when he won the American League Cy Young Award. The Perrys are the only brothers to capture baseball’s most prestigious pitching honor.

Gaylord excelled in baseball, football and basketball at Williamston High School before receiving a $73,500 bonus to sign with the Giants in 1958. His skills were obvious -- “He could throw 95 [mph],” first baseman Willie McCovey said -- but he struggled to harness them. Perry spent all or part of his first six professional seasons in the Minors. In 1964, he owned a 4.76 ERA after eight appearances, causing him to fear that his next demotion might be his last. He finished 1-6 in 31 appearances (four starts) in 1963 for the Giants, who were perennial pennant contenders and lacked patience with anyone who couldn’t contribute immediately.

“I was so far in the doghouse that I didn’t think I’d ever pitch again,” Perry said during a 2014 interview. “I was in my doghouse.”

Then came a doubleheader at New York’s Shea Stadium on May 31, 1964. Perry came of age in the second game, pitching 10 shutout innings of relief in an 8-6, 23-inning triumph.

Though Juan Marichal pitched a complete game in San Francisco’s 5-3 victory in the opener, the Giants’ staff was thin. Right-hander Jack Sanford, who started two days earlier, was unavailable. Manager Alvin Dark used four pitchers through 12 innings of the nightcap. He needed somebody durable in case the game stretched even deeper into extra innings.

With the score tied at 6 entering the 13th inning, the visitors’ bullpen phone rang: "Get Perry up."

Despite his habitual struggles, Perry was brimming with confidence after a recent throwing session with Giants pitching coach Larry Jansen.

“This was the chance I wanted,” Perry said. “I had worked with Larry on the hard slider and the forkball and a couple of other things I can’t mention.”

Perry had another tutor: veteran right-hander Bob Shaw, a noted spitball practitioner who joined the Giants that year. “Gaylord had been learning a slimeball from Bob,” Art Santo Domingo, a longtime Giants statistician and public-relations official, said matter of factly.

Perry permitted seven hits, allowing just three runners to reach scoring position through the 10 innings. "I said, 'I ain’t giving up. I gotta continue to fight,'" Perry said.

Mets pitcher Galen Cisco, who had given up two hits in eight relief innings, matched Perry zero for zero. But the Giants pushed across two runs in the top of the 23rd on Del Crandall’s RBI double and Jesus Alou’s run-scoring infield single, giving Perry his signature triumph as a Major Leaguer. He finished the year with a 12-11 record and a 2.75 ERA. He proceeded to win at least 15 games per season from 1966-78.

Perry freely admitted that his 10-inning effort “turned me around. It was the confidence that I gave my teammates, my coaching staff, the manager and the front office that this kid is ready to be in the rotation and win ballgames.”

Perry is survived by three daughters. His wife, Blanche, died in an automobile accident on Sept. 11, 1987.