Day 5 of 2023 baseball books: An extended spit take on Gaylord Perry

“Spitter: Baseball’s Notorious Gaylord Perry”

The author:
David Vaught

The publishing info:
Texas A&M University Press
456 pages; $38
Released November, 2022

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA
At Skylight Books

The review in 90 feet or less

When Gaylord Perry passed away from the lingering effects of COVID last Dec. 1 — just about a week after this book’s release – the cursory and bland Associated Press obituary started this way:

GAFFNEY, S.C. — Baseball Hall of Famer and two-time Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry, a master of the spitball who wrote a book about using the pitch, died Thursday. He was 84.

The book reference wasn’t to this biography.

It was the 1974 as-told-to autobiography, “Me and the Spitter,” with noted Cleveland sportswriter and columnist Bob Sudyk (Saturday Press Review, 222 pages). It had the subtitle: “An Autobiographical Confession.” A book that this book, if truth be told, has swallowed whole, chewed up and is ready to spit out.

But also note: When the paperback version that book from almost 50 years ago came out by Signet, the subtitle was enhanced to read: “The Candid Confessions of Baseball’s Greatest Spitball Artist (or How I Got Away with It).” It was also brightened up with a different, more casual typeface font for the cover title, versus the block letters from the hardback version.

The media-created legend of Gaylord Perry was set in motion, and labels had to continue to be adjusted.

The AP obituary, lacking much depth or context, rambled on about how, in that old autobiography, Perry said he was the “11th man in an 11-man pitching staff” for the Giants. He needed an edge. He learned the spitter from teammate Bob Shaw. Perry said he first threw it in May 1964 against the New York Mets, and ended up going 10 innings without giving up a run. Soon enough, he won a spot in the Giants’ starting rotation.

The new book explains as much just from the intro:

That first time was May 31, 1964, before 57,037 at Shea Stadium, in the second game of what was the longest double header in major league history.

(Could the AP obit be any less compelling?)

In the bottom of the 13th, the game still tied at 6-6, Giants manager Alvin Dark called in Perry, only because it was his last available arm (aside from Bob Hendley, who was supposed to start the next day). The 25-year-old Perry had just seven appearances that season, a 2-1 record and a 4.77 ERA. He got through “two shaky innings” when catcher Tom Haller came to the mound and said, “Gaylord, it’s time to try it out.”

Perry then pitched until the 23rd, giving up seven hits and walking one, but striking out nine of the 36 batters he faced. When the Giants scored twice in the top of the 23rd, Dark brought in Hendley to get the save – he fanned two of the three he faced. The game lasted nearly seven and a half hours and Willie Mays (who went 1-for-10) actually played shortstop during some defensive finagling between the 10th and 13th inning, but then went back to center field when Perry came in. Duke Snider even entered the game as a pinch hitter for the Giants in the top of the ninth and grounded out.

Perry ended up getting three at bats during the game. He was actually the go-ahead run in the top of the 22nd when he reached on an error, went to second as Orlando Cepeda was hit by a pitch, but both were stranded. Perry could have a fourth at bat – he came out for a pinch hitter in the top of the 23rd with runners on first and third. Del Crandel, who hit for him, doubled to right to push across the tie-breaking run.

(All this happened after Juan Marichal threw a complete-game 5-3 win in the doubleheader opener that lasted just two hours and 29 minutes).

Thanks for the excuse to go back and find out about that day in baseball history. It’s an example of the kind of things the Internet will happily spit out if the right keystrokes are hit.

Perry also wrote in that book that he chewed slippery elm bark to build up his saliva, and eventually stopped throwing the pitch in 1968 after MLB ruled pitchers could no longer touch their fingers to their mouths before touching the baseball.

So he looked for other substances, like petroleum jelly, to doctor the baseball. He used various motions and routines to touch different parts of his jersey and body to get hitters thinking he was applying a foreign substance.

Fortunately, more complete obits came from the New York Times and Washington Post. And the Baseball Hall of Fame, for which Perry was a treasured member (and his plaque has more lines dedicated to the teams he played for versus the description of his career below).

David Vaught, a professor of history at Texas A&M who also wrote “The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America,” says more in his intro that diving into a book about a man named Gaylord has more to do than “the profound changes in agriculture and rural life” as the last generations of sharecroppers were fading away than it does with a true baseball biography.

David Vaught

“Perry’s career also brings to light heretofore hidden links between rural southern culture and, more broadly, American popular culture,” Vaught goes further.

“The creativity, drive and persistence that it took for Perry to perfect the spitter and subvert authority stemmed directly from his southern rural background. … It counters the long-held view that baseball, from its origins in the mid-nineteenth century to the present, has been primarily an urban phenomenon. … Perry, no country bumpkin, chose his words as part of the con.  …”

The intro then ends – and not to belabor it, but it is very compelling to this point as just six pages amidst 450:

By the time one wades to the epilogue, the argument has been made: Gaylord Perry deserves the benefit of the doubt for his career.

The point of professional baseball is to win and create a money-making career. Those who found ways to circumvent some rules are part of the game’s lore – especially since Perry was far removed from the PED issues that could very much challenge the game’s integrity in the 2000s, or the Astros sign-stealing scandal much more recent.

“Perry’s contemporaries, almost without exception, held him in high esteem, spitter or not,” Vaught puts out there.

They considered Perry’s actions part of gamesmanship, even if the L.A. Times’ Gene Wojciechowski once wrote that Perry was “the patron saint of baseball cheaters.”

Perry was a competitor; Jose Canseco was a pariah.

The North Carolina license plate on his silver Lincoln Continental said it all: SPITTER.

Doesn’t that make one salivate even more for an explanation from someone called “notorious” in the book title?

How it goes in the scorebook

A lot to chew on in a full-on academic excavation.

If one has the stomach for it, it’s a weighty ask, but because of its enlightening value that goes far beyond the media persona of what Gaylord Perry might evoke as an adjective instead of a noun, the rewrite of his narrative is worth the exploration.

As George Will writes on the cover blurb: “Gaylord Perry could have ambled out of Ring Lardner’s baseball fiction, perhaps as Alibi Ike’s teammate. Perry was, however, his own creation. His career was, among many other things, a reminder that professional sport often is a story of subtle — more or less — felonies against the rules. Read the first paragraph of this crackerjack book and you will be hooked.”

One of the compelling side notes that is documented and perhaps a mini-book within a book is how Gaylord, of course, had brother almost three years older, Jim, who also pitched in the big leagues. It is frequently noted that they “couldn’t have been more opposite,” a theme created by one-time teammate Duane Kuiper on page 257.

From the 1970 All Star Game at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati (made famous by Pete Rose’s game-ending collision at home plate). Jim, left, won the AL Cy Young Award (24-12) with Minnesota; Gaylord (23-13) finished second in the NL Cy Young voting with San Francisco (behind Bob Gibson).

These Perrys were constantly competing with each other. Both were 6-foot-4, but Gaylord added another 15 pounds than Jim and actually looked older.

Jim, who remains still around at age 87, pitched from ’59 to ’75, 17 seasons with Cleveland, Minnesota, Detroit and Oakland, winning 215 games, including a league-best 24 in 1970 when he captured a Cy Young Award. A far more buttoned-down success story, stable and one to hang a star on.

Gaylord can claim he took two Cy Young Awards, for Cleveland in 1972 and then San Diego in ’78 — two teams that were far from in the playoff hunt each time. That was en route to 314 wins, topping 20 in a season five times, striking out more than 3,500, and lasting until age 44 with Kansas City (where he helped George Brett stash away that pine-tar bat in ’83).

Only the Niekro brothers, Phil (Hall of Famer) and Joe, combined for more wins by a sibling combination, but only by 10 more than the Perrys.

The Perry brothers combined to pitch for 39 seasons, overlapping from ’62 to ’75.

They were odd-couple teammates one full year, 1974, in Cleveland, when Gaylord went 21-13 with a 2.51 ERA in 37 starts (and was fourth in Cy Young voting) while Jim, who grew his hair out a bit longer, was 17-12 with a 2.96 ERA in 36 starts. They were the only two Indians pitchers that year in double-digit wins as the team went 77-85, fourth in the AL East. That could have been a reason for the family to celebrate. It only seemed to divide them more.

So that’s what led to Frank Robinson taking over as manager the next season in one of the game’s most historic moments. Soon, both Perrys were traded off – Jim sent to Oakland in May for Blue Moon Odom and eventually released, and Gaylord off to Texas in June for Jim Bibby.  At that time, Gaylord was walking that “fine line between fierce competitor and troublemaker,” and butted heads frequently with Robinson. Gaylord, it seemed, had told friends back home “he would not play for a black man.”

You can look it up: More to ponder

== David Vaught’s bio on the Texas A&M University website says he got his Ph.D. in history from the UC Davis in 1997 and is the author of Cultivating California: Growers, Specialty Crops, and Labor, 1875-1920 (1999); After The Gold Rush: Tarnished Dreams in the Sacramento Valley (2007); and The Farmers’ Game: Baseball in Rural America (2013)–all published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is Past President of the Agricultural History Society, serves currently as an Organization of American Historians Distinguished Lecturer, and is writing a biography of Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller.

== Souvenir bags of peanuts that Gaylord Perry grew on his farm and sold are still available in the collectable world.

== From Aug. 20, 2012: A 30-year look back at the time Gaylord Perry was caught loading up the ball: “After 5,128.2 IP and 20,993 batters faced, Gaylord Perry was caught for throwing the spitball. Technically speaking, he wasn’t ejected for throwing a spitball. He was technically ejected for being the pitcher on the mound when a scuffed ball was in play. They couldn’t officially prove the scuffing came before or after the most recent pitch. Not that it makes any difference. When the ump ran Perry, the veteran pitcher departed without a protest. It ain’t like any umpire was going to un-eject him, anyway.”

== In the middle of the 2021 season, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announced new policies about pitchers caught using sticky substances like Spider Tack, a popular adhesive: They would be ejected and suspended for ten games. It entitled umpires to check every pitcher as he was coming off the mound after throwing. Ah, the good ol’ days.

1 thought on “Day 5 of 2023 baseball books: An extended spit take on Gaylord Perry”

  1. good stuff. Keep these coming.

    On Fri, Apr 7, 2023 at 8:33 AM Tom Hoffarth’s The Drill: More Farther Off


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