By Tim Gardner (reprinted from The High Country Magazine, October/November 2013)
Tucked deep in the heart of the North Carolina High Country is Mitchell County and the town of Spruce Pine, approximately sixty miles North of Asheville and fifty miles Southeast of Boone. Spruce Pine is known as a mining mecca. A majority of the feldspar in the United States and almost all ultra-pure quartz in America and in the world comes from this area. Spruce Pine is also known by many as “The Mineral City” for its wide collection of various gems. And no doubt, Spruce Pine epitomizes the term “Blue Collar” town as well as any to which you’ll travel.
Please understand that is not a knock. Instead, it’s a tribute to the tranquility of this tiny, charming village that has a population of just slightly more than 2,000. Everyone there seems to say, “Hi, y’all” whenever they come in contact with others whether they’re an acquaintance or a stranger. Good folks live in Spruce Pine, including, perhaps, its most famous resident, former Major League Baseball pitcher Gaylord Perry, who ranks as one of the game’s all-time greatest players.
Personable and outspoken, yet with an easy-going demeanor, Gaylord has devoted much of his life to sports and if there is anything besides his religion and his family that dominates his being, it’s America’s Favorite Past-Time.
Game Statistics Few Pitchers Can Top
Gaylord pitched for eight different teams in his 22-year (1962-’83) Major League playing career. His derring-do accomplishments are astounding. He registered 314 wins, struck out 3,534 batters, and compiled a 3.11 ERA (Earned Run Average). He was elected to the Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.
A five-time All-Star, Gaylord was the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award in each league (the American League in 1972 with the Cleveland Indians and in the National League in 1978 with the San Diego Padres). He also is distinguished, along with his brother Jim, for being the second-winningest brother combination in professional baseball history—second only to the knuckleballing Niekro brothers, Phil and Joe. While pitching for the Seattle Mariners in 1982, Gaylord became the fifteenth member of the 300-win club. Additionally, Gaylord and Jim are the only brothers in major League baseball history to win Cy Young Awards as Jim claimed the honor in 1971. Ironically, Jim, like Gaylord, played for the Cleveland (including two stints and one when both were Indians’ teammates) as well as for the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, and Oakland Athletics.
Gaylord held the record for many years for most consecutive 15-win seasons since 1900 with 13 (1966–1978) and he was 2nd all-time to Cy Young, who had 15 (1891–1905).
During the early days when Gaylord pitched, the game of baseball didn’t pay that much attention to pitch counts, and the starting pitchers often went the entire nine-inning game on the mound.
“We were trained to do all nine innings,” he explained. “We were trained to pitch like that even in the minor league as I was coming up to the (San Francisco) Giants. It was the way they played back then.”
As far as complete games, Gaylord pitched 303 of them, registering 53 shutouts.
But now it’s a whole new ball game, a different story in a modern era of specialized pitching. Because of a pitch count limit (usually around 100 pitches), the starters rarely notch a complete game and the relief pitchers, such as the setup men and closers, will finish up.
Still, Gaylord believes Major League Baseball’s current philosophy in pitching is desirable. “I kind of agree about what they do now,” he said. “I also was in the bullpen for 1962 and ‘63 and it’s not a very good place to be because your value with the team is not very much. Nowadays, with the change in pitching philosophy and rules, the bullpen a very important place. It makes you feel like you are a big part of the team if you’re in the bullpen.”
He added that his playing career likely would not have lasted longer if the clubs in his playing heyday had adopted the current philosophy of using the pitch count limit and specialized relievers.
Gaylord credits the rigid physical conditioning routine he used as being a “significant factor” in helping lengthen his playing career. “During my career, I was always in good physical shape,” he proclaimed. “When spring training started, I was in the physical shape necessary to play the game and compete at the highest level when some players weren’t. I worked hard at maintaining it throughout my career. Good physical conditioning is all-important to any athlete and should be a priority for them to adhere to.”
A Distinctive Pitching Style
Gaylord was accused of using the spitball, or greaseball, which made the ball harder to hit while defying batters, humiliating umpires, and infuriating opposing managers. Throwing an effective spitball, one that approached the plate like a fastball, but suddenly sank like a heavy stone, took skill and practice. But regardless of the accusations, Gaylord was a highly-accomplished craftsman– a right-handed hurler– with many great pitches in his repertoire.
During Gaylord’s career, the rules governing the enforcement of the spitball were changed twice, and the umpires were given explicit directives concerning the pitch several other times. He maintained that when his pitching wasn’t as good, he wasn’t accused of doctoring the ball as much. But when he was pitching well, he was accused of it much more often.
Gaylord’s 1974 autobiography was entitled Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession, and in it he explained how he learned the pitch, and numerous tales of particular confrontations with angry batters. “Most of the time, if I wanted to do something ‘funny’, I would do it in the first inning,” Gaylord exclaimed. “Then, everybody’s fussin’ and gripin’, and no matter what the pitcher throws he’s already done his job.”
He figured out the psychology just by watching his own teammates when he was with the San Francisco Giants as they faced the Dodgers.
“I never did anything with my cap or the back of my head or my eyebrow until I watched the Dodgers’ Don Drysdale pitch,” Gaylord recalled. “My teammates were coming back to the dugout, ‘It’s on his hat.’ Then the next guy strikes out and says, ‘Nah, I think it’s on his belt.’ Then the next guy says, ‘He’s got it on his pants leg.’
“Now all they’re worried about is what he’s touchin’, and he’s got ’em.”
That’s when Gaylord started his fidgeting routine on the mound, grabbing the bill of his cap, wiping his brow, scratching the back of his head, to psyche-out batters.
Gaylord claims he was taught the spitball in 1964 by fellow-Major League pitcher Bob Shaw. Gaylord was inspected on the mound by umpires and monitored closely by opposing teams.
American League umpire Bill Haller said of Gaylord during his playing heyday and his alleged Spitball, “I watched Gaylord like a hawk. He never goes to his mouth. I never see him get any foreign substance. When we umpire, we check balls as well as the catcher’s glove. I’ve never found anything. I’ll tell you what he’s got: a good curve, a fine fastball, a good change and a fine sinker. His sinker is the suspicious one. It’s excellent. But no better than (fellow major-league) Mel Stottlemyre’s and they don’t complain about his. I’ll tell you what (Gaylord) Perry is: he’s one helluva pitcher, a fantastic competitor.”
Gaylord quickly answered when asked who was the toughest batter he faced during his long career. “There’s a bunch of those,” Gaylord said. “Billy Williams of the Chicago Cubs would hit home runs off me, and he certainly was one of the toughest. Roberto Clemente was tough. Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt and the whole (Cincinnati) Reds club in the late 1960s were especially tough to pitch against.”
Early Life and a Three-Sport Prep Blue-Chipper
Gaylord Jackson Perry was born September 15, 1938, to tenant farmers Evan and Ruby. Gaylord was named after a close friend of his father’s, who died while having his teeth pulled.
Gaylord’s older brother James also had a long major league pitching career, and younger sister, Carolyn, completed the family. Evan Perry was a great athlete who played both baseball and football, and reportedly turned down a minor league contract because his family could not afford to have him leave their farm. Evan and Ruby had a 25-acre parcel of land, where they grew tobacco, corn and peanuts for money (sharing half the proceeds with the landowners), and raised animals and additional vegetables to feed their own family.
Gaylord and Jim began plowing the fields with a mule at the age of seven, and Gaylord’s earliest childhood memories were of working on the farm and wanting to be a cowboy. The Perry Boys were luckier than most-their father loved baseball and gave them as much free time as practical so that they could pursue the game. Jim and Gaylord both began playing ball with their father during their lunch break, and later all three played on the same local, semi-pro team.
Gaylord attended Williamston High School, and starred in football, basketball and baseball. On the gridiron, he was All-State as an offensive and defensive end as a sophomore and junior, before giving up the sport because he did not want an injury to affect his baseball career. In basketball, Gaylord teamed with his brother Jim (both Perry’s were already 6-foot-3-inches tall) to reach the state finals in Gaylord’s freshman year. In four years playing basketball, Gaylord averaged nearly 30 points and 20 rebounds per game, and led his team to a sterling 94-8 record. He turned down dozens of college scholarship offers. Jim, almost three years older than Gaylord, moved on to Campbell Junior College after his own junior year. Gaylord also attended Campbell after he graduated high school.
But baseball remained his favorite past-time. Gaylord began playing third base, affording him a great view of Jim’s talents on the mound. Near the end of Gaylord’s freshman year, the coach began swapping the Perry’s to give Jim’s arm a rest. Williamston High won the state tournament, with the Perry brothers tossing back-to-back shutouts to sweep the best-of-three series finals.
After three more outstanding seasons, winning 33 of 38 decisions, Gaylord was ready to turn professional.
Grooming for the Pros in the Minor Leagues
Gaylord was nearly 20 years old when he graduated high school and local officials arranged an exhibition game against ex-big-leaguer Tommy Byrne and assorted local semi-pros, a contest designed to showcase Gaylord for major league scouts. He won the game, 5-1, at one point striking out 17 consecutive batters. Gaylord’s brother Jim was climbing up in the Cleveland Indians organization and Gaylord had hoped to sign with the rival Milwaukee Braves, which later relocated to Atlanta. Instead, he signed with the San Francisco Giants, and scout Tim Murchison, for a $90,000 bonus and three-year contract. Gaylord gave half the bonus money to his father, getting his parents out of debt for the first time in their lives, and he put the rest of the proceeds in the bank. Gaylord’s father actually signed the contract for him to make it legally binding since Gaylord was not the mandated age of 21 years old at the time.
Gaylord then played briefly for the Alpine, TX Cowboys, before spending the rest of 1958 with the St. Cloud, Minnesota team in Class A Northern League, compiling a 9–5 record and a 2.39 ERA. In 1959 he was promoted to the Class AA Corpus Christi Giants, where he posted a less impressive 10–11 record and 4.05 ERA. He remained with the team as they became the Rio Grande Valley Giants in 1960, and had an improved ERA of 2.83, earning him a promotion to the Class AAA Tacoma Giants for the 1961 season. At Tacoma, he led the Pacific Coast League in wins and innings pitched in 1961.
Gaylord had a brief call-up to the Major League in 1962, making his debut on April 14 against the Cincinnati Reds. He appeared in 13 games in 1962, but had a high 5.23 ERA and was sent back down to Tacoma for the remainder of the year. With the addition of Gaylord, the1962 Tacoma squad, which featured numerous future major league players, was generally considered the best minor league lineup of the 1960s.
Major Consistency in the Major League
San Francisco Giants (1962–71)
Gaylord joined the Giants in 1963 to work mostly as a relief pitcher that year, posting a mediocre 4.03 ERA in 31 appearances. Nevertheless, in 1964 he was given the opportunity to join the starting rotation, finishing with a 2.75 ERA and a 12–11 record. Both were second best for the Giants that year behind Juan Marichal. In 1965 his record was 8–12, and with two full seasons as a starter, his 24–30 record attracted little national attention.
Gaylord’s breakout season came in 1966 with a tremendous start, going 20–2 into August. Gaylord and Marichal became known as a “1–2 punch” to rival the famous Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale combination of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Gaylord played in his first All-Star game, but after August, he slumped the rest of the season, finishing 21–8, and the Giants finished second to the Dodgers. Marichal missed much of the 1967 season with a leg injury, and Gaylord was thrust into the role of team ace. While he finished the season with a disappointing 15–17 record, he had a low ERA and allowed only 7 hits per 9 innings pitched.
Gaylord had similar numbers in 1968: he posted a 16-15 record, but with a then-career-best 2.45 ERA on a Giants team that finished second to the St. Louis Cardinals. On September 17 of that year, two days after his 30th birthday, Gaylord no-hit the Cardinals and Bob Gibson 1-0 at Candlestick Park. The game’s lone run came on a first-inning home run by light-hitting Ron Hunt—his second and final home run of the season. The very next day, the Cardinals returned the favor on the Giants on a 2–0 no-hitter by Ray Washburn—the first time in Major League history that back-to-back no-hitters had been pitched in the same series.
In 1969, Gaylord led the league in innings pitched, but the Giants finished second in the pennant race for the fifth straight season.
Like most pitchers, Gaylord was not known for his hitting ability, and in 1964, his manager, Alvin Dark, is said to have joked, “They’ll put a man on the moon before he (Gaylord) hits a home run.” There are various elements to the story, but ironically, on July 20, 1969, just an hour after the Apollo 11 spacecraft carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, Gaylord hit the first home run of his playing career.
Gaylord took over as the Giants’ ace in 1970, and led the league both in wins (23) and innings pitched (328). Gaylord’s strong 1970 performance salvaged the Giants season, helping them finish above .500 but in third place. In 1971, the Giants finally won their division, with Gaylord posting a 2.76 ERA. In what would be his only two postseason appearances, Gaylord won one game and lost the other against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Cleveland Indians (1972–75)
Before the 1972 season, the Giants traded the then 32-year-old Gaylord and shortstop Frank Duffy to the Cleveland Indians for 29-year-old flamethrower Sam McDowell, the ace of the Indians’ staff. After that trade Gaylord went on to win 180 more games in his career while McDowell won only 24 more.
Gaylord went 24–16 in 1972 with a 1.92 ERA and one save, winning his first Cy Young award. He stood as the only Cy Young winner for Cleveland until 2007 (CC Sabathia). On July 23, 1973, Gaylord and Jim Perry (then playing for the Detroit Tigers) pitched against each other for the only regular season game in their careers. Neither finished the game, but Gaylord was charged with the 5-4 loss.
Gaylord continued as Cleveland’s staff ace until 1975. He went 70–57 during his time in Cleveland, but the team never finished above 4th place. Perry accounted for 39 percent of all Cleveland wins during his tenure. Tensions between him and player-manager Frank Robinson led to Gaylord’s trade to Texas in June 1975. Gaylord remained as Cleveland’s last 20-game winner (21 wins in 1974), until Cliff Lee in 2008.
Texas Rangers (1975–77)
On June 13, 1975, Gaylord joined the Rangers in exchange for pitchers Jim Bibby, Jackie Brown, and Rick Waits. Gaylord would win nearly 80 more games in his career than the three combined. Gaylord formed a one-two punch with Fergie Jenkins, with Gaylord earning 12 wins, and Jenkins 11 during the remainder of 1975. However, the Rangers, who had finished second in the American League West in 1974, slipped to third place that year.
The next year, with Jenkins moving to Boston, the 37-year old Gaylord became the staff ace, winning 15 games against 14 defeats. The Rangers, however, slipped to fourth place in the AL West. But then, in 1977, the Rangers surged to second in the AL West, winning 94 games, a total that the franchise would not surpass until 1999. Gaylord again won 15 games, this time against only 12 defeats, in a rotation that included double-digit winners Doyle Alexander, Bert Blyleven, and Dock Ellis.
San Diego Padres (1978–79)
Before the 1978 season San Diego acquired Gaylord from Texas in exchange for middle reliever Dave Tomlin and $125,000. Gaylord wound up winning the Cy Young Award going 21–6 for San Diego while the 29-year-old Tomlin never pitched for Texas and pitched barely 150 innings the rest of his career. Gaylord’s 21 wins in 1978 accounted for 25 percent of the club’s victories all year long, and he became the first pitcher to win Cy Young awards in both leagues. In this season he became the third pitcher to strike out 3,000 batters, accomplishing the feat two weeks after his 40th birthday.
In 1979, Gaylord posted a 3.05 ERA and a 12–11 record before quitting the team on September 5, saying he would retire unless the club traded him back to Texas. The Padres granted Gaylord’s request and he rejoined the on February 15, 1980.
Texas Rangers/NY Yankees (1980)
In 1980, Gaylord posted a 6–9 record and 3.43 ERA in 24 games with Texas before being traded to the Yankees on August 13, 1980 for minor leaguers Ken Clay and a player to be named later (Marvin Thompson). Many Yankees players had complained about Gaylord during his stints with the Rangers, and the club even used a special camera team to monitor his movements during one of his starts at Yankee Stadium. Gaylord finished the season with a 4–4 record for the Yankees.
Atlanta Braves (1981)
Gaylord’s contract was up after the 1980 season and he signed a one-year, $300,000 contract with the Atlanta Braves. During the strike-shortened 1981 season, Gaylord, the oldest player at the time in Major League baseball, started 23 games (150.7 innings) and had an 8–9 record. The Braves released him after the season, leaving him three victories short of 300.
Seattle Mariners/Kansas City Royals (1982–83)
Following his release by the Braves, Gaylord didn’t find immediate interest from any clubs, and missed his first spring training in 23 years. He eventually signed with the Seattle Mariners, where he acquired the nickname “The Ancient Mariner,” and won his 300th game on May 6, 1982, the first pitcher to win 300 since Early Wynn did so in 1963.
Then, after starting the 1983 season 3–10, Gaylord was designated for assignment by Seattle on June 26 and the Kansas City Royals picked him on a waiver claim 10 days later. In August, Gaylord became the third pitcher in history to record 3,500 strikeouts. In the final months of the season, Gaylord experimented with a submarine delivery for the first time in his career and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the first-place Baltimore Orioles on August 19.
During the 1983 season, Gaylord became the third pitcher in the same year to surpass longtime strikeout king Walter Johnson’s record of 3,509 strikeouts. Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan were the others.
Gaylord retired from professional baseball at the end of the1983 season.
Hall of Fame, Other Honors and Personal Endeavors
Gaylord was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 and was nominated as a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. In 1999 The Sporting News ranked him 97th on their list of the “100 Greatest Baseball Players.” During the prime of Perry’s career he was mentioned in The Sporting News almost weekly. He also has graced the cover of several Sports Illustrated issues.
In 2005, the San Francisco Giants retired Gaylord’s uniform number 36. Gaylord was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and the inaugural Giants Wall of Fame in 2011. He also was honored on April 9, 2011 at AT&T Park with a 2010 World Series championship ring along with other San Francisco Giants greats Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Willie Mays. Of the four, only Mays, as a member of the 1954 team, had previously received a championship ring from playing for the Giants.
Gaylord also was inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame in 2012.
Famous Professional Baseball writer, historian and statistician Bill James lists Gaylord as having the tenth-best career of any right-handed starting pitcher, and as being the 50th greatest player at any position.
Gaylord lists his greatest accomplishments as: “Compiling 300-plus wins; having a two- decades-plus playing career; pitching the no-hitter against St. Louis; and foremost, being enshrined in the Major League Hall of Fame.”
Gaylord later was hired to start a baseball program at Limestone College in Gaffney, SC, and he also served as its head coach until he retired from the post in 1991. There he helped secure the necessary funding to build Limestone’s current baseball field. As the Saints coach, he recruited the first players in program history, including future Limestone Hall of Famers Mike Flaskey and Tracy Sanders, and Gaylord led the 1988 team to a surprising 17-21 first-year record. He continued that success as the 1989 team compiled a 21-16 mark for the first winning season in program history. Those first two teams were fueled by the hard hitting and smooth fielding of centerfielder Tracy Sanders, who would go on to be the first Limestone baseball player drafted to play professionally in 1990. During the first two years of the program, Gaylord produced an overall record above .500 (38-37) to help lay the foundation for future successes in the Limestone College Baseball program. He was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame (Class of 1998).
One of Gaylord’s most cherished accomplishments at Limestone College was helping raise millions of dollars to perform physical makeovers to the historic Winnie Davis Hall and Granberry Gymnasium buildings.
Gaylord also met his current wife, the former Deborah White, an athletics department— and his eventual– secretary, while he coached there.
Gaylord’s first wife, Blanche Manning Perry, died in 1987 in an automobile accident in Lake Wales, FL. Their union produced four children, daughters– Amy, Beth, and Allison; and son, Gaylord Jackson “Jack” Perry, Jr., who died in 2005. Gaylord also has another sports celebrity in his family besides his brother as, his nephew, Chris (Jim’s son), has been active on the Professional Golfers Association Tour.
Gaylord also has a long-time interest in politics and is a staunch Republican. He campaigned for Jesse Helms in his various U.S. Senate bids and contemplated a bid for Congress himself in 1986. Additionally, Gaylord is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys working with his farm tractor and the various horses he owns.
In recent years, Gaylord has toured the country, signing autographs and appearing at various ballgames. He currently operates Gaylord Perry Enterprises from his home in Spruce Pine.
As a result of Major League Baseball and being ultra-active in various other vocations after his professional playing career ended, Gaylord and his family have lived at various scenic and picturesque places. He quickly acknowledges that the North Carolina Mountains are one of most beautiful areas in the United States as well as on Earth. And this region rates at, or near, the top of the list of his and Deborah’s favorites.
“The North Carolina High Country, particularly Mitchell County and Spruce Pine, holds a special place in our hearts, and no matter where we’re at, this area remains not only a favorite for us to live, it’s actually become a passion to Debra and me as we enjoy living here so much. It’s a lot like the rural place where I grew up. We especially enjoy interacting with the many wonderful people who also live here and visit here. Our experiences here have been of the first order,” Gaylord concluded.
Truly, Gaylord Perry has experienced destiny in his own life, and it’s been exciting, successful, but more importantly, fulfilling. And he’s regarded by those who know him best as one who never let fame go to his head. He could receive no greater tribute.
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