By Tim Gardner
Gaylord Perry, a professional baseball Hall of Famer considered to be one of the greatest pitchers ever and who for years lived in the Town of Spruce Pine in the North Carolina High Country died Thursday, December 1. He was 84 years old.
He died at about 5:00 a.m. in his most recent home in Gaffney, South Carolina of natural causes, according to the Cherokee County, SC Coroner’s Office.
Famous people are often known by just either their first or last name. Say “Gaylord” and any true baseball enthusiast knows who you’re talking about.
Truly, he was as dominating as any pitcher who ever played the game and was everything a baseball star should be. Known for his friendliness and down-to-earth demeanor, Perry accomplished feats that rival those of any of his peers in Major League history.
He pitched for eight Major League teams. He was a five-time All-Star and was elected to the Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991. Perry pitched in 777 major league games, totaling 5,350 innings pitched. He compiled a 314-265 record with a 3.11 Earned Run Average (ERA) and struck out 3,534 batters. He also pitched a no-hitter.
He was the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award in both the American and National Leagues. He received the honor in 1972 with the Cleveland Indians and in 1978 with the San Diego Padres. He received his latter Cy Young Award just as he turned 40 years old, making him the oldest pitcher to win the award, which stood as a record for 26 years.
The Cy Young Award is given annually to the best pitchers in Major League Baseball (MLB), one each for the American League (AL) and National League (NL). The award was first introduced in 1956 by Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick in honor of Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young, who died in 1955. The award was originally given to the single best pitcher in the major leagues, but in 1967, after the retirement of Frick, the award was given to one pitcher in each league.
During batting practice one day in Perry’s second season playing for the Giants, he was knocking balls out of the park, which prompted a sportswriter to comment to Alvin Dark, the Giants manager at the time, “Looks like that Perry kid has a lot of power.” Dark disagreed, then laughed and said, “They’ll put a man on the moon before he hits a home run.”
Perry proved the manager wrong, and ironically on the same day a person was on the moon for the first time. On July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on its surface and Perry hit a home run. He remembered it well, once telling this journalist, who was fortunate to become personal friends with him: “And who did I hit that home run against? The hated Dodgers, who were the Giants fiercest rival,” before adding that Los Angeles pitcher Claude Osteen “hung one out over the plate and I got the power behind the bat and slammed the ball out.”
Perry also once recalled his no-hitter to this writer as if it just happened. About the sixth inning, his teammates quit talking to him and even refused to sit near him.
“They didn’t want to jinx me,” Perry said. “What was so satisfying about my no-hitter was that it came against the world champion St. Louis Cardinals.”
He was matched up with Cardinals ace Bob Gibson, who only gave up one run on a homer as the Giants prevailed 1-0.
Born in Williamston, North Carolina on September 15, 1938, Perry was a graduate of Williamston High School in Williamston and attended Campbell College in Buies Creek, NCbefore signing in 1958 with the San Francisco Giants. He made his Major League debut in San Francisco in 1962, where he played with four other future Hall of Famers: Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Orlando Cepeda. Perry spent 10 seasons with the Giants, six times winning at least 15 games and twice winning more than 20.
Perry was traded to the Cleveland Indians following the 1971 season. He spent three-and-a-half seasons in that organization, twice winning 20 or more games before being traded to the Texas Rangers in 1975. He won 42 games with the Rangers before being traded to the San Diego Padres in 1978, when he had his last great season, winning 21 games and finishing with a 2.73 ERA.
He spent one more season in San Diego (1979), then next played for Texas again (1980), before playing for the New York Yankees later the same year, the Atlanta Braves (1981), the Seattle Mariners (1982 and ’83) and the Kansas City Royals (1983) before retiring at age 45.
Perry was a right-handed hurler with many great pitches in his repertoire. He had a great curve, a wicked fastball, an awesome forkball, a good change and a deft sinker. But he was especially known for his spitball. In fact, he titled his 1974 autobiography “Me and the Spitter.”
Perry was accused of applying all sorts of illegal substances to balls he threw, most commonly saliva, but also petroleum products such as Vaseline and K-Y Jelly and even the hair cream Brylcreem, to get more movement on his pitches.
In his “Me and the Spitter” book, Perry wrote, “I’d always have it (grease) in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe one off. I never wanted to be caught out there with anything, though. It wouldn’t be professional.”
But many of his peers, baseball historians and other knowledgeable observers speculated that it was not so much the spitball itself but the threat of it by Perry that mystified batters. He may have been the all-time master of pitching psychology. Truly, Perry could get into their heads if any pitcher ever could. He had a fidgeting routine on the mound, grabbing the bill of his cap, wiping his brow, scratching the back of his head, touching other parts of it and making various other bodily gestures to psyche-out batters.
In these manners, Perry may or may not have been applying a foreign substance to the ball on any pitch. But he often caused batters and other opposing team members to think he was, which made them lose their concentration and often strike out. In one game, the California Angels’ Reggie Jackson was so upset after Perry, then playing for the Mariners, struck him out, that he was ejected for his emotional tirade that included him throwing a bucket of water on the playing field over the prospect that Perry had doctored the ball with a foreign substance. It was one of 22 times Perry struck out Jackson.
“Reggie and I had some great competitions together,” said Perry. “Reggie hit some home runs off me and I’d tip my cap to him. But I got him thrown out of four games. Reggie, he could hit anybody’s fastball, but I’d throw him great forkballs. He’d think they were spitters and strike out. I would rub it in a little. Reggie got terribly upset. But I think he didn’t want to come up and hit against me again, so he’d get himself thrown out.”
Upon retirement, Perry was ranked 11th on the all-time wins list, with 314, and he had the third-most strikeouts (3,534) in professional history, behind only Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan.
In 1986, Perry was hired by Limestone College in Gaffney to pioneer its baseball program as head coach. After helping to get a playing field and his first team recruited, he remained head coach for several seasons. He was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 1998.
Additionally, Perry was a proud veteran of the United States Army and attended Sardis United Methodist Church in Gaffney.
In 1999, Perry was a finalist for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team. In 1998, The Sporting News ranked him 97th on its list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players of all-time. Perry’s brother, Jim, joined him playing for the Cleveland Indians in 1974. They played one full season together and recorded 38 of the team’s 77 wins. Their combined 529 career wins were the most in Major League history for many years and currently trails only the 539 compiled by brothers Phil and Joe Niekro.
On July 23, 2005, the Giants retired Perry’s uniform number 36. Perry was inducted into the San Francisco Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame on March 9, 2009. Perry was honored on April 9, 2011, at the Giants home stadium, AT&T Park, with a 2010 World Series ring along with other San Francisco Giants greats Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Willie Mays. Perry was honored again on April 7, 2013, with Mays and Juan Marichal receiving a 2012 World Series ring, and on April 18, 2015, with a 2014 World Series ring along with Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, and Marichal.
The Cleveland Indians inducted Perry in their Hall of Fame in 2012 and then invited him to throw the ceremonial first pitch before their Opening Day game for the 2015 season. And in one of his ultimate honors, on August 13, 2016, the Giants unveiled a bronze statue of Perry at the corner of Second and King streets outside of AT&T Park.
Perry came from the blue-collar era of rural life and grew up working on a farm, which dictated that if you started a job, you don’t quit until you finish. And that was his philosophy about pitching in his playing era.
When Perry signed his first major league contract with the San Francisco Giants, he received a $90,000 bonus and gave half the bonus money to his parents, Evan and Ruby Perry, getting them out of debt for the first time in their married lives. That’s even more commendable than any feat he made playing ball.
It’s amazing that his pitching arm didn’t wear out many years before he retired and returned home to the Tar Heel State. Perry lived in Spruce Pine, with his wife, the former Deborah Lee White Perry (Deb, as he affectionately called her) for many years until they moved back to Gaffney.
Largely because of his playing career, Perry lived in, or traveled to, some of the most scenic places in America. But he quickly acknowledged to many people with whom he came in contact that the North Carolina High County is one of his favorite places on Earth and among the most beautiful he had ever seen. And he also spoke in glowing terms about its residents, a lot of whom he met at various functions here—especially when he was a keynote speaker or the top feature at baseball and fundraising events. He remarked: “The North Carolina Mountains hold a special place in mine and my wife’s hearts. It’s a lot like where I grew up in the Eastern part of the state. It’s majestically beautiful beyond description and our experiences in the region have been awesome. The people from the North Carolina High Country are among the best I’ve met and are certainly among the salt of the earth.”
In addition to his wife, Gaylord Perry is survived by three children, ten grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Blanche Manning Perry, and a son.
A Celebration of Life Service will be held on Sunday, December 4 at 2:00 p.m. in the Camp-Swofford Chapel of Limestone University.