Payoff Pitch : Gaylord Perry, Master of the Illegal Spitball, Will Take His Place in the Hall of Fame Today
News item: Farm boy-turned-pitcher Gaylord Perry, who chose to become an outlaw in his profession by illegally doctoring baseballs and then admitting it in a book, reaps the ultimate harvest this afternoon when his name is officially enshrined with two others in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Yep, sometimes crime does pay.
It paid both of us, since I co-authored his literary effort, “Me and the Spitter,” midway through his career of 22 seasons.
When he asked me about doing a book, I told him he’d have to talk about his tricky pitch or nobody would care. He was prepared to turn himself in.
“I’ll talk,” he said, grimly. “But I want some money up front.”
This is when I learned what a tough horse trader he is. My cut was roughly a third, instead of the usual 50-50 co-author split. City slicker loses to country boy. His confession wasn’t to keep other pitchers from going wrong or to cleanse guilt from his soul. There was no guilt. And I felt none for telling his story.
As a partner in crime, I became privy to the illegal spitter and all its kinfolk: the emery ball, shine ball, mud ball, and later, when rule changes dried up the game: the Vaseline ball, K-Y jelly ball, scuffball, cutball, and puffball, which came at the batter out of a distracting cloud of rosin dust.
Gaylord was a self-made rascal who was shown the spitter at age 10 by hometown hero Slim Gardner down in Farm Life, a village just outside Williamston, N.C. Slim and Gaylord’s daddy, Evan, starred on the Williamston town team. Fifteen years later, with the help of his fellow conspirators of the occult, San Francisco Giants minor league pitching coach Frank Shellenback and teammate Bob Shaw, Gaylord learned how to load the spitter, grip it, and launch it into the strike zone.
He took this black art to the highest level, game after game, before the suspicious eyes of 25 opposing players, first and third base coaches, a manager, four umpires, and hidden telescopic cameras like the ones that catch shoplifters. He was the stealth bomber of his day.
When Gaylord graduated to the greaseball, frustrated umpires frisked him unmercifully. But they never could find his oily supply or catch him giving the ball a lube job, even after he told everyone how he did it in our 1974 book.
His sleight-of-hand artistry made him one of the most entertaining men on the mound in the last half-century, if not all time. He brought fun and intrigue to the art of pitching, an occupation otherwise monotonously repetitious and, for the most part, only statistically and clinically appreciated.
Gaylord was Broadway box office.
Everyone wanted to know how he loaded up. Mystery forever surrounded him.
In a reception line during a visit to the White House, President Nixon, wondering where Gaylord’s covert substances were stored, whispered in his ear, “Gaylord, you can tell me. Where do you get it?”
“Mr. President,” he said, “there are some things you just can’t tell the people for their own good.”
Nixon shook with laughter. If Gaylord had been in charge of the Watergate burglary, Nixon might still be in the White House.
“I reckon I tried everything on the old apple but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce toppin’,” he admitted in the book.
We went on to write, “Of course, I’m reformed now. I’m a pure law-abiding citizen.” After a sullied past, he was coming clean. Bowie Kuhn, then commissioner of baseball, could have viewed his confession “not in the best interests of baseball” and banished him from the game forever. Instead, Kuhn said he loved the book.
Gaylord’s road to immorality and immortality began May 31, 1964. In the 13th inning of a game that would last 23 innings, Gaylord chose to live outside the law before a record Shea Stadium crowd of 57,037.
The gangly farm boy had a routine curveball and an ordinary fastball. He was the 11th pitcher on an 11-man pitching staff. He had been working on the spitter for a year but wasn’t yet certain it would behave itself in a game.
After Gaylord was greeted by two quick Mets hits, catcher Tom Haller came running to the mound. “You don’t have much,” said Haller. “It’s time to start throwing that new pitch you’ve been workin’ on.”
Gaylord suddenly felt a siege of stage fright. He was 25 years old. He had spent most of his first six seasons in the minors, and the way he was pitching, it looked like he was headed back there.
He thought about his young family and mama and daddy struggling on the farm. He thought of spitballing teammate Bob Shaw’s prophetic words:
“We’re not high school boys anymore. We’ve got to provide for our families. Hitters are taking the bread out of our mouths.”
The choice was clear that night in Shea Stadium: Go outside the law or go back down to the farm.
With his new spitter splashing in Haller’s mit, Gaylord pitched 10 scoreless innings in an 8-6 San Francisco victory. He struck out three of the last four Mets he faced. He finished the season with 12 victories as a starting pitcher, and as a wanted man. The law would be on his trail for the rest of his career.
Professional ballplayers view their sport as a poker game full of suckers waiting to be taken. While the victimized scream epithets when they get snookered, they alway respect the snookerer. As long as there has been baseball, the cards have been marked, decks have been stacked, and cheaters have won.
As umpires became more nosy and managerial complaints increased, however, Gaylord had to become even more resourceful. The only safe place to store a lubricant was on sweaty, exposed skin, where it could be wiped away in an instant.
By the time a manager came out of the dugout to complain about his dipsy-doodles, and an umpire walked to the mound to inspect him for slicky substances, Gaylord could easily make himself legal.
Before warming up to pitch, he’d spread lubricant on his forehead. He would need an oil change just four or five times a game. In the beginning, he would get nine innings out of a 1-ounce tube of petroleum jelly. In later years, he became so efficient that he could get four or five games out of one lube tube. In addition to Vaseline, he used baby oil, soap, fishing line oil, hair tonic, moustache wax, you name it, anything slicky that mixed with sweat.
With all his grease guns firing in sync, Gaylord pitched a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals that 1968 season.
Yet another restrictive edict was issued to trap him in 1969: “A pitcher shall be removed from the game if the umpire finds a foreign substance on the ball.” Gaylord figured Vaseline was just too greasy to elude detection.
His search for the perfect clear, odorless substance ended in K-Y jelly, prescribed by his wife’s gynecologist. The best thing about it, Gaylord noted, was that it dried fast -- almost by the time it reached home plate -- and it dissolved in water.
In 1970, Gaylord won 23 games. The spitter and greaser had not only saved his career, but also had given him valuable time to perfect a legal forkball that staggered drunkenly toward the plate and a split-fingered fastball that broke down in almost the same nose dive fashion as his illegal greaser. Umpires found the three pitches difficult to tell apart. When his slider joined his curveball and fastball, Gaylord’s arsenal was complete. After starting out throwing the spitter 80 percent of the time, he could now choose the spots for his greaser.
Joining Cleveland in the American League for 1972 was like being given a key to the bank vault. Umpires there had never dealt with a rogue like Gaylord. Some had never even seen a spitter. How on earth could they police him?
Gaylord won 24 games and the first of his two Cy Young Awards -- baseball’s highest pitching honor -- giving up less than two runs a game in the new league.
Gaylord thought the book was not only good business, but also that it elevated the stature of his lawless image. John Ellis, who caught Gaylord in Cleveland, recalled, “Sure, he threw that funny pitch. But he was the ultimate competitor. He had the ability to be on top of his game mentally every time out.”
He was an edgy, glowering ogre on game day, an unshaven and forbidding figure with a siege mentality. Perhaps because he played outside the law, he was suspicious of everything. On the road, he insisted on a complicated series of signs from his catcher because he was sure someone was in the scoreboard stealing his pitches and relaying them to the batter. Ellis never convinced Gaylord that no one was spying on him.
On the other hand, umpire inspections throughout his career never bothered him, and they provided high comedy for the fans. Umpires would go to the mound with towels to wipe away his oily perspiration. “Don’t forget behind the ears, Gaylord,” umpire Bob Engle once said. Gaylord always obliged; treating umpires with respect was part of the con.
Umpire Al Barlick, trying to catch Gaylord by surprise, once went running from his position at first base while Gaylord’s back was turned, getting the sign for his next pitch. At full gallop, Barlick yanked Gaylord’s cap off his head. No slickum was found.
“I know you got it somewhere Gaylord,” he howled. “Someday I’m gonna find it.”
Oakland Athletics’ Manager Dick Williams hit on the clever idea of demanding that the umpires make Gaylord change shirts in mid-game. Williams wasn’t aware that Gaylord had put on a clean shirt on his own the inning before. Gaylord gladly pulled back on a shirt soiled with sweat and baby oil. Then he continued to throw his big dipper all night. Umpires would inspect him only once a game. Williams had snookered himself.
New York Yankees’ Manager Ralph Houk suffered temporary insanity one night in 1973. With his eyeballs rolling from eight innings of suspected greasers a la Gaylord, Houk exploded from the dugout like a human cannonball. He went straight to the mound, jerked Gaylord’s cap from his head, threw it to the ground, stomped on it, and kicked it around like a deflated soccer ball until the umpires led him away.
As Sunday’s formal enshrinement in Cooperstown was drawing near, my curiosity about Gaylord’s career had grown into an obsession. I had to know. After the book came out, did this crafty country slicker continue to anoint the old apple with the old shmooey shmooey now and then, just to let the batters know he still had it? Had we not written the truth? Had he snookered me too?
We agreed to meet in Gaffney, S.C., at his office. It’s a small, white-frame bungalow, on a middle-class residential street, which doubles as a home for son Jack, 23, who was vacationing in Australia.
At 52, Gaylord is an even more imposing figure, carrying perhaps 50 additional pounds on his 6-foot-4, large-boned frame. His belt, which stretches from here to Chattanooga, encircles a firm stomach. His fleshy chest and arms are massive and still powerful looking. Lending a cherubic look to his round face is a thick ring of gray hair surrounding the temples, and two crops of bushy, cotton white eyebrows. Piercing blue eyes peer out above half-lens bifocals.
Before popping my big question, I told Gaylord that his old catcher Dave Duncan, now a respected pitching coach at Oakland, referred to him as a “freak of nature like Nolan Ryan, who still throws 90 mile-an-hour fastballs.”
Duncan remains amazed that Gaylord could pitch effectively as long as he did. No pitch, you see, takes greater toll on an arm than greasers and spitters. Yet Gaylord missed only two scheduled starts on the mound during his long career, once for a sprained ankle and once for a sore lower back. He never suffered a sore arm.
Seizing the moment, he said, “Well, maybe that proves that I wasn’t throwing that slicky pitch all those years.”
This wasn’t the answer I was seeking.
Did he ever try to teach his illegal pitches to a teammate? With well-practiced evasiveness, he answered, “Oh, you know, Bob, you always talk baseball with your teammates. A lot of things come up.”
When our conversation turned to his enshrinement in Cooperstown, the highest honor the game can bestow upon a player, Gaylord spoke with little enthusiasm.
He was unhappy about the use of his name, without remuneration, on mementos that will be sold there. Although this is standard practice, Gaylord believed the income should be shared.
But more than the loss of a little money was dampening what should be a joyous moment in his life.
His million-dollar, 500-acre farm in Williamston failed five years ago, forcing him to file for bankruptcy. The corn, soybean, tobacco, and peanut farm was the victim of the nation’s failing farm economy.
Much more personally devastating, however, was not being able to share Cooperstown with two people who meant the most.
His wife, Blanche, was killed in an auto accident four years ago.
Evan, his daddy, just recovered from a hip transplant and quadruple bypass surgery, drowned in a boating accident while fishing 14 months later.
“You got to pick up and start over agin’,” he said of the tragedies. “Too many people still countin’ on you, to just lay down. You remember all the good times, and you keep goin’. Daddy went the way he’d want -- fishin’.”
After the loss of Blanche, he took a job as sales manager for a Mexican-food chain owned by former Texas Rangers baseball club owner Brad Corbett. He went on to coach baseball at Limestone College in Gaffney. There he met and later married Carol Caggiano, a board member at Limestone and a widowed woman of means with two children in college.
Gaylord described himself as self-employed under the broad job title Gaylord J. Perry Enterprises. He is a member of a new breed of retired players I call “professional immortals,” touring the country, making appearances, doing card shows, and suiting up for old-timers games. This income could approach his Giants signing bonus. At 65, he can begin collecting his baseball pension of more than $100,000.
He can be seen on a national television commercial for Toyota. He is on the lookout for more, now that he’s in the Hall of Fame. When we were writing the book, he contacted the Vaseline people to see if they would be interested in his endorsement. He recalled a blunt no-thank-you from a vice president, aware of Gaylord’s kinky use of their salve: “We soothe babies’ asses, not baseballs.”
Gaylord’s wayward reputation has followed him into retirement. At a card show in East Hartford, Conn., he signed baseballs, tubes of K-Y jelly, and jars of Vaseline for the more discerning collectors.
He believes his career outside the rules added excitement to the game. “I gave the fans something else to look at besides pitchin’ stats. I brought more fun to the park than any gimmick or promotion baseball ever come up with.”
Now that he is retired, now that his election to the Hall of Fame is a fait accompli, surely now he could come clean with me.
“Didja Gaylord, huh?”
Leaning against the tractor, he kept flipping the baseball and rolling it around his wrist with the smoothness and flair of a magician. The white cowhide appeared no larger than a golf ball in his huge hand. As he began to speak, a slow, sly smile widened across his face.
“Bob, you know everybody loves a good mystery. If I said I did or if I said I didn’t, everybody would know, and it would spoil all the fun. I’ve never been one to spoil the fun. I just thank God for blessing me with oily skin and an ability to sweat a lot. Us doin’ the book was my greatest decoy ...”
Which, I guess, makes me an accessory to the crime. If there was one.