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Gaylord Perry, Hall of Fame pitcher with a doctoring touch, dies at 84

Home plate umpire John Flaherty checked Cleveland Indians pitcher Gaylord Perry's cap for an illegal substance, at the request of Milwaukee Brewers manager Del Crandall, during a 1973 game.Associated Press

Gaylord Perry, the Hall of Fame right-hander who won 314 games and struck out more than 3,500 batters, but was remembered as well for his spitballs that enraged opposing batters and managers over his 22 major league seasons, died early Thursday at his home in Gaffney, South Carolina. He was 84.

His daughter Allison Perry said in confirming the death that Perry contracted the coronavirus last year and never fully recovered.

A strapping 6 feet 4 inches and 205 pounds or so, Perry was exceedingly durable and never had a sore arm. For all the furor over his doctoring the baseball, he had a wide assortment of deliveries: curves, sliders, sinkers, changeups, forkballs and an outstanding fastball, including a split-fingered one.

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He became the first of six pitchers to win the Cy Young Award in both leagues, capturing it as the American League’s best pitcher with the Cleveland Indians (now named the Guardians) in 1972 and the National League’s leading pitcher with the San Diego Padres in 1978. His older brother, Jim Perry, won the award in 1970 with the AL’s Minnesota Twins.

Gaylord Perry, who pitched for eight teams, was a five-time All-Star, pitched a no-hitter for the San Francisco Giants against the St. Louis Cardinals in 1968 and won at least 20 games five times. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

He combined with his brother Jim for 529 victories, No. 2 on the career list for brothers, behind Phil and Joe Niekro’s 539.

But Gaylord gained a measure of infamy as one of the most accomplished spitballers of his time with an arsenal of saliva and various lubricants.

The use of saliva and other foreign substances on the baseball, often collectively referred to as spitballs, as well as scuffing the ball — all designed to make pitches break unpredictably — were outlawed in 1920, though a few designated pitchers accustomed to defacing the ball at the time were allowed to continue doing so until they retired.

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Since 1920, many pitchers have been accused by opposing teams of cheating by doctoring the ball.

Those pitchers almost invariably proclaimed their innocence, but Perry told of his outlaw behavior in 1974, while in his prime, in the book “Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession,” written with Bob Sudyk, a Cleveland sportswriter.

Perry wrote that his Giants teammate right-hander Bob Shaw taught him the spitter in 1964, when he was first starting to develop his legal pitches.

He said that after wetting the ball with saliva, he graduated over the years to “the mud ball, the emery ball, the K-Y ball, just to name a few.”

“During the next eight years or so, I reckon I tried everything on the old apple but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce toppin’,” he wrote in the vernacular of his rural North Carolina roots.

Sometimes he feigned drying his fingers on the resin bag on the pitcher’s mound but kept the saliva intact, and sometimes he put slippery substances at various spots on his skin.

To confound batters further, he often touched his uniform and cap before his windup to make them think he was loading the ball even when he was not.

Perry maintained in his book that his outlaw behavior had finally come to an end, saying: “I’m reformed now. I’m a pure, law-abiding citizen.”

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But in August 1982, Perry’s next-to-last season, when he was pitching for the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome in Seattle, against the Boston Red Sox, he was ejected for the first and only time in his career for delivering a pitch with a foreign substance on the baseball. The home-plate umpire did not examine the ball but was convinced that it had been doctored by the extreme drop it took.

Perry said he was innocent, but the American League imposed an automatic 10-game suspension and a $250 fine.

Two weeks before that game, Reggie Jackson, then with the California Angels, had been so angered by Perry’s striking him out with what he was convinced was a spitter that he threw a bucket of water onto the field, suggesting that it would help Perry with his illegal deliveries. Perry stayed in the game, but Jackson was ejected.

Since Perry was thrown out of that 1982 game against the Red Sox, several pitchers have been ejected for possessing foreign substances on the mound.

“I can remember a couple of occasions when I couldn’t throw the ball back to him because it was so greasy that it slipped out of my hands,” Gene Tenace, who was one of Perry’s catchers with the Padres, remarked a few days after the ejection in Seattle by umpire Dave Phillips. “I just walked out to the mound and flipped the ball back to him.’’

Perry was a brilliant pitcher with or without a spitter. His 3,534 strikeouts are No. 8 on the career list, and his 5,350 innings pitched are No. 6. He threw 303 complete games.

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But he reached the postseason only once, winning one game and losing one when his Giants lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1971 National League Championship Series.

In July 1983, when he was with the Kansas City Royals, his last team, Perry had a cameo role in the infamous “pine tar” game at Yankee Stadium.

Amid the furor when home-plate umpire Tim McClelland took a home run away from the Royals’ batting star George Brett, after the Yankees protested that his bat was smeared with an impermissible amount of pine tar, a substance used to help a batter’s grip, Perry popped out of the Royals’ dugout.

“Gaylord Perry, being the man of foreign substance that he is, got the bat and twisted it out of my hands,” McClelland told The New York Times on the 25th anniversary of that game.

Security personnel got ahold of the bat before it could be hidden.

Gaylord Jackson Perry was born on Sept. 15, 1938, in Williamston, North Carolina, and grew up in the nearby community of Farm Life, where his father, Evan, and his mother, Ruby (Jackson) Perry, were tenant farmers.

Jim and Gaylord, three years younger, were star pitchers in high school. Jim signed with the Indians in 1956 for a small bonus, but Gaylord reportedly received $73,500 (about $760,500 in today’s dollars) to sign with the Giants in 1958.

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He made his Giants debut in 1962, but he didn’t emerge as a top pitcher until 1966, when he was 21-8. Gaylord and Jim were teammates for one full season, 1974, with the Indians.

Gaylord Perry had 314-265 record, having pitched, in order, for the Giants, Indians, Texas Rangers, Padres, the Rangers again, the Yankees, the Atlanta Braves, the Mariners and the Royals.

He owned a farm in North Carolina after leaving baseball but lost it in 1986, when he declared bankruptcy amid falling crop prices in the South. His home in Gaffney, in northwest South Carolina, is just south of the North Carolina border.

Perry’s first marriage, to Blanche Manning, ended with her death in an auto accident in 1987. A second marriage, to Carol Caggiano, ended in divorce.

In addition to his daughter Allison — like all his children, from his first marriage — he is survived by his third wife, Deborah White Perry; two other daughters, Beth Long and Amy Espaillat; his older brother, Jim; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His son, Gaylord Jr., who was known as Jack, died of leukemia in 2005 at 37.

Perry’s family, it seems, was as cagey as he was when asked how his pitches came to do such marvelous tricks.

According to an often-told story, when Perry was pitching for the Giants during the 1971 postseason, a television reporter asked Allison, then 5 years old, if her dad ever threw a greaser ball.

Her reply: “It’s a hard slider.”