Sports Columns

July 9, 2014

Loran Smith: Perry's honors matched by his stories

Gaylord Perry is everything you expect a small-town, retired big leaguer to be. Hospitable, entertaining and without any trace of arrogance, Perry is a guy who has been honored about as much as any dominating pitcher who played the game.

You don’t see Major League Baseball players like him anymore. Some of that has to do with the way the game has changed. How often are we going to see a pitcher stay at it for 22 seasons, pitch in 579 games and finish 303 of them?

It seems his arm would have worn out long before he returned home to the farm in Spruce Pine in the northwestern corner of the Tar Heel State. But he came from the make-do era of rural life, which dictated that if you started a job, you don’t quit until you finish. That was the way Perry approached pitching in his era, from 1962 to 1983.

There are limitless vignettes from Perry’s career, which is worthy of review for a man who pitched a no-hitter, won a Cy Young Award in both the American League and National League, hit a home run the day the United States put a man on the moon for the first time and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.

Perry didn’t go broke playing, but he didn’t get rich either, with career earnings hovering around something like $1.77 million. They pay that much to a weak-hitting shortstop for a single season’s work today — even if he has more errors than base hits. The most money Perry made in a year was $300,000 during 1981, the single season he played for the Atlanta Braves.

Still, the graying and engaging Perry has no complaints. His life in baseball was something he found rewarding in itself. He was an accomplished player who is still revered not only in Spruce Pine but whenever he returns to San Francisco, where he played for nearly 14 seasons.

With a perpetual grin, Perry enjoys talking and reminiscing, as most former players are wont to do. You bring up a subject and there is a story behind it — like the one about his home run.

During batting practice one day in Perry’s second season, he was hitting balls out of the park, which prompted a sports writer to say to Alvin Dark, the Giants manager at the time, “Looks like that Perry kid has a lot of power.” Dark reacted with side-splitting laughter and bellowed, “They’ll put a man on the moon before he hits a home run.”

Six years later, on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 spacecraft landed on the moon and astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on its surface. Perry remembers the day — and his home run — well.

“And who did I hit it against? The Dodgers. The hated Dodgers,” Perry said.

He had to get that in before he explained that Claude Osteen “hung one out over the plate and I slammed it out.”

He will tell you about the rivalry with the Dodgers, underscoring antipathy for Los Angeles even in retirement. The only Dodger he likes is Vin Scully, the ageless announcer who ranks as an all-time gentleman in baseball with everybody.

There could be nothing finer than to sit on the dais at Cooperstown when you are inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Perry was overwhelmed by the honor, but more importantly, he was overwhelmed by those who witnessed his introduction.

“There was Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Willie Mays, Yogi (Berra) and Whitey (Ford). Many others, too,” Perry recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. I actually said to myself, ‘You mean I am in this club?’”

He remembers his no-hitter like it happened the morning of our conversation. About the sixth inning, his teammates quit talking to him. They also refused to sit near him.

“They didn’t want to jinx me,” Perry said. “What was so satisfying 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 won 1-0.

The very next day, Ray Washburn of the Cardinals held the Giants hitless as St. Louis won 2-0.

The publisher titled Perry’s book “Me and the Spitter” because the pitcher developed a reputation for doctoring the ball, which he used to his psychological advantage.

Take the time the Giants were in Cincinnati during the heyday of the Big Red Machine. Perry, who was to pitch the second game of the series, went out to watch batting practice as Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan and others were slamming the ball all over the place.

Perry went around shaking all of their hands and they jerked back, saying, “Man, what are you doing? Your hands are wet.”

Gaylord smiled and said, “I’m just getting ready for tomorrow night.”

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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