Baseball great Gaylord Perry dies; Cy Young winner and master of the spitball

Baseball Hall of Famer and two-time Cy Young Award winner Gaylord Perry, a master of the spitball who wrote a book about using the pitch, died Thursday at his home in Gaffney, S.C.

Perry, who was 84, died of natural causes, Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler said.

The North Carolina native made history as the first player to win the Cy Young in both leagues, with Cleveland in 1972 and San Diego in 1978 just after turning 40.

Perry went 24-16 in his debut season with Cleveland after 10 years with the San Francisco Giants. He was 21-6 in his first season with the Padres in 1978 for his third and final 20-win season.

“Before I won my second Cy Young I thought I was too old — I didn’t think the writers would vote for me,” Perry said in an article on the National Baseball Hall of Fame website. “But they voted on my performance, so I won it.”

Perry, who pitched for eight major-league teams from 1962 until 1983, was a five-time All-Star who was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991. He had a career record of 314-255, finished with 3,554 strikeouts and used a pitching style where he doctored baseballs or made batters believe he was doctoring them.

Gaylord Perry kept batters guessing whether he was doctoring the baseball.
(Ray Stubblebine / Associated Press)

The Texas Rangers, whom Perry played for twice, said in a statement Thursday that the pitcher was “a fierce competitor every time he took the ball and more often than not gave the Rangers an opportunity to win the game.”

“The Rangers express their sincere condolences to Gaylord’s family at this difficult time,” the team’s statement said. “This baseball great will be missed.”

Perry’s 1974 autobiography was titled “Me and the Spitter,” writing that when he began his career in 1962 he was the “11th man on an 11-man pitching staff” for the Giants. He needed an edge and learned the spitball from San Francisco teammate Bob Shaw.

Perry said he first threw the spitball in May 1964 against the New York Mets, pitching 10 innings without giving up a run. The performance was impressive enough that Perry was added to the Giants’ starting rotation.

In his autobiography, Perry said that he chewed slippery elm bark to build up his saliva, which he’d then rub on the ball. He said he continued to rely on the spitball until 1968, when Major League Baseball ruled pitchers could no longer touch their fingers to their mouths before touching the baseball.

According to his book, he looked for other substances, like petroleum jelly, to doctor the baseball. He used various motions and routines to touch different parts of his jersey and body to get hitters thinking he was applying a foreign substance, even if he wasn’t.

Perry was ejected from a game just once for doctoring a baseball — when he was with Seattle, in August 1982. In his final season with Kansas City, Perry and teammate Leon Roberts tried to hide George Brett’s infamous pine-tar bat in the clubhouse but were stopped by a guard. Perry was ejected for his role in that game, too.

After his career, Perry founded the baseball program at Limestone College in Gaffney and was its coach for the first three years.

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