I was saddened to read earlier this month of the death of Gaylord Perry. A pitcher who won more than 300 games and who was later enshrined in the Hall of Fame, Perry was an intriguing character who was the one bright spot for beleaguered Cleveland Indians fans of the early ’70s.
Perry came to Cleveland in 1972 as part of a trade that sent “Sudden” Sam McDowell, a fireballing pitcher with an equally volcanic temperament, to the San Francisco Giants. McDowell was my favorite player, so I wasn’t happy with the trade–but Gaylord Perry quickly captured the hearts of Cleveland fans, including me. He somehow won 24 games for the Tribe in 1972, when the team was awful and won only 72 games, finishing well below .500. Perry’s ERA that year, in 342.2 innings pitched, was 1.92, and he threw an astonishing 29 complete games. If you do the math, Gaylord Perry accounted for exactly one-third of the Indians’ victories that year. His record and success for a crummy team was so remarkable that he won his first Cy Young Award. (He won a second time, in 1978, for the Padres.)
Perry was a workhorse for the Indians during some of the darkest, most hopeless years in the franchise’s history. He not only was a consistent 20-game winner–winning 24 games in 1972, 19 games in 1973, and 21 games in 1974–but he always put on a good show, too. The big question with Perry was whether he threw a spitball, and the does-he-or-doesn’t-he element was part of his appeal. His fidgety pitching routine featured pulling on the brim of his ballcap, tugging his uniform, and touching other areas where the illicit substances might be stashed, and it wasn’t unusual for opposing managers to ask the home plate umpire to go out to the mound and conduct a search, as in the photo above. Perry never admitted throwing a spitter, to my knowledge, but he certainly encouraged the speculation, knowing that getting into the batters’ heads was a strong step toward success.
When Gaylord Perry was on the mound, he put on a show. For Cleveland baseball fans of that era, that was about all we could hope for. Rest in peace, Mr. Perry!