Me and the Spitter

January 28, 2012

Gaylord Perry, he of the infamous spitball, is already a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but on August 11, 2012, he’ll be inducted into the Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame. Trainer Jim Warfield and player/broadcaster Jack Graney will be inducted into the Distinguished Hall of Fame for Non-Uniformed Personnel (a title that just doesn’t have the same ring to it). While a team Hall of Fame isn’t quite as big a deal as being inducted into Cooperstown, it’s a well-deserved honor for the guy who accounted for 39% of all Cleveland wins during his three and a half seasons with the team. (Seriously, 39%. That’s how much the Indians stank in the early 1970s.)

The Indians acquired Gaylord Perry (and shortstop Frank Duffy) in November 1971 from the Giants for Sam McDowell, who had been the Tribe ace. This was one of the few times the Indians actually got the better deal in a major trade: McDowell went on to win only 24 more games in his entire career, while Perry won 180 more games–70 of them for Cleveland. Perry won his first Cy Young Award as an Indian, going 24-16 with a 1.92 ERA and one save during the 1972 season. (We didn’t have another Cy Young winner until 2007.)  The team was horrible, but Perry was awesome.

He was also very coy about the spitball. I remember watching the Indians during Perry’s time on the team. My older brother, who gave me my introduction to baseball, told me that Gaylord Perry threw a spitball. I was little at the time–6 or 7–and the idea of a spitball sounded kind of gross; it made me think of the gobbed up pieces of paper my older brothers threw around the house. I didn’t have the cool of Perry’s daughter, Allison, who as a five-year-old in 1971 was asked if her father threw a greasball and politely replied, “It’s a hard slider.”

I remember watching this twitchy-looking guy who kept touching various parts of his cap and uniform, seeing the pitched ball move in mysterious ways, and wondering if the ball was all wet. I imagined something like this.  He looked like he was drying his fingers on his cap, but maybe he was putting something on his fingers instead. I didn’t know. Check out the finger-lickin’ goodness in his Hall of Fame video and this clip from Rare Sports Films (no audio, so you get to practice your lip reading skills).

I knew the Indians had been in last place (or close to it) since before I was born, so it was amazing to me that we had this great pitcher. Whenever Perry pitched, he was the story. Or rather, whether or not he was throwing an illegal pitch was the story.The spitball was made illegal in 1920, but guys who had been throwing it were allowed to continue throwing it until they retired. Burleigh Grimes, the last legal spitballer, reportedly said that there were more spitters being thrown in the 1960s than when it was legal. Perry reportedly learned the spitter in 1964 from Bob Shaw of the Giants. After the 1967 season, MLB made it illegal for a pitcher to “Bring his pitching hand in contact with his mouth or lips while in the 18 foot circle surrounding the pitching rubber” (although it is legal for the pitcher to blow on his hands in cold weather). Perry always said he wasn’t doctoring the ball. Then he published his autobiography in 1974 (while still an Indian). It was called Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession. Well. Imagine that. But in the book, he said that he used to throw the spitball but was now a reformed good citizen.

Sadly, he was only in Cleveland for a few seasons. He and player/manager Frank Robinson didn’t get along, and Perry was traded to Texas in June 1975. It’s kind of amusing that he was only ejected from a game for doctoring the ball once, on August 23, 1982, while playing for the Mariners. It was his 21st year in the majors and, presumably, his 18th season throwing a, um, hard slider. Yeah, let’s call it that.

See you on August 11th, Mr. Perry. (Please say you’ll be there.)






1 Comment

  • Roger King says:

    Gaylord was amazing in so many ways. Those Indian teams were horrid, except on the days he pitched, he made them better when he started. I still have my copy of “Me and the Spitter”. I remember the commercial with him Fosse and an Umpire on the mound, I think it was for a department store called “Gaylords”. I was sad to see of his wife’s passing, it sounded like they had a great marriage. I also being allowed to stay up late to watch as Gaylord went for his either 15 or 16 win in a row Vs. Oakland, school the next day but I begged.

    Yep Aug. 11, I’ll be there too.

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