In My Opinion

Sorensen: Gaylord Perry thrived on keeping ’em guessing

tsorensen@charlotteobserver.comJune 13, 2013 

Gaylord Perry will throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Charlotte Knights on Friday.

Are you going to put something on the ball?

“I might,” he says.

Perry had a brilliant Major League Baseball career that began when he was 23 and ended when he was 45. He won 314 games, threw 303 complete games, struck out 3,524 batters and in 1991 was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

But the numbers aren’t what people want to know about.

When you do an interview, how long until you’re asked about the spitter?

“About like you,” Perry, 74, says by telephone Thursday. “About five seconds. They want to get right to the good stuff.”

The son of farmers, Perry grew up in Williamston, on the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina. He has a little ranch in Spruce Pine and a fishing shack on the Outer Banks.

You can’t amass the numbers he did with a single pitch, not when you face Hank Aaron and Roberto Clemente, George Brett and Mike Schmidt. Perry was a craftsman and a competitor, and he made his living throwing the ball where hitters didn’t want it.

But to write about Perry without talking about the spitball is to write about former NASCAR star Junior Johnson without saying he ran moonshine.

Perry learned the spitter from a San Francisco teammate, Bob Shaw. Add spit or a lubricant to a ball and the trajectory changes. The ball doesn’t go where hitters expect or physics imply.

What percentage of your pitches were spitters?

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Perry says.

It’s not important.

Perry was always coy about the outlaw pitch, which baseball banned in 1920. Umpires would ask him to roll up his pants leg to see if he had Vaseline on his calf. An opposing manager once ran to the mound, grabbed Perry’s cap, flung it to the ground and kicked it.

Not until 1982, in Perry’s next-to-last season, did he get caught. He was suspended 10 games and fined $250.

Catching the ceremonial pitch Friday will be Charlotte reliever Brian Omogrosso.

Omogrosso is thrilled to share the field with Perry. I ask what he knows about him, and he says Perry is in the Hall of Fame and is the first pitcher to win the Cy Young Award in both leagues.

“And, of course, the spitter,” Omogrosso says.

Could you get away with it now, with Vaseline hidden on your body or uniform?

“Too many cameras,” Omogrosso says, although he hears that some still try.

Perry will sign autographs before he throws to Omogrosso and during the game. Gates will open at 6 p.m. and baseball will begin at 7.

Here’s what I like about Perry: Even on Thursday he won’t acknowledge he threw a spitter.

I remind him that his biography is entitled, “Me and the Spitter: An Autobiographical Confession.”

“The publisher picked out the title,” Perry says.

On the mound Perry looked like a third-base coach sending signals to a batter. His right hand quickly touches cap, chest and pants.

“I learned that from Don Drysdale,” he says of the former Los Angeles Dodgers great.

Perry’s teammates were convinced Drysdale was treating the ball. But they didn’t know where he hid whatever he was treating the ball with. If there were potential hiding places on his body, Drysdale touched ’em all.

“A hitter would come back to the dugout and say it’s on his cap,” says Perry. “Another would say it’s on his belt. Another would say it’s on his pants.”

Perry learned well. The pitch became such an important part of his legend that he wanted sportswriters to ask about it. He wanted hitters to read about it. He wanted hitters to think about it.

A friendly man, Perry would go to the batting practice of the team he would face the next day and shake hands with opponents. His hand was smeared with Vaseline.

Perry, who made his Major League Baseball debut in 1962, comes from a simpler time. Players altered baseballs, not bodies.

If you catch your son or daughter doing steroids, you’re going to flip.

If you catch them throwing a spitball, you’re going to ask them to wash their hands before dinner.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com

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