Forkballer of the year

Gaylord Perry has 10 consecutive wins and, he insists, a dry sinker
Gaylord Perry has 10 consecutive wins and, he insists, a dry sinker
June 16, 1974

Felipe Alou once said of Cleveland Pitcher Gaylord Perry, "There's no place in the game for what Perry does to a baseball. Baseball is a clean game." Perry, at present the hottest pitcher in either league with a 10-1 record, those victories all in a row, does not like to hear such comments. He exhales in disgust and falls silent. Nor does the 35-year-old native of Williamston, N.C. like to talk about the things he does or does not do to a baseball before he delivers it to the plate. This is somewhat bewildering since he recently coauthored a 220-page book, Me and the Spitter, in which he details the many foreign substances he used to apply to a baseball—but no longer, he claims—in order to make it do "funny things" as it approached the batter.

"Aw, what you tryin' to do?" says Perry. "Askin' me if I'm cheatin' at baseball. Is 'at what you askin'? I never said I cheated. I just said I was thowin' some-thin' everyone else was. When I was thowin' it, it was part of the game. A big percentage of pitchers was thowin' it. Now they decided they don't want it to be part of the game anymore, so I had to cut it out. It's no different than takin' a guy out at second base to break up a double play or corkin' a bat. Some batters bore a hole in the end of their bat and put in cork. That heps a ball go futha. That's part of the game, too. Any-thin' you can get away with is part of the game. In my book I never said I was doin' somethin' illegal, I just said I was doin' somethin' other people was."

Clearly, Perry is the kind of man who would not take pride in devious enterprises. The son of a tobacco farmer, he was raised to believe in the basic American values of hard work, perseverance and honesty, and he does not like to be reminded that in his book he admitted that he cheated in a game in which he takes "a great deal of pride." It was tantamount to saying that he took the easy way out, and for most of his life things have not been easy for Gaylord Perry.

"I've known Gaylord since he was eight years old," says a friend and former major league scout. "The boy always had to work hard at things. He didn't take to books. If he hadn't been such a natural athlete, he might never have gone beyond the ninth grade. He proved to me that you don't have to be brilliant to be a great pitcher. It works against you sometimes. Gaylord just has a natural talent for pitching a baseball, and he can throw the ball wherever the catcher tells him to."

Gaylord and Jim Perry are the two most successful pitching brothers in major league history. Each has won a Cy Young Award—Jim in 1970, Gaylord in 1972—and each is rapidly closing in on 200 victories. Jim has 198 in a little over 15 seasons and Gaylord has 187 in a little over 12. And both are now pitching for the Indians. In the locker room, where they pad about in long Johns and shower sandals, it is easy to spot them as brothers. They are 6'4" tall, move in that loose-limbed, country-boy way and have gray hair and long oval faces. But while Jim is lean, handsome and smiling, with long, modishly cut hair, Gay-lord is thicker looking in the neck, arms and middle. His cheeks are lumpy and unshaven, his expression as dour as that of a bear recently emerged from hibernation, and his hair is so sparse that it resembles a friar's tuft ringing his bald and shining pate. Gaylord is the younger by two years, but looks older. He is the more reticent and conservative one, a man who in this day of women's liberation refuses to let his wife smoke cigarettes. "Ladies don't smoke," he informed her.

Of his brilliant start this season Gay-lord says, "I don't even know why. You get a few breaks in the game...make a few good pitches...try to stay in shape...and maybe the other team hits the ball right at someone and you win. Playin' on grass here heps me, too. Over in the National League there was a lot of parks with Astro Turf. I try to get batters to hit ground balls, and on Astro Turf they might get through the infield, but grass slows 'em up so my fielders can get 'em. Most of the parks in the American League have grass. Control is important, too. If a batter is a low-ball hitter, I try to thow the ball up. If he's a high-ball hitter, I try to keep the ball down. I depend a lot on my catcher, too."

Although Perry says he no longer throws a spitball, he concedes that the fuss over his past throwing of it still benefits him.

"I try to use it to my advantage," he says. "Gets the hitter lookin' for some-thin", and I thow him somethin' else. That's why I useta go through all those motions on the mound, touchin' my neck and belt and cap and all. I even useta practice 'em in the bullpen or durin' bat-tin' practice so's they'd feel natural. But this year there's a new rule that says if an umpire thinks a pitch looks a little funny he can call it a ball. The second time he can thow the pitcher outta the game. So I don't go through those motions anymore. At first it felt unnatural, but now not doin' 'em feels natural."

While some batters are not persuaded that Perry has given up the spitter, he says they must be thinking about his excellent forkball, a legal pitch. A forkball is similar to a spitball in that neither pitch spins very much as it approaches the plate, and both sink sharply. The major distinction between them, besides the question of legality, is that a forkball cannot be thrown very hard, so its break is less sharp than a spitball's. A spitter can be thrown almost as hard as a fastball and its drop is so wicked as to make it virtually unhittable. But, contrary to popular opinion, it is not an easy pitch to master.

Nor is Perry's reputation an easy one to outlive. "I don't know anything about his forkball," says Billy Martin, manager of the Texas Rangers, "but he still throws a spitter. He doesn't go to it as much as he used to, though. He'll save it for a real good hitter and then he'll load up. It defeats a man. The hitter gets so down on himself that Gaylord can get him out with a fastball next time. He's got a good fastball, too, and a good slider and curve. And he's a tremendous competitor. A week ago he beat us 8-0, and he didn't even have good stuff."

PHOTO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)