Gaylord Perry is bald on top and gray on the sides, and like many men over 40, he worries about his weight, which is considerable. "He weighs a thousand pounds, says his outspoken wife, Blanche, exaggerating slightly. "I could lose 10 pounds," says Perry, meaning he'd like to lose 20 and get down to around 210. And yet he remains an imposing figure, tall (6'4") and for all his breadth, still somehow rangy, long of arm and leg, broad of shoulder. He is a North Carolina farmer, a Southern man, a hard man, shrewd and suspicious. Anyone with a name like Gaylord is either country or drawing room, and Perry is indisputably country. In eastern North Carolina, where he was born and reared, and where he still lives, the name is pronounced gay-lerd, not gay-lahd, so that any trace of cultivation has been hayseeded out of it. He is a man who looks better in overalls than in designer jeans.
Perry, who will be 43 on Sept. 15, is also a pitcher, so skilled and durable that in this truncated season he is approaching his 300th career win, the most elusive milestone in baseball, one reached by only 14 men. Perry's steady rise through the ranks of lifetime winners has been obscured somewhat by controversy over his now-admitted use of illegal spitballs and greaseballs. It may, in fact, come as a shock to his accusers that as of last Sunday he needed only five more wins to join the sainted company of such immortals as Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, 300-plus winners all.
For many years, 300 wins for a pitcher and 3,000 hits for a batter were considered comparable achievements. Fifteen players have gotten 3,000 hits, but seven have joined the club in the last 10 years. The last pitcher to win 300 games was Early Wynn, who got his 300th in 1963. Warren Spahn won his 300th in 1961. The last pitcher to win that many before Spahn was Lefty Grove, who won his 300th 20 years earlier. Both Grove, who pitched for 17 years, and Wynn, who lasted 23, retired with exactly 300 wins. Of the 14 300-winners, 11 got theirs before 1930, nine before 1920 and eight before the U.S. entered World War I. All 14 are in the Hall of Fame.
Consider some other numbers. Until Ted Williams hit his 400th homer in 1956, only four men had hit that many—Babe Ruth (714), Jimmy Foxx (534), Mel Ott (511) and Lou Gehrig (493). In the last 25 years, 14 players besides Williams have surpassed that total and three of them, Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell, Boston's Carl Yastrzemski and New York's Reggie Jackson, are still playing and counting. In the same period, membership in the 500-homer club has increased from three to 12. Only six pitchers have struck out more than 3,000 batters, but four have reached that figure in the last three years, Perry among them. In fact, Perry might even pass Walter Johnson's alltime strikeout total of 3,508, for he is only 199 Ks away. But strikeouts, like wins, come harder when you are older.
There are three other active pitchers—Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer—who have a chance at winning 300, but all are more than 40 wins away and all are over 35. Seaver and Palmer have become increasingly injury-prone, and Carlton, who will be 37 in December, will have to win at least 10 games in each of the next four seasons to make it, a task certainly within his capabilities, but one not easily accomplished in a craft so fraught with peril as pitching. A sore arm here, a protracted player strike there, and poof goes the career. To cite an example, Juan Marichal won 221 games by the time he was 34, but won only 22 his last four years, retiring at roughly the same age Carlton is now. As near as he is to the magic figure, Perry could be the only 300-game-winner of his generation. Or, having had nine starts this season taken away from him, he could become a historic near-misser. Either way, statistical buffs will be more concerned than the protagonist of this little drama.
Perry dearly wants his 300 wins, but neither his life nor his livelihood depends on it. He has joked that there is no dishonor in being the game's only 299-game winner, and he says with a straight face that he would have retired after last season with 289 wins had he not been drafted as a free agent by a team as close to his farm as Atlanta. In 1979, the year after he won his second Cy Young Award, he quit the San Diego Padres in early September because they wouldn't trade him to a team closer to his home. "I just got mad and went back to the farm," he says. "I won the Cy Young for them and they wouldn't give me a nickel or trade me to a team in the East. Besides, they didn't give me the impression they wanted to win." And that, for someone as fiercely competitive as Perry, is the darkest crime of all. He had 12 wins when he walked off, and he missed, conservatively, six more starts. The Padres did finally trade him to Texas, which in turn traded him to the Yankees last summer. The Braves then picked him in the free-agent reentry draft and signed him to a one-year contract for $300,000. To Perry's way of thinking, they kept him in baseball—for in Atlanta he is only a one-hour flight plus a 2½-hour drive from home sweet home. With a team that close. Perry doesn't see his career ending prematurely. If he is to be denied 300 this year, there is always the next—if the Braves still want him.
"Sure, I'd like to get the 300th this season," he says. "I started thinking about it after I'd won 21 for San Diego when I was 40. I enjoy the game and I'd like to play as long as I can do well for a club. It's a pretty good half-year job. You meet some great people and you can always stay away from the wrong ones. Moving around is the hardest part."
Every year the farm takes up more of his life. In a year or two it will most likely be his life. Numbers don't mean all that much to a country boy, anyway, unless they're on the bottom line after harvest. Perry has his land, and he works it hard. He was born the son of a sharecropper in Farm Life, N.C., and he still lives nearby, in Williamston, on a farm, only now in a fine five-bedroom house with Blanche and their four children. Amy, 18, Beth, 17, Allison, 15, and Gay-lord Jackson (Jack) Perry Jr., 14. He is not one to stray from his roots.
It is a hot and steamy day in late June, between seasons, so to speak, and Perry is driving a pickup truck over the dusty roads that twist through his 300 acres, just outside town. A tractor, operated by his farm manager, Sherwood Howell, is spreading Nova Scotia Landplaster, a white powdery soil-conditioner, over his peanut crop, and a bulldozer is clearing hardwood trees—oak and poplar—for an irrigation pond. "It takes a real touch to run one of those," Perry says in admiration of his ' "dozer man." Perry's accent is soft at the edges, with traces of its Elizabethan antecedents, but it is pure Southern with its "yonders" and "ya heahs."
He stops the truck on a roadside, not far from the house, where his son. Jack, is waiting for him. They take a ball and gloves from the back of the truck and start a lazy game of catch under the watchful eye of Bobo, a black Labrador, who is clamoring to get into it. The skies are blackening in the afternoon heat, and the air is heavy with the threat of rain. Jack, a rangy lefthander, has his father's easy motion, but he is eager to test his arm. He throws Perry a curve. "You loosen up before you start throwin' that stuff, boy," Perry admonishes him. "You throw too many of those and you'll lose your fastball. You're not old enough to have a curve yet."
Even here, playing catch with a 14-year-old on a dusty roadside, hundreds of miles from the nearest big league ball park. Perry looks menacing with a baseball in his hand. His will to win is so overpowering that he has been known to publicly dress down his teammates for mistakes on the field. He is a man of remarkable strength and energy and little patience. "He has a low boiling point and a low boring point." says his wife. "Gay-lord rubbed some players the wrong way by glaring at them after errors," says his old catcher with the San Francisco Giants. Tom Haller. "It's just that he hated to lose so much."
Perry's throwing motion is relaxed and graceful, the kind that places minimal strain on the arm, the evidence of which is that in 20 years of big league pitching. he has yet to experience a sore arm or shoulder. The competitiveness shows in those fierce gray eyes. But there is no batter threatening him now, and he banters with his son as they toss the ball back and forth. "I could pitch tomorrow," he says, "but you need competition to stay in shape.... Good one. Jack. Good slider.... I threw a fastball and a curve in high school. Still throw those pitches, plus [conspiratorial look] some other things.... Watch out, Jack. Bad pitch. My fault. I'm gettin' a little wild.... I didn't let Jack play on a team this year. Instead, he made some road trips with me. He got a lot more work that way. We'd go to the park early and throw batting practice to each other. He was with me in Montreal just before the strike. We came back here together.... Good fork-ball, Jack...."
That's it for baseball on this busy day—15 minutes of catch. Perry has errands to perform in town. First, he stops off to visit with his good friend Gordon Hopkins, who has a tire business down Highway 125 from the farm. Hopkins is nowhere around. His son, Hubert Gordon Jr., who has hair the color of Campari, says his daddy is in town seeing the doctor. Perry looks concerned. He wheels the truck back onto the road. The Williamston city-limits sign on Highway 125 reads WILLIAMSTON, HOME OF GAYLORD PERRY, JIM PERRY AND BILLY WYNNE. Billy Wynne? He pitched briefly for the Mets, the White Sox and the Angels in the late '60s and early 70s, finishing with a career won-lost record of 8-11. He is in pretty fast company on that road sign. The Perry brothers have won a total of 510 games between them, the most by any brothers in modern baseball history, surpassing the Mathewson brothers' total of 373, all by Christy (Henry had a career record of 0-1). "Jim's doing some scouting and some minor league coaching for the A's now," says Perry, driving swiftly down the two-lane highway. "Lives in Minnesota. His son, Chris, is on a golf scholarship at Ohio State. We see Jim maybe once a year."
Jim is two years older than Gaylord and was the star pitcher on the state champion Williamston High baseball team the one season the two brothers played together there. Gaylord played third base more than he pitched. Jim was the first to sign a professional contract (with the Indians) and the first to reach the big leagues (1959). The Perrys pitched against each other only twice: once in a regular-season game and once in the 1970 All-Star Game, the first brothers to oppose each other in All-Star history. In 1970 Jim won 24 games for the Twins and Gaylord 23 for the Giants, the first brothers to win 20 games apiece in the same season. Jim won the Cy Young Award that year in the American League; Gaylord won it in 1972 with Cleveland and in 1978 with San Diego. Gaylord is the only pitcher to win the award in both leagues; the Perrys are the only brothers to win it. Jim and Gaylord played together for one full season (1974) with Cleveland, winning 38 games between them—21 for Gaylord, 17 for Jim. Both were traded early the next year, when neither could get along with the Indians' new manager, Frank Robinson. Jim retired with 215 wins after the '75 season.
The Perry brothers aren't particularly close, although Gaylord speaks with affection of their childhood on the farm. "It was good having Jim around," he says. "He was somebody to play with. We hunted and fished together, and played ball. It's better to do things with somebody. Jim left town after my freshman year in high school, so we weren't together much after that."
Williamston, population 6,015, has the look of a 1930s town. The streets are narrow and the buildings old. Men in overalls lounge in the service stations, sipping Coke and watching with steely eyes what little there is of the passing scene. The streets are mostly empty on this day, with the temperature and the humidity both in the 90s. Perry spots his friend Hopkins outside Dr. Martel Dailey's office on Smithwick Street. Dailey is the composer, with another of Perry's friends, Russ Batchelor, of The King of the Old Rawhide (The Ballad of Gaylord Perry)—"He spits at adversity.... They told him he was finished/ but he knew he had the magic touch...." Three thousand records of this haunting tune were cut—vocal by one Henry Wong, "an Asian country singer"—and most of them are stored now in Dailey's office.
Hopkins greets Perry eagerly. "Nothing really wrong with me," he says in answer to Perry's worried query. "Just had an electrocardiogram to be safe. Been feeling poor all morning." Hopkins, 48, is of medium height, with black hair and a black mustache and tattoos on both arms. "Gaylord here is our man," he says to a stranger. "When I watch him pitch on cable TV, I come straight here to the doc first to get something to calm my nerves. Doc and I told Gaylord he couldn't retire, 'cause if he did, we wouldn't have anyplace to go."
Assured of Hopkins' continued good health, Perry drives off, waving as he goes at the few pedestrians and passing motorists. "This is a small town," he says needlessly. "You know everybody. You know you can count on everybody. You get to depend on people here." He drives by a small brick house on Weaver Drive. "That was our first home, built in 1961 by Blanche's father, A.J. Manning. Now there's a man who did four things in his life and did them all well—he ran a gas station in the Depression; then a general store; then he went into home-building; and now he's an inspector for the FHA. He built the house I'm in now. He could probably outwork me today. So could my dad. I tell you, my dad is tough, the best athlete in the whole family."
He stops off at Mark Chesson & Sons to look over farm equipment. Mark Chesson himself is at the counter. He is 66, old enough to remember Gaylord's dad, Evan, as a ballplayer. "Oh, he was a fine pitcher," he says. "You had to walk five miles just to play ball in those days. There was a lot of 'em then who would've gone places, but they had to stay behind and work." Perry is joking with Earl Collier, a black man laboring under a hydraulic engine. "The sheriffs always lookin' for this fella," Perry says with mock seriousness. Collier smiles knowingly. "I always say I'm gonna call the sheriff if he don't fix my machines in an hour 'cause he gets paid by the hour."
Perry, the archetypal rural Southerner, seems to get along well with blacks. If anything, he had more difficulty dealing with the new long-haired breed of white ballplayers and journalists in the '60s and '70s, once ordering—but not succeeding in removing—a long-haired reporter from the Giants' team bus. His one clash with a black man in baseball was with Robinson at Cleveland in 1975, Robinson's first year as a manager, and their controversy had its genesis not in race but money. Perry, negotiating a new contract, chided the Indians at the end of the 1974 season for paying a part-time player, which is what Robinson had mostly been that year, far more than Perry received. Asked what he expected for the next season. Perry quipped, "I should make as much as Robinson and a dollar more." When he read the remark in the newspapers, Robinson was furious, and the two nearly came to blows in the Indians' clubhouse. When Robinson was named manager the following season, he and Perry, both proud and stubborn men, argued over everything from conditioning techniques to the selection of the team captains, Frank Duffy, a white, and George Hendrick, a black. Perry was angry with both Duffy and Hendrick for their non-appearance in the final game of the '74 season, because their absence on defense, he felt, may have cost him the ERA title. Finally, when Jim Perry complained about being removed from a game too soon, Gaylord remarked, "All the guys were asking me this morning, after reading the paper, if I put on Jim's shirt and pretended to be him. They know Jim doesn't talk that way and I do." Both Perrys were gone from Cleveland before the end of June that year. "Things just didn't work out there," Perry says now of that troublesome time.
Outside the Chesson garage, Elwood Chesson, a lean, cheerful man, watches as Perry examines a new tractor. "Gay-lord and I are the same age," he says. "We were both raised here. A lot of people grow up, make good and move to the cities, but Gaylord's stayed loyal. I guess he's a hot-weather man. People like him here. He's a good farmer."
At another farm equipment company. Lilley International, Perry haggles genially with the proprietor, Laurence Lilley, over buying a new tractor. "You know that at the moment I'm unemployed," Perry says, pleading poverty. "Now I do believe I heard something about that," says Lilley, closing the deal on Perry's terms.
Farther east, on Highway 64, Perry stops at the building site his father-in-law is inspecting. Perry, the tenant farmer's boy, is uncommonly proud of his wife's family, which represents a more aristocratic Southern tradition. There have been Mannings in Williamston for as long as anyone can remember, and they have always been pillars of the community, college people with breeding. Perry considers himself fortunate to have married into such high society. He and Blanche met in high school, where she was a star on the women's basketball team at the same time he starred for the men's. He can be abrupt with her, as he can with most people, but his love and respect are everywhere apparent. They have been married 21 years.
Parking the truck in a swirl of dust. Perry says, "Blanche has a teaching degree from Duke University. And she studied voice in New York—opera. She's her daddy's girl." Manning, a tall, white-haired man of 68, does indeed have a patrician air, even with a blue Braves cap perched on his head. He seems scarcely affected by the brutal heat. "This is a relocation project," he says, gesturing in the dust. "Federal housing. It'll be called the Willow Acres apartments, which is really something." He laughs. "This lot was filled with willow trees. They took every last one of them down and then had the nerve to call it Willow Acres."
Perry gives a sort of Cook's tour of the countryside on the drive back to the farm. "I get my welding done at that place there.... I baled wheat for the guy that owns this farm here.... These are peanut buying stations. They'll do five to 10 million dollars worth of peanuts a year. It's a fascinatin' business. Used to be strictly family, kind of like baseball in the '60s when I was breakin' in. You got paid for your peanuts then exactly what they wanted to give you. That's the way it was in baseball. My first salary with the Giants was $7,000. They told me to take it or leave it. People forget that about ball playing. Now at least there's some competing...in baseball and in peanuts. That fella there makes great cornbread.... I built that house there myself.... Guy I went to high school with had a hog-raising operation right here...."
Blanche is a strikingly beautiful woman, tall, slim, dark-haired. Like her husband she has an athlete's easy grace, and like her father she seems impervious to the heat. Her beauty is undiminished as, in jeans, she pulls weeds in the family garden. She is accompanied in this inglorious enterprise by Tito, a tiny black Chinese pug, who looks like a large frog and wheezes, gurgles and chuckles like a canine Sydney Green-street: "And now. sir...cough-cough, heh-heh...for the black bird." Tito was named after Tito Fuentes, the eccentric second baseman who was Perry's good friend and teammate on the Giants. Like many members of the Perry family, the little dog is accident-prone. As a boy, Perry nearly lost a leg in a collision with a pipe, and he almost blew himself to smithereens when he struck a dynamite cap with his ax. Tito got in the way of the family car one day and miraculously survived the accident, although daughter Amy had cause to think otherwise when her sister, Allison, called her at school with news that "Daddy just ran over Tito's head."
Tito chortles over each disinterred weed as Blanche moves swiftly through the watermelon patch. She pauses for a breather and watches her husband running the tractor in the distance. "We stay the same, he fluctuates," she says. "He gets bossy when he first gets home. He even tells us when to breathe. Can you imagine ordering an 18-year-old to bed at 10:30? And that's the third tractor he's bought in a month. Why, that man can't afford to farm." She laughs and rubs her hips. "You'd think I was the one born poor to hear me complain, wouldn't you? But it's good to have him around again. A little unusual for this time of year, though. Gaylord wasn't there when Amy was born in 1962, and he wasn't there for her high school graduation in 1980. That's how long his career has lasted. Gaylord's been very successful, but he's still vulnerable; not having things early in life has made him that way. He was very cocky in school, but the cockiness was just a veneer. He's been put down so much in his life. And there was always Jim's shadow when he was younger." She resumes her weed-pulling, Tito at the ready. "This time off is good for Gaylord. On the road, he just sits around hotel rooms and eats. We trim him down out here."
However many games he ultimately wins, Perry has won a place for himself in baseball history as the most infamous spit-ball practitioner of modern times. Perry is understandably coy about discussing any present use of the illegal pitch, but he openly confesses that he did throw it in his shady past. He even admitted it in print in a 1974 book, Me and the Spitter—An Autobiographical Confession, he wrote with Cleveland sportswriter Bob Sudyk. In the autobiography, he dates the real debut of his spitter to May 31,1964. It was the 15th inning of a 23-inning game—the second of a double-header at that—between the Giants and the Mets at Shea Stadium. There was one out, the Mets' Jim Hickman was on second base, Chris Cannizzaro was the hitter and the score was 6-6.
Perry had learned the pitch that year from Bob Shaw, another San Francisco pitcher, who was an acknowledged master of the black art. Haller, now the Giants' general manager, says both Shaw and Perry received advance tutoring from Frank Shellenback, who was then the Giants' minor league pitching instructor. Haller himself called for the historic spitter after summoning his pitcher to a conference on the mound. Perry had entered the seemingly interminable game two innings earlier and, according to Haller, hadn't shown good stuff. He was in his first full major league season and was fighting at that point to stay on the roster. "We're in a whole lot of trouble," Haller recalls himself saying to the young pitcher. "You better start throwing that new pitch you learned." The sign, as improvised by pitcher and catcher, would be one finger, the same as for a fastball, except that Haller would wiggle it. It wouldn't be the last finger waved at Perry in a stormy career that really began that day. In the ensuing years, angry umpires would all but undress him while searching for evidence of wrongdoing.
Perry describes in his book what was going through his mind on the day he turned, in a manner of speaking, to a life of crime: "I was 25 years old, and I had spent most of my first six seasons in the minors. I had 55 victories and 46 losses in the bushes. The season before I'd gotten into 31 games with the Giants. I'd won one and lost six, my worst season playing any kind of baseball. And there I was on the mound at Shea, on the last day of May, with two wins and one defeat. I had made only seven appearances, all in relief. I hadn't started a game in a year. And I had an earned run average of 4.77, nothing to brag about. I thought of my wife, Blanche, our very young children, and Mama and Daddy back home on the farm, all counting on me. And me taking home only $9,500 a year.... I figured if I could master that superpitch, I'd be buying time to develop some other pitches.... The old dewdrop takes total dedication, like any new pitch you learn, only more so."
Anticlimactically, the first spitter to Cannizzaro was in the dirt for a ball, but Perry stayed with it, pitching 10 scoreless innings as the Giants finally won 8-6. From then on, Perry was in the Giants' starting rotation, finishing the year with 12 wins and 11 losses and an ERA of 2.75. He won 21 games for San Francisco in 1966 and 23 in 1970. In 1971 he was traded to the Indians for Pitcher Sam McDowell, a trade that for the Giants has lived in infamy. Perry won 24 games and the Cy Young Award for Cleveland in 1972; McDowell, who has since acknowledged that he had a drinking problem at the time, won 10 games for San Francisco and was sold to the Yankees in 1973. Perry, who still tends to think of himself as a Giant, recalls the trade ruefully. "Charlie Fox [then managing San Francisco] always wanted McDowell. He'd scouted him in high school and thought he could straighten him out. Well, he didn't quite do that, did he now?"
Bouncing back and forth between the two leagues, Perry has been the scourge of accusing batsmen and investigating umpires, constantly eluding prosecution and winning, to date, 173 games in the National League and 122 in the American. He has a fastball, curve, slider, change and forkball, but the spitter, he says without embarrassment, both saved and prolonged his career. His preparations for releasing the ball are so elaborate, no matter what he's throwing—cap-adjusting, shirt-tugging, pants-hitching, rosin-bag-juggling—that batters are convinced he's loading up even when he isn't. He has graduated, he confesses, from simple saliva to Slippery Elm tablets to vaginal jelly to Vaseline. "Lubricants were hard to detect," he wrote in the book. "Like you'd have some on your forehead. As you'd sweat, it'd all blend together. And no matter where you had it hid, you got a lot of time to clean off before any umpire could get out there to inspect you.... Heck, in a few seconds, I could make myself legal."
For all of the speculation on where he hides his evil potions, Perry was—is?—surprisingly aboveboard. He carried the Vaseline, his favored substance, in his uniform jacket pocket. "But, just to be safe," he wrote, "I always told the bat-boy to be on the alert in case I dropped my tube. Once I slid into home plate and hit the catcher. He went one way, I went the other, and the batboy dove in-between, hunting for the tube. He found it—and I rewarded him with a steak dinner."
Haller estimates that in his years with the Giants, Perry threw the spitter or grease ball "about 80% of the time. I never thought he needed to throw it that often. He was a real student of pitching. He could set the hitters up so well, and he had good velocity and a good breaking ball. He didn't need to rely on one pitch."
The pitch, which looks to the hitter like a fastball until it drops at his feet, was effective enough, but like the Bomb, the threat of it became a weapon in itself, his "phantom pitch." Does he throw it now? "Pitchers do," he answers in a master stroke of non-commitment. Does he teach it to aspiring miscreants? "I would try to help someone who was at the bottom, someone who needs to save his career. The spitter saved mine."
Perry's reputation shouldn't rest solely on his mastery of an illegal pitch, because no one could have lasted as long and pitched as well as he has with just one pitch. "There is much more to him than that," says Haller. "He's one of the greatest competitors I've ever seen. I don't know of anyone who hates to lose more than he does." In any event, if Perry should win 300, he will be the first spitballer to do it. Burleigh Grimes, who threw the pitch legally even after it was banned (it was decided his career shouldn't be jeopardized because of a rule imposed after he had started pitching), won only 270 games, and he is in the Hall of Fame.
Perry is driving down a country road. There is dense timberland on either side, interspersed between corn and tobacco fields. "I walked 16 miles to high school," he says. "This may not look like much of a road, but it's better than a lot of city streets I've been on. I don't care much for living in the city, but it comes with the job. You have to accept it." The farmhouses are mostly old, some stoutly maintained, others ramshackle. Perry was raised in the house in which his father-in-law was born, and he didn't see indoor plumbing until he got to high school. "That's the church where I went to Sunday school. I looked forward to Sunday school because the church was our social life. You got to see people.... I used to hunt rabbits and squirrels in these woods. My father farmed the tobacco fields. When the sun came up, we worked. I guess because of that I've never been able to sleep late, like most ballplayers. I still get up with the sun." "
He pulls onto a dirt driveway that leads to a white house with screen doors. A giant pecan tree shelters both the house and an outdoor picnic table from the punishing sun. Perry investigates a tool shed outside. Some of the implements look as if they've been in use since the turn of the century. "On a farm, you don't throw anything away," he explains. "There's a use for everything." His father, who is a few hundred feet away, working with a hose, gestures for his son to join him. Evan Perry is shorter by seven inches than either of his sons, but he has the angular look of a Grant Wood farmer. His forearms, like Gaylord's, are thick and corded, and his long narrow face is mostly taken up with a large sunburned nose. He is wearing overalls and a green cap, and at 62 he still seems quick and agile. Evan taught his sons how to play baseball, but in his poverty he couldn't have dreamed they would become so successful playing a game he never made much more out of than, well, peanuts. Evan had to choke back the tears the day Gay-lord signed with the Giants for a $73,500 bonus, for he himself had been a baseball legend in Martin County, a pitcher who could win both games of a double-header in the broiling heat. But Evan couldn't afford to leave his family and farm-work behind for anything so risky as a career in professional sports. Evan was only 17 when Jim was born, and 19 when Gaylord arrived.
The screen door swings open to a large kitchen, cooled, thankfully, by an air conditioner. There are preserves everywhere. Perry's mother, Ruby, is watching the Mike Douglas Show on television in the living room. She rises from a capacious couch to greet her son. "Mama doesn't meet new folks in the normal way," Perry says. "She greets their stomachs." He recalls that when she first met Blanche, his mother offered her a huge wedge of apple pie and then apologized that there was no ice cream to go with it. Ruby Perry is a husky, florid-faced woman with a friendly smile. "How'd you like that rain last night, Gaylord? Lightning near scared me to death." Blanche has said, "Gaylord is a blend of his mother and father. He has his daddy's grace and skill and his mama's aggressiveness. That woman is never satisfied. When she's threatened, she rises to the occasion."
"Let me get my bat," Evan says. "You'll never see one like this." He disappears into a closet and reemerges carrying a long black baseball bat. "Try this one," he encourages a visitor, who, in attempting to take a stance with it, realizes something is terribly wrong. "It's solid steel," says Evan, handling it easily. "Weighs 30 pounds." Gaylord is already on his way to the door. He knows this joke. "Gaylord didn't grow up with a lot of communication," Blanche will say.
Blanche, Amy and Allison are in the kitchen preparing lunch. Allison is a tall, robust blonde who, like Tito and her father, is a bad insurance risk. "We stopped counting after 300 stitches," says Blanche of Allison's injuries from falls off horses, bikes and walls. "Daddy fell right down those stairs and messed his hand up on the television set," says Allison, by way of establishing that she's not the only klutz in the family. "Another time he was fooling with us, and Cotton [a white Maltese, who, at 11, is the oldest of the five Perry dogs] got protective. Bit him right on the arm. It got infected."
Amy has her mother's stunning good looks, though her hair is sandy, not dark. A horse fancier, she owns a thoroughbred filly named Bay Bee I'm Back. For Father's Day, Amy gave Perry two white geese named Ham and Cheese, while Allison gave him a case of Wente Bros. Grey Riesling. Perry had expressed no previous affection for geese, although he enthusiastically welcomed Ham and Cheese into the family menagerie, but he does enjoy an occasional glass of white wine, his only alcoholic indulgence. Perry bursts in and out of the house in the course of his chores, alternately badgering his women and being affectionate. His daughters follow him outside after one foray.
"Gaylord's unpredictable, to say the least," says Blanche, sipping a glass of iced tea. "He's hard to live with and hard to live without. There's no one more chauvinistic than a rural Southern guy, but Gaylord has broadened over the years, liberalized his attitude toward women. Oh, there have been a few times I've felt like driving him right off a mountain, but then I figured it would hurt too much.
"Gaylord does things impulsively but with confidence. I remember a photographer once asked me kiddingly if Gay-lord could please make it stop raining. I said, 'No, he can't, but don't tell him.' He has to be the center of attention. It's important for him to be that way. If he went out there on the mound thinking of himself as a fat 42-year-old, he couldn't do what he's done. Gaylord is so strong physically because he didn't have all this equipment we've got today. He had to do it all himself when he was a boy. He had to tear the corncobs in half with his bare hands. One blow from his sledgehammer and a fence post goes halfway down. It would take anybody else three swings to get the same result. Gaylord's muscles don't get soft here."
She pops some collards in a pot and laughs softly. "I tell you, it's like living with a tornado. And he just has to win. I beat him once at gin rummy and he threw the cards at me, he was so mad. You see some beautiful specimens in baseball today, but they don't know how to win. They were raised on their mamas' knees. Gaylord concentrates so much that he gets moody on days when he's going to pitch. Even now, when he's not playing, he gets edgy every fourth or fifth day. We just say, 'Oh, oh, it's his turn to pitch.' The thing is, we love him whether he wins or loses. It's constant. We don't treat him like a hero the way the others do. He's coming to realize that. People can flatter him, tell him how wonderful he is, but that doesn't necessarily transfer to other things. Being able to sift out insincerity is important. Sometimes you have to be nice to so many people, there's not much left for your loved ones."
Perry is playing pepper with Jack and Jack's friend, Richard Wilson, whom everyone just calls Wilson. He is uncompromising with the teen-agers, grounding hard shots back at them, ragging them for missing balls, for sloppy throws. "Throw me that forkball, boy, and I'll rope you," he shouts to his son. "Wilson, you oughta be able to hit about .400 the way you field."
He is a hard man. Only the sandy soil where he lives is soft. The weather, the people, the work are hard. Perry has taken this hardness into baseball. Pitching, for him, is another form of work, nothing more. You do what you can to get the other guy out, even if it means breaking a rule. If you get caught, you go on to something else. When he finally quits playing, and even he knows that will be soon, he would like to stay active in the game somehow. Significantly, he sees himself as a front-office man, a planter of seeds. "I think I know what it takes to build a team," he says. "You've got to have players who can still play well with minor injuries. I've been out there after line drives have bounced off my shins. I've been out there with groin pulls, with things that would keep other pitchers out of the rotation. You just tape those things up and go get 'em. It's part of your work. You need guys who will sacrifice. Three hundred wins? The only goals I set for myself are to be ready to pitch when the manager calls on me and to keep my team in the game. It's hard work. I grew up like that. You've gotta fight and work for it."
The rain comes almost without warning. Allison is riding her horse, Champagne Sally, and her father is on the tractor. The girl's blonde hair trails her like the tail of a comet as she rides hard back to the barn. Perry jumps down and trots up to the house. Stomping his feet, he calls inside to Blanche, "It's Ripple time." Laughing, she arrives at the door with a half-gallon bottle, not of Ripple, thank heavens, but of Almaden Chablis. Together, they retreat to a shed alongside the house, which Blanche uses as an office and a TV room. Rain on the farm is cause for celebration. "It's like two runs in the ninth when you're down by one," Perry says, passing paper cups. "It's been too dry around here."
The shed is a shelter from what looks and sounds like a war outside—startling flashes of light, thunderous explosions. Inside, the atmosphere is festive. It's the end of a long workday, and the rain has come at the right time. Perry switches on the television set for the newscast. On the screen, ballplayers are depicted at work and at play, being interviewed about the strike.
"My daddy was such a fan," Blanche says, "he wouldn't let me date Gaylord before a game. 'Don't ruin that boy's career,' he'd say." Perry shushes her, for he himself appears now on the screen. He is shown walking through his cornfields, the farmer at work. "I think this will last 'bout three weeks," his screen image says unprophetically. Perry watches himself and sips the wine. The rain beats on the roof like sticks on a kettle drum, and thunder shakes the little building. Perry switches channels away from all the baseball talk. The rain stops.
That night, he and Blanche will ride their horses through the fields and woods in the moonlight, sometimes side by side, sometimes he in the lead, sometimes she.
The ferocious competitor, the glowering game-day ogre, looks relaxed, even cheerful, as, stubble-faced (he shaves after games) he reclines before his locker in the visitors' clubhouse at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, working a miniature barbell with his pitching arm, enthusiastically greeting intruders. "I tell ya, pardner, it's good to be back to baseball," he says, puffing slightly from his minor exertions. "That farm work was killin' me." Son Jack is at his side, having grown, it seems, another two inches between mid-June and the end of the strike. Perry reaches out to touch the boy's shoulder. "Been taking Jack on road trips with me since he was in diapers. Blanche is back home with the girls, but she'll be with me when we come back out here in September."
Perry hasn't pitched in San Diego since he walked away from the team nearly two years ago. He hasn't pitched in a regular-season game since June 7. The old man's spirits are pumped sky high for the Second Coming. He is getting a chance to pitch again and, for good measure, he has succeeded in stirring up some beloved controversy. Before the game, the second of the renewed season, the umpires warn his manager, Bobby Cox, against any excessive use of the rosin bag. Perry is not to throw the "puff-ball," a perfectly legitimate pitch in every respect, except that it originates in a powdery hand and comes to the batter out of a disconcerting cloud of rosin dust. Perry is obviously enjoying this latest little imbroglio.
Perry's control is impeccable as he easily subdues the Padres, "keeping them line drives," as he puts it, "in the big part of the ball park." The Padres do hit some shots off him in the early innings, but Perry is unruffled. In uncharacteristic deference to the umpires' dictum, he even eschews the rosin bag altogether—"for the first time in my career." Instead, he pops the ball in his glove, looks back over his shoulder to make certain there are seven men behind him, rubs his forehead, fingers his nose, tugs his cap, stares balefully at the hitter, scratches his armpit with his gloved hand, extends both hands over his head as if in supplication and, finally—praise be to Heaven—releases the ball.
He throws mostly forkballs this night, walks no one, strikes out no one, throws only 51 pitches and allows five hits and one run (in the fifth) in his five-inning stint. His lead is protected by relievers Al Hrabosky and Rick Camp, and the Braves win it for him, 5-1. He is five wins now from 300.
Afterward he is asked the inevitable. "I don't want to stop at 300," he tells the assembled media people. He looks at them as if they are daft. "You know," he says, a canny Southern country boy smile creasing the stubbled cheeks, "I don't ever go out there figuring to lose. I'm not made that way."