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A lion on Letterman: the audacious career of Gaylord Perry

Some thoughts on Hall of Famer, Giants legend and infamous spitballer Gaylord Perry’s career after his passing

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Gaylord Perry in Pitching Position

In 1983, months after his retirement from Major League Baseball as a starting pitcher, future Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry was a guest on the talk show “Late Night with David Letterman.”

Perry was 44 years old at the time, but when he walked onto the studio stage in a three-piece pinstripe suit, his head sans baseball cap showing off a bald crown and a horseshoe of gray hair, the starting pitcher, with no introduction, could easily be mistaken for a senior bank manager.

In the video, the ex-ballplayer saddles his 6 foot 4 frame in the small chair next to Letterman’s desk and in his laconic, North Carolina drawl tells Dave that retirement is treating him fine, and he spends most of his time in his air-conditioned tractor or truck driving around his 400 acre farm. He then embarks on a rambling anecdote about visiting a friend in Kansas City to inquire about some buffalo to take back to his farm to graze and butcher—a leaner meat than beef—before the story culminates, rather surprisingly, in Perry’s daughter, Allison, carrying two lion cubs onto the stage.

The subject of the legality—or just strangeness—of Perry owning two lions is never broached as he grabs one from his daughter’s arms, feeds him from a bottle, before plopping him on Letterman’s desk. The whole scene teeters on the edge of chaos as Perry then sets the other lion down in front of the talk show host. The cubs emit uneven, weed-whacker purrs as they squirrel around. One sprawls out in front of Letterman and the other attempts to slink off camera towards stage right. Allison is clearly stressed by the tall task of corralling two wild animals while on national television; Letterman continues the interview with an air of desperate professionalism while he tries to restrain the four-legged guest; meanwhile Perry sits back in his chair bemused by the whole ordeal.

This is how Gaylord Perry pitched. From 1964, when he first introduced the spitter to big league hitters as the struggling, odd man out on a perennial pennant contending San Francisco Giants staff to the salt-and-pepper seasoned veteran with more than 300 wins and 5,000 Major League innings logged twenty years later, Perry delivered each pitch as if he was dropping a lion cub onto the batter’s lap.

Each interaction with a hitter was an opportunity to tease chaos, change their thinking, watch them squirm. Touching his cap, wiping his thumb across both eyebrows, grazing the back of his neck, his jersey, then back to his eyebrows—Perry’s pre-delivery routine was an act of metaphysics, a thought experiment in quantum superposition. The pitch existed in two forms at once, the ball both greased and clean. Perry threw, and didn’t throw, a spitball a million times.

It’s hard to gauge how successful Perry would be if he pitched now, or how long he would’ve lasted as a pitcher if the rule against the spitball was enforced. We look to sports for a clear set of rules, of what is allowed and not allowed, a mock courtroom where a pure, uncomplicated form of justice can be realized—but that’s rarely the case. Lines are blurred, disregarded, crossed. Punishment is uneven and often improvised.

The New York Giants used a telescope to steal signs in the 1951 pennant chase and the 2017 Houston Astros used video technology to alert their hitters to what pitch was about to come—one team is recognized for orchestrating one of the most memorable moments in sports history and another team dealt with fines, firings and is pretty much reviled around the league years later.

Perry has a plaque in Cooperstown while Barry Bonds, plagued by steroid allegations and pretty ornery about it, spent ten years on the ballot unable to coax that 75% approval rating needed for induction. Bonds has another opportunity for induction by committee which will announce their decision this Sunday afternoon—hopes aren’t high.

Maybe Perry’s crimes were deemed misdemeanors because of how audacious he was, like Butch Cassidy stealing from the Overland Flyer on back-to-back trips. The spitball had been banned for 44 years before Perry threw his first one, yet he made no effort in keeping his indiscretion discreet. He went as far as to publish a book entitled Me and the Spitter: An Autobiograhical Confession in 1974 when he was a pitcher for Cleveland.

About to turn 35, a year after his ERA shot up nearly one and a half points after winning his first Cy Young award in ‘72 and the designated hitter introduced to the American League—it wouldn’t be that far of a stretch to think that Perry wrote a two-hundred page book just to punk future hitters.

Whether literary pursuit or offseason chess move, the publication worked: Perry pitched for 10 more seasons and won a second Cy Young with San Diego in 1978. A banned substance was never found on his person and he was ejected only once in 1983 with the Seattle Mariners. He received a ten game suspension, a fine, and an ovation when he left the mound. A cheeky slap on the wrist after facing nearly 22,000 batters over 5, 300 innings.

In this era of lice checks, ear rubs and hand massages, Perry wouldn’t last an inning, let alone be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. In a lot of ways, Gaylord Perry as a balding, paunchy starting pitcher is a relic of a game long gone. It’s a thrill when a starting pitcher goes 7 innings while a complete game is a dying breed. 44 % of the games Perry started he finished. Logan Webb faced 787 batters last season. Perry would often double that amount while navigating an uncomfortable familiarity with line-ups across a smaller league.

Though the mental tête-a-tête isn’t gone from modern pitching, there’s been an undeniable paradigm shift in the showdown between arm and bat. Hitters know what Carlos Rodón is going to throw 60 percent of the time—power, or as Krukow would put it: “good ol’ country hardball”, often replaces finesse. The approach to hitting has also changed how pitchers approach hitters. Contact is no longer a victory pursued at any cost. Hitters rarely choke up or protect the plate with two strikes. Data drives decisions: zone breakdowns and swing paths dictate what pitches are thrown and what pitches are swung at.

What hasn’t changed is the ego involved. Perry was successful because yes, he could control a volatile pitch while also throwing a strong fastball, but he also clearly thrived in the pitcher’s unique work environment. He had no problem being the guy with the ball, the one everyone watched and scrutinized. As his fingers danced from mouth to hat to brow to neck to zipper to belt to brow, he knew that everyone in the park was concerned with what he was thinking and that meant he was in control. Perry wanted to show his opponent up and loading the ball was how he did that. The spitball was illegal and blatant and a dare to the hitter, the opposing team’s manager, and umpire: Say something, shout and swear, deal out a punishment, have a fit, throw a water cooler onto the field like Reggie Jackson.

For twenty years, Perry dropped a lion on the lap of opposing hitters and watched as others squirmed and sweated and laughed trying to figure out how to deal with it.

The crazy thing is people loved him for it.