What does one do when one is a scuffling pitcher, trying desperately to hold on to one’s rotation spot on the National League’s worst team?
The answer isn’t always “load up the ball” … but in the case of Miami right-hander Alex Sanabia, how much could it hurt?
Nineteen-eighty-two marked a watershed occasion in the annals of spitballing. It was the first (and only) time Gaylord Perry, the master, was disciplined for doing that for which he was known so well.
Perry was 43 years old, in his first season with the Seattle Mariners. Umpire Dave Phillips had already warned him about throwing illegal pitches in a game against Boston, but in the seventh inning Perry unleashed an offering that dropped dramatically. Phillips at first called the pitch—on a 1-0 count to Rick Miller—a strike, but, after thinking about it for a moment, changed it to a ball. Then, without even checking for evidence, he tossed Perry from the game. The pitcher was eventually fined $250 and suspended for 10 days—the first such suspension since Nelson Potter in 1944.
This was noteworthy because by that point Perry had for two decades been accused more consistently of doctoring his pitches than any man in baseball. This was the guy who titled his autobiography “Me and the Spitter,” and released it midway through his 22-year career. This was the guy whose North Carolina license plate read “SPITTER.” This was the guy who was so thorough that when, in 1971, a TV reporter asked his five-year-old daughter, “Does your daddy throw a grease ball?” she replied, “It’s a hard slider.”
At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Perry was highly touted as a prospect in the San Francisco Giants organization, but struggled through his first two major league seasons, both of which involved stints at Triple-A Tacoma. Perry’s good fortune came before his third campaign, when the Giants traded for pitcher Bob Shaw.
Shaw was a journeyman who wouldn’t last even three seasons in San Francisco, but he knew how to throw the spitball. Under his tutelage, so soon did Perry. “Bob and I worked for hours,” he wrote in “Me and the Spitter. “I studied his every movement. I had to learn how to load it up, how big a load the ball would carry, where to drop the load, how to grip the ball, and how to release it as well as how to control it. And probably most important of all, how to hide it from four umpires, three coaches, a manager and 25 players on the field as well as spying executives up in the box seats. I spent hours in front of a mirror at home practicing decoy moves.”
Perry finished second on the team in victories that year, and two seasons later won 21 games and made his first All-Star team. From 1966-78 Perry never won fewer than 15 games, and picked up two Cy Young Awards along the way.
“I’d always have (grease) in at least two places, in case the umpires would ask me to wipe off one,” he wrote. “I never wanted to be caught out there without anything. It wouldn’t be professional.”
Perry put Vaseline or other lubricants under the bill of his cap, behind his neck and inside his belt. If he thought people were paying special attention, he’d load up his back with hot muscle balm, which would spread over his body as he started to sweat, suited his purposes for lubrication, and was virtually undetectable.
“(Perry) taught me something early that I never forgot: (Umpires) couldn’t touch your skin when they came to the mound to check you out,” said pitcher George Frazier. “They could touch your shirt or your glove or check your pockets, but no skin. Gaylord told me he used to put the stuff under his shoe tongue, ‘in case I have a long game and it runs out.’ ”
Perry was traded to the Indians after the 1971 season, at which point a member of the Giants organization said, “I don’t know what he throws, but our Vaseline bill is down.”
It didn’t take Perry long to get under the collective skin of the American League. In April 1973, Yankees outfielder Bobby Murcer exploded to the press after facing Perry in the pitcher’s second start of the season, yelling “Just about everything he throws is a spitter.”
“The only pitch he threw me that wasn’t a spitter was the first one,” he went on. “The more he knows you’re bothered by him throwing it, the better he is against you. … He’s got the stuff behind his ear and on his arm and on his chest. He puts it on each inning. I picked up the balls and they’re so greasy you can’t throw them.”
How angry was Murcer? Before the game he called commissioner Bowie Kuhn “gutless” for refusing to do anything about Perry’s proclivities, then managed to channel his aggression into a three-hit day. When confronted with Murcer’s accusations, however, Perry said the outfielder hit “fastballs and sliders,” not spitballs. (It might have been an acceptable excuse had Perry been on the same page as his catcher, Dave Duncan, who in a separate contrived denial said that Murcer had hit “off-speed stuff.”)
If further proof be needed, the New York Times hired an unnamed Yankees pitcher to chart Perry’s every pitch throughout the game, and mark those that he thought were spitballs. When the resulting pitch chart was compared to a replay of the game, the Times said that before every pitch identified by the Yankees operative as a spitter, Perry tugged at the inside of his left sleeve with his right (pitching) hand—an action he failed to repeat for the rest of his repertoire.
Second baseman Horace Clark, according to the chart, struck out on a spitter that, on replay, dropped at least a foot. In the fourth inning, Thurman Munson asked to see the ball twice during his at-bat—during which, said the chart, Perry threw four spitters.
Perry wasn’t just a practiced spitballer, however—he was also a practiced spitball deceiver. One of the strengths of the pitch, according to virtually everybody who has been suspected of throwing it, is that making a hitter believe it’s coming is nearly as valuable as actually throwing it.
“The more people talk and write about my slick pitch, the more effective I get,” wrote Perry. “I just want to lead the league in psych outs every year.” To this end, Perry turned into his era’s version of Lew Burdette, all fidgets, wipes and tugs once he got atop the mound.
“Perry’s big right hand started to move and people started to boo,” wrote the Times about its charted game. “First he touched his cap, sliding his fingers across the visor, bringing them down along the right side of his head, stopping behind his ear. Then the hand went across his uniform, touching his chest, his neck. Was all this to create a diversionary action? Was he simply having fun? … ‘I did the same things I always did,’ he said later, suppressing a smile. If people want to read things into it, so be it.’ ”
Perry admitted in his autobiography to having doctored pitches, but, along with his confession, said upon the book’s release in 1974 that he “doesn’t throw it any more.” Maybe, responded Twins manager Gene Mauch, but “he doesn’t throw it any less, either.”
In 1991, after 314 wins over 22 seasons, Perry was inducted to the Hall of Fame. It was noted that when Rod Carew was inducted, Panamanian flags flew; when Ferguson Jenkins was inducted, Canadian flags flew; and when Perry was inducted, it rained.