CLEVELAND — Gaylord Perry, one of baseball's most-controversial-yet-greatest pitchers who spent some of his best years with the Cleveland Indians, has died at the age of 84.
Cherokee County in South Carolina confirmed Perry's passing to 3News Thursday afternoon. Coroner Dennis Fowler said he died of natural causes at his home in Gaffney around 5 a.m.
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Perry spent 22 seasons in the big leagues, including parts of four with the Tribe, winning 314 games and amassing 303 completed starts and 3,534 strikeouts. He was also a self-proclaimed master of the illegal spitball, which earned him both admiration and scorn among fans and players alike.
Born in Williamston, North Carolina, in 1938, Perry spent most of five years in the minors before finally debuting with San Francisco in 1962, performing spot duty on a team that would go on to win the National League pennant (he did not pitch in the World Series). It was not until 1965 that Perry became a mainstay in the Giants' rotation, but in 10 seasons with the club, he twice won 20 games and was an All-Star selection both those times while also making what would turn out to be his only postseason appearance in the 1971 NLCS.
Perry's rise from somewhat mediocre starter to staff ace caught several observers by surprise, and many swore they knew the reason: the spitball, wherein a pitcher doctors the baseball with substances like saliva or Vaseline in order to get more break or spin on a pitch. The practice has been outlawed by MLB since the 1920s, but while his career was still in progress, Perry would openly admit in his autobiography to using both his own spit as well as other materials while with San Francisco. He claimed he had since stopped, which caused New York Times writer Dave Anderson to quip that the book was "not the first autobiography with some fiction in it."
Meanwhile, the Indians of that era were mired in mediocrity, but the front office was about to make one of the best trades in team history. On Nov. 29, 1971, the Tribe dealt longtime star pitcher Sam McDowell to the Giants in exchange for shortstop Frank Duffy and the then-33-year-old Perry. McDowell's promising career would sadly flame out due to problems with alcoholism, while Duffy would become one of the league's best defenders in Cleveland.
The ultimate prize though, of course, was "Gaylord the Great."
In 1972, the veteran would put together what is arguably the greatest season by a pitcher the franchise has ever seen. In 40 starts, Perry tossed a now-unheard of 29 complete games and tallied an incredible 342 2/3 innings, leading the AL with 24 victories while also posting a 1.92 ERA and striking out 234 batters. For his efforts, he beat out Chicago's Wilbur Wood in a close race for the AL Cy Young Award, the first such accolade for Cleveland since the honor's inception in 1955.
"I was at my farm in North Carolina, when I got the phone call," Perry would later tell the National Baseball Hall of Fame. "It was really rewarding, because when you get traded you think you’ve lost your value to the team that you love so much."
Perry notched his third All-Star nod that year and followed it up in 1973 by leading all of the majors this time with 29 more complete games. He was an All-Star again in 1974, when he won 21 games and notched 216 strikeouts with a 2.51 ERA. Joining him on that latter Indians team was his older brother Jim, who won 17 games of his own and had been a Cy Young winner for the Minnesota Twins in 1970.
The Indians were actually fringe contenders late into that summer before faltering to finish 77-85, still their best record in six years. Following the season, however, manager Ken Aspromonte would not return, and newly acquired legendary outfielder Frank Robinson was selected to replace him on a player-manager basis. The hiring was historic, as it made Robinson the first Black manager in the modern era of integrated baseball, but tension soon arose between him and Perry.
The pitcher allegedly said he wanted the new outfielder's salary "plus a dollar more," causing a near-brawl in the locker room. Upon Robinson's promotion to manager, accounts from the time remember Perry refusing to run in spring training. Things seemed to subside once play got under way, but it didn't last, with Perry soon openly questioning Robinson's decision-making.
Some wondered if race played a role in the dispute, with Perry being a white southerner and Robinson a Black man from Southern California. While there was likely at least some element of that at play, it didn't help that both men were also known for their large egos, at times.
Regardless, Jim Perry was traded to the Oakland Athletics in May of 1975, and Gaylord followed a month later to the Texas Rangers, with none of the Tribe's return pieces panning out. The latter Perry finished his Indians tenure with 70 wins, 96 complete games, 18.5 bWAR, and a 2.71 ERA.
Now in his twilight, Perry would never again quite match the heights of his stay in Cleveland, but after leaving Texas he did win 21 games and the NL Cy Young with the San Diego Padres in 1978, becoming the first to win the award in both leagues. He had brief stops with the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves before journeying to the Seattle Mariners in 1982, where he achieved baseball immortality by earning his 300th career win.
That same year, the spitball savant was hit with his only ejection for doctoring a baseball, which resulted in a 10-game suspension. The M's released him in the middle of 1983 and he spent his last days with the Kansas City Royals before hanging it up for good. At the time of his retirement, he was third on the all-time strikeout list and 11th in wins, with he and Jim combining for 529 victories between them and still being the only pair of brothers to both grab Cy Youngs.
Perry was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991 in his third year of eligibility wearing a Giants cap on his plaque, with the team eventually retiring his No. 36 and erecting a statue in his likeness outside their stadium. Here in Cleveland, he was chosen as a member of what was then the Indians Hall of Fame in 2012, five years after CC Sabathia finally joined him as the franchise's second Cy Young winner.
Guardians Senior Vice President of Public Affairs Bob DiBiasio released the following statement on Perry's passing:
"The Cleveland Guardians family is deeply saddened by the loss of one of the great pitchers in baseball history, Gaylord Perry. We are honored that during Gaylord's 22 years as a big-league pitcher, four of those were in a Cleveland uniform. He was a cherished member of our Alumni Ambassador program, and loved telling stories when visiting with our fans at Progressive Field. We send our condolences to the entire Perry family, as well as to his many teammates and other organizations impacted by his Hall of Fame career."
Perry was preceded in death by his wife Blanche and son Jack, and survived by three daughters. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.