Routine Moments in Baseball History: Gaylord Perry, Greased-Up Pitching Machine

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Routine Moments in Baseball History: Gaylord Perry, Greased-Up Pitching Machine

Sure, he relied on cheating and deception to get the job done, but Gaylord Perry had one of the most amazing careers of all time.
August 22, 2014, 4:55pm

Welcome back to Routine Moments in Baseball History, a running weekday feature that looks back at plays that have been ignored by the history books because history books only talk about things that are important or interesting. Today's installment is "Gaylord Perry, Greased-Up Pitching Machine." 

I'm cheating a little bit today by highlighting the August 22, 1973 game between the Chicago White Sox and the Cleveland Indians, because it was hardly routine. It was a long, tense pitchers' duel that lasted until the 12th inning, when the Indians' Buddy Bell scored from first on a single thanks to a game-ending errant throw by Sox third basemen Bill Melton. What struck me about the game was not just the fact that the game was a classic that included a walk-off error, or that they managed to get through 12 innings in just three hours and 16 minutes (today, the average game lasts more than three hours), but that Gaylord Perry was on the mound the entire time.

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I couldn't find the pitch count data online anywhere, but in 12 innings Perry faced 46 batters, and if he averaged three pitches per batter (a pretty low estimate), he'd have thrown 138 pitches. That's a lot of throws, and it was the kind of performance Perry routinely turned in—that year, he had 29 complete games and made it through 344 innings; he ended up with a record of 19-19. Those are insane numbers that represent feats we can't imagine today. Back then, pitchers pitched until they couldn't pitch anymore, then pitched a few innings after that. Maybe the difference is that today, pitchers throw the ball harder then ever before, leading to more serious injuries. Maybe coaches are now more worried about those injuries and overprotective of their million-dollar arms. Maybe it's just smarter to rely on your bullpen and not leave your starter in long enough for him to tire. Whatever the case, pitchers aren't asked to throw 300 innings a season (something Perry did six times in his 22-year career) or stay on the mound if the game goes into extra innings (Perry did so 39 TIMES, a modern record that will likely never be broken). If your mind boggles, as mine does, at a pitcher picking up a complete game shutout victory after 12 innings, you'll also let out a low whistle when reminded of Perry's career numbers: 314 wins, 265 losses, 303 complete games, 53 shutouts, 5,350 innings pitched, 3,534 strikeouts. There are players with more impressive stats, but most of them come from that long-ago era of baggy uniforms and dead balls when guys had names like Homebrew Macintosh and baseball teams were basically roving bands of alcoholics.

Perry was able to do all of this, of course, because he cheated like a maniac. He greased his balls up with Vaseline and hair products, substances that he'd hide under his armpits or on the bill of his cap. Throughout his career he was constantly—and justifiably—being accused of throwing dirty pitches, and umpires would check his clothes during games and even sneak up behind him and yank his cap off his head. The nuttiness reached a peak in 1972, his first season with the Indians, according to a biography of Perry on SABR.org:

"In an early season game against the Athletics, Mike Epstein waved his bat at Perry and threatened to head for the mound. Perry was strip searched after a protest by A's manager Dick Williams, and ordered to change shirts. Billy Martin brought a bloodhound to a game to sniff baseballs. In late August, Indians general manager Gabe Paul protested the treatment of Perry to league president Joe Cronin, who asked the umps to back off."

It's naturally assumed it was thanks to his greaseball that Perry pitched so well for so long, and without it I doubt he'd have gone 12 innings that day in Cleveland. But it takes its own kind of skill to doctor a ball when everyone is watching you, and Perry seemed to savor the deception—making sure his hands brushed against his cap and uniform as he prepared to pitch even when he wasn't doing anything to the ball, playing innocent whenever anyone asked him about his habits, forever grinning that smile of the small-town grifter who knows that he's smarter than the local rubes. He was a pitching wizard in the manner of the Wizard of Oz or Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee who travels to King Arthur's court—a faker, sure, but faking it so long and so beautifully is its own kind of magic.

Perry didn't allow a hit after the eighth and in the extra innings he simply mowed down the exhausted batters with a ball that skipped and hopped through the air. The last three outs went strikeout, groundout, groundout. He probably left the dugout after the winning run convinced that he could have gone another few innings, and he probably could have. He might have stopped to greet some of the White Sox after the game, but probably not—his opponents didn't tend to like him much, and anyway he needed to hit the showers and rinse off that grease coating his pitching hand.

This has been Routine Moments in Baseball History. Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.