Admittedly, the first thing anyone would think of when the name Gaylord Perry is mentioned is that he is best known for “allegedly” throwing the spitter, but there was so much more to his career and impact on Cleveland to tell.
When Perry came to Cleveland in 1972 in the much-heralded trade for “Sudden” Sam McDowell, he brought with him a presence and, dare I even say, swagger that Cleveland baseball had been missing for a long time. Right out of the gate, he made people talk, not laugh, about Cleveland baseball once again.
The '70s began pretty much like most of the '60s had been for baseball played at the gray lady by the lake, Municipal Stadium - dismally. It seemed as though Cleveland was the team that cultivated talent that went on to bigger and much better things elsewhere, leaving fans of the beloved Indians to just be thankful for seasons that had fewer than 100 losses. Perry’s arrival began to change those perceptions.
In his first season with the Tribe in 1972, he went 24-16, completing 29 out of 40 games started and was awarded the Cy Young award for those efforts. The complete games were a trademark for Perry; he was a man who finished what he started. Truth be told, it was always said that managers were usually too afraid to go out to the mound and try to take him out of games. His icy glare was enough to make them head back down the dugout steps.
He won his second Cy Young just after turning 40 with the San Diego Padres in 1978.
In 1974, after his brother Jim Perry had joined him in Cleveland to form a truly formidable 1-2 punch at the top of any rotation, Perry had all of baseball in the palm of his hand. After losing his season-opening start, he embarked on a 15-game winning streak, with his chance to win number 16 and tie Walter Johnson, Joe Wood, Lefty Grove and Schoolboy Rowe. In other words, no one had even approached the feat since Rowe did it in 1934.
Sadly, it was not to be, as the Oakland A’s, baseball’s gold standard at the time, ended Perry’s grab for immortality with a tenth-inning 4-3 win (yes, Gaylord went the distance).
What I can add to the story was that it was such a big deal, local television wanted to cover the game, but at the time, it wasn’t as easy as it seems today to pull off the televising of late-night, West Coast games. So the game was indeed televised, but with a single camera, behind home plate, and I believe from the press box. And I, at age 15, was one of the hearty Cleveland baseball fans awake and glued to the television for every agonizing inning. This also happened to be the season that my brother Dave, and our friends Vik and Rob Beltitus took in at least 45-55 home games, catching the Maple Heights bus down to Public Square and walking to the stadium, and grabbing bleacher tickets that were either 50 cents or $1 - I'm a little fuzzy on that part.
Traded to the Rangers during the 1975 season, there was no doubt that in nearly a four-year stay in Cleveland, Perry managed to leave a remarkable lasting legacy on Cleveland Indians baseball that only a select few have managed to do. Earning a Cleveland Indians fan’s loyalty and admiration is no easy task.
Here is just one example of what I mean by that.
I forget which year it was - I want to say 1972 or '73 - but my mother, as she always did, took me to meet my idol at the time, one Gaylord Perry doing a personal appearance at Gaylord’s department store on Lakeshore Boulevard across from the old Euclid Beach site.
When I got to the front of a very crowded line to get my autographed picture, I also asked him a question about pitching as I was pitching myself in the Maple Heights Boys League. He looked at me after signing, and patiently not only answered the question, but offered up several suggestions of things for me to work on. I’m sure he was being compensated for the appearance, but he truly seemed to enjoy seeing for himself in a different light just how much he meant to a very beleaguered city at the time.
You’ll notice that I spent just about zero time mentioned the “spitter” or my favorite, the “puff ball,” which he’d throw in later years. I’ll leave that to those not willing to dig a little deeper.
I did it this way because although that became what he may have been best known for, there were quite a few of us who took the time to experience and appreciate that there was so such more to this fiercest of competitors that probably single-handedly saved Cleveland baseball from the scrap heap.
So rest in peace Ancient Mariner, and thank you for the memories!