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Mudville: June 16, 2021 11:07 pm PDT
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Catching Greased Lightning

Hall-of-Fame hurler and 300-game winner Gaylord Perry spent 22 years in the Major Leagues entertaining fans with the well-orchestrated dance he performed on the mound. His gesticulations, which delighted fans and infuriated the opposition, were designed to cover up his use, real or perceived, of a certain pitch.

Whether you call that pitch a spit ball or any of the other monikers by which it is known [Vaseline ball, KY Ball, slippery elm ball to name a few] doesn’t really matter, not now. Perry has been retired for nearly 40 years but his reputation and performance remain an integral part of baseball’s history in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The men who caught him, though, weren’t always so entertained. Nor were the umpires that worked the plate during Perry’s starts. While Perry was a master of deception his efforts on the mound were often stressful for those on the receiving end. BallNine caught up with a few of the men who caught Perry as well as the man who made a name for himself when he became the only umpire to eject Perry from a game.

Here’s a closer look at their experiences with the Hall-of-Famer.

“We were in Texas and it was 100 degrees and I’m thinking why in the world would he be wearing a jacket in 100-degree weather? Later I went into his locker to look at the jacket and he had a tube of KY Jelly.”

JIM SUNDBERG

Sundberg caught Perry for almost three years after he arrived in Texas from Cleveland on June 13, 1975. Perry went 48-43 with a 3.26 ERA overall with the Rangers with Sundberg catching 97 of his 112 starts.  Sundberg was a six-time Gold Glove catcher and was considered by many to be the best defensive catcher of the Seventies. He caught nine Hall-of-Famers, including Perry. Upon his retirement in 1989 he ranked number one in games caught in Major League history though he has since been passed.

The three-time All-Star said that it didn’t take very long to learn how to catch Perry and that, overall, being behind the plate when Perry was on the mound wasn’t all that difficult. He said Perry, who threw nine wild pitches in games caught by Sundberg, mostly used three pitches in a game and if one of those pitches wasn’t working, that’s when Perry would “go to the shenanigans”.

“He had the spitter but he never acknowledged that to me,” Sundberg said. “It was number five. He never acknowledged me but his glove says he did. He had an adding and subtracting system with his glove. For example, if I called for a three and he was loaded, he would swipe twice with his glove. He would add the two and that was the spitter. I’d keep calling number five then till he added or subtracted away from it.”

Sundberg, like several other of Perry’s longtime catchers, had to figure out where he kept his “stash”. While other catchers watched him to see when he was loading up while on the mound Sundberg figured it out one hot day in Arlington.

“I thought I would spend some time and try to figure it out,” Sundberg said. “He was synching around in his jacket [pocket on the bench]. We were in Texas and it was 100 degrees and I’m thinking why in the world would he be wearing a jacket in 100-degree weather? Later I went into his locker to look at the jacket and he had a tube of KY Jelly.

Jim Sundberg

“He would have a towel and he would put a hand in his pocket. It looked from a distance like he was wiping off sweat with the towel but he was never touching his face. He would hold the towel up and go side to side from ear to ear and I’m thinking this is really strange and then I looked closer. While he had the towel he was taking his other hand and wiping it [the KY] all over his neck. He kept it on his neck and I never saw it when I was catching because he never went to his neck. When he threw a pitch upon releasing it he would come back up and swipe his neck with his right hand while no one was watching. He used his hair for a decoy. All that stuff was never where you thought it was.”

Sundberg said that Perry had good command of his special pitch and that he didn’t throw it in the dirt many times. If it did hit the dirt, Sundberg said the bounce was usually true because it was coming in hard and would go down and bounce right up.

Still, there were times that Perry didn’t get the pitch low enough. Sundberg recalls Reggie Jackson launching one that didn’t stay down over the right-field fence. Jackson, however, also had his issues with Perry at times.

“Dale Ford was the home plate umpire when we were playing the Yankees and he was from the same neck of the woods as Gaylord,” Sundberg said. “He [Perry] kept throwing one after another to Reggie and Reggie didn’t like it. He tells Ford look at him out there, he’s itching and scratching he has that stuff all over him.

“So Dale goes out and takes a look and comes back and says Reggie, I didn’t find anything. Reggie strikes out on the next pitch and goes nuts. After that, Dale says to me I’ve only been umping for two years. Gaylord has been throwing that pitch for 22 years. Who am I to tell him he can’t?”

Perry also had another gimmick of which several catchers spoke called the puff ball, snow white etc. It involved Perry loading up his hand and arm with the rosin bag prior to a pitch.

“He was a master,” said Sundberg, who was 1-for-6 with a homer against Perry. “He would throw it on the first pitch to get strike one and then he wouldn’t use it again. It was like you had flour in your hand and you were throwing the ball. A puff of smoke comes out of your hand and shock everyone and that would be strike one.”

Alan Ashby

ALAN ASHBY

Ashby had a 17-year career that included a start in Cleveland, a stopover in Toronto and a lengthy stay in Houston. He is best remembered for his time with the Astros, for whom he made a trio of playoff appearances [1980, ’81 and ‘86]. He became a broadcaster following his playing career.

It was during his time in Cleveland, the organization that selected him in the third round of the 1969 First-Year Player Draft, that Ashby became acquainted with Perry, who was with the Indians from 1972-75. Perry won the first of his two Cy Young Awards with Cleveland in 1972. Ashby caught Perry in four starts, according to Elias Sports Bureau, between 1973 and 1975 before the hurler was traded to Texas.

“He was so focused and unwilling to yield to anyone or anything,” Ashby said. “He was one of the toughest, biting, hard-nosed players I have ever played with, sometimes to the point of crossing the line even with his teammates. When he would warm up between innings, he was so specific about where he wanted to throw each warm-up pitch. Ninety-nine percent of pitchers just go out there for the sake of warming up but he had a purpose where he wanted every pitch and mandated that with the catcher and himself. That’s how demanding he was.

“I was not quite as aware that he was that demanding then I went to spring training and dared to hit a pitch back up the middle off him and the next pitch came behind my coconut. I was a younger player and the lesson was all on his side to give. I guess I needed to hit it somewhere else. You just didn’t mess with Gaylord in any way.”

Ashby stressed that Perry threw the ball hard and that much of the success he achieved was without the spitball. The pitch’s reputation got into the batter’s head and that was all Perry needed.

“His act was so good,” said Ashby, who was 5-for-24 with an RBI against Perry. “He would go through the same routine for every pitch and that routine may have included an illegal pitch and simply may have been a legal pitch. He had great command and a good enough splitter that it would have the same effect on the hitter.”

Gene Tenace

GENE TENACE

Catching Perry proved to be an adventure, one that both frustrated and entertained Tenace when the two were teammates in San Diego in 1978-79. He said what made catching Perry difficult was the fact that you never knew when Perry would throw one of his special pitches. It took some time for Tenace to figure out when Perry was loading up.

“I caught most of his starts in San Diego and I kept trying to figure out when he was loading up but I never could see it,” Tenace, who caught 31 Perry starts during which he went 13-6 with two wild pitches. “He’d go through all those rituals. Here’s how I caught him, though. When someone hit the ball, everyone would be watching the flight of the ball. No one was paying attention to Gaylord so I watched him and he went right to it. It took me how many starts to figure that out and then I knew it was coming.

“He threw it hard. It would come at you at first but there were a couple of balls I never got a glove on. It was like catching a real hard knuckleball. Gaylord would throw one toward the middle of the plate but it wouldn’t end up there. There was one that came in and took a dead right. I dove for it but the ball still ended up at the backstop. He would do that a lot when he had a man on third base and he needed strikeout. I felt like a hockey goalie. Talk about pressure.”

Tenace particularly enjoyed the puff pitch, which he called Snow White.

“All you saw was the cloud of smoke and the hitter would jump out of the way because he lost the ball,” Tenace said. “He did that so many times he had me crying and laughing. The hitters would scream he can’t do that. He would get into guy’s minds. Even when he wasn’t throwing his jelly ball he’d get in their heads. They swore he was doing it but he just had good movement on his fork ball.”

Rick Cerone

RICK CERONE

Perry was traded by San Diego to Texas in February of 1980 and made 24 starts in his second go round with the Rangers before being dealt to the Yankees on August 14. He appeared in 10 games [eight starts] for the Yankees, the shortest tenure he would have in any of his career stops. He went 4-4 with a 4.44 ERA for the Bombers with Rick Cerone catching him in eight of his 10 appearances.

“It was an education,” Cerone said. “He was a character out there. It was all about deception and perception. He even threw the puff ball with the rosin bag and would have guys complaining to the umpire. It was all part of his success. I enjoyed being around him.”

Cerone, however, stuck to his oath of omerta – the mafia code of silence about criminal activity and a refusal to give evidence to authorities – in regards to Perry’s use of illegal substances.

“The statute of limitations has not expired on that; I don’t what you’re talking about,” Cerone joked. “I don’t know anything besides that, omerta. I will say he had to have his uniform washed separately from the rest of us.

“He was a very competitive pitcher and he was a very good pitcher. He knew how to pitch and he knew how to deceive hitters. He’s a Hall-of-Famer for a reason and let’s not just say it was because of moisture or Vaseline on the ball. He was a very good pitcher and he deserves to be there [in the Hall].”

Cerone also pointed out that he contributed to Perry’s 300th victory. He defeated the Yankees on May 6, 1982 to become, at the time, the 15th pitcher to win 300 games. Cerone went 0-for-4 in Perry’s complete-game victory. Cerone was 1-for-12 against Perry overall.

Gaylord Perry lets one fly

RICK SWEET

Rick Sweet had the chance to catch Perry at two different stops, first in San Diego in 1978 and then again in 1982 and the first half of 183 with the Mariners. Perry went 21-6 with a 2.73 ERA to win his second Cy Young Award with the Padres but was 13-22 with a 4.58 ERA in the penultimate stop of his career. His ERA with the Mariners was the worse than any of the eight teams for which he played.

Sweet got to see two sides of Perry, one dominant and one a bit more pedestrian. He wasn’t able to see either, though, until he gained Perry’s trust.

“It was interesting because he would not let me catch him early in the year in San Diego,” said Sweet who made his Major League debut that spring. “No rookie was going to catch him. Phil Roof was our bullpen coach and he told me to make sure I caught all his side sessions. Catch him any chance you get. Gaylord had a certain routine to everything he did, every game he pitched and when you were catching his bullpens. You had better know his routine and I worked very hard to learn his routine.

“That went on for a month and a half. I came in one day to check the lineup card and we were facing someone I thought I would have played well against and I wasn’t catching Gaylord. I was catching everyone else, though. On days he pitched he was like a grizzly bear, you didn’t talk to him but when he came in I said when are you going to let me catch you. He put his finger in my chest and had my back up against the wall and said you’re catching today and if you mess up, you’ll never catch me again.”

Perry went into manager Roger Craig’s office and a few minutes later Craig came out and changed the lineup card. The Padres won that April 26 game at Houston, 2-1, and Perry went 8 2/3 innings. Sweet said while it was one of the most stressful games of his life though he would go on to catch Perry frequently the rest of the season.

Sweet was a solid defensive catcher but didn’t catch everything Perry threw at him that season or in Seattle. However, he did handle the veteran well and gained entrance to what he called “the sphere of being allowed to catch Gaylord”. The toughest part, according to Sweet, was the fact that Perry had so many pitches. Like Sundberg before him, he needed to be good at math.

“He would add and subtract with the swipe of the glove and you just better know what number six was,” Sweet said.  “It was unconventional but it was interesting that year because of the intensity of every game he pitched. I still shake my head over how tough he was to catch.”

Perry had mellowed some by the time the pair teamed up again in Seattle. He was 42 years old and the end was in sight and Sweet noticed the change. He said Perry was more relaxed and the situation was not as intense because Seattle, at the time, was not a very good team.

“It was a different type of situation; it was more fun to catch him,” said Sweet, who caught Perry 31 times during which he posted a 15-11 record with eight wild pitches. “His stuff wasn’t as good, his breaking balls were not as sharp. He was easier to catch in 82 and 83, though.”

John Wathan

JOHN WATHAN

Perry was released by Seattle on June 27, 1993 and signed with Kansas City nine days later. He made his first of 14 starts for the Royals on July 11 and took the loss despite only allowing two runs [one earned] in six innings. Wathan was his catcher for that first game and what would be Perry’s last career outing on Sept. 21 against California.

Wathan also caught most of Perry’s starts in between as he went 4-4 with a 4.27 ERA. He says he remembers that Perry was gruff but a nice guy to be around. He also thought that Perry was headed to the Hall of Fame someday and that proved correct.

“Gaylord was quite a character,” said Wathan, who was 1-for-17 with an RBI against Perry. “I remember going over signs with him prior to his first start. He had the normal pitches fastball, curveball and what he called his super sinker, which was really his Vaseline ball or K-Y ball or slippery elm or whatever he was using.

“It was kind of strange that he called it that and not the spitter. He played with so many teams and had so many catchers that I guess he never wanted the catchers to use that term. I always remember that, the super sinker. One time he threw it and it didn’t do a whole lot coming in but it did a whole lot going out. The runner was stealing and I got the slippery side and threw the ball into center field.”

Perry’s final career start came against the Angels. He allowed three runs on 10 hits in five innings. He finished the season a combined 7-14 in 30 starts.

“I don’t know if anyone thinks at the end of the year that that would be it,” Wathan said. “Maybe he was at the point where he did. I don’t think he ruled out playing the following year but at 44 you have to be counting down. I didn’t think of it at the time.

“It was fun catching him, though. The thing about his super sinker was that he never threw it as much as opposing teams thought he did. With all his antics, touching his forehead and his neck and wiping his arm across his chest, a lot of that was just getting in the hitter’s heads. At least there at the end, he never threw it as much as most teams thought he threw it. Half the battle is trying to get people out by playing with their heads and he was very good at that because he was so good [overall].”

Gaylord Perry gets the once-over, yet the umpire (as usual) finds nothing.

DAVE PHILLIPS

Dave Phillips caught Perry just not in the same manner as the aforementioned backstops. Phillips, was a Major League umpire from 1971 through 2002 and he caught Perry in the act, issuing the only ejection the hurler would suffer in his career for using an illegal pitch. The ejection made national headlines and brought Perry back into the spotlight just a few months after he had won his 300th career game.

Phillips, who was the crew chief and home plate umpire, tossed Perry from a game between the Seattle Mariners and the Boston Red Sox on Aug. 23, 1982 at The Kingdome.

“I didn’t do it because I was trying to be a hero,” Phillips said. “It wasn’t one of my most pleasant evenings. We were in Seattle and I vaguely remember that it was cushion night. I think I had more cushions to go home with than anybody else. They didn’t appreciate my ejection of someone who was one of their favorites at the time.

“I’ll say this about Gaylord. I didn’t mind him personally but he was a pain in the butt to work with as an umpire. You had to check the ball 30 or 40 times a game and you always knew that was part of it when you umped the plate with Gaylord. It was problematic.”

Phillips had to perform one of those ball checks as Perry was warming up for the fifth inning that night. Boston’s Reid Nicholls was waiting for the inning to start when he noticed one of Perry’s pitches dancing.

“Jim Essian was catching and I said to him let me see the ball,” Phillips said. “The only reason I said that was because I could see the batter coming up and he pointed to me to check the ball. I thought let me see it now and get it over with. Jim flipped me the ball and I gave it the once over to make sure the batter knew I was checking it and when I did it had grease on it.

“I could see my fingerprint and it kind of surprised me. I looked out at Perry and he’s waiting for a ball to continue warming up and our eyes met. I started to walk and got maybe five feet when Perry says I didn’t put anything on the ball. I walk out further then [Seattle manager] Rene [Lachemann] comes out and I show him the ball. I said I don’t know why this is on here but I want to make one thing perfectly clear –if you throw a ball that I deem illegal or if I find anything on the ball, you will be ejected. Consider this a warning. And I walked away.”

Phillips added that Perry seemed happy that he was only issued a warning. But then came the seventh inning and Perry found himself with two men on and two out with Rick Miller at the plate. Lachemann made a mound visit and it seemed like that would be the end of Perry’s night but Lachemann returned to the dugout alone.

And then Perry threw a pitch that seem to defy the law of physics.

“Rene came into our dressing room the next night and I said to him I thought you were going to take him,” Phillips said. “Rene told me that Perry said he could get him out. I’m assuming that when he made that comment about getting him out he had a particular pitch in mind. Sure enough he throws a pitch to Rick that Essian knows, I know, Rick knows and everyone in both dugouts probably know, he couldn’t hit. It was a grease ball. It comes in like a straight fastball and just about the time you’re going to swing, it clearly drops six-to-eight inches to the ground.

“Now either I can turn my head and say I didn’t see it or do what I told him I was going to do. So I walked out and said that’s it. He puts his hands up like what happened. It didn’t make me a big guy or a good guy. It was just a miserable nightmare. I had to talk to the press and the next two or three days I am getting phone calls. It was just the way I was raised and mentored. I didn’t try to make things up but I didn’t ignore things, either.”

It was certainly difficult to ignore Perry when he was on the mound. His catchers, and the umpires, were usually in for quite a game.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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