I mentioned my Gaylord Perry story in the last post. I feel like I’ve written this up before, but I couldn’t find it in our archives. Couldn’t find it anywhere. Maybe I’ve just told it to friends and radio hosts and people so many times that it feels like I’ve written it before. Oh well, I’ll tell it again because I like telling this story.
In 1984 I was on vacation with my family in the big RV, driving through North Carolina. As we always did on those long family road trips, my brother and I spent all of our highway time sorting through boxes of baseball cards we brought along with us. As we passed through a little podunk town, my dad suddenly pulled over and stopped to make a call at a pay phone. He got back into the RV and said “we’re stopping for lunch.” As we pulled away from the phone booth, I saw a sign that said “Welcome to Williamston, North Carolina, Home of Gaylord and Jim Perry.” Maybe Jim got first billing since he’s older. I don’t remember. But that was the upshot.
Five minutes later we are pulling up to a house next to a large farm. A woman came out of the house and said, “You’re the fella who just called? Come on in!” She welcomed us inside. “Gaylord will be here in a minute,” she said. My brother and I freaked out as we looked around the living room. There were photos of Gaylord Perry in action. Trophies and awards. Jerseys in frames. All kinds of other stuff. The thing I remember most was a giant leather chair shaped like a baseball glove that, to this day, I wish I had (maybe the 1984 version of this?). Five minutes later Gaylord freaking Perry walked in. He was wearing dirty jeans, work boots, a dirty white t-shirt and a Kansas City Royals cap. It was his first summer not playing baseball since he was a kid and he was spending it farming. Still had the cap on, though.
Gaylord and his wife, Blanche, were warm and welcoming. They said that not too many baseball fans just up and stopped by, but that they were happy someone did. Blanche made us sandwiches. Gaylord signed autographs (we had a few Perry cards in the RV stash). Even at that age I knew Perry’s reputation as a ball-doctorer. He told us a bunch of spitball jokes and stories which he had no doubt honed on the banquet circuit over the years, but they were mostly new to me. My parents, who were not baseball fans and didn’t know much about Perry apart from the fact that he was a famous baseball player, were delighted when Perry asked me to explain to them what I thought a spitball was. You could tell Perry thought that it was absolutely adorable that I thought the best way to doctor a ball was to, you know, spit on it. He talked about Vaseline and all sorts of other stuff, adding “or so I’m told” or “some people say” every now and again with a wink.
After lunch, Gaylord took us back to his office, in a separate building. He opened a file cabinet containing autographed baseballs from his former teammates and his friends in the game. I got a George Brett ball, which Perry said he gave me because Brett was the best player whose autograph he had sitting around handy. My brother said he was a Tigers fan so Perry gave him a Lance Parrish ball Perry had gotten somewhere along the way. He had a bunch of others too, but we weren’t greedy. He gave my mom a T-shirt he had which commemorated the Pine Tar Incident, in which he played no small part. He autographed the shirt for her, apologized for it being so big and said that maybe she could use it as a night shirt. My dad took Polaroids of my brother and me with Perry which I still have around here someplace. Then off we went, with Gaylord and Blanche Perry waving from the porch.
I was saddened to hear a couple years later that Perry’s life took an unfortunate turn not long after we met him. Two years later he lost his farm to bankruptcy. A year later Blanche died in an automobile accident. Perry went on to coach college baseball for a while. I remember seeing an interview with him around that time and he seemed like a much sadder guy than the smiling fellow we met that day in 1984. It makes sense given all that had happened.
In 2012, while in Scottsdale to cover spring training, I walked into the Giants clubhouse one morning and sitting at a table were Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and Gaylord Perry. They were there for some sort of pregame ceremony and were just shooting the breeze and telling old baseball stories. Perry was laughing and animated and at times was practically breathless due to all of the cackling. He had Mays in stitches too. It was fantastic to see him smiling.
When the conversation ended Perry got up and walked from the table. I thought about saying something to him about the time in 1984 when my dad impulsively took his kids to Gaylord Perry’s house and to thank him for the kindness he and his wife showed my family that day. I didn’t, though. He was soon in another conversation and, on some level, it seemed awkward for me to have brought that up there, in the clubhouse, wearing a press credential when people were working and preparing and things. In hindsight I wish I had.
I’m going back to Scottsdale to cover spring training again in March. I hope he’s there again. If so, this time I will.