Baseball is filled with many an odd, peculiar tale — and this one is no different.
It’s a story of one of baseball’s most colorful and controversial characters involved in an out-of-this world story, literally and figuratively.
It’s a story of some good-natured ribbing evolving into a if-Hollywood-wrote-it-you-wouldn’t-believe-it script.
And it’s a story, quite literally, of a man named Gaylord and his liberal use of personal lubricant.
Crass innuendo aside, the story of former Mariners pitcher and baseball Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry’s first major league home run is as unique as the man himself.
Perry is a bona fide Hall of Fame pitcher with the statline to back it up. Over his 22-year career, Perry won 314 games, struck out 3,534 batters and was a two-time Cy Young Award winner. The five-time All-Star also had 303 complete games, an unheard of number is modern day professional baseball.
But Perry’s stellar stats didn’t come without his fair share of criticism, namely due to his abundant use of baseball’s most well-known banned pitch: The spitball.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander who hailed from the town of Williamston, North Carolina held the worst-kept secret in baseball. Over his career, Perry became a master-craftsman in bending, and breaking, the rules. Using standard K-Y jelly strategically placed on certain parts of his body, Perry’s pitching hand would dart around his brow, ears and neckline as if to appear as though he was simply wiping away sweat. But as Perry’s former teammate Bob Shaw, who taught Perry the tricks and trade of the spitter, once put it in an interview from 1984, Perry was loading up rather than wiping away.
“What happened was (the umpires) started to look at Gaylord and make him take his hat off,” he said. “But this is water soluable and it looks like sweat. … And what you’d do is generally load it up in about three different places so you don’t go to the same place.”
Perry lent to this quirky legend himself, often answering questions about his spitter with an aloof ‘Who me?’ demeanor sprinkled with Southern charm.
“I really do throw a forkball and it’s a very effective pitch,” Perry once said in an interview, playing it coy as the spitter moved much like a split-finger pitch. “The hitters don’t believe it but I really do. But let ‘em think what they may.”
As mischievous and entertaining as Perry’s spitball stories are, the one of his first MLB home run is the stuff great sports legends are made of.
Established and accomplished as a pitcher, Perry looked anything but a Major Leaguer at the plate. Perry performed well-below the league average in every statistical category, so much so that when the weak-hitting pitcher cranked a few over the fence during batting practice one day during the 1964 season, a conversation between his San Francisco Giants manager Alvin Dark and San Francisco Examiner reporter Harry Jupiter would lead to one of the greatest tales in baseball history.
“Jupiter told Alvin Dark, ‘This Perry kid is going to hit some home runs for you,’” Perry explained in a 2016 interview. “Alvin said a few adjectives and with that said ‘They’ll be a man on the moon before he does that.”
Dark’s words, as reported in an MLB.com article from 2017 (‘The story of Gaylord Perry, the moon landing and a most unlikely home run,’ July 2017), Dark stated: “Mark my words, a man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.”
Five years later, Dark’s prediction would be put to the test.
Now 30 and established as one of the best right-handers in baseball, Perry was scheduled to start an afternoon contest against the rival Los Angeles Dodgers at Candlestick Park.
But the attention of both Giants and Dodgers fans — not to mention the human race — was elsewhere that day.
The calendar read July 20, 1969 and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were about to prove Alvin Dark’s five-year-old quip correct.
The Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon at 1:17 p.m. Pacific Time.
“Well, about the top of the third, over the loudspeaker, they were telling everybody to stand and give a moment of silent thanks for the astronauts who landed on the moon,” Perry said. “And I’d say 30 minutes later, Claude Osteen grooved me a fastball, and I hit it out of the park.”
Perry hit Osteen’s pitch out of the park for a solo home run in the third inning, helping the Giants beat the Dodgers, 7-3.
So technically, Dark was correct in his previous assessment. Man did land on the moon before Perry would hit a home run in the major leagues, albeit by a mere half-hour.
Not too shabby for a weak-hitting spitballer.