By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

No. 83: Gaylord Perry

After Gaylord Perry finally retired — he pitched in the Majors until he was 44 — he became the first baseball coach at Limestone College in South Carolina. There was some unexpected stress involved. Many of this players were still learning the basic rules. He said that he once had a hitter who drew a three-ball count and then watched as the runner on first was thrown out trying to steal second, ending the inning.

The next inning, this batter led off. The first pitch was a ball and he ran to first base. He thought the count carried over.

* * *

Consider this: What if there was a new drug that allowed a pitcher to throw a fastball that dropped unnaturally at the very last second? Then, let’s say that pitcher who openly took the drug year after year won two Cy Young Awards, struck out more than 3,500 batters and won 300 games. Would you elect that pitcher to the Hall of Fame?

Somehow, throwing a spitball doesn’t seem as unprincipled as taking PEDs. There’s something roguish about spitballers, in the textbook sense of the word. A rogue is a “person whose behavior one disapproves of but who is nonetheless likable or attractive (often used as a playful term of reproof).” Players who throw spitballs or cork their bats or using surveillance equipment to illegally steal signs or trick the umpire by some sleight of hand or even those who use greenies are mostly viewed as rogues. People who take the hard PEDs like steroids are mostly viewed as terrible people. It’s an interesting moral line we draw in the sand.

Gaylord Perry was one of the baseball’s most lovable rogues. There was an odd sort of honesty in his con. He called his autobiography “Me and the Spitter” and his perpetual denials that he ever spit on, grease or cut a baseball were always given with a little wink. One of my favorite stories about Perry is when his daughter Allison was five years old, she was asked by someone if her Daddy really threw a spitball. She did not hesitate. ‘It’s a hard slider,” she said.

Perry would do anything at all to distract a batter. The spitball was one distraction. But he would also pretend to use the spitball. He would touch at his hat, his shoulder, back to his hat, his chest, as if he was definitely doing something … and they would throw a dry pitch but the hitter was already so spooked he was all but useless. One of my favorite pitches Perry threw — one that shows how far he was willing to go in his art of sleight-of-hand — was something called the Puff Ball. He would load up on the resin bag and so when he threw the pitch, this big puff of resin smoke would form and the hitter would have a hard time even finding the ball, much less hitting it. The puff ball was outlawed in 1981 strictly because of Perry.*

*One more interesting note about the Puff Ball: Brilliant reader Kenneth writes in that he once asked Perry about it, and Perry said that he actually used FLOUR to create the puff. He would put the flour in the resin back. He says that because of this, umpires started handling resin bag duties instead of home teams.

Perry and Nolan Ryan were not exactly contemporaries — Perry was 8 1/2 years older than Ryan — but they were fairly close. Perry’s first full season was 1964 and his last was 1983. Ryan’s first full season was 1972. and his last was 1991 or 1992. There’s more than a decade of overlap.

They pitched almost exactly the same number of innings — Ryan pitched 5,386, Perry 5,350. If you asked most mild baseball fans who was the better pitcher, they would certainly say Ryan. I don’t think so and I don’t think it’s even that close.

Ryan, as discussed in his Top 100 article, was both the most unhittable and self-defeating pitcher in baseball history. He struck out more hitters and gave up fewer hits than anyone ever. He also walked more hitters, gave up more stolen bases, threw more wild pitches and made more errors than anyone. This made him a whirlwind of a player, one-of-a-kind. But Gaylord Perry, with much less natural talent but much more resourcefulness, was a more effective pitcher.

First, you look at their career numbers: We’ll round out the numbers to keep it simple. Ryan struck out 2,000 more batters than Perry, gave up 1,000 fewer hits and allowed 25% fewer home runs. It does not seem like a pitcher should be able to overcome such disadvantages.

But then you look at those others things i mentioned. Perry walked 1,400 or so fewer batters — so his WHIP is actually lower than Ryan’s. He threw 100 fewer wild pitches. Perry was a genius at keeping runners on — almost half the runners who tried to steal against him were thrown out. Batters stole 500 more bases against Ryan. Perry also made fewer than half the errors that Ryan did.

When you total it all up, Perry gave up 300 fewer runs. He completed 80 more games than Ryan even though Ryan started more games. His ERA is lower, his ERA+ is higher, and if you care about such things he won more games with a higher winning percentage.

How about individual seasons? Peak performance?

Ryan’s best year was probably 1977. He went 19-16 with a 2.77 ERA, 22 complete games, 341 Ks in 299 innings.

Perry’s best year was probably 1972. He went 24-16 with a 1.92 ERA, 29 complete games, 234 Ks in 342 innings.

What year was better? Perry’s. Ryan walked 204 batters in his best year. He threw 21 wild pitches. He committed six errors and started two double plays. he gave up 18 unearned runs. His WHIP was a not-so-good 1.344. He allowed 43 stolen bases. It was a marvelous season, but marred by those things his ERA was higher than Perry’s.

Perry meanwhile walked just 82 batters, threw 11 wild pitches (he too, because of the greaseball, was susceptible to wild pitches, though not like Ryan), committed two errors and started seven doubles plays. He gave up six unearned runs — one-third of Ryan’s total. His WHIP was an incredible 0.978 — Perry is one of only 10 pitchers since Deadball to throw 300 innings in a season and have a WHIP less than 1.* Five people stole a base against him that year. Five. Eight were caught trying.

*Eight of these 10 pitchers are in the Hall of Fame. The only two who are not are Vida Blue in 1971 and Denny McLain when he won 30 games in 1968. Both of them won MVP awards.

Ryan and Perry’s second-best, third best, fourth-best, fifth-best seasons all line up more or less like that, with Ryan’s having more impressive power numbers, and Perry having better overall seasons. If you look at Wins Above Average — a little bit of a different statistic than Wins Above Replacement because the baseline is an average player — you see that Ryan was two wins better than an average pitcher eight times in his career, a nice number. Perry did it 12 times.

Here’s the thing: If the devil came up to you and said, “Pick one pitcher and he must throw a no-hitter or you lose your soul,” you would first of all freak out, but secondly you would pick Nolan Ryan over anybody ever. When he had his best stuff, he was better than Gaylord Perry or, really, anybody else.

But the devil scenario isn’t a real test of greatness. The real test, I think, comes not only from being great on your best day but from being good on your worst. Put another way: A high school football coach once told me that he would always prefer a team that never beat itself over a team that could beat anybody. It didn’t make a lot of sense to me at the time, but I think I know what he meant. Gaylord Perry would throw greaseballs and puffballs and doctored balls or he would pretend to throw them. He would cheat (daring people to catch him) or pretend to cheat (daring people to catch him). He punctuated his pitching with all sorts of gesticulations to confound everyone, he altered his delivery to keep everyone off-balance, he kept runners on base with the eye of a hawk, he got the sure outs and he was never afraid to retreat if he felt at a disadvantage. Nolan Ryan would beat you. Gaylord Perry would not beat himself. And I think Gaylord Perry was the better pitcher.

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85 Responses to No. 83: Gaylord Perry

  1. hunsecker says:

    As far as I can tell skimming game logs, Perry and Ryan faced each other exactly once: July 7, 1973.

    Perry: 9 IP (CG), 7 H, 1 BB, 6 K, Game Score 68
    Ryan 8.2 IP, 11 H, 4 BB, 6 K, Game Score 60

    The Angels won 3-1, and Ryan got the win. The big hit was a two-run HR by Mike Epstein in the 6th, with Frank Robinson scoring ahead of him.

    • hunsecker says:

      Meant to add: one earned run for Ryan, two for Perry (plus one unearned).

    • Question Mark says:

      Perry and Ryan only faced each other ONCE? That’s the most astounding stat yet.

      • hunsecker says:

        Surprising, yes. The years when you would have expected them to face each other periodically, 1972-1977 (same division for three of those years), Perry was always drawing Tanana or Bill Singer or Clyde Wright—everyone except Ryan. (Texas also had Jenkins and then Blyleven around.) Prior to ’71, Ryan wasn’t starting regularly, ’78-80 they crisscrossed leagues, in ’81 Perry only had 23 starts for Atlanta, and after that they’re in different leagues again.

    • The two things that amaze me about this is first, Epstein was terrible when he was with the Angels. Perry must have been kicking himself after that game. Second, when Ryan had an ugly line like that one, there was usually a 4 or 5 run inning involved and an early exit. A very weird game.

  2. Scott says:

    “They asked my daughter where does your daddy keep his stuff. She said, ‘He keeps it in his garage.”

  3. Jerry Skurnik says:

    Gaylord Perry is in the Hall of Fame, in spite of having admitted doctoring baseballs. In other words, Perry has admitted to using performance enhancing substances, even though he put them on the baseball and not in his own body. Now maybe his admission, in 1991, was a mistake. But if it wasn’t a mistake, what happens to the popular argument that Barry Bonds should be excluded from the Hall of Fame because we have evidence that he as used steroids. Can anyone argue that Perry should be in the Hall of Fame but Bonds should be excluded?

    • Keep in mind, what Perry did was legal (and more than legal, over the counter legal, which steroids never have been) earlier in his century. Many pitchers did so publicly, openly. What Bonds did was never something baseball players admitted doing; they knew it was wrong. Spitball have been associated with no physical harm to the pitcher. Steroids can cause all kinds of issues up to and including death; do you think Ken Caminiti would reconsider his choices if he knew what was in store for him? I would put both Bonds and Perry in my HOF, but I doubt there are many people who don’t think steroids are worse.

      • invitro says:

        My impression is that 99% of Caminiti’s troubles were due to cocaine and heroin, and not steroids. Is this mistaken? I think, well, hope, that Caminiti would reconsider his opiate use, but I doubt he’d reconsider his steroid use — it enabled him to buy more cocaine, for a longer time.

  4. johnq11 says:

    Perry admission to the HOF just highlights the double standards and hypocrisy of the selection process vis a vie steroid users, heck even suspected steroid users. You can add Sutton and Ford among contemporary cheating pitchers.

    Here’s a guy who not only admitted to cheating he celebrated it.

    Baseball writers and Baseball in general not only tolerated this behavior they celebrated it with dozens of “funny” anecdotes about Perry labeling it “gamesmanship.”

    Baseball is a very odd game when you think about it because it has had some tacit approval of cheating since the beginning. Whether it’s cutting grass lower or higher or flooding an infield with water. It can be changing the height of the mound or stealing the signs of an opponent. Maybe a deceptive balk move etc. Cheating is also encouraged because there’s no penalty system like you have in Football, Basketball and Hockey.

    Baseball is odd as well in that a home team can alter the the height or distance of the HR fence to benefit one or more of it’s players. Home teams can also expand or contract foul territory. They can also play around with the hitter’s backdrop. Imagine if the Boston Celtics decided to make their home court 10-20 ft longer or if they could change the height of the rim etc.

    I think cheating by pitchers is tolerated even promoted because the act itself is built on deception. The curve ball and the change up is all built on deception.

    But cheating or gamesmanship or getting an edge by a hitter is seen as horrible, dishonest even criminal behavior.

    • Cuban X Senators says:

      Seriously – you don’t think that football teams cut their grass to suit their teams? Never heard of the deadspots the Celtics coveted on the Garden floor? Or the size of the rinks in Boston & Chicago? Or ice conditions and bench door shenanigans in the NHL?

      I guess I should suspect not . . . as here we are talking about Hall consideration of those who gained legend by questionable means, and no one seems to remember that the air conditioning was jimmied with during that hallowed 10 inning World Series start we hear so much about the valor of (but without the remembrance of the chicanery).

      • johnq11 says:

        Seriously? you’re comparing the historical shenanigans in basketball, football, hockey to baseball???? Please, give me a break, not even close. Go back and research baseball history.

        Football, Basketball, and Hockey also have built in protections called penalties which baseball does not.

        • Cuban X Senators says:

          Baseball has ejections, does it not? Obstruction & Interference? Automatic balls (in the book at least) for taking too long between pitches? Balks? Catcher’s Interference? All of these are penalties imposed by arbiters. There’s just no grouping term for them all, as there is for other sports, but baseball has them.

          And while there are not the same mythos around playing grounds in other sports, it clearly exists in all sports with a home and an away team. Other team has a set of fast receivers? Water the field. Fast skaters? Leave puddles on the ice. What’s the first thing a hockey goalie does? Creates shavings in front of his goal to slow a puck — ain’t that akin to the small advantages we’re talking about?

          Save me the bluster and the shot in the dark about baseball scholarship credentials.

          • johnq11 says:

            How often does a player get ejected from a baseball game or is a catcher called for catcher’s interference??? And when is a pitcher charged an automatic ball for taking too long??

            Other sports have ejections as well.

            Gaylord Perry appeared in about 750 games and he was ejected once?? My God, he wrote a book bragging about how he cheated in baseball.

            I’m talking about a different sub-culture in baseball that tacitly encouraged cheating.

            Baseball cheating was celebrated even encouraged as part of the game. Sign stealing isn’t cheating it’s an “art-form.” Pitchers threw spitters, vaseline, and grease balls. They scuffed the balls with emory boards and belt buckles. Batters corked their bats with super balls and cork.

            Bobby Thompson’s “shot heard round the world” is celebrated as one of baseballs greatest moments yet it’s all based on a massive sign stealing operation by the 1951 Giants.

            Mike Scott was a borderline major league pitcher at 29 years old with no major league success then suddenly at 30 years old he starts scuffing the baseball wins 86 games a Cy Young, a second place Cy Young finish and 3 all star appearances over 5 seasons. And he almost pitched the Astros into the World Series.

            How about the Bossard”s family’s groundskeeping cheating. That was celebrated as gamesmanship.

            John McGraw antics. Hal Chase’s shenanigans.

            Norm Cash had his amazing .361 season using a corked bat.

            Amos Otis corked his bats for years.

            Baseball Gambling and throwing games is it’s own separate category.

          • Cuban X Senators says:

            You’re positing baseball is unlike other sports and then only exploring baseball, though Johnq. To determine dissimilarity you need to make observations on the two being compared, right?

            NFL teams doctor fields all the time for muddy conditions to slow a team, dry if you think you could out-run them. Rock hard if their back has a leg injury . . . Pete Rozelle stated as much when he tried in the late ’60s to have all teams go to turf for uniformity. Many teams refused.

            Boston Garden created advantages for the Celtics and the Bruins with a minefield of dead spot in the parquet & the Bruins benefiting from the size of the ice and the benches being uniquely flipped (no reason not to conform there except it confused visiting teams). And wasn’t there an NHL arena that had just one bench door on their visiting bench for years?

            Break-away jeseys . . . Stick ’em . . . Punching and eye gouging at the bottom of piles . . . There are reasons football coaches cover their mouths when calling plays . . . Black tape on stick blades is all about deception . . . Overly curving your stick blade

            Baseball doesn’t have penalties you posit, and when I list the penalties an ump is able to impose you say they don’t happen frequently. Really what you’re observing is that baseball is a non-contact sport . . . how often do you see a goalie’s pads measured, or the curve of a stick, or see an NFL team penalized for the field conditions? An NBA team for deadening a rim? You don’t — the penalty differences you seem to be observing are all of the contact variety.

            If we’re talking about solely mythos . . . It’s not just rule-bending/rule-breaking and non-standardization that is mythic in baseball. Baseball has more mythos of every variety. We tell stories about it more. Baseball heroes are more heroic. Baseball records are more monolithic.

            Essentially at the base of what you’re saying is that “baseball is a non-contact sport that we tell stories about more than other sports.” I agree with you that far.

            Do we tell baseball stories more because of its depth in history? –baseball’s professional league, having a good half century on the NHL and NFL and more than 75 years on the NBA, reaches back to another era. Does having roots in that time before the ubiquity of industrial standardization make baseball less regular & its roots before television mean it’s established traditions are more accepting of the covert?

            Is it that we take more enjoyment from villains neutered by a passage of time? We’ll love an outlaw on a horse with a six-shooter and maybe a Gatling gun gangster, but one with a dirty bomb in a briefcase is a little less fun?

            Do we also like our heroes distant? Do they need to be to remain heroic? Interesting that our first tv president was also the last whose portrait ever sold in mass quantities. Interesting that our heroes since need to leave us young. Or, in the case of the recently departed, was with us only in mind and thought for a quarter century.

          • Yes, lots of guys have corked their bats, contrary to all scientific evidence that it works. It doesn’t.

        • Spencer says:

          This is a really strange argument. Other sports have gamesmanship with their respective fields of play.

          And baseball has ejections, and fines.

          • Pete S says:

            what’s this nonsense about the Boston Garden, Cuban X. show me some evidence, buddy.

    • Ian R. says:

      Gaylord Perry was inducted in 1991.

      Barry Bonds first hit the ballot in 2012.

      We’re talking about an entire generation of sportswriters here. Obviously there’s some overlap between the 1991 electorate and the 2012 electorate, but it’s unfair to call the current BBWAA hypocrites because the decisions they’re making today don’t line up with those made by the BBWAA of two decades ago.

      • johnq11 says:

        There’s a an enormous overlap. Don’t forget that these writers have “lifetime” privileges for voting.

        • Ian R. says:

          True, but there’s a large amount of turnover as well. To throw down some numbers, in 1991, there were 342 voters who voted for Gaylord Perry. In 2013, there were 214 cast for Roger Clemens. It’s entirely possible that the majority of the still-living portion of those Perry voters were among the Clemens voters. Plus, that was Perry’s third time on the ballot; many of the Clemens non-voters may well have been one-year protests.

          It’s also entirely possible that over the course of 21 years, some of the voters’ views have changed. Perry’s use of the spitball was a fairly isolated thing; steroid use is widely viewed as an epidemic that threatened the integrity of the game. Do you think people would have voted for Perry if he were the top superstar of the “spitball era?” Do you think Clemens and Bonds would get nearly as much flack if it weren’t for all the other guys who were using at the time?

          I’ll also point out that while supporting Perry and not Clemens/Bonds may be inconsistent, it’s not, technically speaking, hypocrisy. To be hypocritical is to say one thing and do another – for instance, if I tell my kids to look both ways before crossing the street, but I don’t do so myself, I’m a hypocrite. I’m not a hypocrite if I punish one kid but not the other for failing to look both ways – unfair, yes, but not hypocritical.

          A better argument would be to say that the very writers who failed to expose the rampant cheating of the late ’90s and early aughts are now judging the cheaters without taking responsibility themselves.

          • johnq11 says:


            Valid points.

            I think there is a change in the way writers look at cheating as compared to 20-30 years ago. I think there’s a lot less tolerance for stuff like scuff balls spit balls etc. I don’t think a situation like Mike Scott, Don Sutton and Whitey Ford would be openly tolerated anymore. Back then that type of stuff was looked upon as “gamesmanship.”

            My basic premise was that there has been a type of cheating built in to the folklore of baseball that’s basically called gamesmanship. And there has been a tacit approval of cheating in baseball history. An attitude like “as long as you don’t get caught you can get away with it.”

            I think baseball’s steroid problem partly came from this tacit approval of cheating.

            As far as Perry goes, I think the writers would be much more critical of him today then they were in 1991.

            As far as the hypocrisy goes, I guess were dealing in semantics. I see their voting pattern as being hypocritical and inconsistent between their vote of Perry in 1991 and their non vote of Bonds or Clemmens in 2012.

            You’re right in that the larger hypocrisy is how these writers celebrated those steroid users in the 90’s only to sharply criticize and judge these same people in 2013.

          • What is the most cherished record in baseball, if not all of major league sports, the ones that some non-fans would know or have heard of? None in football come to mind, or hockey. Maybe 100 points in a game for Wilt Chamberlain. But in baseball, 61 homers has had its own movie. Wait: steroids changed it from 61 to 70 to 73, didn’t just break it by one or three, but smashed it*. There is outrage there. Perry, for all his cheating, set no significant records, and certainly broke no cherished records. That is why there is more outrage about steroids than there was about any other performance enhancement in the history of the game.

            * I would argue the next most widely known record was career homers, from 714 to 755 to 762. Think of it: Bonds broke the career record by less than McGwire broke the single season record, although if the owners hadn’t colluded to keep him out of the game, his final season indicates he still had some gas in his tank. And 56 games is the other one that might have widespread consciousness.

    • ben says:

      Exactly how is “cutting grass lower or higher or flooding an infield with water” cheating?

  5. Alejo says:

    Oh, but there is such a drug (or drugs). Just ask Roger Clemens.

    While it is not a federal crime to spit on a baseball, it is a crime to traffic with steroids. Ethically, doctoring a ball is indeed wrong, but not in the same league with financing, and using, a world-class, state-of-the-art doping programme designed to keep you playing at the highest level for decades, introducing other players into it (e.g Gary Sheffield, Andy Pettite and A-Rod’s groupies in the Yankee clubhouse) and then denying it before law enforcing agents.

    This rather massive difference of magnitude is what makes Perry a rogue and Bonds a pariah.

    • Well said. But steroid apologist never get it. They are alway looking for an excuse for PED users. There are bad guys in the HOF already (so what’s a few more), other HOFers used greenies (one drug is the same as another) or baseball has cheaters in the HOF (like Perry). Perry is an interesting case, and you can reasonably make the argument that the spitter unfairly enhanced his performance and his numbers. If you believe that’s true, then I would agree he should not be a HOFer….. But you can’t reasonably argue the other way around. If Perry was a cheater then that does not give Bonds and everyone else a free pass.

      Perry was one part pitcher, one part chemist, one part snake oil salesman. Part of his shtick was to get in your head and believe he was cheating, when he wasn’t. He had a very good forkball and so if some thought it was the spitball, then all the better.

      But, I read Me and The Spitter. He starts off by describing how he was hanging on by a thread until, in the heat of a pressure situation, he started using the spitter…. With spectacular success. That, according to Perry himself in his book, was the reason for his turnaround and future success. Substitute “I started using steroids in a pressure situation to stay in the game” for ” I started using the spitter in a pressure situation to stay in the game”…. And there you have the moral equivalent.

      In both cases it took baseball a long time to eradicate the cheating…. And of course, the steroids are still an issue today, while the practice of regularly inspecting and removing balls from play have pretty much eradicated the spitball. But either way, both are wrong and Perry should not be in the HOF. But he was judged by the standards of his day and he’s in. So what can you do? But that doesn’t give steroid users a pass.

      • I have discussed this topic with MDs who are baseball fans. If presented an impoverished minority teenager, whose life expectancy and quality of life are low, for some steroids might so drastically improve their quality of life (and indeed, the quality of their entire extended family) that the ethical thing to do is to subscribe steroids, risks and all. There are risks associated with Tommy John surgery; any general anesthesia has a small but non-zero risk of death, but doctors perform it to extend careers. Are steroids different? The major issue is that the big cheats had no decent quality of life argument. Bonds was rich, from a rich family, when he started juicing. Clemens had made millions before he started, as did McGwire. But what about ARod? If he truly started in high school, is it not possible that his entire career comes from a bottle? This is a non-trivial issue. And every MLB team doctor gives steroid injections several times a season when medically indicated for reducing inflammation. So it’s not the drug itself, but the circumstances under which it is taken (and in some countries, it *is* over the counter).

        • johnq11 says:


          I can’t respond to other post for whatever reason, so I’ll respond here.

          Yeah, for a variety of reasons pitching records and milestones are not held in the same regard as hitting milestones and records. The way the game is played has also changed radically especially in the area of pitching. Pitchers use to start 40-50 games a season and throw 400-450 a season. Then you go back to the 1880’s and guys started 60 games and threw 500 innings. It’s impossible for a pitcher to break the single season win mark or era title. It’s probably impossible for a pitcher to break the single season K mark because of innings restrictions.

          Then you even have Pedro Martinez breaking the single season Whip mark in 2000 and nobody cares. Bret Saberhagen broke the single season K/BB mark in 1994 and nobody cared. Cliff Lee came really close to breaking it in 2010 and nobody cared.

          I think a lot of that is the arbitrariness of the media in the way they cover and promote these things.

          There are also offensive marks that nobody cares about as well. Ask even the most hardcore baseball fan who holds the single season Doubles and Triples mark or the single season Run scored or RBI mark and they probably couldn’t tell you.

          I think the HR mark was slow to evolve so that helped, plus the most famous player in MLB history held it for a long time which helped as well.

          You’re absolutely right that the media really didn’t care about steroids until players started hitting 50-60 HR with regularity and Maris’ mark was broken 6 times in 4 years.

        • For the record stop confusing anti inflammatory corticosteroids with performance enhancing anabolic steroids. A number of people have used these two substances interchangeably. They’re not close to the same thing.

  6. coolromeo says:

    It’s not just that steroids, like spitballs, is cheating (now, anyway). It’s that steroids wreck your body and we don’t want people to have to do that to compete. (In baseball, anyway.)

  7. Cathead says:

    Let us say that we allowed PED use in baseball even without a doctor’s prescription. First, we have to excuse the fact that it is illegal to obtain or use such prescriptions, and it is illegal for doctors or psuedo-doctors (e.g. Biogenesis) to dispense them without a valid medical reason. Second, players have to make a decision whether to risk their health and even lives (e.g. Steve Bechler) for the purpose of enhancing on-field performance. Teams might even pressure players to do so. Fans certainly would. Teammates likely would. And the money is tempting. Those pressures would reach down to every level of play, including underage players in high school trying to impress scouts.

    That is your moral dilemma with with PED’s. That was the pressure facing players 15 years ago when roids were rampant.

    Spitballs are child’s play compared with this. No one ever died or had health repercussions from a spitball.

  8. Alejo says:

    If I picture myself spitting on a ball, hiding it from the umpires, pitching it… well, that may seem like fun in a roguish way.

    If I picture myself conspiring with medical charlatans, having people injecting my butt year after year with a substance that will make my testes shrink and my body grow into a muscular monstrosity and doing it for the ambition to wipe everyone off the record books to put myself in it…

    Yeah, I mean, it’s only human to like Perry and be dismissive of Bonds, Clemens et al.

    • True, but you have to give baseball credit for cracking down on cheating. So, I think that whole idea of a lovable rogue who keeps circumventing the rules is a thing of the past. Not that cheating doesn’t occur. But when found out, it’s now punished very harshly.

  9. Rich Horton says:

    I disagree, for what it’s worth, about people using surveillance equipment to steal signs being considered just “rogues”. They are vile cheaters, pure and simple. (While people who steal signs using their eyes, while on second base or in the third base coaching box, are smart baseball men who should be celebrated for their acumen.)

    Otherwise your point stands, and I agree it’s a bit of a conundrum. And that said, Gaylord Perry would never be in my top 100 — and I don’t think it’s (just) because of the cheating. Somehow he doesn’t “feel” like one of the very best players in baseball history.

    • Feelings will fool you. That’s why men sometimes marry strippers. They’re just so sure that “love will conquer it all”…. At least until she’s drained your bank account and slept with all of the Dallas Cowboys.

      That’s also why a lot of people think Jack Morris (or Nolan Ryan for that matter) was better than Bert Blyleven. But then there are those pesky statistical facts that put the lie to our feelings. Just like the idea of clutchiness. It feels so right…. But there isn’t much evidence that it exists.

      • Alejo says:

        I see the point about Morris, but concerning Ryan, you are barking. Check the stats once again because you were watching your stripper dance and missed a few numbers.

      • Rich Horton says:

        Sure, I agree. Perry, according to the record, was a better pitcher than it “feels like” he was. (To me.)

        Perhaps this is because of the spitball, and the other shenanigans. Perhaps that all makes me take him less seriously. I admit that.

        But I’ve never “felt” like Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer. For the record.

  10. Chad Meisgeier says:

    I agree that the moral outrage of cheating is overdone and I wish we could stay focused on what we can prove (i.e. what they did on the field).

    Now, just to continue playing along, my No. 83 would be Mike Piazza.

  11. ralphdibny says:

    I think the framing of this issue as “some cheating we care about, other kinds we don’t” isn’t accurate. After all, there are no current Gaylord Perrys, no lovable rogues tossing emery boards out of their back pockets while we all chuckle. Pitchers in the World Series these days are analyzed as heavily as the Zapruder film, with every shadow under a cap bill or smudge on the uniform evidence of nefarious purpose. I think it’s more “we didn’t used to care, and now we REALLY care.” Could there have been a steroids scandal in the 1960s? Reporters wouldn’t have reported it, and even if they did, would anyone have cared? Now we care about everything. We care if our utility infielder is overpaid relative to WAR, we care about umpires getting even the hardest calls right 100% of the time, and we care about all kinds of cheating. The more interesting question to me is, “Was steroid use so abhorrent that it made us all start caring about fairness in baseball more generally, or was the steroid scandal simply the biggest instance of a shift in attitude that had already occurred?” I vote for the latter.

    • It’s silly to think that steroids didn’t exist until 1985 and Jose Canseco. He was just so obvious. The Russians were using them in the 50s. But it was kept in check by the wrong headed baseball axiom that weightlifting would make you muscle bound. Tom Seaver was the first player I remember that had a weight lifting regimen and that was revolutionary for that time. Still you do have some players like Brian Downing, aka The Incredible Hulk, who suddenly transformed from a marginal backup catcher to slugger overnight….. Well before 1985. It’s hard to know who was using back in the day, but they existed.

  12. SWL says:

    How is it cheating if a player used steroids prior to there being a MLB ban on PED’s–and purchased and used said PED’s in a location where it was legal?

    • PEDs were not legal in baseball. There was just no testing. So, in fact, a rule was being broken.

      • Rhett Troactive says:

        That’s simply not true. The Commissioner can announce a new rule, but until it’s approved by both sides, it’s a proposal.

        But that doesn’t suit people’s gut feelings. Which is why Fay Vincent’s mystery PED memo, so totally ignored when he wrote it, has belatedly become a beloved document, unearthed and celebrated years later a la “Cooperstown, the true birthplace of baseball.”

        • SWL says:

          Looked into it some more. You are correct. Banned in 1991.

          • kehnn13 says:

            They were not explictly banned prior to 1991, but they were banned implicitly.

            Baseball’s first written drug policy was issued by commissioner Bowie Kuhn at the start of the ’71 season. The policy did not explicitly address anabolic steroids, but it did say that baseball personnel must “comply with federal and state drug laws.” Federal law at the time mandated that an appropriate prescription be obtained for the use of anabolic steroids.
            From SI.Com , David Epstein’s 2009 article The Rules, The Law, The Reality.

      • SWL says:

        Was not aware that they were not legal in baseball. When did they first become illegal? Is that documented?

  13. adam says:

    I’ve always viewed Perry’s antics, or crimes if you prefer, as not quite as “serious” a crime as PEDs or corking the bat, because he had to get away with it in full view of everyone.

    Good luck trying to do that today with hi-def cameras recording everything.

  14. Rick R says:

    The problem with including Gaylord Perry on your list of greatest players is that it isn’t clear that Perry would have had much of a career at all if he hadn’t learned the finer points of chicanery. At the age of 27, Perry was 24-30 with a 3.68 ERA during the Decade of the Pitcher (only once in his career had he sported an ERA+ over 90). Unlike Whitey Ford, who was an excellent pitcher who began to cheat when his stuff faded (the puff ball was a Ford favorite as well), Perry was a marginal pitcher who began to cheat in order to stay in the Big Leagues. Perry was more like Mike Scott, a mediocre pitcher who became great once he learned how to scuff the ball. There isn’t any question that Perry had a fantastic career once he did embrace cheating (including Cy Young awards in both leagues), but it’s unclear how much credit he should be given for pitching with an unfair advantage over his peers.

    • robert magee says:

      His lackluster W-L record more a reflection of usage. he only made 56 starts in his 1st 4 years vs 79 relief appearences. he did ave 200 innings the 2 yrs prior to that age 27 season, with era+ of 129 and 86. so he didn’t exactly come out of nowhere

      1972 he made 40 start with 40 decisions. for Good measure he picked a save in his only relief appearence

      • It is common for high strikeout rate pitchers to master their delivery later in life and become better with age. Looking at just this list alone, Curt Schilling was another such pitcher. Perry would not have had the career he had without the spitter, but I think he would still have had a decent career. It is also worth noting that his book came out in 1974, and he still had almost a decade of pitching left in him; it may have been written just to get a mental edge on hitters, in the same way that Manny suposedly would miss pitches or Maddux would allow hits on certain pitches in spring training. I *do* know that if I was throwing an illegal pitch as often as 10% of the time, I would not motivate every umpire in the sport to catch me doing it with such a book. As I learned a long time ago (in one of the worst papers I ever wrote for my history degree) people lie when they write books, and it is the reader’s job to distinguish truth from opinion from propaganda. I think Perry threw relatively few doctored baseballs, that most he threw were in the dirt so the scuffing could have happened on the ground or against the shin guards, and he milked it into the HOF by playing mind games on weaker hitters.

  15. buddaley says:

    I cannot remember my source, and I may have some detail(s) wrong, but I know I read or heard it somewhere that when he learned of the existence of the curve ball, the Harvard president banned its use in a game as it was intended to fool or mislead the batter, and that sort of sneakiness was unseemly for a Harvard man. This was in the mid 1800s.

    Apparently he considered it immoral to use trickery to win a game.

    • Karyn says:

      That was Charles William Eliot, who said, Well, this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely this is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” He was trying to do away with all sports at Harvard, except rowing and tennis. He apparently felt that football, hockey, and baseball were war-like, prone to breaking the rules/cheating, and set up larger men to dominate smaller men.

      He did pretty much make Harvard into what it is today, which forced other colleges and universities to make similar changes–organizing into schools & departments, adding classrooms, libraries and laboratories, built its endowment, and created research programs. He was also a major Progressive, allowing black Americans to attend (WEB DuDois), tried to admit Jews and Catholics, and opposed American imperialism. He also ushered in admissions standards, including the entrance exam and required previous coursework. This meant that prep schools and high schools built their curricula around Harvard’s requirements–changing secondary education into what we now know.

      (Thanks, Wikipedia! And thanks, Bud, for giving me the hint to look up this fascinating man.)

      • buddaley says:

        Thank you for the information. It occurs to me that I might have heard the story on the Ken Burns series about baseball history. Not sure, but I think so.

  16. MRH says:


    Don’t forget Bill Veeck on your list of lovable rule benders!

  17. Paul says:

    Just because Perry is in the HOF doesn’t mean that Bonds should be. One mistake doesn’t justify another.

  18. tombando says:

    What Joe is really doing here is trying to keep that there Narrative going, i.e. Nolan Ryan isn’t all that great and Here’s how I Justify it. Well okay there Joe Pos whatever it’s your top 100. Gaylord was a great pitcher, putting him over Ryan’s a coin flip however….Amazing eh? some schools of thought just can’t leave a guy alone. Ryan=Morris=Garvey, you know?

  19. Dan says:

    Greg Maddux was so skilled he could throw a pitch 10 inches outside the strike zone and fool the ump into calling it a strike. Gaylord was so skilled he could throw an illegal pitch but not have it ruled as such. Both succeeded by outsmarting the umpires.

    Fooling the ump is part of the game and the good ones learn how to do it without being caught. PEDs are scorned because the impression is that any bloke could do it. It does not require any skill to juice and the process of getting away with it involves subterfuge that has nothing to do with the actual game.

  20. tomchaps says:

    One brief comment about comparing spitballs to PEDs: I’ve just started the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, and found out that when the spitball was outlawed before the 1920 season, each team was allowed to designate a “bona fide spitball pitcher” on their roster who was allowed to continue to throw the pitch. Three of them–Red Faber, Stan Coveleski, and Burleigh Grimes–wound up in the HOF, and Grimes pitched until 1934. So, not only does baseball have a long history of legal spitballers, it also had a long twilight period of semi-legal spitballers, followed by a narratively-interesting few decades in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s when there was lots of accusations, and articles, and discussion–and yes, a lot of spitballs. And then it basically stopped, with Perry the last significant throwback to this long history.

    This all helps explain why the spitballing cheater in baseball might be seen as a lovable rogue while the hulking PED user an object of derision–there a lot of history behind it.

    • Jerry Skurnik says:

      I think all of them being White good old boys is why they were seen as lovable rogues

      • kehnn13 says:

        I didn’t realize that Roger Clemens was black!?!

      • mrgjg says:

        I was wondering how long it would take to turn this into a racial issue. Actually longer then I thought, so I guess that’s good.
        I’ll play. I bet you didn’t know that since the HOF instituted the current 5 yr. wait system, that of all 1st ballot position player HOF, the 9 lowest WAR of that group were all black.
        I’m not counting Jackie Robinson because he certainly would have been higher had he started before age 27.
        The point I’m making is, there was a time when your comment was most certainly true, but to continue to throw that nonsense out today doesn’t fly in the face of the evidence.

        • Alex says:

          Saying that Americans view misconduct differently depending on the race of the perpetrator flies in the face of the evidence?

          We’re not talking about how players are judged on the field — clearly the country has accepted the athletic merits of minorities. It hasn’t reached the point where black and white people who commit crimes (or in this case rule violations) are viewed in the same light.

          Race matters sometimes. “Turning this into a race issue” seems to be a bad thing in your mind, for whatever reason, but it’s unfair to summarily dismiss racial factors because they are inconvenient.

          • kehnn13 says:

            I think that, unless you have evidence that sportswriters and fans are viewing rules violations through a racist lens, it is a bit over the top to bring race into play here.
            I can certainly say for my self that i was just as troubled by the allegations against Roethlisberger as I was by the allegations against Kobe Bryant. In regards to steroids, I feel that Bonds belongs in the HoF, while I don’t believe that Clemens does (I think Bonds was deserving before he took steroids- I don’t feel the same about Clemens).

          • Alex says:

            And you can speak confidently for yourself. As for Americans in general, the criminal justice system produces many racial double standards. That’s a discussion for another blog, but race shouldn’t be immediately dismissed in these discussions any more than any other explanations around here in figuring out why one player is viewed differently from another.

            Several posts ago Al Oliver and Steve Garvey came up, and a ton of reasons were presented for why Garvey was viewed more favorably than Oliver. Most of the factors hypothesized likely contributed to the effect — race may have as well. We don’t know for sure and never will, but there’s no reason the role of race shouldn’t be taken under consideration as much as other proposed reasons. It clearly does affect how the population thinks about individuals, and denying that is naive.

            Therefore, I object mostly to the dismissal of race as a possible explanation, when it deserves the thought given to all other factors.

  21. Richard says:

    The book “Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Outside the Batter’s Box” (edited by Eric Bronson) has a couple of chapters on the ethics of “cheating” in baseball. From the review blurb by Bryce Christensen at Booklist: “We learn, too, how Gaylord Perry violated the ethical imperatives of Kant by throwing spitballs, yet may still have satisfied the more elastic moral demands of Aristotle.” So, whose ethical system are we talking about here? The categorical imperative of Kant (ALL cheating/lying is BAD, no matter what the circumstances), or a more relaxed standard (Cheating is OK if it helps others – i.e. your team win)? One of the chapters (I do not recall the author at present) discussed various types of chicanery from sign stealing to the Hidden Ball Trick, and concluded that lying / deception is acceptable where the intent is to deceive the opponent, but NOT when attempting to deceive the umpires. No “pitch framing” by catchers, in other words.

    By the way, I cannot recall an occasion where Perry was ever caught throwing a doctored baseball. I’m sure the Brilliant Readers here will be able to find them – if there were any….

    Personally? If you can get away with a little doctoring of the baseball, I don’t mind. That’s not in the same ballpark as using drugs that are alleged to improve your performance at the risk of serious health problems down the road.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, kehnn13.

    • Wilbur says:

      Interesting. He wasn’t really “busted” at all. He was ejected for being on the mound while a scuffed ball was in play.

      No doubt if it was anyone else on the mound, the umps would’ve thrown the ball out and played on. I think the umpires took advantage of the opportunity to eject Perry because of his rep.

      It wasn’t only Perry in those days. I remember Phil Regan, another known “greaser”, being shaken down by umpire Chris Pelakoudas more than once. Durocher blew a gasket each time.

  22. […] No. 83: Gaylord Perry- (Posnanski is counting down the 100 greatest baseball players. I highly recommend checking it out.) […]

  23. Pete S says:

    Roger Clemens is a Hall of Famer, prove me other wise

  24. Bruce Nave says:

    There were a lot of pitchers during his era who threw a lot of innings. Perry was the most durable of all of them. From 1967 through 1975, Perry averaged 39 starts, 23 complete games, 315 innings, and 19 wins. Those are averages. His low number of starts during that period was 37 (three times). His low number of innings was 280, in 1971. He exceeded 300 innings six times, including two seasons of 340 or more. His career splits also show his durability. He had a 2.62 ERA in September/October; his other stats were also best in those months. He had a 2.87 ERA in the 8th inning, 2.78 in the ninth, and 2.82 in extra innings. On June 27, 1980, at age 41, Perry threw a complete game, 4-0 shutout against the Twins at the old Arlington Stadium in Texas. The game time temperature was 109 degrees. (That’s not the heat index; that’s the temperature).

    Perry’s durability somehow gets overlooked due to all of the noise around spitballs, greaseballs, and puff balls. But the guy was as durable as any pitcher we’ve ever seen.

    • Bruce Nave says:

      Correction: The 7/27/80 game Perry pitched in Texas was a four hit, 5-0 complete game shutout, not a 4-0 shutout as I said.

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