From Tobacco Patch to Pitcher's Mound: Gaylord Perry, the Spitter, and Farm Life in Eastern North Carolina

Article excerpt

GAYLORD PERRY THREW A SPITTER FOR THE FIRST, BUT HARDLY THE last, time in his career on the night of May 31, 1964. The circumstances were dire. The San Francisco Giants and the New York Mets, in the second game of the longest doubleheader in major league history (nearly ten hours of playing time), were locked in a 6-6 tie in the bottom of the thirteenth inning. Giants manager Alvin Dark waved Perry in from the bullpen but with little confidence. He was the eleventh pitcher on the Giants' eleven-man pitching staff and the only option left. With six years in and out of the minors, an ordinary fastball and inconsistent curve, and an earned run average of 4.77 in just seven appearances so far that year, the twenty-five-year-old Perry had every reason to believe that his career was hanging in the balance. So too did his catcher, Tom Haller, who upon greeting Perry on the mound said simply, "Gaylord.... it's time to try it out." They both knew what he meant. Under the tutelage of veteran spitballer Bob Shaw, Perry had been diligently working on his special (and illegal) pitch for over a year--"how to load it up, how big a load the ball would carry, where to drop the load, how to grip the ball, how to release it, how to control it," and "how to hide it from [the] four umpires" and the entire opposing team. "We're not high school boys anymore," Shaw had told him in no uncertain terms. "Hitters are taking the bread out of your mouth." (1)

Bread had always been "an issue" for Perry. The son of a sharecropper in the heart of the eastern North Carolina tobacco belt, Perry learned to survive by whatever means necessary. As he came of age in the 1940s and 1950s, tobacco farming remained premodern--unmechanized, labor-intensive, and poverty-stricken. The Perry family's yearly routine demanded hard, unrelenting work and afforded few pleasures, the chief of which was baseball. Throughout his major league career, Perry again learned to survive by whatever means necessary. "In this game," he said in a rare moment of candor, "you gotta do what it takes. If it takes bein' mean, you be mean. If it takes brnshin' a hitter back, you brush 'im back. If it takes bein' wet, you moisten up." And sure enough, "[w]ith his new spitter splashing in Haller's mit[t]," Perry pitched ten scoreless innings to beat the Mets that night, finished the 1964 season with twelve victories, and went on to become one of the premier pitchers of his generation. Perry returned to his farming roots and southern way of life even before retiring from the game in 1983, but this time his survival skills met with disaster. Overextended and deeply in debt, he could not prevent his 410-acre farm from failing in 1986 during the decade's devastating agricultural crisis. Baseball had offered Perry an outlet for the tensions of rural life, as well as a means of translating a core set of values into action. But prosperity on the farm, he learned, depended on a much more cruel reality. It rested not just on hard work, determination, and resiliency but also on favorable market conditions, over which--unlike the spitter--he had no control. (2)

Perry's experience--his innovative ascent from rural poverty to baseball stardom and subsequent descent to failure on the farm--raises new and important questions not only about his own life and career but also, more broadly, about links between rural southern culture and American popular culture. (3) The talent that propelled Perry to the National Baseball Hall of Fame was, in large part, inborn. But what was it about his rural background and values that nurtured that talent before major league scouts recognized his potential? How, in turn, did his storied baseball career--his mastery of the spitter, in particular--repeat and reinforce his grounding in rural southern culture, so much so that he chose to return to the farm after becoming a national sports hero? What role did race play in Perry's approach to baseball and farming? …