Who’s the greatest cheater in the history of sports? Hint: It isn’t Tom Brady, and the sport involved isn’t professional football. In reality, compared to the cheater we’re about to call, Tom Brady’s alleged deflating of a football would not even move the needle. Without question, the best cheater in sports history is former baseball pitcher Gaylord Perry.
How did he cheat? It was simple. He cheated by applying saliva or another foreign substance to a baseball before pitching it to a batter, in clear violation of the principles. In the assumption that the “spitball” gave the pitcher an unfair advantage (it permitted the ball to travel erratically), the pitch was banned by major league baseball in 1920.
There was also a question of visibility. Back when there were no rules against applying foreign substances to a baseball, pitchers would load it up with tobacco juice and spittle, darkening the ball to the purpose where it was difficult for the batter to see, thus making it a “dangerous” pitch. In any event, the spitball was eventually banned.
Not that Perry was the only pitcher in post-1920 history to cheat by throwing a spitball. There were plenty of pitchers who were accused of “doctoring” the baseball with saliva, petroleum jelly, pine tar or emery boards. Perry just happened to be the most accomplished, the most persistent, the most creative, and the least principled.
How extravagant was Perry’s cheating? He was renowned for it. He made a career out it. He won two Cy Young Awards by cheating. He won 314 games by cheating. Indeed, he went as far as to glorify his reliance on cheating by authoring an autobiography, in 1974, entitled “Me and the Spitter.” Gaylord Perry was to cheating what Starbucks is to coffee.
So how did major league baseball ultimately handle Perry’s blatant cheating? With all of the complaints being registered by opposing batters, how did major league baseball deal with him? They enshrined him. It is true. They put him in the Hall of Fame. As former major league manager Gene Mauch wryly noted “He needs to be within the Hall of Fame with a tube of K-Y Jelly attached to his plaque.”
Gene Tenace, Perry’s catcher during his time with the San Diego Padres, provided another telling observation. Based on Tenace, “I can remember a couple of occasions when I could not throw the ball back to him because it was so greasy that it slipped out of my hands. I just walked out to the mound and flipped the ball back to him.”
For all his subterfuge, Perry wasn’t suspended until 1982, one year before he retired. Not until relatively late in his career did the umpires (on the insistence of opposing managers and players) reluctantly get around to examining the baseballs, but because Perry was such a wizard at concealing his artifice, they may never nail him.
As cyclist Lance Armstrong and track star Marion Jones famously said (before being exposed for the steroid-users they were), “I never failed a drug test,” which was true. Perry went them one better. He not only admitted to cheating, he was rewarded for it. Go figure.
David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book (“Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories”) will probably be published in June.