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Return of the Natives
Roy Blount Jr.
March 29, 1971
Down in east Carolina, where barn sides serve as backstops and baseball stirs the soul, the folk heroes are long, lean pitchers. Most stayed home, but the Perry boys of Farm Life have gone far
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March 29, 1971

Return Of The Natives

Down in east Carolina, where barn sides serve as backstops and baseball stirs the soul, the folk heroes are long, lean pitchers. Most stayed home, but the Perry boys of Farm Life have gone far

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One of Slim's former catchers, Archie Perry, is no relation to Jim and Gaylord but was one of the movers behind their Day. The night before the banquet Archie confided that he himself once threw seven out of 10 pegs from behind home plate into a bucket lying on its side next to second base, and he recalled doing so much catching and sweating in terrible heat that "my left leg would draw up under me. I've had boys in the Beaufort County League set on my leg to keep it from drawing up." Concerning Gardner, Archie said, "He was still pitching up into his 50s, and I tell you Slim was fast and had a curveball. The other team would hear Slim was going to pitch that day, and their feathers would droop. They dreaded him. I got a hole right here in the bone of my hand you could stick a big old country match head into from a pitch of his. And control....

"In those days we'd have two, three thousand people at a game, all up and down the foul lines and in the outfield, all over. They didn't do any fighting, they didn't do any drinking, they was orderly. But a close situation come up, and you'd have people yelling, '$10 for a hit!' or '$10 for a strikeout!' and waving bills in the air. One time Slim had the bases loaded and the score tied in the bottom of the ninth and nobody out, and blim, blim, blim, there was $90 on the line. You know, Slim didn't have any teeth, and he said to me, 'Don wuy 'bout it, I 'mona strackum at.' Well, he throwed nine pitches."

Asked whatever happened to Slim, Archie said, "Whiskey. Farmin'. Coonhuntin'. He finally died."

As for Evan Perry, he is Jim and Gay-lord's father, and he brought them up in Farm Life, which is a cluster of farms just outside Williamston. Evan sat at the head table during the Perry Day banquet and heard Evan Griffin, a local insurance man and tobacco auctioneer, tell about a memorable local pitching feat back in 1941. Jim and Gaylord were toddlers, and Slim Gardner was evidently laid up. It was one of the hottest days in memory. A local farmer left off "following the south end of a northbound mule," as Griffin put it, in 100° heat and pitched Farm Life to a 4-1 victory over White Post in the first game of a Saturday afternoon doubleheader. And then, when Farm Life's second pitcher didn't show, this farmer pitched and won another complete game 9-3. "Those were the days when only big farmers had tractors," said Griffin, "and the horseflies were fat and lazy. The pitcher was Evan Perry."

Apparently Evan neglected to swim anything over half a mile or so wide between games, and no big-leaguer is said to have sworn that he threw every bit as hard as Bob Feller. (That being what Jimmy Brown, a North Carolinian who was an infielder for the St. Louis Cardinals in the '30s and '40s and who batted against Feller in his time, is said to have sworn about Slim Gardner. Rudy York came barnstorming through Farm Life during his prime as an American League slugger, they say, and Slim struck him out twice.) But they claim that Evan had speed and a curve he wasn't afraid to use on 3-and-2, and fine control, and Jim says his daddy's knuckleball was as good as Hoyt Wilhelm's.

Big-league scouts approached Evan, as they did Slim and Archie and others, but it was still the Depression in eastern North Carolina and, like Slim and Archie, Evan was dirt poor and had responsibilities. Evan was only 18 when Jim was born and 20 when Gaylord came along. In the summer a man had to spend five "kin till kint" (from when you just kin see the sun till you just kint) days a week and at least half of Saturday in the fields if he was going to keep his tenancy on a little piece of land. Evan had to have a little piece of something to keep his family on, and minor league pay wasn't nearly enough to provide for them all. So Evan confined his pitching to the Beaufort County League—one year, he remembers, he was 13-4—and to workouts with Jim and Gaylord.

They would play together at lunchtime and after chores, when there was still light. "Sometimes we only had one ball, one glove and one bat," says Jim. "So the pitcher never had a glove. And we frequently made our own balls."

The Perry boys' mother, Ruby, used to think "it was kind of a silly waste" when her sons asked for yarn and thread from her sewing basket. "I didn't know it was going to help the boys get where they are now," she says.

"We'd get a hard rubber ball from our sister Carolyn," says Jim. "You know, the kind girls play jacks with. Then we'd wrap it in yarn and thread and cover it with some black tar paper Dad used to hold tobacco leaves together for curing. It didn't look like much, except that it was sort of round. But it did the job and it didn't cost us anything."

Sometimes they would use a walnut or a rock for the core of the ball, and Evan says he has used an old oak root for a bat in his time. Archie Perry says his first uniform was made by his mother out of Smith-Douglass fertilizer sacks, and when he bent down to catch he had "SD" on his bottom. Even in the Beaufort County League they would tape and nail up a broken bat before giving up on it. All this, says Jim, "just made us appreciate it that much more when we got to the big leagues. I'd see them throw out a bat with just a little nick on it and I'd say, 'We wouldn't even have taped that around home.' "

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