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This past Nov. 10 was Jim and Gaylord Perry Day in Williamston, N.C. (pop. 7,000), where the Perry boys got started playing baseball in a pasture full of weeds. In their honor a barbecue and Brunswick stew banquet was held in the high school gym, and there would have been a parade if sudden showers had not withered all the crepe paper on the float. It was a fine occasion, rain or no, but not quite consummated. People kept mentioning Slim Gardner and his era. It was as though inside Jim and Gaylord Perry Day there was another more fundamental Day. Call it Slim Gardner Memorial Southern Pasture Baseball Day.
Southern-pasture baseball, like ghetto-schoolyard basketball, is a distinct tradition and the product of indigenous needs and resources. As a boy on pavement and in and out of doorways takes to dribbling and the give-and-go, a boy surrounded by fields, crab apples, rocks, mud clods and the broadsides of barns takes to chunking, and you can't make a football out of a green unhusked walnut and tape. These and other factors have given rise to such good old boys of national note as Preacher Roe of Ash Flat, Ark., who was 6'2" and 170 pounds, and once said he knew he had lost his fastball when he let slip a wild pitch and had time to yell "look out!" three times. On a local level this tradition has produced the community pitcher, an institution comparable to the village priest, the corner druggist and the local Confederate veteran. Slim Gardner and his teammate Evan Perry were community pitchers.
Some other Southern rural facts of life boosting baseball are: a shortage of the flashier diversions; work that instills great doggedness and tensile strength, if not 100% fluidity; a desire for some more sociable and celebrated outlet for persistency than just hard work; an attunement to long, hot, ordered periods of time, compared to which six-run innings are brisk; and an urge to get away to the city.
Jim and Gaylord did get away—to Minneapolis and San Francisco, respectively, to make their fortunes—but Slim Gardner did not. For a traditionalist's taste, the Perry boys got away too far (much farther than Preacher Roe); a Slim Gardner Day would have had more flavor. For instance, no catcher of Slim's would have been reduced to saying, as Giant Catcher Dick Dietz said about Gaylord from the Perry Day banquet dais, "You know he's going to give you 120% on every pitch." It sounded like Gaylord (pronounced GAYlerd), a farm-growed pitcher, were some kind of stock-market bubble. By 1985 there may be 48 big-league teams, the minimum pension may be up to $500 a week and testimonial speakers may be saying, "He gives you 280% out there." But 280% of what? When Slim Gardner and Evan Perry were pitching around Williamston in the old days, 100% was good value.
Not that there are any flies on Jim and Gaylord. (Too few, in a manner of speaking.) They are by all accounts likable, upstanding men, and last season they became the first brothers ever to oppose each other in an All-Star Game. In 1970 Jim, the ace of the Minnesota Twins, won the Cy Young Award in the American League, and Gaylord was runner-up to Bob Gibson for that award in the National. With 24 and 23 wins, respectively, they became the first brothers ever to win 20 games each in the same season and they fell just two short of the alltime victories by a pair of brothers record—49, set by Dizzy (30) and Paul (19) Dean for the Gas House Cardinals in 1934, the year Dizzy predicted that "me 'n' Paul'll win 45," and they outdid themselves.
But such achievements invite comparison with some lean and lanky country-boy pitchers who were more than pretty fair: Cy (for Cyclone) Young himself, out of Gilmore, Ohio; Walter Johnson, out of Humboldt, Kans.; and Slim Gardner, out of the same tobacco fields whence the Perrys sprung. Gaylord and Jim are fine family men and competitors, ranking professionals and highly diversified businessmen. Slim Gardner was a plain old bony hardscrabble boy with no teeth—and a legend in his own time.
One of the authorities on that legend is Judge Elbert S. Peel Jr. of Williamston, a historian of the area's pitchers. Billy Wynne of the Angels is from there, Catfish Hunter of the A's is from nearby Hertford, and Judge Peel believes that Williamston Kid—the colt someone was supposed to have made $46,000 on from the Denny McLain bookmaking operation—was named for a Williamston pitcher who showed promise some years back but never got out of the minor leagues. And then there was Slim Gardner, whose glory was in the '30s and '40s.
"They are still talking about Slim down in New Bern, N.C.," says Judge Peel, "for his exploits during a July 4 morning and afternoon doubleheader one year. He shut out the New Bern Bears in the morning game, had a big barbecue lunch, swam the mile-wide Neuse River and then proceeded to shut out the Bears that afternoon."
Virtually everyone in Williamston who is or has been a farmer—including the Perry brothers, who are both 6'4"—is at least more nearly slim than fat. Slim Gardner is said to have been slimmer than almost anybody, even during the Depression, and he was strong as a mule and 6'6". They say he pitched some minor league ball but couldn't make enough of a living out of it to support his family.
So he settled for "coming right up out of the fields" (as people in Williamston invariably put it) on summer Saturday afternoons to pitch, at $10 a game plus certain spontaneous ancillaries, for the Farm Life community team in the local semipro Beaufort County League, now defunct.