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Gaylord Perry is bald on top and gray on the sides, and like many men over 40, he worries about his weight, which is considerable. "He weighs a thousand pounds, says his outspoken wife, Blanche, exaggerating slightly. "I could lose 10 pounds," says Perry, meaning he'd like to lose 20 and get down to around 210. And yet he remains an imposing figure, tall (6'4") and for all his breadth, still somehow rangy, long of arm and leg, broad of shoulder. He is a North Carolina farmer, a Southern man, a hard man, shrewd and suspicious. Anyone with a name like Gaylord is either country or drawing room, and Perry is indisputably country. In eastern North Carolina, where he was born and reared, and where he still lives, the name is pronounced gay-lerd, not gay-lahd, so that any trace of cultivation has been hayseeded out of it. He is a man who looks better in overalls than in designer jeans.
Perry, who will be 43 on Sept. 15, is also a pitcher, so skilled and durable that in this truncated season he is approaching his 300th career win, the most elusive milestone in baseball, one reached by only 14 men. Perry's steady rise through the ranks of lifetime winners has been obscured somewhat by controversy over his now-admitted use of illegal spitballs and greaseballs. It may, in fact, come as a shock to his accusers that as of last Sunday he needed only five more wins to join the sainted company of such immortals as Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, 300-plus winners all.
For many years, 300 wins for a pitcher and 3,000 hits for a batter were considered comparable achievements. Fifteen players have gotten 3,000 hits, but seven have joined the club in the last 10 years. The last pitcher to win 300 games was Early Wynn, who got his 300th in 1963. Warren Spahn won his 300th in 1961. The last pitcher to win that many before Spahn was Lefty Grove, who won his 300th 20 years earlier. Both Grove, who pitched for 17 years, and Wynn, who lasted 23, retired with exactly 300 wins. Of the 14 300-winners, 11 got theirs before 1930, nine before 1920 and eight before the U.S. entered World War I. All 14 are in the Hall of Fame.
Consider some other numbers. Until Ted Williams hit his 400th homer in 1956, only four men had hit that many—Babe Ruth (714), Jimmy Foxx (534), Mel Ott (511) and Lou Gehrig (493). In the last 25 years, 14 players besides Williams have surpassed that total and three of them, Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell, Boston's Carl Yastrzemski and New York's Reggie Jackson, are still playing and counting. In the same period, membership in the 500-homer club has increased from three to 12. Only six pitchers have struck out more than 3,000 batters, but four have reached that figure in the last three years, Perry among them. In fact, Perry might even pass Walter Johnson's alltime strikeout total of 3,508, for he is only 199 Ks away. But strikeouts, like wins, come harder when you are older.
There are three other active pitchers—Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer—who have a chance at winning 300, but all are more than 40 wins away and all are over 35. Seaver and Palmer have become increasingly injury-prone, and Carlton, who will be 37 in December, will have to win at least 10 games in each of the next four seasons to make it, a task certainly within his capabilities, but one not easily accomplished in a craft so fraught with peril as pitching. A sore arm here, a protracted player strike there, and poof goes the career. To cite an example, Juan Marichal won 221 games by the time he was 34, but won only 22 his last four years, retiring at roughly the same age Carlton is now. As near as he is to the magic figure, Perry could be the only 300-game-winner of his generation. Or, having had nine starts this season taken away from him, he could become a historic near-misser. Either way, statistical buffs will be more concerned than the protagonist of this little drama.
Perry dearly wants his 300 wins, but neither his life nor his livelihood depends on it. He has joked that there is no dishonor in being the game's only 299-game winner, and he says with a straight face that he would have retired after last season with 289 wins had he not been drafted as a free agent by a team as close to his farm as Atlanta. In 1979, the year after he won his second Cy Young Award, he quit the San Diego Padres in early September because they wouldn't trade him to a team closer to his home. "I just got mad and went back to the farm," he says. "I won the Cy Young for them and they wouldn't give me a nickel or trade me to a team in the East. Besides, they didn't give me the impression they wanted to win." And that, for someone as fiercely competitive as Perry, is the darkest crime of all. He had 12 wins when he walked off, and he missed, conservatively, six more starts. The Padres did finally trade him to Texas, which in turn traded him to the Yankees last summer. The Braves then picked him in the free-agent reentry draft and signed him to a one-year contract for $300,000. To Perry's way of thinking, they kept him in baseball—for in Atlanta he is only a one-hour flight plus a 2½-hour drive from home sweet home. With a team that close. Perry doesn't see his career ending prematurely. If he is to be denied 300 this year, there is always the next—if the Braves still want him.
"Sure, I'd like to get the 300th this season," he says. "I started thinking about it after I'd won 21 for San Diego when I was 40. I enjoy the game and I'd like to play as long as I can do well for a club. It's a pretty good half-year job. You meet some great people and you can always stay away from the wrong ones. Moving around is the hardest part."
Every year the farm takes up more of his life. In a year or two it will most likely be his life. Numbers don't mean all that much to a country boy, anyway, unless they're on the bottom line after harvest. Perry has his land, and he works it hard. He was born the son of a sharecropper in Farm Life, N.C., and he still lives nearby, in Williamston, on a farm, only now in a fine five-bedroom house with Blanche and their four children. Amy, 18, Beth, 17, Allison, 15, and Gay-lord Jackson (Jack) Perry Jr., 14. He is not one to stray from his roots.
It is a hot and steamy day in late June, between seasons, so to speak, and Perry is driving a pickup truck over the dusty roads that twist through his 300 acres, just outside town. A tractor, operated by his farm manager, Sherwood Howell, is spreading Nova Scotia Landplaster, a white powdery soil-conditioner, over his peanut crop, and a bulldozer is clearing hardwood trees—oak and poplar—for an irrigation pond. "It takes a real touch to run one of those," Perry says in admiration of his ' "dozer man." Perry's accent is soft at the edges, with traces of its Elizabethan antecedents, but it is pure Southern with its "yonders" and "ya heahs."
He stops the truck on a roadside, not far from the house, where his son. Jack, is waiting for him. They take a ball and gloves from the back of the truck and start a lazy game of catch under the watchful eye of Bobo, a black Labrador, who is clamoring to get into it. The skies are blackening in the afternoon heat, and the air is heavy with the threat of rain. Jack, a rangy lefthander, has his father's easy motion, but he is eager to test his arm. He throws Perry a curve. "You loosen up before you start throwin' that stuff, boy," Perry admonishes him. "You throw too many of those and you'll lose your fastball. You're not old enough to have a curve yet."