“Mark my words a man will land on the moon before Gaylord Perry hits a home run.”
Giants manager Alvin Dark’s response when Harry Jupiter of the San Francisco Examiner told him Gaylord Perry was looking good during batting practice in 1964. Perry, like most pitchers, was not a threat with the bat, just his arm. Pitchers are paid to get outs not hit baseballs. Few were ever better at pitching while having minimal ability to hit a baseball than Gaylord Perry.
The Space Race was in high gear in 1964. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had achieved space flight and cosmonauts and astronauts were following Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn into Space. President John F. Kennedy committed America to “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” After Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon Johnson sought to fulfill the mission. Project Mercury was winding down as Project Gemini ramped up. Glenn’s three orbits of the earth two years earlier was light years behind Gordon Cooper’s day long Space flight.
Gaylord Perry was outstanding on the mound, winning 314 games. (National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Back on earth, 25 year old Gaylord Perry was establishing himself as a Major League pitcher. Entering his third season, Perry was 4-7 with a 4.46 ERA in 119 innings. Alvin Dark and the Giants were just two seasons removed from winning the National League Pennant. San Francisco was once again among the front runners for the Pennant and Dark needed every player to contribute in the field and at bat. Space was on everyone’s mind and Perry could not hit.
Gaylord Perry finished the 1964 season 12-11 with a 2.75 ERA in 206.1 innings, the best of his young career. However, Dark’s words about Perry’s hitting abilities appeared true. Perry went 3 for 56 at the plate, a .054 Batting Average, .071 OBP, .071 SLG, and .156 OPS. His -56 OPS+ was otherworldly, considering a 100 OPS+ means a player is league average. Gaylord Perry was 156% worse than an average Major League hitter.
Gaylord Perry pitched for 22 seasons for eight different teams, most notably the Giants. Perry won 314 games with a 3.11 ERA and 1.181 WHIP in 5,350 innings. He struck out 3,534 batters while throwing 303 Complete Games, including 53 Shutouts. Perry was elected to five All Star Games, and won a Cy Young Award in each league (1972 for Cleveland and 1978 for the Padres). He won 20 or more games five times. Throwing 10 or more Complete Games in 12 consecutive seasons. Perry’s durability on the mound allowed him to pitch 205+ innings in 15 consecutive seasons. Always taking his turn in the rotation, Perry pitched 300 innings six times, including four straight from 1972 to 1975. Perry was elected to Cooperstown in 1991 in his third year of eligibility.
Gaylord Perry would do anything to gain an advantage on a batter, including doctoring up a baseball. Umpire John Flaherty checks Perry for foreign substances in 1973. (Associated Press)
Success on the mound meant nothing for Gaylord Perry’s legendary anemic abilities with the bat. In 1,076 career At Bats, he collected only 141 Hits, 23 for extra bases, a .131 Batting Average. He scored 48 Runs, drove in 47 RBI, drew 22 walks, and struck out 369 times. Gaylord Perry posted a career .153 OBP, .164 SLG, .316 OPS, and -10 OPS+. He was a liability at the plate.
1964 was Alvin Dark’s final season as Giants manager. He managed the Kansas City Athletics for two seasons before managing the Cleveland Indians. In 1969, five years after Dark’s proclamation to Harry Jupiter little had changed for Perry at the plate. Gaylord Perry, at this point in his career, was a .141 hitter now with no Home Runs. His four extra base hits were all doubles.
Entering the game against the Dodgers on July 20, Perry’s season Batting Average was just .100. While the world waited for news of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the Giants and Dodgers began their game at Candlestick Park. Not long after first pitch, at 1:18 PM Pacific Standard Time, Armstrong told the world “The Eagle has landed.” As Armstrong and Aldrin prepared to take the first steps on the moon, Perry surrendered three runs to Los Angeles in the top of the first. The scored remained 3-0 entering the bottom of the third, with Dodger starter Claude Osteen facing the minimum. Hal Lanier flew out to second baseman Ted Sizemore. Bob Barton followed by grounding out to Bill Sudakis at third. The San Francisco faithful had little hope as Gaylord Perry stepped to the plate. Shocking everyone, Perry drove Claude Osteen’s pitch over the outfield wall. Alvin Dark had no idea his proclamation five years earlier prove correct, but by just 30 minutes. Perry sparked a Giants comeback, as San Francisco defeated the rival Dodgers 7 to 3. Gaylord Perry pitched a Complete Game, allowing three Runs, six strikeouts, and no Home Runs.
Alvin Dark was mostly right about Gaylord Perry and the Moon landing. A man was on the Moon, when Perry hit his Home Run but had not walked on it. (NASA)
Gaylord Perry hit six career longballs. He hit one each season from 1969 to 1972. San Francisco traded Perry to Cleveland and after three and a half seasons, Cleveland sent him to the Rangers. Perry did not bat in the American League because of the Designated Hitter. Returning to the National League with the Padres in 1978, Perry needed a season to warm up before going deep again in 1979. He spent 1980 split between the Rangers and Yankees, before hitting his sixth and final Home Run for the Braves in 1981 at the age of 42.
Known for his pitching and lackluster abilities at the plate, Gaylord Perry was destined for baseball greatness. It took a frustrated manager, an optimistic sportswriter, and the Space Race to create the perfect cosmic storm. Alvin Dark never dreamed he was foreshadowing Perry’s first career Home Run. Yet the stars and the moon aligned to create one of the most memorable moments in baseball history.