Gaylord Perry, cheaters and the Hall

I told myself I wasn't going to write on this topic, since the lines are more divided than Congress. But driving into work today I heard Mike Ferrin and Jim Duquette interview Jim Palmer on MLB Radio. Asked about the PED issue and the upcoming Hall of Fame voting results, in classic Palmer fashion he answered in a long and winding narrative, saying he's not one who would boycott induction ceremonies since it's an honor to be a Hall of Famer. He didn't exactly answer the question, but after mentioning Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, he told a story about Gaylord Perry.

He related that after giving up three home runs in the 1977 All-Star Game, his first start after the break was the Saturday Game of the Week and he pitched 11 shutout innings while Perry pitched nine innings. Back then, Palmer said, the ball would just be left on the mound after each half inning instead of thrown out and the pitcher given a new one, like now. Perry's ball was diving and darting all over the place that day, and when he'd come out to the mound he could see Perry's two fingerprints on the ball. The implication: Palmer could see Perry's fingerprints because of something Perry was applying to the ball.

The best part of the story is that it absolutely checks out. On Saturday, July 23, 1977, Palmer did start against Perry and the Rangers, and he did throw 11 shutout innings while Perry threw nine scoreless frames. The Rangers would win the game in the 13th when Mike Hargrove singled in Bump Wills. In an ode to a different era, the teams combined to use only five pitchers. Here's the box score.

Anyway, if I read into Palmer's story correctly he's pointing out that there are already cheaters in the Hall of Fame. I'm not sure that particularly bothers him, but I do gather he's still pretty upset 35 years later about pitching 11 scoreless innings and not winning that game, considering he remembered the details perfectly.

The question Palmer's story poses is thus: Would Perry be a Hall of Famer without throwing a spitball, an illegal pitch? Palmer, who still broadcasts games for the Orioles, told another story about Palmeiro chasing 3,000 hits and still needing 60 or 70 but his bat speed had slowed down ("You could go to a tee ball game and see faster bats") ... and then suddenly it got a little quicker. Again, Palmer is just giving us the anecdotal stories, not choosing a side.

The other day in his newsletter Joe Sheehan pointed out many of the statistical oddities that occurred during the "amphetamine era." Here's one take from Joe's essay:

In the early days of baseball, individual pitchers routinely through nearly all of their team's innings pitched. When "pitching" went from just that to more of a skill, individual innings pitched totals dropped, and they dropped further as pitchers threw harder spun the ball in an effort to miss the bats of hitters swinging as hard as they could. There have been 371 seasons of at least 300 innings pitched since 1901. They break down, by decade, like this:

1901-10: 142

1911-20: 89

1921-30: 34

1931-40: 19

1941-50: 13

1951-60: 8

1961-70: 29

1971-80: 37

1981- the end of time: 0

There were 40 300-inning seasons from 1931-1960. There were 37 from 1971-1980. There has not been one since then. The period from 1963 through 1987 also was the peak for reliever usage; 130 of the 166 seasons in MLB history in which a pitcher threw 120 games while making 90% of their appearances as a reliever occurred in this 25-year span. No pitcher has done this since 1991.

The amphetamine era featured just as many statistical anomalies as did the steroid era, but there was no connection between the two reported. No one cared. Why that is the case is a topic for a book, I'd imagine, but you cannot defend the idea that steroids alone fundamentally changed the game's statistics in a way that the previous generation's drug of choice didn't. The correct answer, or course, is to see the whole board and acknowledge that peak homer was the product of a dozen factors, with the number "73" an explicable statistical outlier in that context, just as peak steal (and "130") were the same, just as peak playing time was the same, just as peak innings pitched was the same.

I suspect Palmer realizes players from every era have their own warts, which is why he said he would still attend the induction ceremonies, unlike some of his contemporaries. But unlike some of them, Palmer has remained around the game. He knows players -- like Perry and his foreign substances or Whitey Ford scuffing the ball or those who ingested amphetamines like candy to gain a potential performance increase or, yes, those who used steroids -- will always seek that extra edge. Like hot dogs and the seventh-inning stretch, seeking that edge -- cheating or otherwise -- has always been a part of the game.