Story by Billy Liggett | Photo by Bennett Scarborough
He won the American League Cy Young Award in 1970 as baseball’s best pitcher. Five years earlier, he pitched in a few World Series games … going head-to-head with the legendary Sandy Koufax in one.
He was a three-time Major League Baseball All Star selection, a 1974 inductee into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, a 1984 inductee of Campbell University’s Sports Hall of Fame and a 2011 pick for the Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame.
And when Jim Perry looks back on his playing days at then Campbell Junior College, he’ll admit this … he was a heck of a basketball player.
On the day Campbell’s soon-to-be renovated baseball facility was officially named Jim Perry Stadium, Perry talked a lot about his time on the basketball court in the late 1950s. At 6-foot-4, Perry played for legendary hoops coach Fred McCall - and averaged a more-than-respectable 22 points per game - just so he would be in shape by the time spring training came around.
Perry played two years of minor league ball and a year in the majors all while going back-and-forth to finish high school and junior college in Buies Creek.
“When I started in the minor leagues, I gave myself four years to make it to the majors,” Perry recalled. “If I didn’t make it, I was going to do something else. And I was going to have a good education. That’s why I kept coming back.”
His years in Campbell had a big influence on him. He met his wife Daphne Snell, who played for the women’s basketball team, and the two married shortly after she graduated. He found mentors in men like McCall and the late professor A.R. Burkot.
And he pitched side-by-side with younger brother, Gaylord Perry, who went on to have a Hall of Fame career as a pitcher, winning the Cy Young for the Cleveland Indians in 1972 (two years after Jim) and in 1978 for the San Diego Padres.
The Perrys came to Buies Creek after winning a state baseball championship for Williamston High School, because the two knew Campbell would attract more scouts than their hometown and thus, provide a better opportunity to make it to the big leagues.
Without a doubt, they made the right decision.
“For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of playing baseball,” Jim Perry said a few hours before the ceremony unveiling the stadium that now bears his name. “This college gave me the opportunity to chase my dreams.”
THE CAMPBELL YEARS
The Raleigh News & Observer followed Perry regularly in 1959 during the tall right-hander’s rookie season with the Cleveland Indians.
A short article titled “Off-Season Student: Jim Fond of Campbell College” reported that Perry “thinks the people at Campbell are just fine and dandy” and that “Campbell College could ask for no better public relations man than Jim Perry.”
Jim Perry arrived in Buies Creek in 1955 as a senior in high school (the Campbell Junior College campus was a high school at that time as well). He played baseball for the junior college under coach Hargrove Davis in ’55 and started his minor league career in North Platte, Neb., the following year. After his stint in Nebraska, Perry spent 1957 pitching in Fargo, N.D.
The mid- to late-50s consisted of school in the fall, basketball and school in the winter and baseball in the spring and summer. For a time, Perry lived in a small room in Carter Gymnasium with a handful of other athletes … as close to “roughing it” as he came during his days at Campbell.
What made that time a little less rough was his introduction to Daphne Snell, who in addition to playing women’s basketball, served on the Baptist Student Union, the New House Council, the Touring Choir, Future Business Leaders of America and a few other student organizations.
Said Daphne: “Shortly after we met, the boys and girls teams were riding the bus together to play Chowan, and Dr. Burkot took the trip with us. Jim and I were seated together, and at that time, Coach McCall didn’t know me. So he asked Dr. Burkot, ‘Who is this girl?’ like he didn’t want me there. And I understood, because Jim was his ‘boy.’ He had three daughters, and Jim was like a son to him. He wanted to know who this little girl was messing his with his boy.”
Jim and Daphne Perry downplayed Jim’s “celebrity status” at the time, but because he was an athlete (and a very good one), Daphne was often teased by the coaches on campus.
“Coach McCall was teaching a health class, and he called me out in class once saying, ‘Ms. Snell, I saw you with Mr. Perry having breakfast this morning. Did he have halitosis? You know what halitosis is, right?’ Well, halitosis is bad breath, and of course, he did a good job of embarrassing me in class.”
Perry’s reputation as a star athlete was growing in Buies Creek, but his auditions for the big stage were happening hundreds of miles away. In his first game with North Platte in ’56, he struck out 16 guys. This caught the attention of Hall of Fame pitcher Red Ruffing, who was a scout for the Cleveland Indians at the time.
In ’57 and ’58, Perry pitched in North Dakota and Redding, Pa., winning 16 games for the latter and earning an invitation to spring training with the Indians the following year.
The first person not named Daphne to hear the news of Perry’s invite was his basketball coach.
“Nobody was happier than Coach McCall,” Perry said, smiling. “He was so excited for me. Then, of course, the first thing he asked was, ‘You’re still coming back, right?’ I told him absolutely.”
THE BIG LEAGUES
Perry liked what he saw in the Cleveland Indians in 1959.
Not because the Indians had stars in the lineup like Rocky Colavito and Minnie Minoso. Instead, Perry focused on the aging pitching staff of guys like Mike Garcia and Herb Score. In other words, he saw an opportunity to make a rotation.
“Thanks to basketball, I arrived in spring training in the best shape,” Perry said. “I wouldn’t say I was a cocky rookie by any means, but I thought I was as good as anyone else.”
Perry gave it everything he had, even during batting practice.
“The coach came up to me and said I was throwing too hard … that I needed to throw it slower in batting practice so the guys could hit,” he said. “I told him I was there to make the team.”
Recognizing Perry’s work ethic, the Indians’ veterans quickly took a liking to the young man. Colavito, Garcia and others even invited him out to dinner on several occasions - a big deal for a rookie - and taught him not only the ins and outs of baseball, but also about life in the majors.
Perry recalled the time Minoso, a nine-time All Star, offered the rookie his car - a new red convertible - for the night so he could go out and have a good time.
“I told him I didn’t have any money, so he pulled out this roll of $100 bills and handed me one,” Perry said. “And that’s how he kept his money. He never went to the bank.”
Pitching mostly in relief and starting 13 games his rookie season, Perry went 12-10 with a 2.65 ERA. He had eight complete games, two shutouts and four saves that year, earning him a spot on the Indians’ starting rotation in 1960. That year, he went 18-10, and despite a subpar season in 1961, he earned his first of three spots on the American League All Star team.
Gaylord joined the majors in 1962, pitching in the National League for the San Francisco Giants. Jim said he kept a little black book on every batter he faced in the American League, and Gaylord did the same for the Giants. When a hitter was traded or switched leagues, the brothers would share their information on that player.
“I studied hard,” Jim said. “When I wasn’t pitching, I stayed in the dugout and took notes on the other team. I did anything that would help me get a guy out.”
He was traded to the Minnesota Twins in 1963, and two years later, Perry was pitching in the 1965 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Despite starting 19 games that year for the Twins, Perry pitched in relief during the Fall Classic. He pitched in the deciding Game 7, tossing a scoreless, hitless ninth inning in the Twins 2-0 loss to the legendary Sandy Koufax.
After a few years of time spent in and out of the rotation and bullpen, Perry’s break came in 1969. Starting 36 games for the Twins that year, he went 20-6 with a 2.82 ERA. He was 24-12 the following year, earning him the Cy Young Award.
When asked about that two-year span that saw him go 44-18 and pick up two more All Star selections, Perry points to one day in particular as the most memorable moment for him. July 20, 1969.
It will forever be known as the day Apollo 11 and Americans Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins landed on the moon.
For Jim Perry, it was the day he was asked to pitch the final two innings of an 18-inning game in Seattle against the Pilots (a game that started on the 19th but was postponed in the 17th inning because of curfew), then 15 minutes later, start the next game.
“I remember it well,” Perry said, “Daphne and I were at the top of the Space Needle the day before, and I had my radio with me listening to the game. We got to the stadium in the ninth inning, and (manager) Billy Martin was using every pitcher we had. I told Daphne I knew he was going to make me finish that game the next day, and he did.”
A career .199 hitter, which is more than respectable for a pitcher, Perry hit a double and scored the winning run in the 18th inning and pitched two innings of shutout ball for the win when the game resumed on July 20. Then Martin asked him to start the next game, with the promise that the manager would “find someone who can help you” finish it.
Between games, Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. While the Twins and Pilots players watched on whatever TVs were nearby, Perry warmed up in the bullpen.
Martin didn’t need to “find someone” that night. Perry pitched nine innings of shutout ball (got another hit, too) to become one of the few Major Leaguers to win two games in one day.
Down the highway in San Francisco, Jim’s brother Gaylord also pitched a complete game, beating the Dodgers 7-3. In that game, Gaylord homered … the first home run of his career.
“The joke was there’d be a man on the moon before Gaylord Perry ever hit a home run,” Jim said, laughing. “Looks like they got there just in time.”
Jim Perry finished his Major League career with the Oakland Athletics in 1975. In 17 seasons, he compiled 215 wins, 32 shutouts and a career 3.45 ERA.
He and Gaylord are still the only brothers to each have won a Cy Young Award, and they trail only Joe and Phil Niekro on the list of combined wins for brothers with 529 between them. The two even faced each other on July 3, 1973, when Gaylord’s Indians faced Jim’s Tigers. The Tigers won, 5-4. Jim had a no-decision in the game, while Gaylord picked up the loss.
He played with legends like Harmon Killebrew, Colavito, Tony Oliva, Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat and Rod Carew. And he faced countless legends, one of them Ted Williams, whom Perry shared a story about with guests at the luncheon on Nov. 12 before the stadium announcement.
The story goes: Perry had an 0-2 count on Williams before delivering a perfect pitch, which Williams took. Despite the location, the umpire called the pitch a ball. When Perry approached the ump after the inning about the pitch and asked why it wasn’t called a strike, the umpire replied, “Because Mr. Williams didn’t swing.”
Perry pitched 630 games in his career and over 3,280 innings, and not once did he ever land on the disabled list. He credits his work ethic and the training he endured at Campbell for his ability to stay healthy.
He credits Campbell for many other things as well.
“If it weren’t for Campbell, we wouldn’t have met,” Perry said, looking over at Daphne. “Our children, our grandchildren … none of that would have happened if it hadn’t been for Campbell.”
The Perrys have been longtime supporters of Campbell baseball over the years, one of the many reasons for the stadium announcement. The couples set up a trust fund for their alma mater years ago and donated that money recently to help fund the stadium construction.
“We’re fortunate that we’re able to do the things we can do for Campbell,” Jim said. “We decided a long time ago to do this. Campbell helped me get to where I am today. Why can’t I turn around and help them now?
“I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.”