For baseball wives, long separations from their husbands are the blame of the game. But Blanche Manning Perry has enough statistics in that department to make anybody’s all-star team of suffering spouses, having been married for 19 years, eight teams and five leagues to Gaylord Perry. At 40, he is still one of baseball’s best pitchers.
Blanche, also 40, found out what things would be like early on, when she drove herself to the hospital to have their first child while Gaylord pitched batting practice at the ’62 World Series. They’ve continued in the same vein: Last February she was out on their North Carolina farm hunting a lost calf in a snowstorm while her husband talked sports with Jimmy Carter after being named to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.
When school is out, Blanche and their children (Amy, 17; Beth, 15; Allison, 13; and Jack, 12) follow the peregrinating Gaylord—this year they have a rented condo in San Diego while he pitches for the Padres. The rest of the year the family tends 460 acres of soybeans, corn, peanuts and tobacco outside Williamston, N.C., hometown to both Gaylord and Blanche. When he is gone, she drives a tractor, shovels out the stables (“It’s good for bust development”) and tends five horses, 15 cows, three dogs and countless mousers. In her spare time she rides and reads. Sometimes she worries.
Her husband tries to help from the road. A typical call home goes: “Blanche, how is Allison’s knee? Did Jack win his game? Tell Amy not to cut her hair till I get home. Why don’t you get those allergy shots?” (Blanche’s reply: “Healing. No. I’ll try. Maybe later.”)
As the wife of GAY-lerd (in North Carolina) Perry, Blanche is also responsible to Williamston, which claims him as a municipal treasure. Son of a tenant farmer, Gaylord and brother Jim worked in the fields as kids, pausing only for baseball practice tutored by their father, Evan, one of the best amateurs in the region. They made balls from rocks, yarn and tape and used oak roots for bats. Jim pitched for four major league teams before retiring in 1975; the Perrys have won more games than any brothers in baseball history (491 at last count).
Evan bought Gaylord his first real glove for $5.25 from Blanche’s daddy, A. J. Manning, who owned the hardware store and later became a prosperous contractor. At Williamston High, young Perry made All-State in football, basketball and baseball, and while pro scouts courted him, he pursued schoolmate Blanche.
After graduation Blanche went on to Duke, then studied voice in New York, while Gaylord signed with the San Francisco Giants. They kept him in the minor leagues for five years. Meanwhile his down-home honey didn’t forget him. “I fell in love with Gaylord at 17,” she recalls. “After that, the boys at Duke and Carolina all seemed too preppy and young. With other men, I felt as if I was out with my sister or grandmother.” She and Gaylord were married on Dec. 26, 1959 and honeymooned at the Dixie Classic Basketball Tournament in Raleigh.
After Gaylord was called up by the Giants in 1962, the Perrys lived near San Francisco until he was traded to Cleveland nine years later. (He has played for Texas, too.) In 1973 they went home to Williamston and built their ranch house. They also own another farm, which his dad works. “I wanted my children to share some of the experiences with nature that I had, like sleeping in a barn to nurse a sick cow and waking up with a deer nuzzling me through a window,” says Gaylord.
Still, the boys of summer are rarely out of mind. “We’re not merely committed to each other, we’re deeply committed to baseball,” says Blanche. It’s just as well, since during the season Gaylord’s adrenaline surges. “He starts yelling at the kids two days before he pitches,” shrugs Blanche. “If he’s the least bit mellow, they say, ‘Mom, Daddy’s gonna bomb.’ ”
Gaylord has won 276 games as a big-leaguer and is the only man to receive the Cy Young Award—for the year’s best pitcher—in both leagues. He is notorious for his spitball, an illegal pitch that baffles hitters because the moisture (spit, sweat or grease) makes it behave unpredictably. Perry confessed in his 1974 book Me and the Spitter that he has used the pitch but pleads the Fifth on current tactics.
Blanche and the kids are equally mum. “I never asked him if he pitches the spitter,” says Blanche. “I’m not sure I want to know.” At 5, Allison Perry told a sportswriter that what he called a “greaseball” was “a hard slider.”
“I’ve never questioned the fact that baseball comes first with Gaylord,” says Blanche, “as long as the children and I remain second, not third or fourth.” She says she’s not concerned about “baseball Annies”—the groupies of the sport. Once while they were living near San Francisco, Blanche, eight and a half months pregnant, ran into a stewardess in their apartment house laundry room who asked, “I hear Gaylord Perry lives in this building; do you know where he might be?” Blanche answered, “Upstairs in my bed, honey.”
Gaylord says life on the road gets no spicier than a glass of wine and baseball arguments, which he mostly wins. “After 20 years, they usually see it my way,” he says. Not so the front office. Perry makes some $175,000 a year, not excessive by major league standards. “For years,” he says, “when I approached the front office for a raise, I was told I was too young, unproved, unseasoned. Then all of a sudden I was too old.”
Though a year ago Gaylord bought a cottage on nearby Duck Creek for hunting and fishing, he and son Jack have been there only once. (Born with a damaged arm, Jack now “throws and bats better than most kids his age,” says Dad.) Gaylord collected 20 stitches in his pitching hand in February when a light bulb broke, and in May a line drive hit his arm. “I wonder if the Lord is trying to tell us something,” frets Blanche, though she doubts Gaylord could quit the game cold. She’d like to see him go into management—”He knows too much about baseball to let it go untapped.”
One local sage puts it differently. “I swigger,” exclaims a Williamston old-timer, “his baseball heart is so tough that when it’s time for him to die, they’ll have to beat it to death with a stick, just like an old turtle.”
That kind of romance about baseball is sometimes lost on Blanche. There are moments, she admits, when “I feel like I’ve been waiting in line for 20 years. Sometimes it’s pure hell when tensions build and there’s nobody to lean on. Often I can’t bother him with problems because it might take his mind off his pitching.” Being around younger players’ wives and girlfriends gives her an “old complex,” too.
“But I get over that each summer,” she says, “and I realize how full my life is. I miss my music, and I’d love to ride more. But everybody gives up something. Builds character, I hear.”