How Gaylord Perry and his brother became baseball’s greatest family of pitchers

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“I reckon I tried everything on the old apple but salt and pepper and chocolate sauce topping.” — Gaylord Perry

Gaylord Perry was born in 1938 in Williamston, North Carolina, a small town located on the Roanoke River. His brother Jim was three when Gaylord was born. The younger Perry was named for his father’s best friend, who died after having his teeth pulled. 

Less than seven months after baby Gaylord entered the world, Phil Niekro was born in Blaine, Ohio, a community that isn’t even a town, located on Wheeling Creek. About five years later, Phil welcomed a younger brother with blonde hair named Joe. And so, by November 1944, with the country embroiled in World War II, four future major league pitchers: Gaylord and Jim Perry, Phil and Joe Niekro, were learning how to throw things.

The Perry’s and the Niekro’s grew into pitching royalty, the two most prolific and successful pitching families in history. Jim arrived first, in 1959 with the Indians where he won a dozen games and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Before the end of the 1960s, all four men were in a pitching rotation in the majors. The youngest (Joe Niekro), was with the Cubs; the older Niekro was in Atlanta; by this time Jim Perry was starting for the Twins; and his younger brother Gaylord was an All-Star for the Giants.

The two pitching families ended up with eerily similar output for all their years in the majors. Here’s a string of two sets of numbers from their careers:

690, 447, 314, 215, 303, 109

716, 500, 318, 221, 245, 107

Remarkably similar sets of numbers, right? They represent, in order, games started (brother #1, brother #2), wins (brother #1, brother #2), and complete games (brother #1, brother #2). The first row is Gaylord and Jim, the second is Phil and Joe. Despite a combined 85 years pitching in the major leagues, these numbers are nearly a match.  

In the case of the Niekro’s, who learned the knuckleball from their father, the older brother had the better career. In the case of the Perry’s, the younger brother had the more illustrious career. If we compare the two “lesser” brothers, Joe had more wins and pitched longer than Jim, but Perry had a more valuable career. Joe had one really good season and a handful of pretty good years, while Jim Perry had one excellent season and 4-5 really good seasons. Jim won a Cy Young Award in 1970, though that award should have gone to either Jim Palmer or Sam McDowell. According to the formula we use for our ratings, Jim Perry rates 162nd among starting pitchers all-time, just ahead of Bartolo Colon, while Joe Niekro is 248th, one spot ahead of Mike Hampton. 

Between the #1 brothers, Phil was the better pitcher of the two, but Gaylord was no slouch. They both rank in the top 25 all-time. They had similar peaks, be it three-year or seven-year. But Phil fluttered that knuckler a little bit more effectively than Perry used his spitter. Only 54 innings (advantage Phil) separate the two. Both were late bloomers: Gaylord’s peak came from age 30-35 and he kept pitching until he was 44 years old, while Phil’s peak was 35-40 and he was still pitching when he was 48. Combined, Gaylord and Phil went 304-275 after the age of 35, which happens to be almost an exact match for each of their career won/loss records.

Gaylord and Phil are members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, both among the greatest to ever throw a ball to home plate. They battled each other for many years too, and in 1981 they were briefly teammates.

On Thursday, Gaylord Perry passed away at the age of 84. He’s probably wetting a baseball in heaven right now.

Most Games Started, Pitched 10 Innings or More

  1. Pete Alexander … 57
  2. Walter Johnson … 52
  3. Gaylord Perry … 36
  4. Ted Lyons … 35
  5. Eppa Rixey … 33
  6. Wilbur Cooper … 32
  7. Red Faber … 30
  8. Bucky Walters … 28
  9. Earl Whitehill … 25
  10. Hippo Vaughn … 25
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Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes

Dan Holmes is the author of three books about baseball, including Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. He lives in Michigan where he writes, runs, and enjoys a good orange soda now and again.
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