Name: Fred "Fritz" Peterson
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: February 8, 1942 (Chicago, IL)
Yankee Years: 1966-74
Primary number: 19
Yankee statistics: 109-106, 3.10 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 265 GS, 1,857 1/3 IP, 893 K, 81 CG, 18 SHO, 95 ERA-, 90 FIP-, 19.6 rWAR, 29.3 fWAR
There is a good chance that despite only ranking 66th on the Top 100 Yankees, Fritz Peterson is probably one of the most well-known names on the list, particularly to casual baseball fans. This notoriety came from what he and teammate Mike Kekich did in early 1973 sent shockwaves through the American cultural landscape, and there is even a movie about in the works starring Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
Lost in this fame though is what Peterson accomplished during his time in baseball. For almost a decade, going to Peterson's starts represented one of the few highlights for Yankees fans in a dark period.
Making the cut
Born Fred Ingels Peterson in Chicago on February 8, 1942, Peterson's father spurred his interest in the game at a very young age. "Fritz" grew up a fan of the White Sox, adoring All-Star pitcher Billy Pierce and Hall of Fame second baseman Nellie Fox while despising the Chicago Cubs. In Peterson's own words, whenever he saw Wrigley Field, he thought "minor league," whereas Comiskey Park was "the real thing." (Peterson carried this crosstown rival grudge to the East Coast, when he immediately disliked the Mets: "I can't imagine anyone from New York (or anywhere else for that matter) being a Met fan, especially with the Yankees residing in the same town!")
It was not an easy path to the major leagues, though. At Arlington High School, Peterson's coach said the lefty threw three pitches: "slow, slower, and damn slow." It was a struggle getting batters out until his senior year, when his fastball improved enough for Peterson to fool hitters by changing speeds with precise control. It didn't matter that there was not even a good breaking pitch in his arsenal--by staying ahead of hitters and keeping them guessing, he could get batters out.
After graduating, Peterson enrolled at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where he faced more hurdles. During his first year in 1961, he was cut from the baseball team, and he barely hung on as a starter during his sophomore year. In 1963 however, everything came together for the 21-year-old southpaw. Peteron went on to earn multiple Division I baseball honors that year, as he set Northern Illinois records with eight wins, 91 2/3 innings, and 91 strikeouts. While the wins and innings records lasted until 1995, it took 41 years for anyone to topple his strikeout mark.
By the end of the season, scouts were abuzz about Peterson, and the Yankees were among the interested teams. In late June of '63, the team was on a road trip through Chicago, so they invited Peterson to a tryout at Comiskey Park. The Yankees liked what they saw, and they offered Peterson $9,000 to sign with them. He turned down a comparable offer from the Kansas City Athletics and agreed to the terms, reporting to their Appalachian League team in Kentucky, the Harlan Yankees. Peterson had a 4.43 ERA and struck out 80 batters in 61 innings, but for him, the biggest news came soon afterward, when he married his first wife, Marilyn.
Over the next two years, Peterson slowly gained more attention in the Yankees' system. After a 1.68 ERA showing in 59 innings with the Instructional League, Peterson moved to A-ball with the Shelby, North Carolina team, and he continued to post impressive results. He had a 2.73 ERA in 21 starts, and fanned nearly 200 batters, an eye-popping 11.3 K/9--not bad for a lefty with middling stuff.
The 1965 season was even better, as Peterson dominated both the Carolina League and Southern League with a combined 1.81 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in just about 200 innings of work. The strikeouts took a dip, but his walk rate got even better. With the once-perennial American League favorite Yankees now starving for pitching, it was growing more obvious that he could help the big league club. So in 1966, he was invited to spring training, where he made the back end of the rotation. By the team the year was over, he was suddenly the #2 starter.
Becoming an All-Star
Peterson had the misfortune of debuting during one of the most embarrassing seasons in Yankees history. The Yankees had tumbled from Game 7 of the World Series in '64 to their first under-.500 season in 40 years in '65, and by '66, they were in complete disarray. Old stars like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Roger Maris were on a steep decline, and unlike the old days, the farm system wasn't producing enough viable replacements. So in 1966, the team went 70-89, dead last in the American League for the first time in 54 years.
One of the few bright spots of the season was Peterson. He wore #19 in tribute to his boyhood idol, Pierce, and his performance was a good impression. The lefty faced the eventual World Series champion Orioles in his MLB debut on April 15th and twirled a complete game six-hitter, winning by a 3-2 score, walking no one, and even singling off Wally Bunker in his first big league at-bat. Peterson went on to have a league-average 3.31 ERA in 215 innings during his rookie year, complete 11 starts and throwing two shutouts as well. He finished among the league's top 10 in WHIP with a 1.098 mark, and was second only to Jim Kaat, arguably the best pitcher in the AL.
It was a tough time to be a Yankee, but their best players stuck together and became quite close. The group of five friends included Peterson, ace Mel Stottlemyre, Mantle's promisng successor in center Bobby Murcer, the ever-steady and underrated Roy White, and 1968 Rookie of the Year starter Stan Bahnsen. By 1969, there were a couple new players in tow in fellow lefty starter Mike Kekich and a catcher who came up in August and had been the fourth overall pick in the 1968 Draft: Thurman Munson. The group was inseparable, going on trips together and getting in trouble behind the scenes while manager Ralph Houk pointedly looked away.
Peterson's nemesis, the Mets, won the World Series in '69, but he made up for it by becoming one of baseball's top pitchers. His 0.996 WHIP was the best in the American League, as was his 3.5 K/BB ratio and 1.9 BB/9. In fact, 1969 was the second of five consecutive years in which Peterson led the AL in walk rate; during that entire stretch, he issued just 160 unintentional passes in 1,269 innings. So for every nine innings he pitched, he walked just 1.1 batters, and he was completing a ton of starts too, 58 out of the 171 he made from 1968-72. While snubbed for the All-Star team in '69, Earl Weaver tabbed him for the honor in 1970, where he was relieved by none other than his teammate, Stottelmyre.
Peterson owed his success to a number of factors. Although his control was essential, so was his mystifying array of pitches. He was a bit of a throwback to the days of another deceptive lefty in the Top 100, Eddie Lopat, though he threw harder than the "Junkman." Peterson claimed to throw a fastball, curve, slider, screwball, palm ball, and a pitch he called "the thing," a modern knuckle-curve. The more he added to his arsenal over the years, the better he pitched, and he could be so hard to hit, that there were occasions when managers accused him of throwing a spitball or emeryball like Gaylord Perry (or the distant Russ Ford). Peterson also had the incredibly intelligent Munson behind the plate, and in he raved about throwing to him in his autobiography:
"Thurman was a bright guy. Making him get into the games even more mentally at times, I would tell him, 'Thurman, I need a rest. You call the whole game. I don't want to think today.' And he would, and be even better for it. In the past I had learned the hard way that I had to throw the exact pitch I had in mind for each delivery or it could have disastrous results. With Thurman I knew when I asked him to call my game 100% that he could do the thinking for both of us. It worked!" - Fritz Peterson
To Peterson, it didn't matter that Munson was young, as evidenced by his 1970 Rookie of the Year award; he was confident and had the talent to back it up. It certainly helped that Peterson had so many pitches and was pretty skilled himself.
"The Swap" and departure
While the aforementioned group of players were close, few had a bond quite like Peterson and Kekich. They were both oddball lefty starters, they were roommates on the road, they lived near each other in New Jersey, and their families were always together. In 1972, their relationship moved to another level, one that the general public would have trouble understanding. In a book about the "Wife Swap," author Dan Epstein explained how everything changed:
But it wasn't until 1972, after they went on a double date to see The Godfather, that the idea of becoming more than friends first came up. That evening, over several beers, the couples giddily discussed the idea of wife swapping, though nothing initially came of it; but after a party that August at the home of New York sportswriter Maury Allen, Marilyn Peterson and Susan Kekich agreed to go home with each other's husband. When all of the parties involved agreed that they had enjoyed the one-night experiment, it became a semiregular thing.
Once the season ended, the two couple decided to make the swap permanent, both filing for divorce and moving into each other's houses, which included children from the previous marriage. The pitchers announced the life moves to the media in spring training of 1973. The reactions were mostly either pure astonishment or fury from the more conservative minds, like commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who publicly scolded them for the move's supposed effect on young fans. (Kuhn declining to be in attendance for Hank Aaron's record-breaking 715th career homer in 1974 probably sent a far worse message, but I digress.)
The situation was already awkward by the time the story broke. While Fritz Peterson and Susan Kekich were blissfully happy together, Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson's relationship was already heading south. The former Mrs. Peterson moved to her mother's house near Chicago, and it was evident that they were not going to stay together. Although they remained teammates, Peterson and Kekich were no longer on speaking terms off the field.
Kekich wasn't pitching well either, so in mid-June, the Yankees shipped him off to Cleveland (he only pitched two more years in the majors). Since in spring training, he had just purchased the team, George Steinbrenner remained mostly mute on the topic, but the move spoke volumes about the matter. The team was mediocre, and it was a distraction that had to be remedied.
Peterson was more content with his personal life now, but both the attention and his age were getting to him. He had turned 31 over the winter and his arm began to bark at him from all the innings and complete games during his prime. An aggravated rotator cuff led to fewer starts and shaky results in '73, the Yankees' final season at the original Yankee Stadium before its remodeling. The Yankees would have to move across town for a couple years to Shea Stadium, home of Peterson's least favorite team, but if it was any solace to him, he didn't have to worry about pitching there.
After only three games and one appearance in Flushing, Peterson was traded to the Indians on April 26, 1974 along with three other pitchers for a package headlined by first baseman Chris Chambliss, another Top 100 Yankee. Obviously, the move paid dividends for the Yankees, as Chambliss went on to help them win two championships and three consecutive pennants in the late '70s.
It was the beginning of the end for Peterson though, who rebounded to have one more good year in '75 before more injuries and a trade to Texas spelled the end of his 11-year career. He remains one of the longest tenured Yankees to never make a playoff appearance. He does have one big claim to fame though besides the Wife Swap--his 2.52 career ERA at Yankee Stadium was the best that any pitcher ever recorded, even better than Whitey Ford.
Peterson has led a fine life in retirement, though he deeply misses his old friends Munson and Murcer, who both passed away in tragedy. Fortunately, he remains a regular at Old-Timers' Day and is fondly remembered by those who recall the Yankees' sluggish years between '64 and '76. To this day, he remains happily married to the former Susan Kekich.
Andrew's rank: 73
Tanya's rank: 55
Community rank: 66.83
WAR rank: 62.5
|NYY (9 yrs)||109||106||3.10||3.10||288||265||9||81||18||1857.1||1796||747||640||139||332||64||893||32||5||30||95||90||19.6||29.3|
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Cohen, Robert W. The Lean Years of the Yankees, 1965-75. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004.
Epstein, Dan. Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging '70s. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010.
Foster, Frank. The Family Swap: The Bizarrely True Story of Two Yankee Baseball Players Who Decided to Trade Families. Anaheim, CA: BookCaps Study Guides, 2014.
Pepe, Phil. "The Original Wife Swap: Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich trade wives," 6 Mar 1973, New York Daily News.
Peterson, Fritz. Mickey Mantle is Going to Heaven. Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, 2009.