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This Day in Yankees History: The strangest trade in sports history

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Babe Ruth signs highest contract in baseball history; two teammates swap lives

Fritz Peterson with Wife Marilyn and Susan Kekich

Welcome to the relaunched This Day in Yankees History. These daily posts will highlight two or three key moments in Yankees history on a given date, as well as recognize players born on the day. Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane with us!

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This Day in Yankees History (March 5th)

99 Years Ago

Going into his age-27 season, Yankees superstar Babe Ruth officially became the highest-paid player in baseball, signing a three-year contract worth $52,000 per season, or the modern-day equivalent of roughly $800,000. Although that looks low relative to modern contracts, his salary was more than twice the second-highest contract in history to that point and represented 40 percent of the player payroll (for context, the equivalent sum on the 2021 Yankees’ payroll would be $81.6 million).

Due to the financial investment and his importance to the team, later that year, Yankee ownership forced the legendary outfielder to sign a contract addendum, in which he agrees to limit his alcohol consumption and late-night partying. All Ruth did over the next three years was hit .366/.504/.730 with 122 homers, a 217 OPS+, and a staggering 32.1 WAR — all while leading the Yankees to their first-ever World Series title in 1923, an MVP season.

48 Years Ago

On March 5, 1973, Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich were involved in the biggest trade of their lives — quite literally, in fact, as they traded their lives! The two best friends and long-time teammates announce that they were exchanging their wives, their children, and even their family dogs. Ultimately, Peterson ended up with the better end of the deal, as he eventually married Susanne Kekich, while Kekich quickly broke up with Marilyn Peterson.

Following the trade, the performance of both players fell off a cliff: Peterson, who had posted a 3.00 ERA (2.99 FIP, 108 ERA+) in 254 games prior to the swap, saw his performance dip to 4.20 ERA (4.03 FIP, 87 ERA+) in 101 games afterward. Kekich similarly saw his stats decline from 4.22 ERA (3.94 FIP, 75 ERA+) in 150 games to a post-trade 5.95 ERA (4.97 FIP, 67 ERA+) in 85 games (only 12 of which were starts). It was a sad ending for Kekich in particular, who has — understandably — mostly shunned the public since retiring from baseball.

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Happy 71st birthday to former Yankees pitcher Doug Bird! The right-hander is primarily associated with the Royals, where he spent the first six years of his career. He was mostly a reliever, though he was a starter in Kansas City’s first AL West-winning season in 1976, and he won one of two games the Royals captured in their five-game ALCS loss to the Yankees. Kansas City fell to New York in the ALCS again in ‘77 and ‘78, and while Bird was generally fine out of the bullpen, he did give up this game-deciding tank job to Thurman Munson, which landed in Monument Park:

After being dealt to the Phillies the following season, Bird later caught on with the Yankees in 1980. He rebounded from a couple rough years to pitch to a 2.66 ERA and 3.74 FIP in 22 games and 50.2 innings as the Yankees won the AL East, though he did not end up pitching against his old team during the Royals’ three-game ALCS sweep.

Bird continued to be solid if not unspectacular in ‘81, notching a 2.70 ERA and 3.67 FIP in 53.1 innings in the first-half. During the players’ strike, he was traded to the Cubs as part of a deal for starter Rick Reuschel. Inserted into the rotation, he performed well in the second-half, only to get blasted in ‘82. After one more season with the Red Sox, Bird’s career came to a close.

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We thank Baseball Reference, SABR, and FanGraphs for providing background information for these posts.