Name: Fred Ingles “Fritz” Peterson
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: February 8, 1942
Yankee Years: 1966-74
Primary number: 19
Yankee statistics: 1,857.1 IP, 2,888 G, 109-106, 3.10 ERA, 101 ERA+, 81 CG, 18 SHO, 1,015 K, 19.6 rWAR
Fritz Peterson was one of the leaders of the Yankees pitching staff during the post-Mickey Mantle era. His peak years with the Yankees were extremely impressive, but the team’s shoddy results as a whole overshadowed his stardom. When he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, he decided to write a book about his experiences with the Yankees titled, Mickey Mantle is Going to Heaven.
Peterson is also known for one of the more shocking trades (?) in Yankees history. He traded families with his teammate, Mike Kekich, during the 1973 season. Yes, you read that correctly.
Time Before the Big Leagues
Peterson was born in Chicago. He grew up in Arlington Heights, a northwestern suburb of Chicago. He attended high school there as well, and in addition to his baseball resume, he was a talented hockey player as well. One of my favorite tidbits about any professional player is that they weren’t the best player on their high school team. And when that is the case in the 1950s, it’s even more interesting. Peterson was the No. 2 pitcher behind a Division I college football player. Peterson continued his life in the Prairie State when he went to play college ball at Northern Illinois University.
After his Peterson’s career, he was signed by the Yankees in 1962 as amateur free agent — just a few years before the implementation of the MLB Draft. Here’s a beautiful thing about baseball in the 20th century: Peterson was signed by Lou Magnuolo, a longtime Yankees scout. In today’s age of hyper accessibility of the best high school players from the age of 15 and above, the job of the area scout has completely changed. Instead of knowing whether somebody is a baller or not, it’s more focused on human relationships alone. It’s not precisely clear from the resources I’ve searched, but given Peterson played at a not-so-prominent college, Magnuolo probably has a good claim on “discovering” Peterson. Every now and then you’ll hear that in today’s game, but it was such a key part of so many player’s stories throughout earlier time periods in the game.
After Peterson was signed, he went to rookie ball in Harlan, Kentucky. The minor leagues were a different animal then. Peterson threw as many as 199 innings in a season (in ‘63, when he split time between Columbus and Greensboro). This year, the leader in the minor leagues was actually a Yankees pitcher, Mitch Spence, with 163. Third in the league was Richard Fitts with 152. The majority of players won’t even approach this number, since teams are hyper focused on preserving bullets. But Peterson was a horse in the minors, and he took no break when he debuted in 1966.
Off to a Hot Start
The Yankees had one of their worst seasons in the past century in ‘66, enduring a last-place finish. But it was through not fault of the rookie southpaw.
Immediately, Peterson shoved to the tune of a 3.31 ERA over 215 innings. Every time I see a line like this, I assume the player must’ve made a pretty good run at Rookie of the Year. That wasn’t the case for Peterson. The only pitcher who garnered any votes that year was Jim Nash of the Kansas City Athletics. He had a 2.06 ERA in 127 innings. Luckily for Peterson, he would have several more quality years. After his rookie season, he took a slight step back in 1967 in terms of volume and run prevention, but bounced back in 1968 with 212 innings and a 2.63 ERA. This was a sign of more to come.
From 1969 to 1972, Peterson went on a run of four straight 250-inning seasons at the head of the Yankees’ rotation. During that span, he totaled 18.2 fWAR. He didn’t strike guys out at the same rate as some his league best counterparts like Bob Gibson and Sam McDowell, but he shoved. He had the classic hands over the head with lots of pelvic tilt that we used more often.
If you look at Peterson’s baseball card, you can see his old school aim with the glove and get your throwing arm up way above your head. This isn’t too bad when you’re young and mobile, but as you age, your hips don’t work quite as well.
Fritz’s most notable season came in 1969. In that year, he put together 6.8 fWAR in 272 (!) innings. He was third in the American League behind the aforementioned McDowell (9.4 fWAR and 285 IP) and Denny McLain (7.0 fWAR and 325 IP). McDowell’s season didn’t even garner any Cy Young votes though, as he went 18-14. McLain started 41 games that year and won 24 games with Detroit. However, not even he won the award. That went to Mike Cueller, one of the best Latin-American born pitchers of all time. Peterson was fantastic, but his 17-16 record certainly turned voters off. In fact, he didn’t earn an All-Star nod that season. It’s one of the best years we’ve ever seen from a Yankee pitcher, but there is no metal to show for it.
Peterson followed up his career year with another stellar season in 1970 with 260 innings and 4.4 fWAR. This time around, he earned an All-Star nod, the only one of his career. He also won 20 games that season, but just like the previous year, he had no shot at the Cy Young. Baltimore finished 15 games ahead of the Yankees and had three starters finish in the top five of the voting — though the award went to Jim Perry, who had a great year in Minnesota with a 24-12 record. After these two seasons, Peterson continued to be reliable rotation arm for the Yankees, but he began to fall off in 1972 in terms of strikeouts, walks, and home runs. 1973 would be Peterson’s worst in pinstripes, but speaking of 1973, that brings me to the point of Peterson’s career that he may be most known for.
During spring training of the 1973 season, Peterson and fellow starter Mike Kekich announced they would be trading wives, children, and pets. Everybody has their love story, and this is Peterson’s. I’m not here to offer much commentary on the matter, as that has been remarked upon countless times.
Today In 1973: Yankees teammates Fritz Peterson & Mike Kekich announce they've traded families, including their wives, kids & dogs! pic.twitter.com/x7Bvwc00qw— Baseball by BSmile (@BSmile) March 5, 2017
However, it seems to have been a very good decision by Peterson, who is still married to Susanne Kekich. It may have not gone as well for Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson, but asking for two love stories would have been a lofty goal. (Kekich understandably has less-than-fond memories of the proceedings.)
The part of the story that is a bit more interesting for Yankees universe is that this was George Steinbrenner’s first year as owner of the Yankees. Other than him buying the team, this was the first big story of his tenure. And in pure George fashion, he made a very fast decision to send Kekich away from the team. He was traded in the beginning of the 1973 season, just a month after the announcement was made. Kekich was only a replacement level pitcher before this, but after the trade, he was in and out of baseball for four years. Oddly enough, Peterson followed Kekich almost exactly a year later.
The Other Trade
Sometimes, emotional decisions end up going very poorly for some teams. Chris Chambliss was the first overall pick in the 1970 draft. He was an extremely talented player, but he got off to a slow start in Cleveland. He was an average player across three seasons with the team, so they shipped him off to the Yankees along with two other players in exchange for Peterson and a few other players.
Chambliss didn’t play well in 1974, but you know the rest of the story. He hit over .300 the next season, and would go on to be a staple in the lineup for the Yankees during their late-70s run to prominence. On top of that, Dick Tidrow came in the same trade. He was a very good reliever for the team. Even as Peterson had clearly hit a clear decline in his career, the Yankees got a young middle-of-the-order hitter and reliable reliever. Thanks for that, Fritz.
After the Yankees
Peterson spent most of the final three years of his career in Cleveland, where outside of a modest ‘75, he struggled to recapture his success in New York. Following another trade in May 1976 to Texas, a barking rotator cuff put him on the shelf just four games into his Rangers career. Fritz never made it back to the big league mound, retiring after multiple shoulder surgeries and a failed spring comeback with the White Sox in ‘77.
By no means am I baseball historian. In fact, I’ve never experienced baseball in that way. Every now and then I’ll watch a documentary about the game. Most recently, I checked out Bill Veeck and Nolan Ryan’s documentaries on Netflix. They were really neat, and I learned a ton. I couldn’t find an equivalent for Peterson in doing the research for this. I wasn’t fully interested in enduring through a Ken Burns documentary either, despite how riveting that might be.*
*Editor’s note: The Peterson/Kekich affair is not mentioned in Baseball, so Esteban didn’t miss anything.
Instead, I surfed through his stat pages, watched videos of him on YouTube, and read just about any other resource I could find. I was reminded of his unique love story and also watched a mini roast he did of Mel Stottlemyre. By all accounts, it seems like Peterson was a likeable dude, jokester, and had relationships with some of the most well known Yankees legends. That’s why as I saw his book on his life – which includes stories of Mickey Mantle, Joe Pepitone, and more – I scooped it up right away. I’m looking forward to reading it and dabbling into a part of Yankees’ history I’m completely unfamiliar with.
Peterson was one of the longtime Yankees who never actually got a ring. He was just a few years too late to their back-to-back titles in the early ‘60s and was gone before Reggie Jackson decided to hit a home run every time he stepped to the plate in the playoffs. Even with no rings, he did have a very successful career with the Yankees as a horse of a starting pitcher.
Staff rank: 78
Community rank: 69
Stats rank: 65
2013 rank: 66