Classic Yankees: Fritz Peterson

Would I call him a “Classic” Yankee? No. His off-the-field life would definitely not qualify him as “Classic.” Controversial, certainly.

He never pitched in a postseason game. He pitched for the Yanks in their down CBS years.

But he was an effective pitcher. A reliable #2 behind Mel Stottlemyre, and a look at his record shows that his record wasn’t too bad; that he shouldn’t be remembered only for his off the field headlines.

If I asked you which pitcher had the lowest ERA at the Old Yankee Stadium, what would your answer be? Gomez? Ruffing? Ford? Guidry? Any of the big three of Reynolds, Raschi or Lopat? How about Hoyt, Chandler or Pennock? Stottlemyre?

The answer would be none of the above. It would be Fred Ingles “Fritz” Peterson. The same Fritz Peterson who became notorious in another matter.

Fritz Peterson, granted, pitched in a pitcher’s era. But still, the lefty (in every sense of the word) had a 2.52 ERA at Yankee Stadium in his career. Whitey Ford had a 2.55.

What goes forgotten in the Peterson/Kekich aftermath (which we’ll get to later) is that Fritz Peterson wasn’t a bad pitcher.

He came up to the Yanks in 1966 at the age of 24. He had a good rookie season despite the fact the Yanks finished dead last. 12-11, 3.31, ERA+ 100. League average. His 215 IP was huge in a season where Whitey Ford missed considerable time with arm trouble.

Peterson went 8-14 in 1967. The sophomore jinx. The ERA was 3.47. That sounds great today, but in that pitching-rich period, it was only good enough for an ERA+ of 90.

Peterson went 12-11 in 1968 despite a superb ERA of 2.63. This, of course, was the “Year of the Pitcher” and that 2.63 ERA translated to an ERA+ of just 109. Meaning an average league ERA+ for him would have been 2.87. He had the best BB/9 ratio in the majors.  Imagine!

In 1969, Fritz was hurt once again by the times and the lack of offensive support. He had a superb 2.55 ERA, but had only a 17-16 record to show for it. The ERA+ was a superb 137. He had the lowest WHIP in the league and also the best K/BB ratio. He once again had the best BB/9 ratio in the majors. Great control.

In 1970, Fritz made his only All-Star team and was a 20-game winner for the only time in his career. He went 20-11, 2.90 with an ERA+ of 122. He led the league in WHIP and K/BB ratio and the majors in BB/9 ratio.  In the very last game of the year, Peterson went 8 1/3 IP, giving up 3 R, 8 H, a walk and 4 K. He gave up 2 HR but left with a 4-3 lead. Lindy McDaniel saved #20 up in Fenway while Peterson went back to manager Ralph Houk’s desk and hid under it; he was scared to find out the outcome and couldn’t watch to see if he got #20 or not. Such was Fritz, a “lefty” all the way.

Peterson went 15-13, 3.05 in 1971, ERA+ 107. He led the league in BB/9 ratio yet again.

In 1972, Fritz had his last decent year with the Yankees. 17-15, 3.24, but to show you how pitching-rich that time was, his ERA+ was just 91! Once again he led the AL in walks/9 IP ratio.

From 1968-1972, Peterson averaged 16-13, 2.88. ERA+ 113. 254 IP per year.

Then the you-know-what hit the fan.

In the spring of 1973, Peterson and teammate Mike Kekich announced that they made a trade and not your typical kind of trade; for they traded wives, pets, kids, and the reaction was what you’d expect. Shock and disgust. Yankees GM Lee MacPhail, tongue in cheek, stated “we may have to call off Family Day.”

Kekich, who was 30-31, 4.18 (ERA+ just 78) for the Yanks from 1969-1972 was traded by the Yanks in June of 1973. Given his numbers, it wasn’t too difficult to find someone to replace him. Peterson was another story. After all, you are talking about someone who was a #2 or #3 starter; someone who averaged 16-13, 2.88, ERA+ 113 from 1968-1972; someone who in those years averaged 254 IP per year. Those types of pitchers aren’t a dime a dozen.

So Peterson was there all of 1973. But he wasn’t the same Peterson. You can imagine the reaction in ballparks around the league. Boos everywhere. Fritz struggled to a record of 8-15, 3.95, ERA+ 93. On September 30, 1973, he started the last game in the original Yankee Stadium. In 7+ innings, he gave up 4 runs and got a no-decision.

Peterson started 1974 with the Yanks, and was 0-0, 4.70 in three games (one start) when he was traded to Cleveland in the Chris Chambliss deal at the end of April. He went 9-14, 4.36 for the Indians. For the season, 9-14, 4.38 and an ERA+ of just 83.

Peterson bounced back in 1975 for the Indians, going 14-8, 3.94, ERA+ 96, but at 33, it was a last hurrah. In 1976, Fritz was a combined 1-3, 5.08 for Cleveland and Texas, ERA+ 70.

He started the infamous 10-cent beer night in Cleveland in 1975, a game forfeited to Texas (you can figure out why!)

Peterson’s career then ended after that 1976 season. He went 133-131, ERA 3.30 in his career. No postseasons. To show what a pitching-rich era it was, Peterson’s ERA, although a nice 3.30, grades out to an ERA+ of just 101. He was a .500 pitcher with an average (for the era) ERA+. It does need to be stated, however, that he didn’t have much offensive support behind him in those years. He finished 5th in the league in ERA in 1969 and 4th in 1970.

Peterson hit .159 in his career with 2 HR. He wore #52 during his rookie year of 1966, then #19 from 1967-1974.

As far as the “trade,” Peterson is still married to the former Mrs. Kekich, with whom he had four children. The Kekich/ex-Mrs. Peterson relationship fizzled out very quickly after the swap. Kekich has moved on, remarried, and is fighting an upcoming movie that Red Sox fans Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are trying to do about the incident. I can’t see anything good coming out of the movie. It’s one thing to report what happened, and another to make a movie about the incident based on one’s personal vendetta. Based on some interviews that I’ve read, it seems Affleck just wants to stick it to the Yankees; never mind whose lives he may be hurting by dredging up something that transpired almost forty years ago.

After retirement, Peterson lived outside Chicago, and one of his post-baseball jobs was as a blackjack dealer for a casino. He is 69 years old. In September 2009, it was reported that Peterson was battling prostate cancer for the second time, and had homes in Colorado and New Jersey. He also released a book at that time.

Fritz wasn’t a bad pitcher. Not bad at all. It’s just a shame that he’s not remembered for his pitching but for something else.

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