Fritz Peterson Bio
Fritz Peterson developed a reputation among his Yankee teammates during his eight years in pinstripes for being somewhat eccentric, quirky, and unconventional. However, even the left-handed pitcher's most sophisticated teammates were surprised to learn in the spring of 1973 that Peterson and fellow Yankee hurler Mike Kekich had traded families. The announcement the two pitchers made at New York's spring training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Florida sent shock waves throughout the baseball world, since it revealed the sport's longstanding unwritten rule of honoring a teammate's relationship with his wife had been broken. Peterson's and Kekich's revelation permanently tarnished the reputations of both men, causing them to be branded in many circles as immoral heretics. It is unfortunate that Peterson's unusual "swap" with Kekich has obscured through the years the fact that the former was a fine pitcher who accomplished quite a bit for the Yankees during one of the darkest periods in team history.
Born in Chicago, Illinois on February 8, 1942, Fred Ingels Peterson attended Arlington High School, before enrolling at Northern Illinois University. After starring for his college team, Peterson signed with the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1963. He spent three years in New York's farm system, before joining the team for the first time at the start of the 1966 season. The 6-foot, 195-pound lefthander enjoyed a fine rookie season for the last-place Yankees, finishing 12-11, to tie Mel Stottlemyre for the team lead in victories, and leading the staff with a 3.31 ERA.
Peterson struggled throughout the 1967 campaign, posting a record of only 8-14, along with a 3.47 ERA. However, he bounced back the following year to compile a winning record for the first of five consecutive times for mediocre Yankee teams. Pitching much better than his won-lost record would seem to indicate, Peterson finished the 1968 and 1969 seasons with ERAs of 2.63 and 2.55, respectively, although his combined record for those two years was a decidedly mediocre 29-27. He also placed among the league leaders with 272 innings pitched in 1969.
The Yankees finished second in the American League East in 1970, enabling Peterson to compile the finest season of his career. The lefthander finished the campaign with a 20-11 record and a 2.90 ERA, while tossing 260 innings for New York, en route to earning his only selection to the A.L. All-Star Team. Peterson revealed the flaky side of his personality on the season's final day, during a 4-3 victory over the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Manager Ralph Houk removed the lefthander for a relief pitcher late in the game, with the Yankees leading the contest by a run. With Peterson's 20th victory hanging in the balance, he found himself unable to stand the pressure. Therefore, he retired to Houk's office, choosing to listen to the remainder of the game on the radio while sitting beneath his manager's desk.
Although 1970 proved to be the highlight of Peterson's career, he also pitched quite effectively for the Yankees in each of the two subsequent seasons, posting win totals of 15 and 17, respectively. He also continued his five-year streak of leading all American League pitchers in fewest bases on balls allowed per nine innings. Never a particularly hard thrower, and possessing a merely average curveball, Peterson navigated his way through opposing lineups primarily with his outstanding control. The lefthander typically allowed the opposition only about 40 bases on balls a year, walking a career-low 29 batters in 212 innings of work in 1968. Over the course of his career, Peterson walked just 426 batters in 2,118 innings (or just 1.73 batters per 9 innings). He eventually added a palmball and a screwball to his repertoire, making him more difficult for opposing batters to face. Nevertheless, Peterson's command of his pitches remained his primary asset.
After combining for 32 victories the previous two seasons, it appearead that the 31-year-old Peterson still had several good years ahead of him. However, his career took a turn for the worse in the spring of 1973. Shortly after reporting to New York's spring training camp in Florda, Peterson and Kekich announced they had swapped wives, two children apiece, and even family dogs. The ballplayers and their spouses, Susanne Kekich and Marilyn Peterson, had been friends since 1969. Both couples lived in New Jersey, and they had children who were approximately the same age. The families often enjoyed picnics, visited the Bronx Zoo, or traveled to the Jersey shore together. Friends and neighbors marveled at the closeness the two families shared. As it turned out, they shared a relationship that simply became too close.
At some point during the 1972 season, Mike Kekich fell for Marilyn Peterson, while Fritz Peterson developed similar feelings for Susanne Kekich. The idea of exchanging partners surfaced for the first time when the two couples joked during a double-date about wife-swapping, a phenomenon that caught on in some uninhibited circles during the early 1970s.
According to one report, the couples experimented with the idea for the first time while under the influence of alcohol following a party at the home of New York sportswriter Maury Allen. They decided to make the changes official that October, with Mike moving in with Marilyn and Fritz taking up residence with Susanne. However, they chose to hide from the general public the rather unusual circumstances surrounding their relationships until the spring.
The on-field performances of both men subsequently suffered, with Peterson finishing the 1973 campaign with a record of only 8-15 and an ERA of 3.95. Distracted by his marital situation and jeered by fans in ballparks throughout the league, the lefthander never again pitched effectively. Fred Beene, another pitcher for the Yankees in 1973, later recalled, "Fritz was never the same after the swap. He was practically destroyed by all the negative reaction."
The Yankees traded Peterson to Cleveland early in 1974, including him in a huge seven-player deal with the Indians. The lefthander spent parts of three seasons in Cleveland, posting a combined record of 23-25, before ending his career with Texas in 1976. Peterson retired with a record of 133-131, and an ERA of 3.30. Although most references to Peterson in subsequent seasons centered around his somewhat bizarre marital exchange, he received a measure of notoriety during the final game at the original Yankee Stadium played on Sunday, September 1, 2008, when ESPN Sports announced that Peterson's 2.52 career ERA represented the all-time lowest mark of any pitcher in The House That Ruth Built. (Whitey Ford's 2.55 ERA placed him second on the all-time list).
Peterson experienced a significant amount of financial difficulties following his playing career, working for a time as a blackjack dealer at a casino located in suburban Chicago, before embarking on numerous business adventures that brought him a moderate amount of success. Meanwhile, the decisions he made in his personal life seem to have turned out for the best. While the relationship between Kekich and Marilyn Peterson lasted only a few months, Peterson and Susanne Kekich married after their respective divorces became final, had four more children, and remain together.
Nevertheless, the aftermath of Peterson's 1973 announcement continue to haunt him. The former pitcher has shunned the spotlight since his retirement. In fact, one close friend recently said, "Fritz has a latent desire to be a hermit."
Meanwhile, Mike Kekich said years later, "Neither Fritz Peterson nor I will ever make it into the Hall of Fame. But I know our names keep popping up in the Hall of Shame. I don't lose any sleep over it, but I really don't think it's fair."
- All-Star, Cleveland Indians, Fred Beene, Maury Allen, Mel Stottlemyre, Mike Kekich, New York Yankees, Ralph Houk, Whitey Ford, Yankee Stadium