It's always an honor for me to meet and interview members of the Yankees family. It's especially great when it's an accomplished pitcher like Fritz Peterson. Fritz Peterson was a starting pitcher for the Yankees during a mediocre time in Yankees history, from 1966 to 1974, before being traded to the Cleveland Indians. He holds the distinction of having the lowest career ERA pitching at the old Yankees Stadium (2.52), and he pitched the final game there before renovations began.
Bleeding Yankee Blue had a chance to sit down and talk to him on his recent trip to New York. We proudly present our exclusive interview with Fritz Peterson.
BYB: We want to thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Tell us about your book “When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Years.” What is it about, what do you hope to accomplish through it, and what do you want to share?
Fritz Peterson: Sure. In my first book, I wanted to get some stuff cleared up about our “situation” [quotes mine]. I touched on a bunch of players that I really thought a lot about. I made it “Mickey Mantle Is Going to Heaven”. But it wasn’t a serious book. It was just to get it out there in case I died of prostate cancer which I was on the verge of doing at the time. At least I said some things that I wanted off my chest. But I wanted to do a serious book. I talk about my years with the Yankees, each one of them. One through nine - I call them innings, every year. Doing it [that way] brought back a whole bunch of memories about players that I remembered through those days. They taught me a lesson in that I didn’t know how baseball worked, I didn’t know that baseball was a real business - I thought it was a game. I found out when my first best friend there got released.
Then I go into a little bit about my family stuff, got through all those things, then had to transition through the marriage situation in 1972. The last chapter has to do with all the players that I played with, that I remember seeing in uniform in 1974. It has a lot of personal things in it, it has a lot of things that people have been commenting that they didn’t know that this was what happened in baseball.
BYB: You touched on your nine “innings”, but then in 1974 you were traded to the Cleveland Indians. What was that like and what do you remember most about changing clubs?
Fritz Peterson: I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it was to Cleveland. But because that year I was the fifth starter, and I was starting to develop some arm problems, and at the beginning of the season you don’t play as many games. I wasn’t in the starting rotation at the start. I knew I was going somewhere. So I asked [Yankees General Manager] Gabe Paul. I said, “Gabe, I know you’re trying to trade me, but I just want you to know two things. I don’t mind because that’s baseball. But I won’t go to the Philadelphia Phillies or the Cleveland Indians.” He patted me on the back and said “Don’t worry, young man. We wouldn’t do that to you”. So two weeks later I’m on a plane with three other teammates and we’re heading to Cleveland. Bill Virdon had called us into his office and told the four of us [Peterson, Fred Beene, Tom Buskey and Steve Kline] that there’s been a trade. They were pissed. We were four people that they liked. That’s 40% of our pitching staff going for guys that they didn’t really pay much attention to. It turned to be a really good trade for the Yankees [ed. note: the Yankees got Chris Chambliss, Dick Tidrow, and Cecil Upshaw]. I remember us looking at each other on the plane going from LaGuardia to Cleveland, the four of us at about 8 o’clock in the morning, wondering what happened. We get there to Cleveland and there’s our old buddy John Ellis, one of my favorites from the Yankees, waiting for us to pick us up and bring us to the hotel. Cleveland was an odd feeling, but Cleveland was fun for a while.
BYB: You mentioned some of your teammates. Who was your favorite teammate and why?
Fritz Peterson: My favorite at the beginning was Jim Bouton. He roomed with me and he actually gave me a chance to make that team in Spring Training in 1966. When I heard that, I’m thinking that here’s a big leaguer who’s been there and he’s saying “you have a chance to make this team.” I planned on going to the minors a few more years and when he said that, I really believed it. So we roomed together and we had a lot of really good times together. Crazy guy, good guy, you know. When he wrote the book, I purposely didn’t read it because I had friends on both sides. I didn’t want to take sides. I got it at home ready to bring to the nursing home when I go. Then obviously Mike Kekich was my best friend from 1969 to 1972 when our situation was going on. Mel Stottlemyre overall was the best, most consistent friend I had.
BYB: Do you ever keep in touch with the old players?
Fritz Peterson: No, no. The only one I keep in touch with is Mel Stottlemyre. But with his sickness now, he’s not well. I’m afraid to even see the newspapers because if I see his name I’m gonna think “Oh no.” We were there at the [Old Timer's] game, but we didn’t go in. I didn’t wanna go in. I didn’t want to see Mel like that.
BYB: In 1970 you went 20-11 - a 20-game winner - with a 2.90 ERA, you made the All-Star team, the team finished second in the American League. What was your greatest memory from that season with that team?
Fritz Peterson: I suppose it would have to be winning the 20th game on the last day of the season in Boston. They pushed me up one game ahead of Stan Bahnsen because I did have a chance to win the 20th game and it was the last day of the season. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have pitched. If it had rained, that game would have never been played because Boston and the Yankees were in the place they were going to be in the standings. We checked in to our hotel in Boston on the Friday of that weekend. The room that I was supposed to take was room 1912. Our traveling secretary had everything laying on the table, and I looked at that and I said there’s something wrong with that. If I had lost that game, that’s the record I would have had. Oddly enough, I said, “Bruce [Henry, 1970 Yankees traveling secretary], you gotta change that.” He said, “Why?” Then he looked and said “I know why”. So he did, and oddly enough, he got me 2011. Here I had 19 games and I didn’t know if I’d ever get to 20. I'm glad I figured that because I never did do that.
BYB: Every pitcher has one hitter they just hate facing. Who was that person for you?
Fritz Peterson: Those people were, in order fear, was Frank Howard. He was six feet nine inches, 300 pounds, and could fill a toilet in one sitting. I saw him hit a ball one time off Mel Stottlemyre, Mel threw him a sinker to keep it away from him. Frank hit it and it nearly hit his cap. It started going up, and up and up. It went out for a home run in center field. That was scary. It went up like a golf ball. So we learned that when we threw the ball to Frank, extra quick get your glove up for self-defense. Dick Allen later, was the second as far as scary. I’ve seen him hit some monsters. The best hitter I faced over my career was Al Kaline. That's because he never gave up. It could be 8-1 they’re losing and he still trying to get on base and start a big inning. I gotta tell you one little sidelight of that. When Duke Sims got traded to the Yankees, Al Kaline was about the end of his line. Duke had played with Al Kaline for a while and got to know him. Duke told me if you get a chance, could you let Al get a hit, like a bunt down third. Because if he gets on, it’s a base hit and they’ll take him right out of the game because that would make him an even .300 hitter. So I did and he did. They didn’t take him out for two more years.
He got better there for a while because of the DH. The funny thing about that was Denny McLain, of course, was on Detroit, he had done the same thing for Mickey Mantle in grooving that home run pitch for him in 1968. So I thought, they did him a favor to Mickey, I’ll do Al a favor.
BYB: Baseball today is a lot different today than it was when you played. In what ways do you think the game got better and in what ways worse?
Fritz Peterson: I think it got worse lately because of the speed gun. All pitchers want to be dominant, macho strong men. They think now, when the emphasis on that is so much, even when they’re signing rookie pitchers, because lefties have to throw at least 93 and righties have to throw 96 before they’ll even sign them for anything. But when they get there finally, they know that they have relief pitchers we never had before. So they can let it all out. But they’re also letting it out looking at the scoreboard. What did I get? Did I get up to 97? In our day, they signed pitchers that were pitchers even then. They had good sinkers, they had good control, two or three pitches maybe. Now it’s completely different, it’s a power game. So, if you can throw hard, you can work off that. But I think there’s an over-emphasis on that, and I’m not sure it’s gonna last forever. These guys are dropping out with Tommy John surgery.
BYB: What do you think of pitch counts?
Fritz Peterson: I don’t like them. They’re so conditional. In the day, if we were going well and running a smooth ballgame, it didn’t really matter. We had a guy over there with the clicker, Jim Turner, but we never paid any attention to it. He was just doing a job. It didn’t matter. Now it matters a lot. It takes a little of the managerial stuff out of managing. When managers say “How are we doing?”. [pitchers say] “I wanna pitch, I wanna stay in.” Some of these guys are out of there before they knew [sic] what happened. All of a sudden, there’s an inning produced and they’re not in there. I think we should at least give a guy an out per inning. If he can’t get the first guy out, then bring in the relief pitcher. Not take him out because he threw too many pitches.
Ralph Houk. He was a legendary manager. What was it like playing for him?
Fritz Peterson: It was wonderful. It was just like my own dad being there. Once you won a position with Ralph, you didn’t have to look over your shoulder or worry that if you made an error you were gonna lose your position. You could be yourself, throw good stuff because you were there and you knew you had a friend behind you. Being a major in the Army, he got people’s attention. I saw him grab a writer one time and raise him up on the wall because he wrote an article intimating the Yankees were having trouble. Ralph didn’t like that, so he grabbed him. It was Maury Allen. He had to set the record straight. The guys knew [Ralph] was right behind them, on their side.
BYB: You mentioned earlier about prostate cancer. It’s a big issue for men. Guys like Bob Watson are big advocates for early testing. My own father is a prostate cancer survivor. What would you like to say to that issue?
Fritz Peterson: Yes. There’s a movement going on now to do away with the testing, including the PSA, saying that even if you do treat, it’s about the same results as if you didn’t even know about it. For myself personally, I’m glad I did. I was one of those that if I didn’t have it taken care of, I would have been dead. I had that thought back in 2006 when they found it again. I envisioned what it would be like to not have another Christmas. It was a little peaceful, in a way, but when I found that I could make it again, I was happy again. It was almost a relief.
BYB: We are glad you are as well as you are, and we hope your treatments continue to work.
You mentioned about your “situation” a number of times during this interview. Is there anything you’d like to say, in general, about that.
Fritz Peterson: Sure. When Mike was traded to our team in 1969, he was Jim Bouten’s replacement for me. He was a fun guy. Mike and I were best friends, we roomed together on the road. Our families were the same age. He had 2 daughters, aged 5 and 2. I had 2 sons 5 and 2. We spent a lot of time, just innocent times always, until the last part there. Then, getting to know the others’ spouse, I personally was never thinking of leaving mine. I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t consider it. But I thought he sure had it nice. His wife would let him stay at the ballpark, sign autographs. Mine, I had to come home the second the game was over, to be under her watch. He saw something in my wife, somebody pretty, who like to read and had college degrees. So something inside of us was building slowly. Until a night at Maury Allen’s house, in 1972, which was July 15. We were at a party at Maury’s, drinking beer and having hot dogs and hamburgers and stuff. Maybe we had a little too much drink, I’m not sure. It was sure fun. Mike’s wife Susan was sitting across from me, and he was sitting across from my wife Marilyn. I happened to touch Susan’s foot under the table. It didn’t bother her, but a little while later, I think she touched mine. After that, we touched each other’s foot more and more and we were drinking and stuff like that. After we were done at Maury’s, we decided to go home. On the way walking from the party to our cars, I said to my wife Marilyn, why don’t you ride home with Mike, back to the Fort Lee Diner where we had both parked and met. I said to Mike, your wife Susan can come with me. We can just meet there. So we did and it was so much fun, at least in my instance talking to Susan, knowing that I didn’t have to be careful of what I said. She was such an easy-going, wonderful wife. With my wife, I had to say everything perfectly with her. Mike felt the same way about my wife as I did about his.
We got home and we met at the ballpark the next day. It was Sunday, and I said to Mike we should do that again, and he agreed. So we decided to do it again a couple of nights later, and this time we went to a steak and ale in Fort Lee, NJ. We met at the steak and ale and we all had a couple of drinks. Marilyn and Mike took off and then Susan and I just stayed there and ate and drank. We had a ball, an absolute blast. We all wanted to do it again, so we did it again the next available time. Then it became like, let’s do this all the time, so we did. It just became, wow, can this work? Mike was the first one to tell his wife that he loved Marilyn, my wife. I didn’t say that because I didn’t know yet, I was just one of the team. But we started then dating all the time.
At the end of the season, we didn’t want each other to leave. Mike and Susan were going to go off to Missoula, Montana. Marilyn and I were gonna go back to live and stay in New Jersey where we just built a house. It was tough to do. I was working in New Jersey, I was with John Sterling, who was with the New York Raiders hockey team. John was the play-by-play man, I was the color man. There was one night when we were going from Philadelphia to Boston, where my plane was so bad, it was one of those white-knucklers. I’m thinking you know what, I don’t even care if I die. Because Susan is gone, and I didn’t want to back to my wife, because I wanted to be with Susan. So when I got to Boston, I called Mike and I said Mike, you still wanna do this thing we’ve been talking about, switching families? He said yes. I said you arrange for Susan and your kids to come East to New Jersey, and I’ll send Marilyn and my boys out to you. That was it. Shortly after, my wife Marilyn called me and she said, I wanna come back. The poetry from Mike wore off, and she found out he didn’t have any degrees in college, and he was in debt and she wanted me back and I said I can’t come back. I’m gonna go be with Susan. It’s been her and I now for 41 years. They never did get married. They were both bull heads. I was hoping it would work out.
BYB: I am surprised by your response. I didn’t want to go there because I didn’t want you to be uncomfortable. You have a great history with the Yankees, as a player, and that’s what we were going to focus on. I am a little surprised that you’re as comfortable as you are, but we appreciate your candor.
Fritz Peterson: I appreciate you not wanting to do that. But I don’t care. I’ll tell anything now. The older I get, the more I don’t care.
BYB: How do you feel about social media?
Fritz Peterson: I’m just starting to get into that. I don’t really have much time, because mine is getting so extensive, my Facebook stuff. I almost have a full-time job doing that, and I feel like I gotta do that before I do anything. I’m not an English major, so there’s mistakes in it sometimes. I’m finding it fun and I’m practicing before I get Alzheimer’s, so I can remember everything [laughing]. I’m gonna start putting the word out [that] I would like to do commercials for nursing homes, because I wrote about that in the second book, and it was fun writing. I plan on pulling pranks on the people in the wheelchairs. They’re gonna have a hard time, but I’m going down hard!
BYB: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Fritz Peterson: Yeah. What do I have to do to get to the Old Timer’s Game? They don’t get to me quite often. Last time was 2006. I’d love to go to the Old Timer’s Game. I don’t even want you to make them look bad. I’d just love to go to that, and I just wish I went to more.
Again, we want to thank Fritz for sitting down and speaking with us. Fritz, you're a great conversationalist and a fun guy to be around. We wish you all the success in the world, great health, and that you accomplish all you set out to do.
--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Senior Staff Writer
My blog is: Shots from Murderer's Row