Former New York Yankees pitcher Fritz Peterson should be honored by the franchise.
Being a New York Yankee is an honor in baseball. There is a special aura when you wear the pinstripes. Everyone who has worn them, probably with the exception of Ed Whitson, feels special and proud. The New York Yankees fan base and the organization return the favor, especially when players are in a time of need. When Mel Stottlemyre was struggling through another bout of multiple myeloma, the Yankees got permission from the family and his doctors to fly him east to Yankee Stadium on Old Timers Day and give him a plaque in Monument Park. The Yankees are still considered one of the classiest organizations in baseball. Now, the time has come again to do something for a struggling player, this time, fighting Alzheimer’s.
On April 19, Kevin Kernan of the New York Post wrote a piece about a former pitching colleague of Stottlemyre’s, Fred Ingels Peterson, better known as Fritz. Fritz Peterson was the number two to Mel Stottlemyre during the rough years of Yankees baseball under CBS ownership. Peterson made his MLB debut with the Yankees on April 15, 1966 against the Baltimore Orioles. That day, he mowed down both Frank and Brooks Robinson, along with Paul Blair and Boog Powell, a lineup of mashers. He threw a complete game, giving up six hits, two runs and struck out three. He began as the number five pitcher in the rotation (behind Whitey Ford, Mel Stottlemyre, Al Downing and Bob Friend).
After Downing, Friend and Ford retired or departed, the Yankees eventually had a number two to the great Stottlemyre. Peterson won 20 games in 1970, making the All-Star Game with a 2.90 ERA in 39 games. In 1969 and 1970, he led the league in WHIP, and was a master of control. His strikeout to walk ratio was 3.18 in 1970, which led all of the American League. From 1967 to 1972, Peterson also led the league in walks per nine innings.
However, one of his more famous moments came in 1973. In March, Peterson and left-hander Mike Kekich announced they were swapping wives. Under the deal, Peterson would divorce his wife Marilyn of 7.5 years and Kekich would do the same with his wife Susan. In return, Susan Kekich would marry Peterson while Marilyn Peterson would marry Kekich. Rumors swirled for weeks that something like this was to happen, leading players and media to speculate both might be traded. Outfielder Ron Swoboda noted to the press that the swap could have either had a positive or a negative effect on the clubhouse. Most of his teammates agreed. The relationship for Mike and Marilyn went badly, and they would end up divorcing.
It was purely coincidental, but the 1973 season for Peterson was subpar, as his control began to fade. In 1973 his walks went up, along with his ERA. Peterson finished the season with an 8-15 record while the Yankees traded Kekich to the Cleveland Indians on June 12. Things continued to worsen for Peterson in 1974, before the Yankees traded him to the Indians in the blockbuster deal that brought Chris Chambliss to New York. He would spend parts of three seasons in Cleveland before departing via trade to the Texas Rangers. In 1977, he signed with the Chicago White Sox in free agency. He never appeared in the Majors in 1977 and retired.
Peterson’s next big part of life came as an author and actor. Jim Bouton, the prodigal son of the New York Yankees, wrote a lot about Fritz in his controversial book, Ball Four. Peterson himself wrote a book called Mickey Mantle is Going to Heaven in July 2009. He wasted no time writing two other books, The Art of De-Conditioning: Eating Your Way to Heaven and When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era. He also was to work with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon on a movie based on the marriage swap of 1973.
However, the 76-year old Peterson has faced a number of health issues in the last several years. He faced and defeated prostate cancer not once, but twice. A heavy drinker, Peterson was arrested in 1995 for driving while under the influence. Now, he is facing the deadly and depressing diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Kernan noted that Peterson walks with a cane and there are days where he cannot leave bed. He wants to go to Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium this year, but just cannot physically. His friends, most of which helped him at Yankees Fantasy Camp in Tampa, Fla., have started to work on raising funds for the medical care of Peterson. He knows the end is near, and he told Kernan as much on April 19.
Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the worst punishments your body could have. Slowly, your body loses the ability to function as the disease eats at the brain. Your memory becomes shrouded and loses the ability to remember daily habits and relatives.
This is where the New York Yankees need to step in. A classy organization, who already had Peterson running fantasy camp in Tampa, need to find a way to get him to Old Timers Day, even if it means video feed from his home in Iowa. As Alzheimer’s disease progresses on his body, he will begin to forget things like this. Even if his body cannot physically be there, the Yankees fans should have a chance to serenade him with respect and an ovation. This may be the only chance they get for Peterson to see the city he pitched for.
Old Timers Day is June 17. Give that day to Peterson, before we lose him for good.