Sunday Morning Coffee — May 5, 2024 — Life on the Fritz

Fritz Peterson died last month. He was 82.

Collectively, most of you just said “Who?” The most ardent of baseball fans in the 1960s and 70s, along with the most casual Yankees fans of the same era, recall Peterson but perhaps for a little more than just his pitching skills.

Peterson and a Yankee teammate of his, Mike Kekich, were involved in the biggest off-the-field baseball scandal since 1964 when another Yankee, Joe Pepitone brought a hair dryer into a major league clubhouse for the first time. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and the rest of the boys had never seen one before. Why would JoePep need this contraption and what will he do with it? Almost immediately there was a frenzy among ball players to sell short hair tonic stocks like Vitalis and Brylcreem. You remember Brylcreem and that catchy jingle: “Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya…….But watch out, the gals will all pursue ya.”

Peterson back in his pitching days and almost half a century later as an author.

But back to Peterson. Fritz, born Fred like his dad and granddad, was a good big league pitcher. He was in the “Show” for 11 seasons: nine with the Yankees from 1966-74 and then, after becoming a public relations problem for the team, finished his career with Cleveland and Texas. A lifetime won-loss record of 133-131 and ERA at 3.30 with 1,015 strikeouts. Though he never pitched in the post-season he was an American League All-Star in 1970. Fritz, from the Chicago suburb of Mt. Prospect, was a lefty and the yang to New York’s right-handed ace Mel Stottlemyre’s yin. It was a dark period for the Yankees. Peterson said, “We were mediocre at best and pathetic at worst.” Despite the team’s woes Fritz was a 20 game winner in that all-star season of 1970. And one record he will forever hold as a Yankee is the all-time career ERA record in the old Yankee Stadium of 2.52. Ford was next at 2.58. Fritz was a good pitcher on bad teams.

I met Peterson for the first time in 2013 at New York Yankees Fantasy Camp in Tampa. He was my coach for the week. Well, not actually as much of a coach as he was a character. During games we’d find him wandering off to have conversations and spin yarns to anyone he could find that wanted to listen. Despite not drilling me in baseball mechanics, we literally hit it off.

A Fritz Peterson baseball career summary would not be complete, and always contain a footnote, after a 1972 night out with his wife Marilyn and Yankees road roommate, fellow pitcher Mike Kekich and his better half Susanne. They were teammates for the previous three seasons and socialized often. The more time the four spent together, the more they realized they were attracted to each other’s spouse.

On July 15, 1972, as the two couples were leaving a party, they decided to stop at a late night diner in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Mrs. Peterson rode with Kekich and they arrived promptly. Mrs. Kekich was with Fritz and they either got lost, hit heavy traffic or otherwise got distracted, arriving hours afterwards. No word on whether Fritz used Brylcreem that night.

Five months later Peterson, 31, moved in with Susanne Kekich and Marilyn Peterson with Mike Kekich. They not only swapped spouses but kids and dogs too. Kekich, 27, said, “We didn’t swap wives, we swapped lives.” It was the ultimate trade in the history of American sports. Even bigger than eight years earlier when the Cubs sent Lou Brock to St. Louis for Ernie Broglio.

On March 6, 1973, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had to share the front page with the Peterson and Kekich saga.

During spring training in 1973, Kekich went public and confirmed all the media speculation regarding the foursome. Fritz went home after the press conference and told Mrs. Kekich, his new live in, “Either this is going to be big news, or it will be nothing.” Really Fritz, in New York with the Post and Daily News and Page 6 and sports radio and Howard Cosell and even the starchy Times, did you really think it might be nothing?  He later told me, “I turned the TV on that night, and it was really big.”

The Yankees soon had a public relations mess on their hands. Peterson and Kekich were booed and razzed wherever they went on the road. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner didn’t like it. Three months later, June 1973, Kekich was traded to Cleveland.

Fritz knew his time was also coming so in the spring of 1974, off a subpar 1973 season, he went to Yankees GM Gabe Paul and told him that if he were to be traded the two places he didn’t want to go were Philadelphia and Cleveland. Both too boring for his lifestyle he told Paul. Peterson said, “Gabe patted me on the arm and said, ‘Don’t worry young man, we wouldn’t do that to you.’ Two weeks later I was traded to Cleveland.” In that deal the Yankees received Chris Chambliss who would go on to be a post-season hero for the Pinstripes helping them to two World Championships. Many years later Chambliss would become a fantasy camp coach for me as well; something he doesn’t readily brag about, and would sooner forget.

When Peterson arrived in Cleveland Kekich was gone, released by the Indians and pitching in Japan. Kekich was also released by the former Marilyn Peterson just a few months after their relationship began. In the meantime, Cleveland turned out to hold a soft spot in Fritz’s heart after all as he and the former Susanne Kekich were married there in 1974, raising seven kids, two each from their previous marriages and three of their own. They remained partners for half a century until Peterson’s death on April 11 at his home in Winona, Minnesota. These days Kekich, 79, resides near Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Fritz, and I maintained a friendship from that camp in 2013 for the next seven or so years until early onset Alzheimer’s began to take its toll.

Our commonality, other than being southpaws and loving baseball, was we were both writers. Okay, maybe not writers but authors, using that in the faintest of terms. Fritz published three books. I wrote two. He authored “The Art of De-Conditioning: Eating Your Way to Heaven”; “Mickey Mantle is Going To Heaven” and “When The Yankees Were on the Fritz; Revisiting the Horace Clarke Years.” Fritz’s writing style was unique. Off-the-cuff, whatever popped into his mind at the time. Humorous. Serious when needed. He never used an editor for his work. Instead, at times the grammar, spelling and punctuation resembled a fourth grade English class. The teacher would have run out of red ink. Fritz loved his beer but called it ‘oil’ and at times too many oils took over the writing. He asked me to work with him on editing his fourth book. He said, “Let’s go grab a couple of oils and talk about it.” I told him I’m not sure I have that much time left to devote to the project. If I accepted the challenge he could have titled it along the lines of his other heaven themes: “Roy Berger Went to Heaven While Editing This Book.” The book was never finished as his illness superseded.

Fritz was very kind to me when I wrote my second baseball book in 2017 called “Big League Dream.” (www.Bigleaguedream.com; also on Amazon by using key word Big League Dream.) It’s a story about 16 former major leaguers from the 60s and 70s all with different backgrounds, all former idols of we baseball Boomers, who years later became contemporaries of ours as just another old guy playing old guy baseball at fantasy camps across the country. In Big League Dream many names will be instantly recognizable from back in our impressionable youth. As Peterson told me a few years ago, “The great part about fantasy camp for guys like me is it’s a week of adoration from a world that really doesn’t care about us anymore.”

Fritz with his favorite book of 2017.

On his Facebook page in the spring of 2017 Fritz posted in part: “If you want to read a book this summer that I think you’ll really enjoy, grab a copy of Roy Berger’s newly released ‘Big League Dream.’ I loved it! Roy, a Yankees camper who has become a good friend, loves to write as I do. The intro was written by Bucky Dent and includes stories about my fellow Yankees Jake Gibbs, Chris Chambliss and Ron Swoboda. He devoted a chapter to me and my career in ‘Big League Dream’ and probably did the best and most accurate job I ever read of putting the various pieces of my life into a story, telling some secrets nobody ever knew before— like where I spent 30 minutes in solitude before every start and of the 42 batters I hit with a pitch in my career, how many of those were accidental. I probably shouldn’t have told him!”

It’s funny how first impressions sometimes become total afterthoughts. When I met Fritz that very first time at the Yankees opening camp banquet in 2013 I asked too many probing questions as usual. As the conversation went along I just had to ask him about the Kekich scandal not really knowing any more than the tabloids wanted to tell us. I also had no idea he was still married to the former Mrs. Kekich. I’m not sure what I asked him but his answer was absolutely perfect. He wanted none of the scandal talk. “Let me tell you what this truly is,” he beamed. “It’s simply a love story.”

Thanks Fritz. Enjoy heaven. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to reminisce with Mickey, Yogi, Whitey, Billy and maybe even Casey, if he lets anyone else get a word in. I’m in no rush to get there but when I do we’ll catch up again. And like usual, like you taught me, you’ll tell the stories and I’ll buy the oils.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12 Comments

  • Ken Rich says:

    Roy, Time to write another baseball book. Simply amazing. I am focused on the NBA playoffs and the clay court tennis season. Be well.

  • Barry Otelsberg says:

    Great tribute to one of the most fascinating baseball stories (or non baseball stories) of our time. Well written and thoroughly enjoyable.

  • Bill Sablesak says:

    Great read, Roy, just like your “Big League Dream”. RIP, Fritz, Blue Skies & Tail Winds. 🙏💙⚾️✈️

  • Jonathan Miller says:

    What a story! Wife swapping, such a 70’s phenomenon.

  • Michael Lewis says:

    Roy,

    As usual, great stuff.

    I remember when the Peterson-Kekich trade went down. I was in my dorm room at Syracuse University listening to the morning news/sports report. Needless to say, I was floored by the news.

    And yes Peterson was a good pitcher on a mediocre team

  • George Howard says:

    Great read, Roy. As usual! I remember the Kekich/Peterson trade well! Through the years it had slipped my mind!

  • Roy Abrams says:

    Wonderful research on a piece of baseball history I would never thought of…but do remember.

    Finished your first book “The Most Wonderful Week of the Year “. Loved it so much. I would recommend it to all of Roy’s blog readers. This is pure Roy…funny, Witty and Roy’s unique writing style. On to his next book, “Big League Dream”. That is the book he refers to in the blog. His first book was outstanding. .

  • Clem Ziroli says:

    Roy,
    Your wonderful stories and experiences are endless. It’d nice to hear more of them in the hot box, Clem

  • Steve Mosler says:

    The man loved to tell stories! I met him as well in 2013, helped edit his nook (a bit), and made sure he had his Miller Lites whenever we had an opportunity to chat. Am so glad that our paths happened to cross.

  • Lew Matusow says:

    Another outstanding RB classic. Thanks for the real insight into Fritz and his love story. If I see him first (good bet), I’ll let you know how he’s doing (if Casey will let me get a word in)!

  • Betty Anne Cooper says:

    Hi Roy,
    I must admit that I am one of the ones who immediately said “who”?
    As you know, I know nothing about baseball. But I am right up there on scandals!!!
    very interesting.

  • RON CAMPBELL says:

    Roy, You forgot his most famous Fantasy Camp directive; “Stretching is highly over-rated”

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