If you play word association with the name of Fritz Peterson, then the subjects “wife-swapping” and “Mike Kekich” will come up almost immediately. But the reality is far more nuanced. Peterson was a fine major league pitcher, the possessor of 133 career victories, a 20-win campaign, and an All-Star Game berth. From 1969 to 1973, Peterson ranked as the Yankees’ No. 2 starter, situated behind only staff ace Mel Stottlemyre.
The recently-completed Hall of Fame Weekend gave me the chance to sit down with the amiable left-hander, who spent much of his time in Cooperstown signing autographs with ex-teammate Ron Blomberg at the local CVS. Immensely gracious in granting me a lengthy interview, Peterson talked about Hollywood, the late Ralph Houk, his new book, his ongoing battle with cancer, and a few of his old Topps cards.
Markusen: Fritz, let’s first talk about the movie project that you’re going to be working on; you’ll be a consultant on The Trade. What’s the latest on that?
Peterson: Well, the latest is that Ben Affleck is doing some revisions to the original screenplay that has been done by David Mandel, who’s part of the Curb Your Enthusiasm group and did a lot of stuff with Seinfeld, just a good guy. But Ben wants to be the director of it at this point, so he’s changing it a little bit the way that he wants it. So we’re just waiting to see when Matt Damon gets involved. And then we’ll go from there.
Markusen: As a consultant, I take it you’ll be on the set of the film?
Peterson: From time to time. I don’t know exactly the schedule yet.
Markusen: Is your biggest goal just to try to keep it as accurate as possible?
Peterson: Well, that would be my goal. When I was out there with the screenwriter two years ago, that’s exactly what I wanted to do, just tell 100 per cent of the truth, and I hope that it gets close to that.
Markusen: Now, Affleck’s considered a pretty good looking guy; I guess you’re flattered he’s going to be playing you.
Peterson: You know, actually, I asked them to have Matt Damon play me because Matt can throw harder [laughing], plus he’s the shorter guy and he’s got blue eyes. I have the light eyes, and Mike Kekich had the dark eyes, and was taller.
Markusen: When you were first approached about this, were you surprised that they were interested in your story, your situation, as being part of a feature film?
Peterson: I was surprised [at the interest] from the people at that level, because we’ve been offered things by people at HBO and stuff like that before. But it was never big screen and big people like this before.
They’ve been interested in this since 1999. And then in 2006, we came together on an agreement, and we’re proceeding from there.
Markusen: Final question on the film itself: any chance that you’ll make some kind of a cameo in the movie playing someone else?
Peterson: No. [laughing] I’m not going to be like Alfred Hitchcock either and be seen walking through [one of the scenes]. I’m too old and too ugly.
Markusen: Well, I don’t know about that.
Let’s talk about some other current events, as the case may be. Earlier in the week, we learned of the passing of your former manager, Ralph Houk, at the age of 90. Tell us what it was like to play for Ralph Houk. What was he like as a manager?
Peterson: It’s like, Bruce, playing for your dad, with all the confidence that a father would have in a son playing ball. You could trust Ralph just like a father; it just felt like that. Ralph was the kind of guy that once you earned a job on his team, you had to work your way out of it. He would not be like Steinbrenner actually would and pull some out of a game or out of the rotation for making an error.
Ralph was just golden. I’m happy that he got to live this long. He was a wonderful person. And I’ll miss him. I had intended on talking to him before his death, but usually you think of those things afterward. I’ll miss him.
Markusen: Some managers are characterized as hitters’ managers, some are characterized as pitchers’ managers. In general, how did Ralph treat pitchers?
Peterson: Great. We all knew our jobs. We all knew when he was coming out to get us. We all knew that he was going to give us a 100 per cent chance to win that ballgame, to stay through five innings. We knew his whole routine, and he always stuck by that. He was very predictable and very fair.
Markusen: How did he compare to some of the other managers in your career as you moved on to other teams?
Peterson: Well, he was always the best. I had Frank Robinson when he became the first black manager, and he was interesting. He was a lot better when he first started, as compared to when time went on, because he couldn’t understand how players couldn’t all play like him. Because he was so top-notch when he played. But Ralph was never a high-level player like that. I had [Ken] Aspromonte for awhile, and I had, let’s see who the last one was with the Rangers. [Editor’s Note: Peterson’s final manager was Frank Lucchesi.]
But nobody compared to Ralph. Bill Virdon came right after Ralph [in New York]. The players didn’t like him. They were used to Ralph treating them as players that had been there. And Bill was just a very straight-line guy. Good guy, but didn’t have any friends from the past. His pitching coach came with him, and he wasn’t part of the Yankee system. So it was tough for Bill.
Markusen: He didn’t have the emotional connection to the team?
Peterson: Exactly. And then when Billy Martin came in, I wasn’t there anymore. I wish I would have been; that would have been fun [laughing].
Markusen: Let’s talk about some of the other memories you have from the late sixties and early seventies. I have to talk about a guy that was very important to all of you pitchers, Thurman Munson. Take us through what it was like, a typical game with Thurman catching you. What kind of interactions went on during the game?
Peterson: Nothing serious. Thurman respected us, especially Stottlemyre and myself. And we respected him as a young, cocky catcher that had all the confidence in the world. We worked well together because we knew what we wanted to throw and he learned what we wanted to throw and how we wanted to throw. And it was a very nice relationship.
And Thurman was a fun guy on the team. We took him in as part of our little group of people that had fun on the team. On road trips, and stuff like that. Thurman was real special, and he was a real gamer, meaning that he would take out a second baseman on double plays, he would run over a catcher if he had to. He was just 100 per cent a team man. And all of our guys were not like that at the time. We really respected that out of Thurman–and Bobby Murcer.
Markusen: I’ve heard pitchers rave about the way that Munson would handle a game, call a game, and deal with the pitcher. Tell us about Thurman from that standpoint.
Peterson: Well, Thurman was very intelligent. He could see what was happening out there on the mound with us. If we were having trouble with a certain pitch, he knew how to stay away from it from time to time, and in crucial spots. And he gave us confidence in ourselves. He understood us, even though we were older than him and had been there longer; he had that cockiness and assurance that he was calling the right pitches. And so did we.
Markusen: You mentioned Bobby Murcer. Briefly talk about him as a teammate and what he was like.
Peterson: Same thing as Thurman. Just a good guy and teammate. He would do the same thing, take out a guy at second base and a catcher at home. He was always 100 per cent out there, diving for fly balls, throwing and giving his best. A good guy, a good man to be around. He would help out with personal situations if anybody needed it. It was a nice family feeling, especially with those two guys.
Markusen: It’s hard to believe they’re both gone now.
Peterson: It’s terrible.
Markusen: Tell us about the guys from those Yankee teams that you still keep in touch with, that you’re still friendly with today. Anybody in particular?
Peterson: Well, Mel Stottlemyre is the main one. And we don’t [actually] talk that much either. But when we do, it’s like we were NEVER apart. It was like yesterday was our last game together, and we’re right there the next day. Mel and I have kept up with each other with our illnesses, with cancer, and stuff like that. We do more keeping up with each other on that than other personal things. Again, it was like yesterday that we were together, and we feel like that’s how it will be tomorrow when we get together.
Markusen: Do you talk to any of the other pitchers: Kekich, Bahnsen, Lyle, any of those guys?
Peterson: Sparky, once in awhile. Bahnsen, once in awhile at fantasy camp. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to the other people, it’s just that we never seem to get together. Fantasy camp down in Tampa is the time that I see these guys. A lot of the guys that go [to fantasy camp] are guys that I didn’t play with. Like Mel isn’t there very often. He was there a couple of years ago and that was a lot of fun. Some of the newer guys I didn’t play with.
Markusen: Who was the most colorful guy you had as a teammate from those teams? Perhaps not a guy that wasn’t that famous or well-known, but was just really offbeat, unusual, colorful. Any one guy that comes to mind?
Peterson: Well, it would be three guys really: Jim Bouton would be one, Mike Kekich would be another, and then Sparky Lyle would be the one that fit the bill the most. Those guys were really spontaneous.
Markusen: You’ve read Bouton’s book, I imagine?
Peterson: I haven’t. I have it at home, I have a couple of copies. I didn’t read it because I didn’t want to make enemies of the guys he wrote about because I didn’t want to say it’s a great book. And I didn’t want to NOT read it because Jim’s a friend of mine.
Markusen: As I recall, he said good things about you in the book.
Peterson: Yes, he did. We were roommates–so I’m glad of that [laughing].
Markusen: You mentioned a moment ago the cancer that you’re dealing with. I believe it’s prostate cancer. How are you doing on that?
Peterson: I’m doing fine. I don’t read up on what’s coming up next because I trust my doctors on that, and I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. I had prostate cancer in 2000 and I went through the radioactive seeds, the therapy, and it failed. And I didn’t find that out until 2006. And then at that time I got involved in a research project at the University of Iowa because [the doctors] didn’t know how to stop it once you‘ve had that original procedure. So I’m in that research program and right now I’m undergoing hormone therapy, which is something to stop it [the cancer] for awhile. And I’m waiting for another possibility in our research group that I’ll be able to get a booster shot from the Federal Drug Administration if they approve it, so that’ll increase my chances of staying around a little longer. But right now I’m not worried about it. I go back to my doctors in two weeks and they’ll decide whether to do another hormone therapy shot or not. And then I’ll wait another four months from there, and another four months from there.
With Mel, he has, or he had multiple myloma, and he has to go back every month, so that’s a little more strenuous than what I’ve got.
That’s the reason I did this book, Mickey Mantle Is Going To Heaven, because I really needed to know the answer to salvation when I got this latest scare. If people are interested in buying it, they can look on amazon.com. It’s a good read, it tells a little bit about life, and it also tells about the Yankees, the things we’re talking about now, the things inside of the clubhouse, and with Mantle.
And Ron Blomberg is standing around the corner from us. He said to say something good about him. He ended up winning my last game for me at the old, original Yankee Stadium, with a two-run home run. That’s the only good thing I can say about him. But he’s a good guy.
Markusen: Let me ask you about the book. Did you write it yourself, or did you have a professional writer work with you?
Peterson: No, I didn’t [have a writer]. I wrote it myself. I had sent Marty Appel, who authored the Munson book, a couple of chapters and I had thought about him about co-writing it with me, but when he read those chapters, he said, ‘You don’t need a co-writer.’ So I just did it myself. There’s a couple of errors in there that I’d like to change, but it was just me, and it’s interesting.
Markusen: Final topic, Fritz. I’m a big baseball card collector. I like to get players’ reaction to seeing themselves on old baseball cards. I’ve got an action card from 1972, where you’ve got a pretty good motion here, and then the finish of your motion on this 1973 card, which looks pretty good here. When you see these old cards of yourself, what comes to mind?
Peterson: You know, I didn’t pay any attention to the form or the motion until you pointed that out. It’s pretty good form! [laughing] But in writing this book, I ran across so many memories, it was like I was right back there again. And looking at these cards, paying attention to them now like you’ve pointed out, it makes me appreciate those. I’m glad I’m in one, a lot of different cards. I don’t even believe I was there sometimes. The time flies. Was that really me, during that time, or wasn‘t it? The cards, the reflections, help bring it back. And I’m very happy to have been there, especially as a Yankee.
Markusen: Do you have every one of your Topps cards?
Peterson: Yes, I have them, have one of each in a file cabinet.
Markusen: Is there a favorite one that comes to mind?
Peterson: There’s an ugly one. It’s ugly. That’s the rookie card, which is a split card, and I look like a convict on that one.
Bruce Markusen writes “Cooperstown Confidential” for The Hardball Times.