Last summer I had the pleasure of interviewing former Yankee Fritz Peterson, who informed me of his involvement with a Ben Affleck/Matt Damon film project chronicling his famed wife swap with Mike Kekich. Now comes the news that Kekich will not give his approval to the project; in fact, one news report in the NY Post claims that the reclusive left-hander is “panic stricken” about the movie and “freaked out” that filmmakers actually found out where he lives.
I can’t say that I’m surprised to hear of Kekich’s reaction to the film. Ever since he retired in 1977, he has remained out of the baseball spotlight. I have never seen or heard him interviewed about his career, whether it’s talking about the Yankees or other stopping points in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Texas or Seattle. He has always been reluctant to talk about the wife swap, remaining so even with the passage of time. Unlike Peterson, I don’t think Kekich is planning any trips to Cooperstown in the near future.
So who exactly is Mike Kekich? Kekich the person remains a mystery, but Kekich the pitcher is very much the story of the highly touted left-hander who didn’t live up to his promise. Although he and Peterson are often mentioned interchangeably because of the wife swap, the reality is that Peterson was the far more accomplished pitcher.
Kekich came up in the Dodgers’ system in the mid-1960s, heralded as a talented left-hander with a blazing fastball. Some dared to call him the “next Sandy Koufax.” Unfortunately, the Dodgers at the time were just about the worst destination for a young pitcher because they were already bulging at the seams with talented hurlers; they had the actual Koufax, along with Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Claude Osteen, and the up-and-coming Bill Singer.
Kekich could never gain traction with the Dodgers. After a terrible five-game stint in 1965, he went back to the minor leagues for two full seasons and didn’t return to Chavez Ravine in 1968. Kekich didn’t pitch particularly well, but he suffered from an unusual share of bad luck and poor run support, losing ten of 12 decisions while making 20 starts.
Frustrated by their erratic southpaw, the Dodgers decided they had seen enough. At the winter meetings in 1968, they traded him to the Yankees for veteran outfielder Andy Kosco (now there’s a blast from the past!). It would turn out to be a decent deal for the Yankees, though it did not produce immediate dividends.
Over the next two seasons, Kekich split his time between the Yankee rotation and the bullpen. A lack of control and consistency prevented him from maintaining a fulltime spot next to starters like Peterson, Mel Stottlemyre, and Stan Bahnsen. Still, the Yankees liked Kekich’s stuff and felt that he remained young enough to have his talent harnessed.
In 1971, Kekich enjoyed a bit of a breakthrough. He lowered his ERA to 4.07, reached a career high with 97 strikeouts, and won ten games for the first time in his career. He still walked too many batters–82 batters in 170 innings–but flashed enough talent for the Yankees to make him a fulltime starter in 1972.
Kekich responded with the best season of his career. His ERA dropped to 3.70, his walks fell to 78, and he reached a career high with 175 innings. Pitching far more efficiently than he ever had, Kekich settled in nicely as the Yankees’ No. 4 starter behind Stottlemyre, Peterson, and right-hander Steve Kline.
At 27 years of age, Kekich looked to be hitting his prime. When Topps issued his card in 1973, which was taken during spring training the previous year, the immediate future looked good. Then came the revelation that he and Peterson had swapped wives, children, and even the family pets. The Yankees, a staid and conservative organization even with new owner George Steinbrenner aboard for the first time, did not approve. Nor did Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who was even more conservative than the Yankee organization.
When the story broke, reporters descended upon the Yankees’ spring training site in Ft. Lauderdale. They peppered Kekich and Peterson with questions. An introverted sort, Kekich was not prepared to handle such interrogations. The attention affected him, perhaps in the same way that Eddie Whitson would be damaged by the New York City spotlight in the 1980s. Kekich made five appearances for the Yankees in 1973, including four starts. He walked 14 batters in 14 innings, gave up 20 hits, and saw his ERA rise to 9.20.
Realizing that he had become a lost cause in pinstripes, the Yankees dealt him on June 12, three days before the old trading deadline. That’s why his 1973 Topps card would be the last one to show him wearing the Yankee colors. Yankee GM Lee MacPhail traded him to the Indians for Lowell Palmer, a right-handed reliever who was best known for wearing sunglasses on the mound. Assigned to Triple-A Syracuse, Palmer would not appear in a game for the Yankees. Those sunglasses would never see pinstripes.
In theory, the trade to small-market Cleveland should have eased some of the tension on Kekich, but the left-hander didn’t respond to the change in scenery. It didn’t help that his relationship with Marilyn Peterson failed to last; the couple split up that season. On the field, Kekich’s control remained a problem, as he pitched to the tune of a 7.02 ERA. The Indians hoped that Kekich would decompress by the spring of 1974, but he struggled so badly in the Cactus League that the Indians released him a few days before the start of the new season.
To Kekich’s credit, he did not give up. He signed on with the Rangers’ organization, even though he had to settle for a minor league contract. The Rangers told him that he would have to work his way back to the big leagues, slowly but surely. Kekich went to Triple-A Spokane, but then left to pitch for the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japanese Leagues, only to return to the Rangers’ organization the following spring. Kekich finally earned a spot on the Rangers’ roster in 1975. Pitching exclusively in relief, Kekich remained wild, but he sported a respectable ERA of 3.73 and showed some promise as a situational left-hander.
The Rangers weren’t sufficiently impressed. They released Kekich in the middle of spring training in 1976. Undaunted, Kekich decided to continue his career pitching in the Mexican League, where he went to work for Nuevo Laredo.
Having been released twice in the span of three seasons, retirement seemed like a logical option. But expansion saved Kekich’s career. The Mariners, one of two new teams in the American League in 1977, needed pitching. Just before Opening Day, the Mariners purchased Kekich from Nuevo Laredo. They placed him in their bullpen, but then watched him pitch wildly and ineffectively for most of the season.
Even expansion teams have standards. In the spring of 1978, the Mariners became the third team to give Kekich his unconditional release. This one ended his major league tenure for good. As a result, Kekich finished his career with only 39 wins, a figure that seems so low for a pitcher who showed such promise in 1971 and ‘72.
Kekich has never returned to baseball, not as a coach, a scout, or even as a spring training instructor. For awhile, he worked as a medical salesman, then ran a firm that provides health exams for insurance companies.
I don’t know what Kekich is doing these days, but he’s apparently living in New Mexico, having made a new life for himself. I also know that he is remarried, with at least one daughter by his new marriage.
I have to confess that I would love to see a movie about the wife swap, but I can’t blame Kekich for not wanting to be involved with such a film. It’s obvious that he doesn’t want to relive any of those memories. I just hope that the happiness that eluded him in 1973 has found him in 2011.
Bruce Markusen writes Cooperstown Confidential for The Hardball Times.