Happy All-Star Day! Today marks the 45th anniversary of my one appearance in the All-Star Game. I was honored to have been selected to the American League All-Star Team in 1970, and July 14, 1970 was one of the highlights of my career.
It’s the bottom of the ninth with the American League up 4-1 at Riverfront Stadium. Catfish Hunter entered the game to pitch and gave up a leadoff Home Run to Dick Dietz. Bud Harrelson then hit a single to left. Catfish got Cito Gaston to pop up, but then Joe Morgan hit a single to right, moving Bud to second. That’s when Earl Weaver walked to the mound and called me in to pitch. Weaver told me that I would be facing one of the greatest Home Run hitters of all-time, the legendary Willie McCovey. He said something like: “We’ll get him. I ain’t worried about him.” Easy for him to say! Bottom of the ninth, runners on first and second, one out, and our lead is now 4-2. And I’m facing Willie McCovey. Holy crap.
Now I’d like to tell the story this way: McCovey hits into a double play, Aparicio to Johnson to Yastrzemski, and the American League wins. But I can’t because things happened a bit differently.
McCovey hits a clean single to Amos Otis in center. Harrelson scores, and Morgan moves to third. Lead is now 4-3 in the bottom of the ninth And with the great Roberto Clemente coming up to pinch hit for Bob Gibson, Weaver walked back to the mound and called my friend Mel Stottlemyre in to pitch. Clemente hit an RBI sacrifice fly to center, tying the game 4-4. Then Mel struck out Pete Rose to end the inning. The rest of the story everyone knows: on Jim Hickman’s two-out, bottom of the twelfth single, Rose scored from second, barreling in to Ray Fosse at the plate. The National League won, 5-4 – but not without Ray suffering a serious injury that plagued the rest of his career. Another controversy Charlie Hustle has got to live with.
And so it goes into the record books: Fritz Peterson, 0 inning, 1 Hit, 1 Run, runners on the corners. But wow, I was there and it was amazing.
I want to acknowledge the baseball career of Curt Blefary, the 1965 American League Rookie of the Year, and five years later, my teammate on the New York Yankees. He died in 2001, at the age of 57 of complications brought on my years of heavy drinking. He would have been 72 today. He was a phenomenal, gifted baseball player and it makes me sad when I think of so many missed opportunities at stardom. Poor guy had demons and never figured out how to deal with them. I missed the chance to play with him in the minor leagues – Buff was a year ahead of me in the Yankee organization; I never quite understood how the team left him unprotected, allowing the Orioles to essentially steal him away.
As a pitcher, I faced Buff seven times during my first three seasons with the Yankees – including my major league debut in Baltimore on April 15, 1966. Generally I did exceptionally well against him: he had a career average of .100 facing me, 2-for-20, and that was during his prime. But there was one game I remember, on September 15, 1966, also in Baltimore, where he hit a leadoff Home Run off me in a game that we lost 5-4.
After the 1968 season, the Orioles had enough of Buff and traded him to the Astros in a deal that would have a monumental impact on the Orioles’ future – and on the rest of the American League; for Buff, the Orioles got Mike Cuellar. Buff returned to the Yankee organization a year later when the Yankees sent Joe Pepitone to Houston for him. But by then he was no longer the power hitter the Yankees coveted. He hit .210 and was traded in May 1971 to the A’s for pitcher Rob Gardner. Buff struggled with the A’s and with the Padres before his career ended in 1972, at age 29.
There was one game where Buff showed his true athletic abilities that I particularly remember. It was June 2, 1970, a night game at Yankee Stadium against the Royals. Danny Cater drew a one-out walk in the fourth, stole second off Ellie Rodriguez, and advanced to third off a single by Thurman Munson. Buff drove Danny in with a sacrifice fly to Amos Otis is center. Then in the eighth, he hit a two-out solo Home Run off Moe Drabowsky. The Yankees won that game 3-2, with Buff having two of the RBI’s that night. Every game was important, but as I am in the reminiscence phase of my life, I place a premium on 1970 wins since I had exactly 20 of them. That was big deal for me, since I only had the one 20-win season – so I am eternally grateful to every Yankee who helped me get there.
My last day as a Yankee player – in my heart, I’ll always be a Yankee – was on April 25, 1974. The Royals were in town and we were playing a Thursday afternoon game at Shea Stadium. Steve Kline was pitching against Paul Splittorff, who had been a couple of years behind by at Arlington High School in the Chicago suburbs. It was the 18th game of the season and we were two games above .500, ½ game behind the 1st place Orioles (not that April stats matter). Steve gave up five runs off six hits and Bill Virdon replaced him with one out in the sixth with Freddy Beene. I came in for Freddy in the seventh to pitch the final three innings of the game. I gave up hits to Cookie Rojas and Amos Otis, but struck out Hal McRae looking to end the inning without too much damage. I had a 1-2-3 eighth inning, and took the mound in the ninth for what would be my last inning as a Yankee pitcher. Bobby Floyd led off with a walk, and Patek bunted to me, putting men on first and second. Rojas bunted, but I through it to Graig Nettles to force Floyd at third. Patek and Rojas advanced a base on my wild pitch. Virdon had me walk Otis and pitch to Big John Mayberry, who hit a grounder to first. Bill Sudakis tossed it to Jim Mason to force Otis at second, but Patek scored and Rojas moved to third. What I didn’t know at the time was that after nine seasons as a Yankee, I was about to face my last batter in pinstripes #19. It was Hal McRae. On a 1-2 count, he hit a fly to Walt Williams in right to end the inning. Kansas won 6-1. The next day, the Yankees announced that they had traded Steve, Freddy and me (coincidentally – and I mean it – all three pitchers from the most recent loss) – along with Tom Buskey – to the Cleveland Indians for Chris Chambliss, Dick Tidrow and Cecil Upshaw. And as a classic New York film character once said, this is the business we have chosen.
It’s not like I didn’t see it coming. The Yankees were a class organization and Gabe Paul told me he was trying to trade me. I wanted to pitch, and I was maybe the fifth man in what was then a four-man rotation – Mel Stottlemyre, Doc Medich, Pat Dobson and Steve Kline. My last start was April 11, the second game of a Sunday double header — ironically against Cleveland — and it didn’t go well. I gave up three runs on nine hits and got pulled in the fourth inning. Sudden Sam McDowell, who was battling me for the fifth starter spot, came in relief. Mr. Paul and the Indians GM, Phil Seghi, had been working on a trade for weeks. While I was pitching my last three innings, Mr. Paul worked out the deal. He really wanted Chambliss, and who can blame him.
If you want more information on the days leading up to the trade, legendary New York sportswriter Murray Chass wrote a column about it a few days earlier. I posted it to my website: https://fritzpetersondotorg.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/chassapril1974.pdf
And in case you were wondering about Freddy Beene, who is my Facebook friend: the last batter he faced in a Yankee uniform was Bobby Floyd, and he struck him out.
Happy Birthday Dick Drago, who made his major league debut for the first Kansas City Royals team in 1969 and won 11 games as a right-handed pitcher. He got to play for manager Joe Gordon, a Hall of Fame second baseman and Yankee legend, and with guys like Jim Campanis, Bob Oliver, and the 1969 AL Rookie of the Year, Lou Piniella. My Yankee teammates who went to the Royals in the expansion draft included Jim Rooker, Ellie Rodriguez, and Steve Whitaker, who got traded to the Seattle Pilots two weeks before opening day for Piniella. I didn’t get to face Dick until August 25, 1970, and only for an inning. Steve Kline pitched great for 7 1/3 innings and only let up one run – a seventh inning leadoff homer to Bob Oliver. After he gave up a hit in the eighth, and with a runner at second, Ralph Houk brought in Jack Aker to pitch to Amos Otis. Jack had a sore back and hadn’t pitched in about two weeks. He seemed to be doing fine, but after one pitch, the pain returned and he could not continue. Houk called me in to get the last two outs. Dick was pitching magnificently. He had given up a run in the second when Bobby Murcer doubled and Danny Cater drove him in, when he took the mound in the top of the ninth, we were tied, 1-1. Roy White singled, stole second, and advanced to third on Cater’s infield hit. Then Jim Lyttle drove him in with a single. I came in for the bottom of the ninth and gave up a leadoff walk to Oliver; the Major then brought in Lindy McDaniel to close, and the Yankees won 2-1. So Dick, who threw a complete game (and was great) got the loss, and I got the win by pitching to four batters. A hugely important win, by the way, because I finished the season 20-11.