Ex-Yank Peterson on the Fritz with Alzheimer’s

Last July, I wrote elsewhere of Jim Bouton's battle with cerebral amyloid angiopathy, an illness linked to dementia. I was sickened and saddened to discover this vigorous, life-affirming man now had a fight on his hands worse than any he had with baseball's establishment.

To my pleasant surprise, I received a kind note from his best Yankee friend and one-time roommate, left-handed pitcher Fritz Peterson, who remembered Bouton's kindnesses to him, including the prediction that Peterson would make the Yankees out of spring training 1966. (It came true.)

"If anyone can beat this, Jim can," Peterson said in that kind note. Now he has to be that kind of fighter himself.

Fritz Peterson is battling Alzheimer's disease. (Fair disclosure: the disease also claimed your chronicler's paternal grandmother.) He's told the New York Post's Kevin Kernan, by way of a telephone interview, that it's put the kibosh on his plans to be at Old-Timer's Day in Yankee Stadium this June. Beating prostate cancer, as he did years ago, was nothing compared to this.

"I really wanted to be there for the fans," Peterson told Kernan. "I was there like seven years ago, but I just can't make it. It's the saddest thing. I wanted to go and I can't do it. I just wanted to let the fans know that."

Peterson got the fateful diagnosis last September, though he says he'd be hard pressed to remember just what year it was right now. "It's been happening like that for me all year," he told Kernan. "So it's confusing. It's a wacky disease. It's something so different. I don't want to look into what comes next because I just want to enjoy every day."

That's not easy when you're now exhausted enough that you spend more time in bed and can no longer drive your car, among other changes Peterson now must accept. Or, when you're as renowned for a sponge-like baseball memory — Peterson was very well known for an instant recall of baseball history that seemed beyond this world to his Facebook followers — as you are now more dependent than ever upon the wife with whom your longtime marriage is a scandal survivor.

"I can't go places," he told Kernan. "Unless something comes medically that can give me my mobility back ... I can't drive, so I'm depending on my wonderful wife. Whenever I get up I have to ask my wife, 'What do we have today?' As far as which doctors appointment. And when we do go somewhere. I have trouble walking, so I use a cane now. I feel like the old man from Scrooge."

That's not a happy feeling for the man who owns the lowest home earned run average (2.52) in the history of the original Yankee Stadium. Peterson was often a remarkable pitcher as a Yankee, twice holding the American League's lowest walks/hits per inning pitched rate (in back-to-back seasons, 1969 and 1970), winning 20 games in 1970, having the lowest walks-per-nine innings rate in five straight seasons, and striking out 893 hitters against walking 332 in nine Yankee seasons.

Peterson and Bouton roomed together as Yankees until the team's management decided to separate them. "They thought I was a bad influence on Fritz," Bouton eventually wrote in Ball Four. "The Yankees had some funny ideas about bad influence ... As for teaching Peterson the wrong things, the only thing I ever taught him was how to throw that changeup he uses so effectively. And he still enjoys giving me the credit."

Peterson came up as the Yankees hit rock bottom; their parched farm system had produced prospects that proved journeymen (including Joe Pepitone and Al Downing), and their remaining legends were ground down by age and injuries into little more than box office appeal. (Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris.) His rookie season was the first last-place finish for the franchise since 1912.

With Ford and Bouton fading thanks to arm injuries, Peterson was seen as the Yankees' best starting pitcher behind the redoubtable young Mel Stottlemyre, the arguable hero of their last great stretch drive and pennant clinch in 1964. "I always came in number two," he cracked to Kernan. "Like Hertz and Avis, it was Stottlemyre and me."

After Bouton was left to the expansion draft that created the Seattle Pilots (the eventual Brewers), Peterson's new best Yankee friend and fellow Yankee prankster was a former Dodgers prospect named Mike Kekich, a left-handed pitcher whose impressive repertoire seemed matched only by his inability to resist pitching from behind and an equally impressive off-field life that included passions for glider flying, and scuba diving.

Before the onset of Alzheimer's, Peterson would tell you gladly how impressed he once was watching Kekich dive 25 feet down chasing a manta ray.

In 1973, Peterson and Kekich made public what they'd apparently been living since around the time they attended a 1972 party at the home of sportswriter Maury Allen, what Kekich would call "a life swap" and both Peterson and his old pal Bouton would call a "husband swap" — the two pitchers trade their spouses, houses, children (they would stay with their mothers), and pets.

Let it be said that each of the two pitchers, by an accident of circumstance, found himself sharing a ride with the other's spouse and discovered both an intellectual and emotional comfort zone no longer there with their own spouses. (Mrs. Kekich thought her soon-to-be-ex had impossible standards to live up to; Mrs. Peterson thought her soon-to-be-ex's libido was wanting. And, as difficult as it might be now to believe, neither couple-to-be even thought sexually about each other, seemingly, until they had shared several quiet meals and conversations together.)

Let it be remembered as well that, while all hell broke loose after the swap was made public, then-Yankee manager Ralph Houk showed a side that struck even Bouton — who'd fenced with Houk often enough, especially when Houk spent a spell as the Yankee GM — as surprising.

"As this book was going to press, Ralph Houk said one of the finest things I've ever heard him say ... "The players' lives are their own. We all have problems. You only go through this world once and everyone has a right to go through it happy." This may indicate that Houk the manager is changing with the times, or it may be manager Houk's way of minimizing the effect on his team while he waits to trade one of them. But it may also be a truer insight into Ralph Houk the person."
— Jim Bouton, in "I Managed Good But, Boy, Did They Play Bad"

The Peterson/Kekich trade was a bland diet compared to some of the spice in other sports sex scandals past and to come.

Neither pitcher was thought to have fathered multiple children by multiple baby mamas. (Enough NBA players have done that.) Neither exposed himself to small children. (NFL star Lance Rentzel and, in the late 1950s, Ed Bouchee of the Phillies did that.) Neither were counted or even thought to be among baseball's more notorious extracurricular playboys of their time. (If you didn't count their penchant for practical jokes, they wouldn't have cut the mustard in Mickey Mantle's or Joe Pepitone's parlors.)

They were, in other words, two reasonably normal young men who wouldn't have even thought of extramarital hey-hey before they bumped into an accident of circumstance and found their lives changing irrevocably after they did.

Kekich would be traded first, to the Indians, who'd release him in 1974. He struggled to continue pitching between Japan, Mexico, and the American League before leaving the game to try medical school before going into real estate in 1977. His relationship with Marilyn Peterson — whom Allen thought the most reluctant among the four life traders*, and who found herself butting heads with Kekich as his former wife had — tanked; she eventually married a doctor and made a quiet but happy life while raising her sons.

Peterson was traded to the Indians after Kekich's release, in a package (Fred Beene, Tom Buskey, and Steve Kline also went) that brought the Yankees two mainstays of their coming championship revival — first baseman Chris Chambliss (who'd hit the pennant-winning home run in the 1976 American League Championship Series) and relief pitcher Dick Tidrow. And he married Susanne Kekich, helping her finish raising her daughters while staying a father to his own sons.

He went on to work in the insurance business, then became a blackjack dealer and even a hockey play-by-play announcer. He's even written eschatological monographs and three books, including When the Yankees Were On the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era.

Peterson now lives in Iowa and works with doctors from the Mayo Clinic. Himself a born-again Christian and periodic evangelist, Peterson in 2013 said of his re-marriage, "We're still on the honeymoon and it has been a real blessing."

They'll need that kind of blessing now more than ever, as Peterson settles in uneasily for a battle that can and does prove more soul-challenging than any "life swap" ever could. If all you need is spirit, though, Peterson could beat this into submission without effort. The cruelties of Alzheimer's include its ability to tell even the sturdiest, most determined spirit, "Not so fast, Buster."

Leaving us little but prayer and faith. Both of which Peterson himself has in abundance.

*Mike Kekich is said to have moved away from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he'd been working, and changed his identity, after reports surfaced that actor Ben Affleck planned to make an as-yet-unmade film about the Peterson/Kekich life swap.

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