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Mudville: September 18, 2021 11:57 am PDT
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Peters The Great

Gary Peters loved to hit.

He earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous hitting pitchers of the 1960s while playing for the Chicago White Sox and then later when he wound down his career in Boston. The southpaw had 19 career homers, 15 of which came as a pitcher while four were as a pinch-hitter.

He is, however, sad to see that pitchers in this era have forgotten about the art of hitting. Peters, 84, took a great deal of pride in his ability at the plate and felt what he accomplished as a hitter made him a complete player.

“I think pitchers should hit,” Peters said. “I liked to hit. I wouldn’t want to play today where pitchers can’t hit. I don’t think National League pitchers concentrate on batting practice enough. Back then, we had some pitchers who were pretty good hitters and would take BP. They didn’t give you much time for BP if you were a pitcher but I got to a position where I hit with the extra players. Nowadays, most of them [pitchers] go up there and look like they don’t want to go up there.

“I was proud of my hitting. It was something different to accomplish for a pitcher. It was good to have a reputation as a good hitter -if a pitcher can hit, they have to pitch to you differently, like a regular hitter. I knew when I pitched to pitchers on the other teams who I could throw three over the plate to and they were gone. I was real happy to be known as a hitter.”

“Robin Roberts had such a good delivery, he was always ready to be a fielder. Most pitchers today don’t even care about that.”

Peters said that during his later days with the White Sox – who were a rather frugal franchise at the time – he was able to use his ability at the plate to get a better contract. He pointed out to ownership how well and how often he hit so when it came time to get a raise, management reluctantly agreed.

He was particularly effective in late-game situations, connecting for nine of his homers in the seventh through ninth innings and one in extra innings. Peters also hit five of his homers and drove in 43 of his 102 career RBIs with two outs and runners in scoring position. He hit five homers each against Cleveland and the A’s [Oakland and Kansas City].

While Peters is best-remembered by some for his prowess with a bat he was also one of the better pitchers in the 1960s. He won a pair of ERA titles, was American League Rookie of the Year in 1963 and won 20 games in 1964. Though injuries slowed him during the latter stages of his career, he still finished with a 124-103 record with a career ERA of 3.25.

He is one of 10 pitchers to win an ERA title in either league as a rookie, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Since he did it, only Detroit’s Mark Fidrych [1976] has matched him.

Peters remains eighth all-time on the White Sox career strikeout list [1,098] while his 215 strikeouts in 1967 are the ninth-highest season total in franchise history. It was enough that the Sox named him to their all-century team. He was one of only eight pitchers named to the squad when it was announced on the club’s 100th anniversary.

“I think I had a good career,” Peters said. “When I got to the big leagues, I felt fortunate. There were 100, 200 guys in the minors at the time that were trying to get your job so I was pretty satisfied with my career. I always felt I could have done better if I learned another pitch but I never had any regrets.”

Florida: Gary Peters of the Chicago White Sox, is shown here in this closeup shot during spring training. April 1, 1964

PENNSYLVANIA PETERS AND HEADING TO CHICAGO

Peters comes from Mercer, Pa., a small, northern suburb of Pittsburgh. It was evident early on that he had athletic ability, starring for the basketball team at Mercer High School. He was named to the AP Little All-State 5 as a senior and placed third in the voting for Pennsylvania State Player of the Year. He was also offered a basketball scholarship to Penn State.

That his school did not have a baseball team did little to sway him from loving the sport, though. He cut his teeth playing semi-pro ball with his father, Tom, on a strong Pardoe team in the Pymatuning League, a semi-pro circuit in northwest Pa. He and his dad carried the team to the championship round during the summer following his senior year in high school – Peters pitched and won in the semifinals – but they lost the title in the final game on a balk.

“My first organized ball was a semi-pro league where my father played shortstop and I played first base,” Peters said. “He later moved to second base and played until he was in his 40s. When I signed [with the Sox], I signed as an outfielder but I was mainly a first baseman.”

It was Peters’ ability as a hitter that drew the interest of the White Sox and they invited him to Chicago at the end of the summer for a tryout just as the semipro season was nearing its end. He spent three days in Chicago. The Record-Argus reported on Sept. 2 that Peters had returned home from the tryout and appeared confident that he would be given a contract offer.

“I had some scholarship offers to play basketball but we went to Chicago and it worked out and of course they offered me $5,000 or something like that,” Peters said. “I was ready to sign but my dad negotiated that they pay for college. So I was able to play in the summer for two or three years after school was done.”

Peters signed in mid-September and was sent to Holdrege of the Class D Nebraska State League the following spring. He started out as a fielder but eventually moved to the mound where he went 10-5 with a 2.81 ERA in 25 appearances [12 starts], finishing second in the league in victories and fourth in ERA. He fanned a league-leading 142 in 128 innings. Peters also hit .321 with a homer and 17 RBIs in 84 at-bats.

Gary Peters Posing in Action 1964

“When I signed, I signed as an outfielder but I was mainly a first baseman,” Peter said. “My first stop was in Nebraska and [future Major Leaguer] JC Martin was on the team. He had gotten some signing money so he was going to play first base. They wanted to look at him because of the bonus.

“I was playing right field every day and two or three of their pitchers got bad arms. The manager [Skeeter Scalzi] asked if I wanted to try pitching. I said yes; I had pitched some in semi-pro with my father. So I said yeah and never went back again [to the outfield].”

Peters was bumped up to Dubuque of the Class D Midwest League in 1957 and went 10-6 with a 2.75 ERA. He also hit .279 with four homers and 19 RBIs. He began 1958 with Colorado Springs of the Class-A Western League, but struggled in six outings and was reassigned to Davenport of the Class-B Three-I [Illinois-Indiana-Iowa] League. He went 12-8 with a 3.99 ERA in 25 games [22 starts], including beaning fellow future Rookie of the Year Frank Howard in his first start. Howard was taken to the hospital after suffering a concussion.

It all set the stage for what would be an up-and-down next few seasons – literally.

GETTING THERE IS ONLY HALF THE BATTLE

While Peters showed promise on every level at which he pitched he had very little staying power once he reached the Major Leagues. He pitched most of 1959 with Indianapolis of the Triple-A American Association, going 13-11 with a 3.56 ERA in 35 games [27 starts]. He tossed what was, up until that time, a career-high 192 innings, which included a July 24 no-hitter against Minneapolis during which he walked five and struck out four. The Associated Press [AP] described his outing in this fashion – “Southpaw Gary Peters of Indianapolis, a so-so pitcher all season, carved his name into the American Association hall of fame Friday night”. United Press International [UPI] was a bit more upbeat about his effort, saying he “mixed a good fastball with a series of sliders and curves to set down the Millers in order in six different innings”. Peters, fittingly, also went 1-for-3, picking up one of four Indy hits.

His time in the American Association was enough to earn him a September call-up. The White Sox were on their way to the American League pennant so Peters’ Major League debut was not memorable from a team standpoint but he did get into a pair of games, allowing no runs in an inning of work. Peters made his big-leagued debut on Sept. 10 at Washington. Despite allowing a pair of hits, he recorded a strikeout in his inning of work and came away unscathed. His next outing four days later at Boston wasn’t as successful. Peters faced a pair of batters and walked them both.

The 1963 ``Rookies of the Year`` get together with trophies almost as big as they are during presentation ceremony prior to White Sox-Reds exhibition here. Gary Peters (left) of Chicago's White Sox won the American League Rookie of the Year and Pete Rose won the title in the National League.

Peters spent the next two seasons with San Diego of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, going 25-19 with a 3.94 ERA in 61 games [51 starts]. He got a September call-up each season and pitched 13 2/3 innings and had a 1.98 ERA in those outings.

“What hurt me a lot in those [early years] was missing spring training [because of college],” Peters said. “I wasn’t getting nearly the instruction that the guys who played the whole year were. My first year I was in the B League and I went to Triple-A by 1959 but you can’t progress if you miss Spring Training. That’s when all the instruction was in those days. I would be joining clubs at the end of the college semester on June 1.

“In those days they didn’t have pitching coaches at every level. They had a coach that roamed around the whole organization so you didn’t get near the instruction you would in Spring Training. I think if I had gotten that I would have gotten to the big leagues a couple of years earlier. I had pretty good years every year, not great but pretty good. I got called up in the fall in ’59, ’60 and ’61 but the White Sox had a great staff. They won the pennant in 1959 and had four or five established starters. I had maybe 11 innings and didn’t get to pitch. Nowadays if a kid has a pretty good game at Triple-A, they call him up and take a look at him.”

Peters finally got that look in 1962, earning a spot with the parent club out of Spring Training. While he showed some promise, he once again couldn’t fulfill it and was sent back to Indy after pitching to a 5.68 ERA in 6 1/3 innings. He went 8-10 at Triple-A and his future, at least with the White Sox, was very much in doubt heading into 1963.

THE EMERGENCE OF PETER[S] THE GREAT

While Peters made the Sox out of Spring Training again in 1963, it was due in large part to the fact that he was out of options. He appeared in six games through May 2 and his effort was non-descript. He had a 4.63 ERA in 11 2/3 innings when fate intervened.

Juan Pizarro was scheduled to pitch on May 6 at Kansas City but he came down with the flu. The Sox turned to Peters to make the start and he proceeded to throw four-hit ball over eight innings. He walked one, allowed only one run and earned his first Major League victory, changing his career arc almost instantly.

(Original Caption) Members of the Topps Rookie All-Star Team are shown at Waldorf Astoria October 24th, where they received their awards at luncheon ceremony. Front row, left to right: Billy Cowan, Salt Lake City Bears minor league player of the year; Jimmie Hall, Minnesota Twins; Pete Rose, Cincinnati Reds, second base; Jesse Gonder, New York Mets, catcher; and Tommy Harper, Cincinnati Reds, outfield. Back row, in same order: Rusty Staub, Houston Colts, first base; Gary Peters, Chicago White Sox, first base; Ray Culp, Philadelphia Phillies, righthanded pitcher; and Vic Davalillo, Clevland Indians, outifeld, shortstop, White Sox. Al Weis was absent. The rookie awards are sponsored by the Topps Chewing Gum Company.

Oh, he also belted his first career homer, setting the stage for what would be a dominant run at the plate. The blast was a solo shot off Ted Bowsfield to lead off the third inning. Peters would go on to hit a homer in nine consecutive seasons, a feat that no other pitcher has accomplished since. It’s the sixth-longest streak among players who were primarily pitchers, behind Warren Spahn (17), Red Ruffing (16), Bob Lemon (12), Dizzy Trout (11) and Carlos Zambrano (10), according to Elias.

“They optioned me out three times and they wouldn’t be able to protect me in in 1963,” Peters said. “I decided that if they didn’t I was going to get out of baseball and teach and coach. But I got a start because Juan Pizarro got sick. He had the flu. We were on the plane and Ray Berres the pitching coach said you’re pitching tonight. I pitched a good game and hit a home run. That got me a starting job. I won a bunch in a row that first year and that cemented my position as a starting pitcher.

“I was 26 when I got that first start and I was happy to get the start. Ray Berres had helped me immensely with my delivery and with the stuff I had – a good sinker and slider – I was confident I could get them out. I was happy to get start because I was up there for four coffee breaks and pitched very few innings before that.”

Peters started three more games in May, winning two of them. He also picked up his first career save [May 22 at Washington]. He closed out May with a 2.95 ERA and after a June 2 relief appearance against Boston, was primarily in the rotation for the remainder of the season.

He was 5-5 with a 2.54 ERA when he started against Detroit on July 11. Peters earned the victory in that game, marking the first of 11 consecutive wins in 12 starts through Aug. 29. He tossed 10 complete games in that stretch, including a one-hit, 13-strikeout effort against Baltimore on July 15. Future Hall-of-Famer and opposing pitcher Robin Roberts got the only hit. Peters went 11 innings in the second game of a doubleheader against Detroit on Aug. 11 and went 12 innings at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 25. He threw three shutouts during that stretch and entered September with a 16-5 record and a 1.78 ERA.

Peters ran his record to 19-6 on Sept. 18 against Boston but had his two worst outings of the year over his final two starts, ending his bid to win 20 games. He allowed 10 runs in nine innings over his last two starts, losing both while seeing his ERA jump from 2.04 to 2.33. Still it was enough for him to win the ERA title and edge out teammate Pete Ward for Rookie of the Year. Peters finished with 10 first-place votes to Ward’s six. Ward hit .295 with 22 homers and 84 RBIs. Peters would also finish eighth in the MVP voting.

“Rookie of the Year actually made me a lot of money,” said Peters, who also had three homers and drove in 12 while hitting .259. “I did autograph shows and I still get mail asking me to sign ‘1963 Rookie of the Year’. I was happy to win the award because there were a bunch of good pitchers that year. Pete ward had a lot of RBIs for us, too. He always told me ‘Keep that trophy polished, I could have won it easily’.”

The following season would prove to be the best of Peters’ career. He had career highs in victories [20], innings pitched [273 2/3] and starts [36] while making his first All-Star appearance. Peters finished seventh in the American League MVP voting and tied Los Angeles’ Dean Chance, who also won the Cy Young Award, for the most wins in the American League.

Peters also had a fine year at the plate. Though he hit only .208 he had career highs in homers [four] and RBIs [19]. His 25 hits were the second-most in his career, bettered only by the 26 he would collect in 1971 with Boston. The highlight came on July 19 in the first game of a doubleheader against Kansas City when he hit a game-winning home run in the bottom of the 13th while pinch-hitting for Hoyt Wilhelm. Peters came up with the tying run on first and after two failed bunt attempts, he deposited Wes Stock’s 1-2 offering deep into the right-field bleachers. It was one of four pinch-hit homers he would hit in his career.

“After I had a second good year and won 20 games, I felt fairly established,” Peters said. “There were so many guys playing pro ball then and trying to get jobs, I didn’t dare let down and not work hard because they would take your job. There were twice as many minor leaguers as there are now and they were all working to get to the big-leagues. I had gone through that and knew what it was like so I had to keep my work ethic up.”

Nagging injuries slowed Peters some in 1965 and he saw his record fall to 10-12 and his ERA rise by more than a run to 3.62. His performance at the plate also suffered. He hit .181 with only one homer and six RBIs.

Peters would reverse his record in 1966, though, going 12-10 and winning his second ERA title with a career-best 1.98. He became the third [and last] White Sox pitcher to win a pair of ERA titles, joining Hall-of-Famers Ed Walsh [1907 and 1910] and Red Faber [1921-22]. Peters also led the league with a career-best 0.982 WHIP and enjoyed working with Berres.

Gary Peters, a former pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, stands where the first base line used to be at Payne Park, the spring training facility for the White Sox in Sarasota, FL Monday, March 1, 2010. The park served as spring training home for MLB's Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox, and New York Giants until 1989 when the stadium was razed and the grounds converted to a public park and tennis facilities. (Gary W. Green, Orlando Sentinel)

“He had this whole theory on the mechanics of pitching, about staying back,” Peters said. “If you watch these guys now they are getting hit in the back with ground balls. They are trying to throw so hard, they are spinning around and don’t have a chance to field the ball. Robin Roberts had such a good delivery, he was always ready to be a fielder. Most pitchers today don’t even care about that.”

While Peters would enjoy another successful season in 1967 – he went 16-11 with a 2.28 ERA and made his second All-Star team – the White Sox continued their string of near-misses in the American League. Chicago had one of the best pitching staffs in the league throughout much of the 1960s but were offensively challenged for much of the decade.

It tended to put the pitchers in a difficult position, knowing that giving up one or two runs might mean a loss.

“We didn’t have a big offensive team,” said Peters, who also had two homers and 13 RBIs in 1967. “The years I was there, especially ’63 and ’64, we were just a game or two back of the Yankees. We didn’t make any errors or too many mistakes. We had good pitching with guys like Pizarro, and Tommy John. We’d be in the top six every year for lowest ERA and maybe not win because we didn’t score that many runs.

“There was pressure [on the pitchers] but it was good pressure. Everyone knew we weren’t going to score much but it made you a better pitcher, I think. When you have the knowledge that you’re only going to get two or three runs to work with, you’re going to pitch well. When I went over to Boston, they scored some runs there. My arm wasn’t as good then and it was late in my career, but I would give up four runs and still win. That never happened with the White Sox.”

CHANGING SOX

Peters’ exceptional run with the White Sox ended in 1967, though. While he would pitch two more seasons in Chicago, he went 14-28 in 1968-69, prompting a trade to Boston. Ironically, it was his prowess at the plate that helped bring about the move and the end of his career.

His reputation as a hitter was cemented by 1968 and he added to it on May 5 when he connected for a fourth-inning grand slam off New York’s Al Downing. It was just the second grand slam by a pitcher in club history. It also came in Peters’ first win of the season – he pitched a complete-game, six-hitter. He would pick up only three more after dealing with back issues for much of the season brought on by swinging a bat.

“My back injury was from pinch-hitting,” Peters said. “I had pitched the first game of a doubleheader and pitched nine innings. I was in the clubhouse icing my arm. [Manager] Eddie Stanky always wanted me to come back out [to the dugout] and about the fourth inning, the clubhouse kid comes running in and tells me Eddie wants me to hit. I really didn’t warm up and I hit a grounder in the hole between first and second and never made it to first. I got back spasms and went down. I ended up on the ground and was in traction for a couple of days.

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 14: From left, Boston Red Sox players Carl Yastrzemski, Gary Peters and Reggie Smith are pictured in the Fenway Park locker room in Boston on Apr. 14, 1972, the day before the start of the 1972 season. (Photo by Jack O'Connell/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

“They gave me some muscle relaxers and I finally got back to where I could play but I never got better. Back then you didn’t want to go on the disabled list. I lost my effectiveness because of my back and at the time I strained my arm because I changed my delivery. That injury was the start of it. I didn’t have good stuff after that. I started having shoulder problems it was because of pinch-hitting.”

The 1969 season brought with it baseball’s new divisional format but the results weren’t much better for the Sox or Peters. Chicago finished fifth in the AL West, 26 games under .500 while Peters finished 10-15 with a career-worst 4.53 ERA. He suffered a shoulder injury in Spring Training and it hampered him for much of the season. That December he was traded to Boston.

Peters won 16 and 14 games, respectively, in his first two seasons in Boston. He also hit four homers and tied his career high with 19 RBIs in 1971. By 1972, however, injuries had taken their toll. Peters was in the bullpen for virtually the entire year, going 3-3 with a 4.32 ERA. He was released following the season.

“I went over there [to Boston] and I didn’t have the stuff I used to,” Peters said. “I was throwing more breaking balls. My sinker wasn’t as sharp and my arm got really bad after 1971. I had a terrible year that last year. My arm was about worn out. I couldn’t throw a good slider, my sinker wasn’t sharp and it makes it tough to pitch. My first two years I got by because they scored me a lot of runs. I pitched some games I never would have won in Chicago.

“I liked Chicago. We just didn’t score a lot of runs. We had a good defensive club and a good bunch of guys. And I enjoyed going to the Red Sox. Owner Tom Yawkey was probably the greatest owner ever. He treated the players like his own children. If I had played my whole career there I would have made more money.”

A brief flirtation with the Royals in the spring of ’73 marked the end of Peters’ career. While he could still swing a bat, he never gave any thought of trying to catch on as a pinch-hitter or bench player.

“There were too many guys around who played their whole career and were doing just that,” said Peters, who, over the course of 17 years, hit 28 homers and drove in 188 in the Majors and Minors. “I couldn’t compete with those guys. And they would be DHing and stuff like that so it didn’t enter my mind too much. When I got out of ball, I was ready to get out. My arm was bad and it was just too difficult.”

Peters stayed in Sarasota full-time following his retirement, working as a construction project manager. He began back at the bottom and worked his way up – just as he did with the White Sox – and ultimately took a job with his local school board as a construction project manager in the school district.

While he said he received some offers over the years to coach, he turned them all down. He was done with traveling and ready to settle into the second phase of his life in a quitter environment outside of Chicago.

“I was not a big-city guy,” Peters said. “I had some pretty good offers from the White Sox and the Red Sox and they all involved getting back to the big leagues in a couple of years. I had played under Ray Berres and he had a reputation as one of the top pitching coaches in baseball so I learned his theories and his way of teaching. I probably could have been a good coach but I was so tired of travel and the big cities.”

Peters walked away, though, with a great reputation, not only for what he did at the mound but for what he did at the plate.

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

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