LADY AT THE BAT: Book Review- When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era

Monday, December 7, 2015

Book Review- When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting the Horace Clarke Era

On Friday afternoon, April 15, 1966, the afternoon paper arrived on our doorstep. The Yankees game was in progress, a game against Baltimore. Since it was a day game I could not hear the Yankees broadcast from my Illinois home. Hearing a broadcast only happened at night and usually in the later innings. 

I wondered about the pitcher that was on the mound for the Yankees. The afternoon paper said his name was 'Peterson.' At age 11, I had never heard of him. Turns out "Peterson' was Fritz Peterson, and he was making his Major League debut, which he ended up winning. I probably would have known all about Fritz Peterson had I subscribed to The Sporting News, but that would be a couple years away. This Peterson guy wasn't too bad. In fact, he was the best pitcher for the New York Yankees, not named Mel Stottlemyre, for years to come.

Trouble was the Yankees weren't very good in those years. Why? Because it was the Horace Clarke Era. We can read all about that era in Fritz Peterson's book, When the Yankees Were on the Fritz: Revisiting The Horace Clarke Era.  

First, lets be fair about Horace Clarke, the Yankees second baseman from 1967 through 1973. He played almost every day in each of those seasons. In 1969 Clarke batted .285 and was second in the league in hits. He led the league in double plays twice and was 2nd, 3rd or 4th in the league four other seasons. He was number one in assists at second base for six straight seasons. Sounds like a very useful player.

Well, the Yankees pitching staff in those years threw a ton of ground balls, and despite impressive numbers of double plays, assists and putouts, Horace Clarke earned the reputation for bailing out when runners tried to take him out of the play near the second base bag, resulting in a lot more failed double plays, which of course don't show up in the box score. And it wasn't just Clarke at second. The Yankees infield was also a revolving door at third base and shortstop for many of those years. In When the Yankees Were on the Fritz..., Peterson tells us how bad the Yankees really were. The names of mediocre players are mentioned in every chapter, or "inning" as they are referred to, Jerry Kenney, Ross Moschitto, Bill Burbach. Ron Woods---you get the idea. Then there were players  past their prime: the Alou brothers (Matty and Felipe), Rocky Colovito and Jim Ray Hart, to name a few.

There were some bright moments in the Horace Clarke Era. The Yankees won 93 games in 1970, the only year Fritz Peterson won 20 games and pitched in the All Star game. Credit the pitching staff and a few young non-Clarke-like players such as  Bobby Murcer and Thurman Munson for that success. Still, the Yankees were not Baltimore and were perennial also-rans throughout the time Fritz Peterson played there.

Of course, no story about Fritz Peterson would be complete without an account of  The Trade, baseball's only "trade" that did not involve any general managers or team owners, as far as we know. On March 4, 1973, Fritz and teammate Mike Kekich revealed the details of the trade, which involved swapping their wives, children and family pets.  I found a copy of The Sporting News from that time. The headline read "'Dear Abby' Takes Over Yank Camp" written by Jim Ogle. It was very clear from day one that Peterson was happy with the arrangement though it never worked for Kekich. Player reaction was mostly supportive. Said Thurman Munson in Ogle's article "We're a crazy bunch of guys and every man to his own." And, "Certainly, it won't change my feelings of Fritz himself."

A  week later,  a Sporting News headline read  "Kuhn Deplores Wife Swapping." Then Commissioner of Baseball, Bowie Kuhn weighed in, calling the swap "regrettable," and when pressed for how he really felt, Kuhn called it "deplorable"  In the book, Fritz tells all about how this happened (fairly simple, really). I remember the likes of Carson, Cavett and other late night hosts having their fill of jokes about the story. Fritz points out he is still, to this day, happily married to the former Mrs Kekich. Kekich wasn't as fortunate however, though he eventually remarried. Now there is talk of a movie.

The book is a great read. Be prepared, however, for some unfortunate typos.  Fritz had to rush publication of the book for baseball's opening day, so some Yankees appeared as Craig Nettles, Gene Michaels and at one point, Horace Clark.

It should be stated that Gene Michael was the best of all the Yankees shortstops with the glove in that era.  If you were a fan like me in the Horace Clarke years, suffering through the bad times, you will recall why the Yankees were so bad. Good players like Mel Stottlemyre and Fritz Peterson suffered right along with us, and they had more than a ring side seat to the disaster that ensued in those years. Those guys deserved a better fate, but it wasn't to be.

I saw Fritz Peterson pitch twice, both times in Chicago. He lost 2-0 in 1970, giving up only one unearned run in seven innings. Danny Cater, a first baseman by trade, committed two errors at third base, one of which led to the lone run surrendered by Fritz. My kingdom for a third baseman!! Fritz was a little more fortunate in a 1973 game and was the winning pitcher in a 2-1 final. Ron Blomberg homered against the White Sox's Steve Stone and Horace Clarke delivered an RBI single for the difference maker.

Clarke wasn't all that bad, was he? Let Fritz tell you in his book. But the difference makers that day turned out to be Fritz plus Sparky Lyle, who bailed Fritz out of a two on, no out jam in the 9th inning, aided by a Thurman Munson throw out of a runner at second base. See, this is exactly Fritz's point, The Yankees eventually got good players, like Lyle and Munson, who later helped win championships, all too late for the original Yankee Stadium's all time leader in ERA. Fritz's ERA in the two games I saw him pitch was 0.60. If Clarke didn't bail out on so many double play balls, his record setting ERA at The House That Ruth Built would have been a tad closer to that.

Such was life in the Horace Clarke Era.


Fritz Peterson said...

Mr. Colgan. That was the most accurate review of that era that I've ever read, typo's and all (in the book.) I'm hoping to do 2 other books that should be out during the 2016 season.

Bernadette Pasley said...

I'm sure Pete will be chomping at the bit to read both of them, Mr Peterson. Thanks for reading the review. :)

Dennis Vavra said...

Horace Clarke was my favorite player and he would be a welcomed addition to today's Yankees. He was a switch hitter who could steal bases and probably had to bail a t second because of the late and poor throws he received from the various shortstops and third basemen. He was number 20 and every time I see it at the stadium I think of him not Jorge Posada.

Anonymous said...

I cam f age as a baseball fan in that era, starting in 1971. They were mediocre to good. I like The Hoss, but he was a poor hitter who should not have batted lead-off. Was never a fan of Houk as a manager. I do recall one year where they had a good pitching staff including a young pitcher named Steve Kline whose career if I recall correctly got cut short by injuries. The book is extremely nostalgic for me. Reading about the Yankees always reminded me of reading about the Roman Empire.