Friday, April 26, 2024

This Day in Yankee History (Peterson, Chambliss Swapped in ‘Friday Night Massacre’)

Apr. 26, 1974—In a multi-player trade derided at the time as “The Friday Night Massacre,” the New York Yankees sent a former All-Star pitcher who had deeply embarrassed the club to the Cleveland Indians for a quiet first baseman who helped return them to glory after 12 years away from the postseason.

The reports two weeks ago that Fritz Peterson died last October reminded me of the scandal that engulfed the pitcher a half-century ago—then, after a few minutes’ reflection, of the subsequent trade involving him that became one of the building blocks in the revived Yankee dynasty of the Seventies.

If you thought you saw a pun in the headline for this post, you are correct.  The Bronx Bombers had sat stony and red-faced when veteran lefty Peterson and younger starter Mike Kekich admitted in separate March 1973 press conferences that they had swapped wives and children the prior summer.

Three months after the scandal exploded, the Yankees had no compunctions in unloading Kekich, who had seldom mastered the requisite control to go with his fastball. But it was another matter for Peterson, who won 20 games in 1970 and, if he could overcome a back injury incurred in spring training in 1974, could have returned to form.

In a 2015 interview for the “Bleeding Yankee Blue” blog, Peterson recalled that he had told Yankee President and General Manager Gabe Paul that he wouldn’t mind if he ended up being traded, as long as it wasn’t to the Philadelphia Phillies or the Cleveland Indians. The executive assured him he had nothing to worry about.

So much for promises, especially those made in baseball’s pre-free agent era. 

Paul wound up dealing Peterson to the Indians along with righthanded starter Steve Kline and relievers Fred Beene and Tom Buskey. In return, the Yankees received righthanders Cecil Upshaw and Dick Tidrow, as well as the trade's linchpin, Chris Chambliss (pictured).

(Perhaps Paul's only concession to Peterson's feelings was that the trade occurred one month after Cleveland bid goodbye to Kekich, which meant that any clubhouse awkwardness with the onetime great friends would be eliminated.)

No matter how much about Peterson’s role in the wife-swapping scandal may have angered the Yankee brass, he remained a favorite in the clubhouse, which valued his on-field pinpoint control and delighted in his off-field pranks.

Most of all, teammates like Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer, and Mel Stottlemyre wondered publicly about the wisdom of getting rid of 40% of the pitching staff during a transition year for the team—its first since 1964 without manager Ralph Houk.

With Richard Nixon’s abrupt firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox still on the minds of many, the farewell to Peterson and the three other Yankee pitchers inevitably became known as “The Friday Night Massacre.”

The 1971 American League Rookie of the Year, Chambliss had followed up with a combined .281 his next two seasons. 

But, with a subpar .243 BA with the Yankees in that first season after the trade—and with Buskey performing creditably coming out of the Indians’ bullpen—it looked like the Yankees had gotten the worst of the transaction. There was no telling how long he’d last with impulsive owner George Steinbrenner calling the shots.

Within a couple of years, all these concerns would fall by the wayside. If the trade wasn’t as lopsided as, say, the St. Louis Cardinals receiving Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio, it still, in the long run, decisively benefited the Yankees.

After two seasons with the Indians, Peterson would be traded to Texas in 1976, then retire. The careers of Kline and Beene would also flame out.

As their stars fell, the long-term advantage of the deal for the Yankees became more apparent. Although Upshaw would be traded after his 1-5 season, Tidrow—whose nickname “Dirt” mirrored his blue-collar grit—became a dependable long reliever and spot starter.

Chambliss was even better, rebounding in 1975 with a .304 batting average. Through the end of the 1970s, he proved a model of consistency, with his BA ranging from .274 to .293.

Although Reggie Jackson, the slugger who replaced Chambliss in the cleanup role in 1977, may have been the self-styled “straw that stirs the drink” for the Yankees, Chambliss helped cement the team being cobbled together by Paul.

In the field, Chambliss was smooth, earning a Gold Glove in 1978. At the plate, if he did not hit prodigious home runs in batches, he rarely slumped, laying off bad pitches enough to wear down opposing pitchers and easing the way for the rest of the lineup. (He would successfully preach the same gospel of plate discipline as the Yankees’ hitting coach in the 1990s.) 

In a clubhouse that became increasingly dominated by large egos, Chambliss presented an unassuming but necessary contrast.

But this quietest of men became known for one particularly loud at bat: his dramatic, ninth-inning walk-off homer in the 1976 American League Championship Series off Kansas City Royals reliever Mark Littell—sending the Yankees on to the World Series for the first time since 1964.

When Paul pulled off another trade that brought rookie second baseman Willie Randolph to the Yankees from the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Bombers had solidified the right side of their infield with intelligent, consistent players who, by rarely making mistakes, contributed mightily to their late Seventies dynasty.

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