Excerpted from Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team, out on April 3.
In the late 1970s, on my very first assignment as a baseball writer, I found myself in the press box at the Yankees' spring training home in Fort Lauderdale. On one side of me sat Murray Chass of the New York Times, fairly early in his own career as the most prolific and most boring baseball writer in the paper's (maybe any paper's) history. On the other side my seatmate was Maury Allen of the New York Post.
It was only an exhibition game, but I had never been paid to watch baseball before, and even the cramped little press box in Lauderdale seemed like some sort of heaven to me. I gurgled something about this being my first professional gig as a sportswriter, and Chass looked at me briefly, emitted a noise composed entirely of consonants, and went back to his crossword puzzle. Allen was friendlier. He introduced himself, shook my hand, wished me luck, and spent the first couple innings chatting amiably about his life as a sportswriter. Around the top of the third, he paused in mid-anecdote, looked at the field briefly, and tapped a pencil on the arm of his chair. "I love everything about the job," he said, "except the fucking games." Then he got up and left.
It would be cheap to contradict the defenseless Allen, who died in 2010, and point out that his role in what was almost precisely a fucking game may have been the most exciting moment in his career. In the summer of 1972, the biggest trade in Yankees history originated at a party at Allen's house in Westchester County, when pitcher Mike Kekich drove home with the wife of pitcher Fritz Peterson, and Peterson drove home with Mrs. Kekich.
Several months later, the Times splashed a headline across four columns: "2 Yankees Disclose Family Exchange." In separate interviews, the men explained that Peterson had moved in with Mrs. Kekich and the Kekich kids, and Kekich had unpacked his bags chez Peterson. Even Chass, who wrote the piece, couldn't make this one boring. Every newspaper and broadcast news show in the country was on the story in minutes, displaying a previously unacknowledged interest in the sex life of professional athletes. Fritz and Mike tried to make the point that they had swapped lives, not wives, but Commissioner Bowie Kuhn nonetheless declared that he was appalled. (Peterson replied, "He didn't like the fact that I was teaching billiards, either.") Manager Ralph Houk first made a whooshing sound, and then said he didn't think any of it was Kuhn's—or anyone else's—business. The Fat Boy from Cleveland, who had just bought the club, hadn't yet learned that newspapers might actually print whatever he had to say. So he said nothing.
But the Susanne Kekich–Marilyn Peterson trade was undoubtedly the most memorable thing that happened to the Yankees during the grim years of Horace Clarke and Frank Tepedino. Back then, the only other thrills came during those on-field fights that featured Joe Pepitone running desperately toward the dugout, terrified that a brawler from the other team might unstick his toupee. (Pepi actually had two hairpieces: one for civilian life, and a more compact number especially designed to fit under his baseball cap.) As it turned out, Kekich and Marilyn Peterson couldn't make it work, while Peterson and the former Susanne Kekich have been married for 37 years. In other words: two relationships just like a million other relationships, except this one was played out in public, in pinstripes.
For all its tabloid oomph, the Kekich-Peterson tag team match was much more decorous than most of the sex-tinted sagas that had previously escaped from clubhouses and dugouts and into the public consciousness. Anyone who came even close to the fringes of baseball in the twenties knew that Babe Ruth's appetites were not confined to beer and steaks. In 1949, a deranged fan named Ruth Ann Steinhagen shot Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus; Ruth Ann's mother said her daughter was attracted to Waitkus by his "Lithuanian heritage," surely the most original euphemism in the annals of baseball and romance. But indirection had long been the favorite literary mode for public discussion of athletes' romantic foibles. A few years after the Waitkus incident, in a piece about a great prizefighter from the early part of the twentieth century, John Lardner wrote, "Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast."
Indirection finally gave way to candor when the players themselves began to do the talking, around the same time that the rest of the culture was beginning to absorb the aftershocks of the sexual revolution that had begun in the 1960s. In 1970, Jim Bouton—as it happens, Fritz Peterson's best friend in baseball—published his epochal Ball Four, which lifted the window shade on the habits of men whose behavior, whenever they were in proximity to women, would have embarrassed the frat boys of Animal House. The alpha animal at the head of the Yankees sex pack was undoubtedly Mickey Mantle. I own a photocopy of a form filled out by Mantle in 1973, when ex-Yankees were asked to add their two cents to the Stadium's fiftieth anniversary plans by recalling their "outstanding event at Yankee Stadium." Mantle wrote, "I got a blow job under the right field bleachers by the Yankee bull pen."
Fritz Peterson was no Mantle, nor was he even teammate Gene Michael, the shortstop (and later general manager) who was known as "Stick" neither because of his body type nor his bat. By Peterson's own description, his libido was lower than his ERA, and he had the lowest lifetime ERA of any New York pitcher in the history of the old Yankee Stadium. In a memoir published in 2009, he relates how Marilyn, pre-swap, had bought him a book called The Marriage Art, "a sort of 'how-to' book. I realize now that she was trying to tell me that I didn't 'have it.'" Kekich, on the other hand, must have had quite a lot of it.
In a paragraph about how they used to sing together, Peterson writes, "Mike could even yodel with the best of them," and I'm still wondering whether "yodel" had a secondary meaning among the ballplayers of the seventies and eighties. Once the press had established its interest in ballplayers' sex lives, and ballplayers had stopped pretending they were Boy Scouts, the game developed layers of subterfuge to protect the guilty. Some equipment managers carried a special cigar box, where wedding rings were deposited on road trips. Occasionally teams would talk about barring wives from the team plane, citing all sorts of flabby excuses to disguise the real reason: the players' conviction that a teammate's traveling wife was a spy for all wives (the Brewers of the early eighties referred to the road-tripping Mrs. Paul Molitor, grumpily, as "the 26th man"). Recovering in Cleveland from a back injury, Indians outfielder Rick Manning yodeled Dennis Eckersley's wife whenever the team was on the road. Wade Boggs called himself a "sex addict" when a sensational lawsuit revealed his years-long affair with a California mortgage broker named Margo Adams, whose mortgage business was going so well she had been able to join Boggs on 64 separate road trips.
Yet neither Manning's nor Boggs's extramarital adventures—or, for that matter, Ruth's, or Mantle's, or any other ballplayer's—had the staying power in the popular imagination that has accrued to the story of Fritz & Sue & Mike & Marilyn. Kekich has changed his name and lives in semi-seclusion, Marilyn Peterson has disappeared from view, and even though Fritz and Sue are still married, not once does Peterson refer to her by name in his 220-page book. Yet early in 2011, Ben Affleck announced that he was making a movie about the affair, and once again the names Peterson and Kekich were suddenly familiar.
Peterson's book, by the way, is to a large degree a religious tract addressing whether certain ex-Yankees will or will not make it into heaven. Such is the power of redemption that he believes that Mickey Mantle, who accepted Christ on his deathbed, is all but a lock. Mike Kekich? Peterson says no, which at the very least seems ungrateful.
"The Deal of the Century" by Daniel Okrent is from Damn Yankees: Twenty-Four Major League Writers on the World's Most Loved (and Hated) Team, edited by Rob Fleder and published by Ecco.
Daniel Okrent is a consulting editor at Sports Illustrated. He is the author of the 2010 bestseller Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.