“We didn’t swap wives — we swapped lives.”
— Mike Kekich
“Don’t make anything sordid out of this.”
— Fritz Peterson
It was only the strangest trade in baseball history.
On March 5, 1973, at the New York Yankees’ spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson announced they had swapped wives, two children apiece and even family dogs. (For the record, the Kekiches had a terrier, the Petersons a poodle.)
This would have been big news had the two hurlers — both left-handers, of course — played in, say, Milwaukee or Cincinnati. But because they pitched for baseball’s most famous club in the nation’s largest city, the unexpected news traveled faster than any pitch thrown by either.
It didn’t matter that a syndicate headed by an unknown Cleveland shipbuilder named George Steinbrenner just had bought the Yankees from CBS. It didn’t matter that Yankees journeyman Ron Blomberg would become baseball’s first designated hitter a few weeks later. The story throughout baseball that spring clearly was Kekich and Peterson.
Or Peterson and Kekich. To many, the two seemed interchangeable — in public and, more interestingly, in private.
The ballplayers and their spouses, Susanne Kekich and Marilyn Peterson, had been friends since 1969. Both families lived in New Jersey, and their children were about the same age. Often they all would visit the Bronx Zoo or the shore or enjoy a picnic together. Friends and neighbors marveled at how close they were.
At some point during the 1972 season, Mike Kekich fell for Marilyn Peterson, and Fritz Peterson fell for Susanne Kekich. Who knows how or why? All we know is that something happened to all four.
Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn was “appalled” but powerless to interfere. Kuhn later said he received more mail about the swap than about the American League’s introduction of the DH — another development that made baseball purists gnash their teeth and rend their garments that year.
The only light moment came when Yankees general manager Lee MacPhail cracked, “We may have to call off Family Day.”
The affair (perhaps an unfortunate word) began in 1972, when the two couples joked on a double-date about wife-swapping, a phenomenon that caught on in some uninhibited circles during the early ‘70s.
According to one report, the first swap took place that summer after a boozy party at the home of New York sportswriter Maury Allen. The couples made the changes official in October, Mike moving in with Marilyn and Fritz with Susanne, but no word leaked out until spring.
“We didn’t do anything sneaky or lecherous,” Susanne insisted after the situation became public knowledge. “There isn’t anything smutty about this. … But you have to admit there are some funny aspects.”
Marilyn said nothing for public consumption. Neither did the two pitchers at the time, possibly under orders from Steinbrenner.
The story remained a hot topic for months, partly because most male athletes regard intimacy with a teammate’s woman as strictly verboten — violating the sanctity of the locker room and all that. Look what a mess materialized last year when Karl Malone asked the young wife of Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, “Do you like me?” And nobody in authority laughed when Anna Benson, the hot wife of New York Mets pitcher Kris Benson, threatened to sleep with the whole team if he cheated on her.
You see, there’s nothing wrong with sex in baseball — as long as it’s beneath the surface. After all, little kids might be watching.
The Yankees’ two new bedroom batteries led to very different results. The liaison between Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson flamed out after a couple of months. But following their divorces, Fritz Peterson and Susanne Kekich married, had four children and are still together.
“Neither Fritz Peterson nor I will ever make it into the Hall of Fame,” Kekich said years later. “But I know our names keep popping up in the Hall of Shame. I don’t lose any sleep over it, but I really don’t think it’s fair.”
Kekich seemed the biggest loser, in more ways than one. Previously noted mainly as the pitcher who surrendered Frank Howard’s home run in the Washington Senators’ last game two years earlier, he was traded early in the 1973 season to Cleveland, where he went 2-5 with a 7.48 ERA. The following year, the Indians cut him.
“My whole career went into a black hole [after the swap],” Kekich said. “It was awful.”
Of his short-lived fling with Marilyn Peterson, Kekich recalled, “Marilyn and I thought we were perfectly suited, just like Fritz and Susanne. Marilyn was all for the swap in the beginning, but then she backed off. All four of us had agreed in the beginning that if anyone wasn’t happy, the thing would be called off. But when Marilyn and I decided to call it off, the other couple already had gone off with each other.”
When Kekich ended his nine-year major league career in 1977, he had a 39-51 record. Long afterward, he remarried and had a daughter.
Peterson, a much better pitcher, went 133-131 over 11 seasons before retiring in 1976. He was 17-13 in his last pre-swap season of 1972. The following year, hooted handsomely around the American League, he dropped to 8-15.
“Fritz was never the same after the swap,” said Fred Beene, another pitcher for the Yankees in ‘73. “He was practically destroyed by all the negative reaction.”
Nowadays, another friend said, “Fritz has a latent desire to be a hermit. But he and Susanne are very, very happy.”
Understandably, both men have avoided the spotlight for years. Each went into business and endured financial troubles. A few years ago, Peterson and Susanne were living outside Chicago, where he worked as a boat dealer. Kekich, after failing to establish a career in medicine, was with his second wife in Albuquerque, N.M. Marilyn, according to one report, was existing in “Midwestern obscurity.”
Fritz Peterson is 63 and Mike Kekich almost 60 now, the passions of youth long spent. As far as we know, there has been no contact between them for years and decades.
Need you ask why?