With the passing of Gary Peters, once again we are able to produce a wonderful tribute to him in the form of an extended Q&A. Peters, by WAR, was the 17th-best pitcher in the history of a very pitching-rich franchise, and tied with Ray Durham for 38th-best player overall. Our sincerely condolences to Peters’ family and to the many fans (like the author, Mark Liptak) who grew up watching Gary dominate AL hitters in the 1960s.
This interview originally was published at White Sox Interactive in 2003.
What do you say when you finally get a chance to talk with one of your boyhood heroes? How do you let that person know how much you admired him and what he did ... how much joy he brought to you when he pitched? How his conduct both on and off the field helped influence and shape you?
Yours truly had to face this dilemma when I had the chance to speak with Gary Peters, my first baseball hero, and one of the finest pitchers in the game during the 1960s.
It was no coincidence that I wanted to be like him. I was in the stands between home plate and first base in the lower deck seats at old Comiskey Park, the night of July 15, 1963. That was special for two reasons ... it was the first baseball game I ever saw in person, and that night Peters threw a one-hitter to beat the Orioles, 4-0, striking out 13.
A pretty special “first game,” wouldn’t you say?
Peters had a lot of games like that. They all weren’t one-hitters, of course, but ask batters around the American League how good he was between 1963 and 1967. Many will tell you he was as good a lefthander as Whitey Ford and a worthy successor to Billy Pierce as the ace of the White Sox staff.
The numbers and honors back that up. In 1963 Peters burst upon baseball, winning 19 games, leading the league with a 2.33 ERA. He fired four shutouts, picked up a save, tossed 243 innings and struck out 189. He was named either the outright American League Rookie of the Year or the Co-Rookie of the Year (with teammate Pete Ward) depending on the organization.
The 1964 season was even better: Peters won 20 games, made the All-Star team, had an ERA of 2.50, had three shutouts, threw more than 273 innings and struck out 205.
No pitcher could possibly keep up those figures, and Peters came back to earth in 1965. But in 1966, he again led the American League in ERA with an incredible mark of 1.98. He fired four more shutouts, but because the Sox offense that year was so feeble Peters’ record was only 12-10.
In the bittersweet 1967 season Gary returned to his high standards. He won 16 games, had a 2.28 ERA, three shutouts, a career-best 215 strikeouts and tossed three innings in the All-Star game (four Ks, one hit).
The Sox fell apart in both 1968 and 1969, and Peters was traded to Boston in possibly one of the worst deals the franchise ever made. Peters and catcher Don Pavletich went to the Red Sox for pitcher Billy Farmer (who retired after one week of spring training) and infielder Syd O’Brien. Boston compensated the Sox for Farmer, by sending pitcher Jerry Janeski, who won 10 games in 1970, then was out of baseball. Peters, meanwhile, rejuvenated his career and won 30 games over the next two seasons. He could have pushed the Sox over the .500 mark in 1971 had he still been on the South Side, and may have been the difference in catching the A’s in 1972.
I caught up with Gary at his home in Florida, where we talked about his days with the Sox, how close he came to winding up as a member of the Kansas City Athletics, the two one-hitters that he threw, his prowess as a hitter (19 career home runs), performing under the pressure of pennant races in both 1964 and 1967, and his thoughts on when is the right time to bring young pitchers up to the big leagues.
Oh, as far as how I solved the dilemma of telling Peters he was my boyhood hero ... I simply told him up front and hoped it wouldn’t embarrass him. He reacted with the same smoothness and style that marked his playing days: By being humble and appreciative.
Mark Liptak Gary, tell me the story of how the White Sox scouted and signed you in Pennsylvania?
Gary Peters In Western Pennsylvania when I grew up, we didn’t have any youth leagues. No Little League, American Legion ball or anything like that. We had sandlot ball ... some called it semipro, and I played that. My dad played the game a long time, and I started coming around when I was about 12. By the time I was 14 I was playing a little bit, an inning or two at the end of those games. I regularly played for three or four years after that, but overall I probably played more basketball than anything else — basketball was really big in the area. The Sox had a scout named Fred Schaffer, my dad knew him, and he came around to watch me. In 1955, I went to Chicago and worked out for the Sox at Comiskey Park. Some other clubs, like the Pirates, were also interested. But Schaffer offered me enough money, and said that the Sox would pay for me to go to college in the fall and winter, and I could just play baseball in the summer. So I signed with them and went to Grove City College in the offseason.
You and J.C. Martin both really started out your minor league careers in Holdrege, Neb. in 1956. Did any of your teammates ever make it up to the Sox, and what do you remember about those days?
I think J.C. and I were the only two who ever did. Holdrege had some very nice people, and to me it was a big town. It was certainly bigger than where I grew up. For the first month or so, I actually played right field! I played a lot of first base in semipro, ball but they had J.C. playing first in Holdrege, so I went to the outfield. I was hitting about .360 but had trouble pulling the ball. I think a bunch of our guys then came down with bad arms or something, and they tried me out as a pitcher.”
You did very well in the minor leagues, winning in double figures six out of the seven years that you played. What were the most important things that you learned during those years?
I learned control. When I started out, I really only had a fastball. I had a little bit of a slider, but it wasn’t much. Every year my control got a little better. Ray Berres, then the Sox pitching coach, really helped me in my delivery. He taught me how to be balanced, how to keep your weight back until you needed it, where to position your arm. He taught me mechanics. In the winter of 1962 I was playing in Puerto Rico, and it finally came together for me. Even today coaches like Sammy Ellis and Tommy John teach pitching the way Berres did.
J.C. Martin told me a story about you. He said in spring training 1961, White Sox manager Al Lopez asked about you and if you had a slider. Martin said he told Al you had a great one. Al apparently then talked to you about using it more. J.C. said that you really should have made the major leagues a year or two earlier than you did. Why weren’t you throwing that pitch, if it was so good?
I actually threw a slider that ran away from hitters, but it was flat. It didn’t have a lot of movement. I really had never learned to throw a curve, and that’s what I was doing in 1961. That was another area that Berres helped me. I wound up being able to throw a curve, and it turned out that when I would then throw my slider, it had now developed a break down as well as away from hitters. I also learned how to pitch low in the strike zone. I don’t know if I could have come up two years earlier. Maybe one, but I don’t know if I would have been as successful as when I finally did make it.
You finally got your first major league win on May 6, 1963, when you beat the Kansas City A’s, 5-1. Not only did you get the win, but you hit your first career home run. What do you remember about that game?
I remember it was a few days before cut-down day. In those days, teams had until early May to keep some extra guys on the roster, then they had to keep them or let them go. I hadn’t been pitching much, and thought the Sox were going to cut me. We were on the plane headed to Kansas City when Ray Berres walked back to where I was at. At first I thought he was coming to tell me the Sox decided to let me go, but instead he tells me that Juan Pizarro (who was supposed to pitch) had the flu and that I had the ball. I was happy to get the chance!
I know I pitched pretty well, and that Jim Brosnan finished it up for me. It was the first of 11 straight wins for me. Ewing Kauffman, who later owned the Kansas City Royals, told me that if the Sox did let me go, the A’s were going to pick me up.
I also remember hitting the home run off of Ted Bowsfield. He hung a curve to me. I was serious about my hitting, and always took batting practice whenever I could.
[Most baseball fans know that Jim Bouton wrote “Ball Four” detailing his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots, but many don’t realize that Brosnan was actually the first baseball author. His book “The Long Season” detailed his time with the Cincinnati Reds in 1959. It was the first time a book had actually taken the average fan inside a baseball clubhouse and talked about what really happened in a game and a season. It’s a great read if you can find the book, now out of print. Brosnan then followed it up with “Pennant Race,” looking at the Reds 1961 National League championship year.]
ML It was a sign of things to come for you. You talk about making an impact! In ’63 you won the Rookie of the Year award with 19 wins, an outstanding ERA of 2.33 and with 189 strikeouts. How did you get so much success so early?
GP It was because of the years that I spent in the minor leagues. I worked hard, played a lot of winter ball. It all came together when my mechanics were correct. It became engrained in me so I didn’t have to think about it, I could just pitch. My ball was sinking; my slider was fast and had a hard break now.
You showed that 1963 wasn’t a fluke by being even better in 1964: 20 wins, a 2.50 ERA, 205 strikeouts, and you made the All-Star team. I have to think that for at least those two seasons your confidence was sky-high.
Well, even when things were tough for me, I never went out to pitch thinking that I couldn’t win. I always felt that I was going to win. Yes, I had confidence, and we had a very good team.
You had such a smooth delivery. J.C. Martin told me it was very deceptive. It looked very easy, then suddenly the ball exploded out of your hand and that you broke a lot of bats.
I was what was called “sneaky fast” in those days. I had this slow, easy windup, and did the things that Ray Berres taught me. I kept my weight back until the proper time, stayed balanced, then let it go. Ray really refined me and my motion. I never really threw that hard. I remember one time they set up a screen and you threw into it and it recorded your speed. I wanted to see what I could do and tried to throw as hard as I could. I think it registered about 93 mph.
What pitches did you usually throw?
I had a fastball and a slider that I usually threw to left-handed hitters because it broke down and away from them. I developed a big, breaking curve that I’d like to throw when I was ahead in the count 1-2 or 0-2, and I had a straight change.
What was your best pitch?
I’d have to say my sinker/slider. I was a low-ball pitcher.
The 1964 season was an incredible one for you and the Sox. It had to be frustrating, though, because despite winning 98 games and your last nine in a row, you still finished one game behind the Yankees. I know White Sox outfielder Jim Landis told me how bad he felt after that last game; he just couldn’t believe that one game kept the Sox from getting to the World Series. How did you feel?
I was disappointed; sad is a good word for it. You play that many games and to think that you lose by one game. Immediately I thought of some of the past games, and thought, “If I had thrown this one pitch differently or if I had gotten a hit in this spot, maybe we win and are going to the Series.” Jim at least had played in the ’59 Series, so he knew what it felt like. I regret that I never had the chance to play in one.
It would have been interesting to see how the Sox would have done against Bob Gibson and the Cardinals.
I know we wouldn’t have scored a lot of runs off him! I used to love to watch Bob pitch in his prime. In ’64 and in ’67 he was great.
The 1965 season was not a good one for you, especially when you consider what you accomplished the two previous years: 10-12 with a 3.62 ERA. Were you hurt?
I was. A few weeks into the season, I pulled my groin muscle on my left side. I didn’t go on the injured list, but it really bugged me all year. It was just painful enough when I threw to cause trouble, and I’m sure it affected my delivery. The other thing was the team wasn’t as good in fundamentals. We were changing, and just didn’t make the plays like we did the previous years.
In 1966, while your record was only 12-10 your ERA was incredible — 1.98, and this was two years before the Year of the Pitcher. How in the world could you lose 10 games with an ERA like that?
Our offense wasn’t very good; we just had trouble hitting the ball. I know we were shut out a lot that year. [Three times that year Peters lost games because the Sox were shut out. He gave up four total runs in those three losses. For the season, the Sox were shut out 11 times.] You can’t worry about those things, all you can do is go out there and do your best, one game at a time.
Speaking of hitting, you certainly weren’t an automatic out. You had 19 home runs and 102 RBIs in your career. There were times when manager Eddie Stanky actually hit you sixth or seventh in the batting order, ahead of guys like Al Weis, Wayne Causey, Tim Cullen and J.C. Martin. I know you were proud of that, but I wonder if that caused bad feelings or embarrassed the guys hitting below you.
I don’t think Eddie was trying to embarrass those guys, I think he was trying to ignite them. Eddie was that type of manager … that was his style. He intimidated a lot of players, but I always got along good with him. I think Eddie just wanted to try to get those guys to start doing better.
Speaking of Stanky, I know he was tough — he expected a lot out of players and wasn’t afraid to get on guys. He also had a reputation of throwing at guys, didn’t he?
Eddie very rarely ordered anybody to throw at [an opposing batter] and they were usually the younger guys. There were also [White Sox pitchers] who just couldn’t do that. When that happened, he’d get on them. Remember, that was expected in those days. I know when one of our guys got hit, I didn’t have to be told to do it. I had to protect my teammates. There were also times when a pitch just would get away from you. I know I hit Carl Yastrzemski in the neck ... I wasn’t trying to hit him, I was trying to pitch him inside, and it got away from me. José Santiago then hit me right in the head. Kansas City had a pitcher, Jack Aker, who was one of the worst guys I ever saw at throwing at guys. He hit Pete Ward a couple of times. I was pitching in the game, and when Rick Monday came up to bat I hit him right in the face and broke his jaw. I certainly wasn’t trying to hit him there, and I felt very bad over it, but Ward kept getting hit.
The 1967 season was another bittersweet one for the Sox. You rebounded back to your usual standards with 16 wins, and an ERA of 2.28. The White Sox looked like they were going to win the pennant before collapsing the final week of the season against the Athletics and the Senators. What happened, especially the night when the A’s swept that doubleheader?
We didn’t play good baseball. Both Joe [Horlen] and I pitched very mediocre that night. [The Sox lost a doubleheader to the A’s on September 27 by the scores of 5-2 and 4-0, in front of fewer than 6,000 fans in Kansas City. Chuck Dobson and Catfish Hunter got the victories. The two losses dropped the Sox from a half-game behind Minnesota to a game-and-a-half with three games remaining. Peters only lasted 5 2⁄3 innings, giving up three runs and striking out 10. However, only one run was earned, as the Sox uncharacteristically made three errors in the doubleheader, costing them dearly.] Kansas City was the underdog, and underdogs are notorious for playing good ball. You have to give them the credit.
I remember the silence in our locker room after those games. I’ve gotten over that over the years ... it doesn’t bother me now, because you have to move on. But I know some of the guys on the team are still bothered by what happened.
You pitched in the All-Star game that year. What do you remember?
I pitched three innings that day and only gave up a hit. It was to Bill Mazeroski, who hit a ground single between third and short. I remember striking out Willie Mays. It was a big thrill for me, because I got a chance to see and to face all those National League stars that I had heard about.
[Peters pitched the sixth, seventh and eighth innings of the game that was eventually won by the National League, 2-1, in 15 innings on a home run by Tony Pérez. Peters finished with four strikeouts.]
After that season, the Sox fell apart: 1968 and 1969 were disasters, both on and off the field. The Sox went so far as to play a dozen or so games those seasons in Milwaukee. Rumors were rampant that the team was moving to Milwaukee and was testing the market. Did that help cause the awful years?
To be honest, I never heard those stories about the Sox moving. I thought we were simply playing some games there to get that city ready to get a team back. I remember that we drew real well for those games.
How about for you personally? Those two years were by far your worst. You went 14-28. I understand that you didn’t get a lot of help from your teammates, but was there more to it?
I was hurt both those years and almost retired after 1968. In ’68 I suffered a bad back injury. What happened was that we were playing a doubleheader. I pitched in the first game and was back in the locker room cleaning up and changing clothes. The second game started and we fell behind quickly, like 5-0, early. We got a few guys on base and Eddie [Stanky] sent the bat boy into the locker room to get me. Eddie wanted a left-handed hitter to come up to bat, because we got a few guys on base. I almost didn’t make it in time; I barely got my uniform back on.
I came up to hit, and I’m trying to pull the ball. Naturally, the pitcher was throwing me away. I tried pulling an outside pitch and hit a grounder. I never even got to first base; I had a back spasm. It was so bad that they couldn’t get a needle in it to give me a muscle relaxer. I spent three days in traction before it finally loosened up, and they could give me a shot. It turned out that I rotated my pelvis a few degrees. To this day, when I stand in front of a mirror I can see that one leg is a bit shorter than the other.
In 1969, I hurt my arm. It was in Spring Training and I think Luis [Aparicio] was hitting. I was throwing batting practice, and while you are doing that, off to the side of the cage one of the coaches is hitting infield. One of the balls trickled in front of the cage. I saw it, and I thought everybody knew it was there. Just as I’m in my motion, one of the coaches — it may have been Kerby Farrell — stepped in front to pick it up. I had to stop in mid-stride and felt a twinge. It bothered me off-and-on during the year. I didn’t know until years later that I had ripped part of my rotator cuff. I hurt the arm again in 1982, at the White Sox fantasy camp, and one day at work I fell on my shoulder. I had an MRI done and was told it was completely torn. The doctor also showed me where scar tissue had formed around two other tears that happened years earlier. The best guess was that the first one happened in ’69 and the second in ’82.
You were traded to the Red Sox after 1969 and your career got back on track, with 30 wins over the next two seasons. What were the differences between the two organizations?
The White Sox always said they had money problems. I was player rep for five or six years, and whenever there was an issue I’d take it to management. One time we were staying at a hotel in Baltimore. The place was so bad they didn’t even have a closet where you could hang your clothes; they had some hooks in the wall. This was the major leagues, now! I’d go to the White Sox and they’d say, “this is the best we can do.” I made about $6,500 when I won 19 games in 1963. After I won 20 in 1964 I got a raise, but don’t think I was even making $20,000. I think the way it worked was that the White Sox GM got a budget and if he was able to come in under that figure, he’d get a percentage of the savings. That’s the way they ran things.
When I got to Boston, GM Dick O’Connell said to me, “How much would it take to make you happy?” I gave him a total, which I thought was a little high, and he said, “Fine, I’ll get the papers for you to sign.” I remember thinking if it was that easy I would have asked for more!
Gary, two of your games with the White Sox stand out in your career. I’d like to ask you about them, and see what you remember. The first one came on the night of July 15, 1963. You threw a one-hitter against the Orioles, striking out 13.
I remember that when I was warming up I felt alright, not great. When I got to the mound and started pitching, my stuff was exceptional. That night, my slider was so good nobody could hit it. I’ve talked with some of the Orioles over the years, like Brooks Robinson, and they said the same thing. I threw one ball to Jackie Brandt that J.C. [Martin] just completely missed. He wanted the pitch inside, and I threw a cross-seam fastball like Sandy Koufax and it just took off. Brandt was scared on that pitch. The only hit came from Robin Roberts, their pitcher. He lives a few miles from me, and over the years he’s reminded me about that! I threw him a fastball, and he hit it on the hands and blooped it over the infield into short right. [Roberts’ hit came in the third inning.]
The other one-hitter you threw was on May 14, 1967, the second game of a twin bill against the Angels. You won, 3-1. Not only did you pitch a one-hitter with 10 strikeouts, but you singled home two runs. How about that one?
I didn’t have exceptional stuff that day, but the Angels lineup wasn’t the best. It wasn’t as good as Baltimore’s a few years earlier.
I threw a bad pitch to Moose Skowron, and he hit it into the lower deck in left-center. As far as my hitting, I know that being able to hit added wins and complete games to my career. Managers left me in games because of it. If I couldn’t hit, I would have been taken out for a pinch-hitter.
What about Eddie Stanky’s “incentive plan” for pitchers: Is it true that for every complete game pitched, he got you a new suit of clothes?
Yes, but you also had to have at least 21 ground ball outs. Even so, I think he wound up getting me, Joe [Horlen] and Tommy [John] seven suits in a half-season. He cut it out after the All-Star break.
White Sox pitching was phenomenal throughout most of the ’60s. The Sox led the league in team ERA four of five years between 1963 and 1967, yet you never had a dominant pitcher like a Koufax or Don Drysdale. What was the secret?
We had grinders, guys who played hard and wanted to win. I think Ray Berres had a lot to do with it as well. When Tommy John came to us from Cleveland he was trying to get guys out with high fastballs, and that wasn’t working for him. Berres got him to keep the ball down, and he started winning a lot of games.
How about playing for both Al Lopez and Eddie Stanky. What were they like?
Oh God, you talk about a contrast! Al was the best manager I ever had. He knew the game and was aloof towards the other players. He was a good psychologist; he was calculating, and knew how to get the best out of you. He also liked the press and got along with them very well. When Al was the manager, the press never hurt us because they liked him.
Eddie did a good job on the field. He wasn’t a buddy towards the players but he did try to be friendly with them. The problem with Ed was that he’d be friendly towards a guy and then a few minutes later he’d terrorize them. Some guys couldn’t take that, and had their careers ruined. I know from being around him that he’d say something and 10 minutes later he’d regret it. But Eddie wasn’t the type of man who was ever going to apologize for something he did. Eddie also infuriated the Chicago press. When we’d do something wrong, the press gave us a beating. They didn’t have anything against the players, but they were getting back at Stanky. They really wanted to get even with him.
White Sox fans remembered you when it came time to pick their All-Century team. I know you had to be proud that after 35 years they still remembered what you did.
It was a great honor. I was surprised, because the Sox had a lot of great players in their history. I actually found out about it when I called Glen Rosenbaum. [For many years, “Rosey” was the Sox batting practice pitcher and traveling secretary.] I was sailing my boat back to Florida from Annapolis, Maryland. I wanted to check in and see how the Sox were doing in the playoffs. “Rosey” told me about it, and I called my wife to tell her.
She already knew about it, and made sure that I knew all of the kids and grandkids were coming with us to Chicago for the ceremony! All of the All-Century Team members were invited to participate in the festivities.
As a former pitcher, I wonder what you think of the trend towards rushing kids into the major leagues instead of letting them learn their craft for a few seasons in the minors. You spent seven years in the minor leagues before you got your shot.
Different organizations do things in different ways. When I played, the Yankees and White Sox never rushed kids because they always had stacked pitching staffs.
I think the worst thing you can do is bring kids up in the middle of the season and expect them to do well. I’ve seen kids get hurt that way.
You were in New York in mid-January for the B.A.T. (Baseball Assistance Team) convention. Can you tell us what went on, and did you see any of your old teammates?
Tommy Lasorda was the guest speaker at the banquet. Bud Selig was in the audience that night. Tommy’s speech included talking about the All-Star Game and he was saying how when he managed in that game he played to win. He never played everybody, and he said the guys who didn’t play never complained because they wanted to win that game as well. He felt that type of feeling had to return to the game.
As far as seeing other guys, we almost had enough former Sox players there to start our own team! I was there, Jim Landis, Tommy John, Al Weis ... Billy Pierce, Luis [Aparicio] came up from Venezuela. Dick Allen was supposed to be there, but he didn’t make it. It was a very nice time.
Can you sum up for me your days with the Sox?
There was some disappointment, because we came so close to getting to a World Series, but I have no regrets. My best memories are from my days in Chicago. The guys always got along great; they were good to each other. Every October, a bunch of us would get together in Colorado. We’d spend a week hunting elk and deer, and then on the way back we’d all stop in Nebraska. Ron Hansen had relatives there, and we’d stay over and hand out the awards at the local Little League banquet. It was a wonderful time.