R.I.P. to Hardy “Pete” Peterson, a catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the GM for the same team during its “We Are Family” era. He died on April 16 at the age of 89. He played for the Pirates from 1955 and 1957-59. His son, Rick Peterson, was a pitching coach for the A’s and Mets, among others, and was a front office executive for the Orioles.
Harding Peterson was born on October 17, 1929 in Perth Amboy, N.J. He attended high school at Woodbridge High and then stayed in New Jersey to attend Rutgers University. There, he was on the varsity squad for three years (check his SABR bio for more details) and was an All-American second team selection in 1950. The Scarlet Knights finished third in the College World Series that year. Peterson was signed by the PIrates in ’50. While his playing career was relatively short, he’d spend the next 35 years with the team.
Peterson played 45 games with Tallahassee in 1950 and 148 with Waco in 1951. He hit a combined .295 and hit 14 homers, but his budding baseball career was interrupted by service in the Korean War. He was selected to the Fort Sill, Okla. All-Star team before spending almost a year in Korea. He was discharged and resumed his career in 1954 with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Peterson picked up stateside where he left off. He hit .282 for the Pelicans and then started the next season in Williamsport of the Eastern League. Thanks in part to injuries to the Pirates catching corps, Peterson was brought to the majors in May, 1955.He batted .247 for the Bucs in 32 games and drove in the winning run in a wild 7-6 win over the Reds on June 3. Peterson’s first MLB home run came off of Johnny Antonelli in the 8th inning on August 14 to tie the game at 2. Unfortunately, his season came to an end on August 26, when a home plate collision with the Cubs Jim Bolger left him with a broken arm.
That busted arm kept Peterson out of baseball for all of 1956, and he spent his time on the voluntarily retired list working in the Pirates front office. It was a sign of things to come, but he was able to resume his playing career the following season.
Peterson was a late Spring Training cut and almost quit baseball altogether. However, his wife, Gladys, talked him out of it.
“My wife told me baseball is in my blood and I wouldn’t be happy out of it. And she’s right. I might as well try to go as far as I can,” he told The Pittsburgh Press.
Peterson did return to the majors eventually, hitting .301 with a couple of homers in 30 games. He would spend brief moments in the majors in 1958 and 1959, appearing in a total of 4 games. He was named player-manager of the Pirates’ Class-A team in Wilson, N.C. for the 1959 season. He stayed in the minors as a player manager (even working as a relief pitcher for 15 games for the Burlington Bees in 1960) and quit playing altogether in 1961.
His major-league career, in 66 games, left him with a .273/.344/.391 slash line, with 44 hits, including 8 doubles, a triple and 3 home runs. He knocked in 21 RBIs and scored 17 runs. In 9 seasons in the minors, he hit for a .268 average with 22 home runs.
Peterson managed for five different teams in the Pirates organization from 1959 until 1967. His teams had a sub-.500 home runs only twice and had a combined .668-571 record. He was promoted to the Pirates’ farm director in September 1967. He added the title of scouting director in 1968, replacing Bob Whalen, who retired due to illness.
Peterson, being a former ballplayer, was surprisingly sympathetic and ahead of his time as he evaluated the Pittsburgh farm system. He said this of the org’s 17 Latin players, per the Press: “A boy may come to this country to play baseball at 17. He can’t speak our language and he’s not used to the food. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be homesick.”
That is (or should be) the common thought today, but Peterson said this in 1969, when so much of baseball was still mired in backwards thinking. It hardly comes as a surprise, then, that the Pirates made it to the League Championship Series four times and won one World Series, with start like Roberto Clemente, Manny Sanguillen and Matty Alou in the starting lineup.
Harding Peterson was named general manager of the Pirates in 1976, and he knew exactly who he wanted as his manager: Oakland skipper Chuck Tanner. They’d played against each other in the minors and were friends outside of the game. On November 5, Peterson sent cash and catcher Manny Sanguillen to Oakland for Tanner. It was a rare trade to get a manager, but it definitely worked out well for Pittsburgh.
Peterson made a good number of trades that would eventually bring together the 1979 “We Are Family” World Series champs. He traded for Bert Blyleven and re-acquired Sanguillen. He picked up Bill Madlock from San Francisco and Tim Foli from the Mets in mid-season deals, and both players were key parts of the championship team. Many of the other players, like Bruce Kison, developed under his watch as farm director.
The Pirates would not return to the postseason in Peterson’s tenure. However, before he was fired in 1985, he signed Bobby Bonilla and drafted Barry Bonds.
Peterson was hired as a GM for the New York Yankees, a job that lasted for parts of 1989 and 1990. He came to the team right before George Steinbrenner was banned from the game for trying to find dirt on Dave Winfield, and the team was changing personnel as a rapid pace. Steinbrenner’s last official move was to fire Peterson as GM and replace him with Gene Michael.
Peterson scouted for the Blue Jays and Padres before retiring from baseball in 1995. He lived in Palm Harbor, Fla., in his retirement. He was inducted into the Rutgers University Hall of Fame for his contributions to baseball.