Here lies Jeff Peeples, one of the greatest pitchers in Vanderbilt University history. Signed by the Cardinals, he was injured early in his pro career and never made it to the majors.
Making it to Major League Baseball is one of the toughest accomplishments in all sports, and it’s a big reason why the Amateur Draft isn’t the big showcase/party that the NFL or NBA versions are. In those sports, the early draft picks become starters within a year or two. In baseball, those first and second round picks go to the low minors, where they take three or four seasons to develop into the a major-league-ready player. That’s assuming that injuries or a fundamental flaw in their game doesn’t stop their progress.
Jeffrey Peeples was born on March 2, 1951 in Syracuse, N.Y. His family spent some time in the East Coast – his first Little League team was in Newark – but he grew up in Nashville. He attended high school at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and was a three-sport athlete there, playing basketball, football and baseball. According to the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, he was named All-City four years, All-Metro four years and also earned All-State honors for both baseball and football. Unsurprisingly, he received an athletic scholarship from Vanderbilt upon his graduation.
Peeples was a four-year letterwinner at Vanderbilt from 1970-1973 and was the team’s first All-American (Second Team, 1973). He was a two-sport athlete as well, playing for Vandy’s football team from 1969-72. He was a four-year letterman on the gridiron, but he dominated baseball like few others could. He is one of just two pitchers to lead the Southeastern Conference in ERA for two consecutive years (1971-2). He led the SEC in strikeouts (113) and wins (12) in 1973, and Peeples is still the Vanderbilt leader in wins (29) and ERA (1.68). His 12 wins from ’73 are still third best in team history, and he has three of the Top 4 best season ERAs in the program. Only Jimmy Stephens’ 1.07 ERA from 1949 beat Peeples’ numbers of 1.30 (1972), 1.56 (1971) and 1.64 (1973). Thanks in part to his pitching, Vanderbilt won the SEC Eastern Division in 1971-73 and the SEC Championship in 1973.
Peeples’ 1973 season was filled with highlights. He started both ends of a doubleheader against Auburn on April 27 and beat them twice, 5-1 and 1-0. He threw 11 innings that day and didn’t allow an earned run. That was part of a streak of 37 consecutive scoreless innings, and even when Alabama scored a run against him on May 9, it was an unearned run from two throwing errors. He picked up a couple of wins in the NCAA District 3 baseball tournament, beating Georgia Southern 6-2 and then working 3 scoreless innings in relief to knock out NC State, 4-2 in 13 innings. After pitching 14 innings in 4 days in the tournament, he allowed 3 straight homers against the Miami Hurricanes in a 6-5 loss, dropping his overall record to 12-2.
Peeples was drafted in the 37th Round of the 1973 June Amateur Draft. He reported to the Red Birds of the rookie Gulf Coast League and went 3-1 with an impressive 2.00 ERA in 5 appearances, 4 of which were starts. He struck out 26 batters in 27 innings. He also appeared in two relief outings for the Orangeburg Cardinals, St. Louis’ A-ball team, allowing 4 earned runs in 4 innings.
Around July 20 of that year, Peeples was injured in an auto accident when his car was struck on the side, rolled over and ended up in a ditch. The car was demolished, said his manager, Jimmy Piersall. The initial reports stated that Peeples would miss a few days after suffering cuts, bruises and aggravating a groin injury. The truth was that the injuries were much worse than that. He chipped a bone in his throwing elbow and didn’t pitch at all in 1974. He was released by the Cardinals in May. He returned in 1975 in the Atlanta Braves organization, but he wasn’t the same pitcher. In 9 games for Class A Greenwood, Peeples went 0-1 with 1 save and a 4.97 ERA. He surrendered 5 home runs in 29 innings and struck out just 18. Peeples’ catcher for those games, incidentally, was Dale Murphy in just his second year of organized ball. He was released by the Braves on May 18.
Peeples stayed close to athletics in his retirement. He played both sides of the field in a Vanderbilt exhibition game featuring the Varsity vs. Alumni in 1976, and in 1996, his 13-year-old daughter Sara was profiled as a rising softball star. Peeples was the assistant coach on her team.
Jeff Peeples died of natural causes on November 1, 1997 while on a pheasant hunting trip in Paris, Ill. He was 46 years old. An article from 2010 indicated that he had suffered a stroke in 1996. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery in Nashville.
“This is just a real surprise. He was one of the best competitors who ever play[ed] for me,” said his former Vanderbilt coach Larry Schmittou. “He was a fine, fine athlete and a fine, fine person.”
Peeples was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Vanderbilt Hall of Fame in 2010.
“It was so long ago that there’s a generation gap with me as well as a lot of the people following Vanderbilt baseball now,” his nephew, Worth Scott, told the Tennessean. “But everybody I talked to who was my uncle’s age or who played with him said the same thing. ‘When Peeps was pitching, we would win.’”
The Commodores Baseball team has a Jeff Peeples Most Valuable Teammate Award to pay tribute to their great pitcher. It has been given to David Price and Dansby Swanson in the past and was awarded to first baseman Julian Infante in 2018.