Obituary: Gary Peters (1937-2023)

RIP to Gary Peters, the 1963 Rookie of the Year and a two-time AL ERA leader. He was also one of the best hitting pitchers of his era. Peters died on January 26 at the age of 85. Peters pitched for the Chicago White Sox (1959-1969) and Boston Red Sox (1970-72).

Gary Charles Peters was born in Grove City, Pa., on April 21, 1937. The family moved to Mercer by 1940, where Thomas, a lathe operator at an engine company, and wife Elizabeth raised their children; daughter Linda was about a year younger than Gary. By the time he was a junior at Mercer High School, Gary Peters already stood 6’2″ and was the leading scorer on the Mustangs basketball team. He didn’t play baseball at Mercer, but he did play during the summer in Legion ball and amateur teams in nearby towns. Thomas Peters had a long career in the area as a semipro ballplayer, and father and son sometimes played on the same team. They were the stars of a Pardoe team that was the class of a state league in 1955. The younger Peters pitched, but he spent most of his time as a first baseman or outfielder.

Gary and Tom traveled to Chicago in 1955 for an extended tryout with the Chicago White Sox. Much to the dismay of area basketball fans who wanted to see the younger Peters on the Penn State basketball team, he impressed the Sox and scout Fred Shaffer. Peters spent a semester attending classes at Grove City College and entered professional ball in 1956. The White Sox signed him as a left-handed pitcher, but his first minor-league teams also made good use of his bat. He debuted with the Holdrege White Sox of the Nebraska State League in 1956. He led the team with 10 wins as a pitcher, and he finished second among the batters with 4 triples. He led the entire league by striking out 142 batters in 128 innings. His combination of a 2.81 ERA and a .321 batting average hint at potential success as a two-way player, but baseball just did not work that way in the 1950s. As Peters continued to pile up wins wherever he went in the minors, he was given plenty of pinch-hitting opportunities, as well.

Source: Elizabethton Star, September 3. 1963.

Peters won 10 games with Dubuque in 1957. He then won then 13 games in 1958 (Colorado Springs and Davenport) and ’59 (Indianapolis). For good measure, Peters added 12 victories for San Diego of the Pacific Coast League in 1960 and 13 in 1961 before winning just 8 games for Indianapolis in 1962. Peters made his contributions to his teams both with his pitching abilities and his hitting. He frequently hit for a good average — he batted .329 for San Diego in 1961. He may not have been the most dominant pitcher, as his ERA at four seasons in Triple-A was 3.78. However, he was a very successful minor-league pitcher — just not successful enough to get more than a cup of coffee with the White Sox.

The Chicago White Sox reached the World Series in 1959 for the first time since the Black Sox series of 1919. The “Go-Go” White Sox had a good offense, but the pitching was the best in the American League. The starting rotation was led by Early Wynn (22 wins), Bob Shaw (18) and Billy Pierce (14), with Dick Donovan and Barry Latman getting most of the other starts. Peters, toiling away for Indianapolis, reminded the White Sox of his abilities by throwing a no-hitter against Minneapolis on July 24. He walked 5 and struck out 4 but only allowed three hard-hit balls in the game. “I threw nothing but fastballs in the last three innings,” he said. “Earlier in the game, I was mixing them up a little more, but I didn’t throw too many curves. I had a pretty good slider, but it was the fastball that did the trick,” he said.

Though the White Sox could have used another lefty to complement Pierce, Peters didn’t get the call to the majors until September. He debuted on September 10 with a scoreless inning against the Washington Senators. He gave up a couple of singles but struck out Billy Consolo to get out of the inning. He didn’t fare as well in his second and final appearance with the Sox four days later. Pressed into service against the Red Sox, Peters walked the only two batters he faced as the Red Sox scored 6 runs off four Sox pitchers in the sixth inning to win 9-3.

See Gary Peters on Baseball Almanac

Peters failed to catch on with the White Sox over the next few seasons. He pitched 2 games late in the 1960 season, allowing a run in 3-1/3 innings. He had 3 relief outings in September of 1961, including an excellent 5-1/3 innings against the Los Angels. He allowed 2 runs and fanned 5 in that contest and ended the season with a 1.74 ERA over 10-1/3 innings. Peters actually started the 1962 season in the White Sox bullpen and pitched in 5 games. In his fifth appearance, he entered the game after Starter Ray Herbert loaded the bases in the fifth inning and allowed a 2-run single to Carl Yastrzemski. It was the only batter Peters faced as Boston scored 12 runs off four Chicago pitchers. Peters took the loss and was sent back to the minors with an 0-1 record and 5.68 ERA.

By 1963, Peters was 26 years old, had pitched for the White Sox for parts of four seasons and had thrown 21 innings in the majors. He was still considered a rookie, though he had aged out of being thought of as a prospect. He had earned a degree in mathematics from Grove City College and was considering quitting baseball in favor of a teaching job. As luck would have it, Peters made the Opening Day roster with the White Sox. At first, the White Sox kept Peters in the bullpen, and he lost 2 decisions there. He made his first major-league start on May 6 against the Kansas City A’s because starter Juan Pizarro was out with the flu, and he earned his first major-league win. Peters threw 8 innings of 4-hit, 1-run ball. Within a month, he had moved into the starting rotation full-time, but his record after a July 4 loss to the Yankees was 5-5. From that point until the end of the season, Peters lost just twice more. He won 11 of his next 12 starts, picking up a no-decision in the other game. He shut out Baltimore on 1 hit on July 14, striking out 13 Orioles in the process. His ERA fell below 2.00 for most of the season; a couple of losses in his last two starts left him with a 19-8 record and a league-leading 2.33 ERA. In 243 innings, Peters had 189 strikeouts and walked 68 batters. He completed 13 of his 30 starts and tossed 4 shutouts. He also batted .259 and hit 3 home runs. Peters’ breakout performance earned him a Top 10 finish in the MVP vote, and he also won the AL Rookie of the Year Award, beating out teammate Pete Ward.

“Sure you get discouraged,” Peters said in July when asked about his many travels between the majors and minors. “But I have never been able to throw hard until this year. I guess my motion is better.”

The motion may have made all the difference. Peters said that when he first entered professional ball, he just pitched the way he did back in Pennsylvania. Starting around 1959, he started adding a variety of offspeed pitchers, like a sinker and even a knuckleball. It gave him greater variety as a pitcher, but he ceased to dominate batters. “But just before spring training this year — in fact, when I was pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League — I decided I would be better off if I returned to my natural way of throwing,” Peters explained. When he did, he found that his velocity had greatly improved.. “I think this has been the big difference,” he added.

Proving that he was no one-season wonder, Peters led the AL with 20 wins in 1964 against just 8 losses. He struck out 205 batters and threw 11 complete games. He earned the first of two career All-Star selections, though he didn’t appear in the 1964 contest. Peters hitting didn’t fail either. Sent to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the 13th inning against Kansas City, Peters hit a 2-run homer to give the White Sox a come-from-behind 3-2 win. Manager Al Lopez instructed him to take his batting practice with the rest of the batters — the ultimate compliment for a pitcher.

“I’m glad to have him as an extra pinch-hitter, but I wouldn’t think of playing him in the outfield or first base because he might damage his rhythm and damage his arm,” Lopez said.

Source: The Evening Sun (Baltimore), November 29, 1963.

Peters slumped to a 10-12 record in 1965, and his ERA rose by more than a run to 3.62. After two years of high innings pitched and strikeout totals, he completed just 1 of his 30 starts and failed to reach triple digits in K’s. He worked on his delivery and entered 1966 with a slightly lower leg kick. The adjustment seemed to work, as he won his second ERA title, leading the AL with a 1.98 mark. He missed a little time with a sore arm but still managed to win 12 games against 10 losses and throw 11 complete games. Peters also led the league with a 0.982 WHIP. On July 30 against the Yankees, he threw one of the most efficient shutouts possible. He gave up just 3 hits, fanned 3, didn’t walk anybody and beat the Yanks 6-0 on 75 pitches. He went to a full count on just one batter — Tom Tresh, who popped to third base.

Peters made his second All-Star team in 1967 after winning 10 games by the end of June. Unlike his first ASG experience, he got into the game and was quite a workhorse. He threw 3 perfect innings against the National League, though the NL still won the game 2-1 on a 15th-inning home run by Tony Perez. Peters struck out Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Dick Allen during his stint. He won 16 games that year and had another fine ERA of 2.28. He would have won another ERA title but for the fact that fellow White Sox pitcher Joe Horlen was just a little better, with a 2.06 ERA. Peters threw 260 innings and struck out a career-best 215 batters. On September 13, he beat Cleveland 1-0, allowing just 1 hit in 7 innings of work. However, his control deserted him that day, as he walked 10 batters. An online pitch count tool estimated he threw 143 pitches in that game.

From 1963 to 1967, Peters averaged 232 innings pitched — not unusual for the era, but more work than he had seen when he was shuttling between the White Sox and their Triple-A team. Also, Peters turned 31 in 1968. Whatever the cause, Peters was unable to maintain his effectiveness after those five excellent seasons. He never got on track in 1968, and in the Year of the Pitcher, he struggled so much on the mound that he was moved to the bullpen for a time. He won just 4 games against 13 losses, and he had two starts in September where he failed to retire a single batter. A poor final month of the season left him with a 3.76 ERA. Along with battling injuries (an interview with South Side Sox details some of his injury woes), Peters also battled White Sox management over the 1969 season. He was the player representative for the Sox and was part of a group of veteran pitchers and catchers who boycotted an early spring training start as threats of a players’ strike loomed. The season went on without interruptions, but Peters turned a second straight losing season at 10-15, and his ERA was a career-worst 4.53. In December, he and catcher Don Pavletich were traded to the Boston Red Sox for a minor leaguer, infielder Syd O’Brien and pitcher Gerry Jeneski as the player to be named later.

The move to the Red Sox could have been an awkward one, as Peters previously had been involved in a brushback pitch war with Boston that ended with Carl Yastrzemski getting a fastball to his shoulder. However, the Red Sox needed a steady left-handed pitcher who had past success in Fenway Park, and Peters fit the bill. He was never again the dominant pitcher he had been during his peak with the White Sox, and his ERA for 3 seasons in Boston was 4.23. But for a couple of seasons, it was a successful relationship. Peters was named Opening Day starter for 1970 and beat the Yankees 4-3, allowing 3 runs in 5-1/3 innings. Peters lost 5 straight decisions, including a first-inning knockout in his first start against the White Sox on May 31, but he turned the season around and became a 16-game winner. He won 14 games in 1971, but he did it with an ERA that hovered at or above 5 for most of the season. It took back-to-back 1-run complete game wins in September to help reduce it to 4.37 by the end of the year.

After having started his renaissance by forgetting his offspeed pitches and leaning heavily on his fastball, Peters had come to the stage in his career where he had to lay off the fastball. After an early win over Chicago raised his record to 3-2, Peters said that he had been struggling keeping his fastball down. “This time I decided to forget about speed and concentrate on putting the ball where I wanted it,” he said. “I’m better off throwing a good sinker that moves than I am with a fastball that doesn’t do anything.”

Boston had enough returning veteran pitchers (Sonny Siebert, Ray Culp) and younger talent (Lynn McGlothen, John Curtis) that Peters was moved to the bullpen in 1972. He appeared in 33 games, but just 4 of them were starts. He also was busy as the Boston player representative during the first players’ strike in MLB history. The Red Sox didn’t vote for the strike that lasted from April 1-13, preferring a strike in mid-May. Then, like now, Peters had to defend the ballplayers from the wrath of the fans. “There will be a lot of pressure of the ballplayers from the fans, but we don’t think they’ve ever been fully informed of what we are up against,” he explained to The Boston Globe on April 1. Once the season got underway, Peters won 3 games and lost 3, with a save. His ERA was a high 4.32, but he struck out 67 batters in 85-1/3 innings, giving him a better strikeout/9 inning ratio than he had achieved in several years. The Red Sox, though, had several good left-handed pitchers like Roger Moret and Bill Lee who were a decade younger or more than Peters. Rather than see if the veteran could work a couple more years as a reliever, the Red Sox released him in November. Peters signed with the Kansas City A’s over the offseason but failed to land a job with the team in 1973. He never pitched professionally again.

Over 14 seasons in the majors, Peters had a 124-103 record and a 3.25 ERA. He threw 79 complete games, including 23 shutouts, and he also earned 5 saves. Peters struck out 1,420 batters and walked 706 others, and his career WHIP was 1.249. As a hitter, Peters slashed .222/.253/.348 with 19 home runs and 31 doubles. He drove in 102 runs. All total, Baseball Reference credits him with 28.7 Wins Above Replacement. Peters’ career mark for Chicago was 91-78 with a 2.92 ERA. He is still 8th on the team’s all-time strikeout list with 1,098. He was named to the White Sox All-Century Team in 2000.

According to his SABR bio, written by Mark Armour, Peters worked for a construction company in Sarasota. He and his wife, Jean, were married in 1958 and raised two daughters.

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One thought on “Obituary: Gary Peters (1937-2023)

  1. I remembered listening to a game on the radio when I was 14 years old in which Eddie Stankey put in Gary Peters as a pinch hitter against the Yankees with the bases loaded. Gary ended up hitting a grand slam. Can you believe that a pitcher comes in as a pinch hitter and hitting a grand slam? Besides a great pitcher, he was a great hitter. Great person. thank you.


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