October 17th, 2011

October 17 – Happy Birthday Harding “Pete” Peterson

hpetersonA New York Times article from November of 1989, cited a series of letters written by today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant that helped him secure the New York Yankee General Manager’s job that October. The letters were addressed to team owner George Steinbrenner and in them, Harding “Pete” Peterson had stressed that in order to be successful, a big league organization had to have front office job stability. Those letters may have helped Peterson get the position he wanted but they certainly did nothing to stabilize Steinbrenner’s front office.

Peterson is a New Jersey native who had grown up rooting for the Yankees and was a good enough ballplayer to play for Rutgers and eventually become a big league catcher with the Pirates. His playing career ended in 1959 when a violent collision at home plate busted his throwing arm so badly that he was never able to recover. Instead, he became a coach and manager in Pittsburgh’s farm system, then director of the organization’s player development and scouting operations and by 1978, the Pirates GM. He reached the apex of his profession in 1979, when his Pittsburgh team won the World Championship. Six years later, Harding’s fortunes and reputation had suffered a complete reversal with the revelation of widespread cocaine use by Pirate players. He shouldered much of the blame for letting the Buc clubhouse run wild and was fired. When he left Pittsburgh, the chance of him ever becoming a big league GM again seemed microscopic.

George Steinbrenner may have been an egomaniacal narcissist but he also believed in giving guys who had been successful and then failed, a chance to be successful again. As  the 1989 season ended, the Boss was embroiled up to his eyeballs in the Dave Winfield-Howie Spira scandal and his Yankee team was falling further and further away from being a playoff contender. He had just fired his 13th Yankee GM when he gave Bob Quinn his walking papers. He decided to give Peterson a shot but instead of handing over all control of personnel matters to his new GM, Steinbrenner hedged his bet by also giving George Bradley, New York’s director of minor league operations at the time, equal say in any player move the Yankees made. This fateful decision was the origin of the Yankee’s infamous two-headed organizational monster. In theory, the New York-based office headed by Peterson was expected to work in conjunction with the Tampa-based office head by Bradley on any and all trades, signings, assignments, etc. In reality, it was the beginning of total chaos.

The one season Peterson semi general-managed the Yankees was a disaster. They finished in last place in the AL East with just 67 wins, not one of the team’s starting pitchers achieved double digits in victories and they had the worst offense in baseball. Peterson was the guy who had to fire Bucky Dent as Yankee skipper, replace him with Stump Merrill and trade Dave Winfield to the Angels for Mike Witt. As expected the dual GM structure was a disaster and it was Peterson who ended up being the sacrificial lamb, when in his last official act before beginning what was supposed to be a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball, Steinbrenner fired the guy and replaced him with Gene Michael. Actually, Steinbrenner demoted Peterson at the time, making him Michael’s assistant.

The one bright spot during Peterson’s tenure as Yankee GM was the 1990 draft. The Yankees selections that year included Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Shane Spencer and Ricky Ledee. Peterson ended up quickly leaving the Yankee organization to become a scout for the Blue Jays and later the Padres. He’s still alive and residing in Florida and turns 84-years-old today.

Peterson shares his birthday with one of the Yankees’ all-time great third baseman and also this former Yankee outfielder.