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Trading places: The baseball stars who swapped wives, kids and even their pets

When New York Yankees pitchers Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich announced their unusual ‘life swap’ 50 years ago, it was shocking even for the permissive 1970s

The curious tale of the pitchers in the night-time. In July 1972, a New York Post sports writer called Maury Allen threw a dinner party at his place in Dobbs Ferry and, because it was a very different era, some of his friends who played for the Yankees came. Cold beers were quaffed. Burgers consumed. Summer fare. After the guests departed, Allen and his wife Janet were cleaning up when they noticed two couples still chatting outside their house even as the clock edged towards three in the morning.

Eventually, the foursome split up along unusual lines. Fritz Peterson, the Yankees’ left-handed pitching ace, climbed into his car and drove off with Susanne Kekich, the wife of his team-mate and fellow pitcher Mike Kekich, riding shotgun. Seconds later, Kekich departed with Marilyn Peterson, Fritz’s spouse, who most people called “Chip”, nestled in his passenger seat. Even for the swinging seventies, a decade that thrummed with tales of key parties and suburban sybarites, Allen thought the tableau rather odd as he toddled off to bed.

“Maury, I have a story for you,” said Peterson to Allen, six months later, in January 1973. Then, he explained that, following negotiations which began that very night outside his house, the two pitchers and long-time roommates had decided to swap wives, kids, and even pets.

“Are you crazy?” asked Allen.

“We wanted you to write it because you won’t make it sound dirty,” said Peterson.

An intrepid reporter who spent decades on the Yankees beat, Allen gave this particular exclusive a hard pass. Weeks later, with rumours swirling around training camp, he advised the duo to give the yarn to Milton Richman, a columnist with UPI, who would do right by them. And he did, forcing the Yankees to hold separate press conferences where Peterson and Kekich, both of whom had been married for seven years, outlined how they had indeed traded partners, children (each couple had two under the age of 5), and family dogs.

“Some people are going to think it’s a wife swap,” said Peterson, as he explained how the more time they hung out together the more both couples realised they were married to the wrong people. “Mike and I agreed it was a life swap. He fell in love with my wife and I fell in love with his. Don’t make this out to be cheap.”

As if.

Peterson’s death last week at 82, following battles with cancer and Alzheimer’s, exhumed one of the tawdriest episodes in the storied history of the Yankees. An excellent pitcher in pinstripes for nine years that happened to coincide with a downturn in the fortunes of the Bronx Bombers, his obituaries were larger than his feats merited because of the mid-career wife-swap farrago. A change-up that shocked the nation, it spawned weeks of excitable coverage, one newspaper labelling the affair the “Diamond Wrectangle”, another calling the duo the “Sultans of Swap”.

New York Daily News sports columnist Dick Young wanted them banned from the game for moral turpitude. Bowie Kuhn, the commissioner for baseball, already down on Peterson for teaching billiards in the off-season, felt he had no legal grounds to exile them but described their antics as “a most regrettable situation”. A cartoon in the Washington Star-News featured a boy in a baseball cap plaintively asking his mother, “Hey Mom, how come you are trading Dad? I thought you and him had a lifetime contract.”

Others were more evolved about the whole business. One colleague in the locker room felt what they were doing was “a now thing”. The Yankees’ manager, knowing he had to work with both players going forward, did his best to support them.

“It doesn’t bother me what effect it might have other than on their pitching,” said Ralph Houk, a second World War veteran. “Their personal lives are their own business. They live their own lives and they’ve got a lot of years to live. If you are not happy, you have to remember you only go through the world once. Why go through it unhappy?”

The arrangement worked out far better for one couple than the other. The relationship between Kekich and Chip faltered as soon as they shacked up together with her kids and broke down irrevocably before they even went public. After pitching just 14 innings for the Yankees in 1973, he was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and later played in Japan, Venezuela, and Mexico, where he briefly attended medical school. He once told an interviewer his career descended into “a black hole” following the partner swap that left him with “a box of hate mail and a box of sympathy mail”.

When it was announced in 2011 that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, devout Boston Red Sox fans, were planning a movie about the scandalous interlude involving their most hated rivals, Kekich was vehemently against the project. In contrast, Peterson, whose peripatetic post-baseball career included stints as a blackjack dealer, an insurance salesman, and an author of books reflecting his embrace of evangelical Christianity, latched on as a consultant to the ill-fated film. He always regarded what happened in a much more positive light than his one-time closest friend. How could he not? He married Susanne Kekich in 1974, and they remained blissfully happy until his death.

“It’s a love story,” he said in one of his final interviews. “It wasn’t anything dirty.”

The others involved might beg to differ.

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