STEALING BASES

How the Great Yankee Wife Swap Scandalized—and Changed—America

Like most baseball trades, the Great Yankee Wife Swap of 1973 had its winners and its losers.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

As America’s unofficial national pastime, baseball has traditionally steered clear of sex, America’s real pastime.

Even if Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle scored both on and off the field, the game long had a G-rated quality. Baseball’s virginity lasted until March 4, 1973 at 10 a.m. That’s when Mike Kekich announced his “wife swap” with another Yankee pitcher, Fritz Peterson. Baseball—and America—have yet to recover.

Peterson followed with a press conference at 4. They were switching it all—houses, wives, kids, dogs. “I have nothing to hide,” Peterson said, insisting “It’s not a smutty thing”—when everybody thought it was.

“Today, he smiles, explaining: ‘Actually, it was a husbands trade,” Jim Bouton, the saucy, outspoken, former Yankee pitcher exclaimed. “I can see trading your wife, but the dog?”

Peterson now says he had no idea it would create such a sensation. The same changing attitudes that led these two travel-roommates to switch wives so publicly emboldened reporters to report the truth so sensationally.

Fritz Peterson remains married to the former Mrs. Kekich. Mike Kekich and the former Mrs. Peterson quickly broke up. Perhaps that is why Peterson talks about the swap, and has agreed to act as consultant for a Matt Damon-Ben Affleck movie that has been in development forever called The Trade. Apparently, Kekich, who is something of a recluse, is “panic-stricken” about the project.

Before further detailing the story that truly shocked our once-shockable nation, let’s remember baseball’s role in 20th-century America’s mythology. In the 1940s and 1950s, baseball telegraphed American pride, power, patriotism, and purity—the glorious package that defeated the Nazis, fought for freedom during the Cold War, and produced the world’s first mass middle class civilization. The players with the greatest swagger—and moral responsibility—were those on America’s greatest—and most scrutinized—team, the New York Yankees.

Baseball players knew to follow the classic American script—in public. And reporters knew to help cover up any signs of sex, and hints of normalcy, among America’s demigods. Thus, when Babe Ruth collapsed in 1925, journalists reported what became “The Belly Ache Heard ’Round the World.”  Some gossiped privately that the tummy ache was syphilis.

There was something lovely about this hypocrisy. We at least had some standards. We at least propped up some role models. We at least believed in the value of believing in values.

Of course, even in Babe Ruth’s flapper-filled, Charleston-dancing 1920s, up through the beatnik-inflected rock-’n’-rolling 1950s, the ground was shifting; the 20th century was emerging as the centrifugal century. Yet through the 1960s, baseball players remained clean-shaven and crew cutted.

If the Port Huron statement in 1962, articulating a “radical vision for a better future,” anticipated the Great Shake Up in American life—including its acute sexualization—Jim Bouton’s Ball Four eight years later rocked baseball to its core. One year after Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, three years before Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, this ex-Yankee pitcher exposed readers to a baseball of cussing and drinking, of leering and fornicating—implicating the heir to Babe Ruth’s position as the iconic Yankee (with much to hide)—Mickey Mantle.

Bouton had pitched on the Yankees from 1962 to 1968—befriending a young pitcher Fritz Peterson. Peterson had some talent—he would win 20 games in 1972. As one of the better educated Yankees, along with his roommate on the road, the California hipster Mike Kekich, both watched as American society convulsed—and soon starred in that story.

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It’s always a sobering moment in my American history classes when we examine the divorce epidemic of the 1970s, and my students realize that the most intimate, most personal, decisions we make about love, sex, marriage, family, are buffeted by trends. Adding to the power of this as a transition story, the Kekich-Peterson love quadrangle began at the home of the sportswriter Maury Allen. Allen invited Fritz and Marilyn Peterson for a barbecue on July 15, 1972. Peterson asked if he could bring Mike and Susanne Kekich.

Peterson says now, “It just happened,” that night. “It wasn’t planned.” The two couples had giggled about swapping a few months earlier, but dismissed it; that was the kind of talk in the air back then.

That night, they lingered outside the Allen home, then decided to continue to a local Fort Lee Diner—but with each husband driving the other wife. Mr. Kekich and Mrs. Peterson arrived for breakfast—more than two and a half hours later. Apparently, Mrs. Kekich and Mr. Peterson didn’t mind. They kept switching and, Peterson says, “eventually he fell in love with my wife and I fell in love with his.’’ By March, they had decided to make it official—and found themselves in a major media firestorm.

Peterson had first turned to Maury Allen with the story. “Are you crazy?” Allen replied. Peterson explained, “We wanted you to write it because you won’t make it sound dirty.” Allen writes in his book All Roads Lead to October, “I thought this was private stuff, best if it had never been done, but certainly better left unsaid.”

Suddenly, the once-unfamiliar phrase “wife-swapping” was on everybody’s lips.

Characteristically, people rushed to project their feelings about the sexual revolution onto these four young Americans. The pitcher and part-time preacher Lindy McDaniel winced, saying, “It’s not very good is it?” Most Yankees said, “It’s their own damn business,” and as long as it doesn’t affect their pitching, it’s strictly their baby. It probably did affect their pitching—neither ever was effective again.

Alas, by the time the players went public, the four-way, even-steven deal was emerging as lopsided. Marilyn Peterson wanted to reset and reunite. Her mother—identified in the newspapers as Mrs. Arthur Monks—spoke for many mothers at the time about her son-in-law, saying, “Fritz is not the same person he used to be. We can’t understand any of his ideas or his problems any more.” But, hey, as the outfielder Ron Swoboda, who also attended the Maury Allen barbecue recently said, “Remember, that was the ’70s, not that far from the ’60s.”

That they were not just baseball players but Yankees added to the sense that the republic was crumbling. March 1973 was also a month of Watergate scandal, Vietnam troop withdrawals, and an Academy Award sweep for Cabaret—a musical about German decadence.

Today, we are far more cynical about athletes. One sportswriter told New York Magazine that such a swap could never happen today: “What wife with a $14 mil player is switching to a $4 mil player?” At the same time, what sportswriter would resist prying and publicizing?

Peterson says: “The only thing I feel bad for, that they didn’t work out because we all figured it could all work out,’’ reflecting the era’s lovely naïve hopes. Kekich reflects that Gatsbyesque restlessness that spread from our financial lives into our private lives, admitting in a rare interview: “By American standards, I had a good marriage. But I wanted a great marriage. I was idealistic, I guess.”

Like most baseball trades, the Great Yankee Wife Swap of 1973 had its winners and its losers. Like many recent moments in our social and cultural history, it showed that freedom from convention sometimes help us delight in our freedom—and sometimes reminds us of why people established those conventions in the first place.