SABR

Bob Peterson

This article was written by Bill Nowlin.

Bob Peterson moved from one stage to another, with a life working in theatrical staging and one on the stage of baseball.

His father likely led the way in the theater. In Philadelphia, George W. Peterson worked in theater in 1900 and was listed as a stage manager in 1910. By the time of the 1920 US Census, George was living in his son’s place, working as a stage carpenter in the theater. Bob himself is listed in the 1930 Census as a stage employee in theater.

Bob Peterson was born as Robert Andrew Peterson on June 16, 1884. There is some confusion as to his mother’s name. His death certificate says her name was Julia Homsyard (or Homeyard), but the census provides different first names for George’s spouse – Emma (1900) and Elizabeth (1910). It’s possible he remarried. Only his father’s signature is on the birth certificate.i The death certificate also gives Bob’s birthdate as 7/16.

But let’s talk about baseball.

Peterson worked 34 games as a big-league catcher, three at second base, two at first base, and one in the outfield. Three other appearances as a pinch-hitter brought the count up to his participation in 43 major-league games. The first came on April 18, 1906, and the last was on October 5, 1907. All were for the Boston Americans.

His professional career began in 1904 in the New England League, playing for Fall River. He’d been signed by Utica in January, but somehow would up playing for Fall River.ii “He was secured on recommendation of catcher [Joe] Berry, formerly of the Haverhill Club, who saw him play in the New York State League.” We have statistics for 1904, showing that Peterson hit .243 in 110 games, and his 103 assists had led the league.iii In 1905 he reportedly “jumped the reserve of Fall River … to go with Billy Hamilton to the Tri-State League. He was considered by many last season the best catcher in the New England League. He has a fine arm and plays with great dash.” Hamilton had managed Haverhill in 1904, but managed Harrisburg in 1905. Perhaps one of the reasons Peterson left to go with Hamilton was the reaction of Fall River manager Tom McDermott when Peterson approached him on June 16 and told him it was his birthday. "This is my birthday, Mr. McDermott,” he said. “What are you going to give me?” There was a doubleheader on that day and this was McDermott's reply: “I think I shall let you catch both.”iv

Peterson suffered a broken collarbone in 1905 and lost a lot of playing time, finishing the season by playing some at first base, but his stats and/or game-calling had been good enough in 1904 and the first part of 1905 that on July 28 the Boston Americans purchased his contract “subject to inspection of agreement” and for delivery after the season.v In fact, owner John I. Taylor purchased a battery: pitcher Joe Harris and catcher Peterson. Hamilton argued that with the time he’d lost due to the injury, Peterson could benefit from another season of seasoning in Harrisburg. Taylor purchased Fall River’s claim to Peterson, thus allowing him back in the game despite jumping his contract.vi

Peterson was expected to become a regular and impressed during spring training. With Lou Criger recovering from a long-term illness, Boston manager Jimmy Collins expected to rely on two new men, Peterson and Charlie Graham. Veteran Boston sportswriter Tim Murnane wrote, “Peterson is one of best hitting catchers in the business and reminds one very much of Charley Snyder, the old Boston backstop, in his handling of the ball behind the bat, and in getting the ball away.”vii In practice, he wasn’t always as accurate as one would like. Getting the ball away was one thing, but when Boston hosted New York on July 5, batterymate Harris was harmed by the New York batters, but “what contributed mainly to Boston’s defeat, however, were their errors and Peterson’s miserable throws to sec­ond, failing every time to catch his man and each time throwing to center.” This was the year Harris posted a 2-21 record in the big leagues.

The pitcher Peterson was said to have the most difficult time catching was Cy Young.viii

Bob’s first regular-season game was on April 18, 1906, against visiting New York. Neither team won; the game ended in an 11-inning tie, with Peterson entering the game at first base in the top of the tenth (first baseman Moose Grimshaw had been replaced by a pinch-runner). Peterson made four putouts and committed one error, and was 0-for-1 at the bat.

Even looking back from the second decade of the 21st century, the 1906 season was one of the worst in the franchise’s history (49-105). The team finished in last place, 45½ games out of first. From May 1 through May 24, the team lost every game – 20 in a row. Finally, on May 25, the Americans beat the Chicago White Sox, 3-0. Jesse Tannehill threw a two-hitter, with Peterson calling the game from behind the plate, and the catcher drove in all three of Boston’s runs. Thereafter, a sprained wrist cost him some playing time.

On September 15 Peterson’s season came to a close in his hometown of Philadelphia when he was hit just over the right temple by a spitball pitched by Jimmy Dygert of the Athletics in the day’s second game. He was knocked out, struck badly enough that he was taken to the German Hospital. He was discharged the same day, but his season was almost over.ix

In the very last game of the season, on October 6, Peterson hit his only major-league home run. The pitcher was Tom Hughes of New York, and the game was at Boston’s Huntington Avenue Grounds. Peterson drove in one run with a second-inning single and another with a fifth-inning ball hit all the way to the park’s distant fence, which went for an inside-the-park home run. Boston lost the game, 5-4.

Peterson had appeared in 39 games, collecting 24 hits – one double, one triple, and the one homer. He drove in nine runs and scored ten. His fielding in the catcher’s position was not that solid, with 18 errors and a fielding percentage of .899. He made one error at each of the other three positions he played, second base (three games), first base (two games), and the outfield.(one game).

The Providence Grays were hoping to get Peterson from Boston for the 1907 season. He signed again with Boston in January but it seems that rather few people thought he would stick there. Behind the plate Boston had Criger, Carrigan, Armbruster, and Shaw – who showed particularly well – and deemed Peterson surplus, so he was sent to Providence right around the beginning of April, sold for a reported $750. It was the first of five seasons Peterson played for Providence. He appeared in 91 games, hitting .229 for Grays manager Hugh Duffy. Pitcher Joe Harris was again a teammate, and was 16-9 for the season with Providence (he’d been 0-7 for Boston).

After Providence’s season was over, Peterson got into four final games for Boston, starting on October 1. His last came on October 5. Just as his debut game had been an extra-inning tie in a game against New York (11 innings), so was his last game, another 3-3 tie, this one lasting ten innings.

In 13 at-bats in 1907, Peterson had one single and scored one run. He never returned to the majors, but he played minor-league ball from 1908 through 1916.

In 1908 Hugh Duffy said, “Old Pete must have plenty of work” and indeed Peterson played a pretty full season of 98 games, despite suffering a broken thumb in May. He batted.218.x He’d driven in two runs in an exhibition game against Boston on April 19. During the season, it was reported that Peterson had used some of his salary to begin to speculate in real estate, purchasing a lot in Philadelphia. The Grays finished in second place in the Eastern League standings, just two games behind Baltimore.

Peterson had held out for more salary before the 1908 season, and in early February of 1909 Sporting Life reported that manager Duffy was looking to trade him, saying, “Peterson is a good backstop, but he is dissatisfied with his berth and fans there are sore on him.”xi The team changed its name, becoming known as the Providence Clamdiggers. On June 23 Peterson got into a fight with teammate John Anderson, which cost him a hefty $50 fine from the league president, but no doubt felt better on July 4, when his long ninth-inning drive to deep center field drove in the winning run in a 2-1 win over Baltimore, played in front of 6,000 people. The Clamdiggers dropped in the standings to third place, 9½ games back. Peterson played in 104 games, hitting .236. After the season he went home to Philadelphia for a while but had leased the Newman Hotel pool and billiard rooms in Providence and that became his primary occupation over the winter.

Jimmy Collins succeeded Hugh Duffy as manager of the Grays (they reverted to the old name) in 1910, while playing in 124 games at third base. Collins hit .224; Peterson, who played in 102 games, hit a career-low .171. He played left field at one point, filling in due to John Phelan’s illness. The Grays battled to keep out of last place for much of the season, but failed, finishing 31 games behind the repeating champion Rochester team and, in the end, 4½ games behind the seventh-place Jersey City Skeeters.

Collins began the 1911 season as skipper, but the team wasn’t performing any better and he was relieved of the position on June 10, leaving the game for good. Jake Atz took over the helm. Peterson appeared in 86 games, hitting for a .238 average, his best since 1904. Rochester again finished first; the Grays again finished last.

On February 5, 1912, Providence (now in the International League) sold Peterson’s contract to the Scranton Miners (New York State League). He worked out with the Philadelphia Athletics before joining Scranton, getting a bit of a head start in terms of getting into shape. Managing was former Boston teammate Buck Freeman, for whom Peterson hit the same.238 as he had the year before in Providence. The Miners finished in fifth place.

In 1913 Freeman was gone and Dick Smith was made manager. Peterson shared playing time with Pat Harkins, who played in 63 games to Peterson’s 75. Smith was relieved of his position on August 11 and Peterson was named temporary manager, but seven days later Jersey City outfielder Jack Kelly was brought over and named to the post. This may have led to some hard feelings between them. A last-place finish couldn’t have made anyone on the team happy. Not long after the season ended, a deal was done selling Peterson’s contract to the Binghamton ballclub on October 27, “he and Manager Kelley (sic) being unable to get along together.”xii Peterson had hit for a .245 average.

Binghamton fared better in 1914 than Scranton, which again finished last; the Bingoes placed fourth under manager John Calhoun. Peterson hit for the best average of his career, .283, which placed him fourth on his team. He hit at a similar pace in 1915 (.279) and enjoyed his first and only pennant as a player: Binghamton won the New York State League championship by four games over Utica, in part thanks to the hitting of Bill Kay, who hit .378 and led the league in runs scored and base hits, and to career minor leaguer Frank Rapp, a 20-game winner at 20-9.

Thirty-eight-year-old Kay led the league in 1916 in the same offensive categories, but the team finished third. Peterson’s average dropped 46 points, back to .233 (close to his career average of .238).

In March 1917 Peterson was traded to Elmira as part of a deal between the two teams. He accepted terms, and appeared in 30 games, batting .226. Elmira finished fourth. He was still just 33 years old. With the World War under way, the New York State League closed up shop, as did much of baseball. As early as October 1917, that looked likely, and the league owners had talked about possibly keeping the league “dark” for 1918.xiii On March 1, 1918, the league “indefinitely postponed” the scheduled league meeting.xiv Elmira didn’t field a team in 1918, nor until 1923.

Peterson took a position in Harrisburg with Bethlehem Steel doing open-hearth work, and may have played some ball in the Bethlehem Steel Corporation Baseball League along with Fred Anderson and Bill Kay. The league, which pitted workers in Bethlehem Steel’s several plants against one another, also included past and future major leaguers such as Chick Fewster, Joe Jackson, Dutch Leonard, Rebel Oakes, Wally Pipp, Eddie Plank, and Steve Yerkes. Peterson is listed in the 1920 Census as a professional ballplayer with the Philadelphia Athletics, though we find no trace of him in Organized Baseball after his 1917 season with Elmira.

Bob and his wife, Ethel, had a daughter, Doris, who was less than a year old at the time of the 1920 Census. As noted above, the 1930 Census found Peterson working as a stage employee at a theater. He and Ethel were living in in the home of Ethel’s mother, Liney Miller. They had lost Doris, who died when she was 9 years old. The only other documentary trace we find of Peterson was his April 1942 registration for the draft in World War II, when he was in his late 50s. He listed himself as unemployed.

The couple both spent their last years in a Methodist church-related retirement residence in Marlton, New Jersey, run by the Wiley Mission. In 1979 Rev. Cecil P. Gilmore wrote SABR researcher Bill Haber and mentioned Doris’s death, saying, “This was a very sad experience for them and they talked about it a great deal while here in the Home. There were a lovely couple, and we were happy to have them as residents. Mrs. Peterson required nursing care before she died, but she also had a wonderful renewed spiritual experience and died in peace.”

Peterson died at the age of 78 in Evesham, New Jersey, on November 27, 1962, from carcinoma of the colon with metastasis, complicated by chronic myocardial disease. The death certificate also noted senility. The informant was the Rev. Gilmore; he gave Peterson’s “usual occupation” as “Base Ball Player” and – perhaps unaware of Bob’s baseball history – gave his affiliation as “Athletic Baseball Team, Philadelphia.”xv

 

Sources

In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also consulted with the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, and Baseball-Reference.com. Thanks to Frank Russo and Dr. Steve Boren, and to Bill Lee.

 

Notes

i Letter from Rev. Cecil P. Gilmore to Bill Haber, November 8, 1979.

ii Sporting Life, February 6, 1904.

iii Sporting Life, January 14, 1905.

iv Sporting Life, October 20, 1906.

v All the quotations in the paragraph come from Sporting Life, August 5, 1905. The question of inspecting the agreement was raised in the September 9, 1905, issue. For the actual signing, see the Boston Globe of July 29, 1905.

vi Boston Globe, January 26, 1906.

vii Sporting Life, April 7, 1906.

viii Sporting Life, June 23, 1906.

ix Boston Globe, September 16, 1906.

x Sporting Life, February 15, 1908.

xi Sporting Life, February 6, 1909.

xii Sporting Life, November 1, 1913.

xiii Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 1917.

xiv Washington Post, March 2, 1918.

xv Being a man of the cloth, and perhaps not as attuned to worldly concerns, Gilmore may have just assumed that since Bob lived in Philadelphia he must have played for the team there, and somehow had Jim Peterson (who’d pitched for the Athletics in the 1930s) in the back of his mind, rather than the Phillies.

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