In the autumn of 1956, slightly more than three years after his minor league debut helped break the color barrier in the Piedmont League, Charlie Peete’s life seemed full of promise. He had won the American Association batting crown for the just-completed season, hitting .350 for Omaha. Beyond that, his parent club, the St. Louis Cardinals, had added him to the major league roster in advance of the 1957 season, despite Peete’s poor performance during a month in the major leagues that previous summer. Johnny Keane, Peete’s manager at Omaha, was so impressed with him that he compared him favorably to future Hall of Famer Hack Wilson; Peete and Wilson were built similarly, between 5’6” and 5’9” and 180 to 200 pounds.
On November 27, however, Peete, his wife, Nettie, and their three young children (Ken, Karen, and Deborah) were on a plane to Caracas, Venezuela, where Peete planned to join the Valencia team for a season of winter ball. Less than two miles from the airport, in a heavy rainstorm, the plane hit a mountain peak obscured by clouds. Peete, his family, and everyone on board died.
Peete was born February 22, 1929, in Franklin, Virginia, but grew up in Portsmouth, Virginia, as one of six children after his family moved there when he was three. His only brother, James, also played professional baseball, spending five seasons as a pitcher in the minor leagues (1955-9), advancing as far as the Pacific Coast League, where he appeared in 32⅔ innings for San Diego in 1956, finishing that year 1-0 with a 4.96 ERA; for his career, which he spent primarily in A ball or lower, James Peete went 44-34, with a 3.73 ERA.
While Peete carried the nickname “Mule” as a professional ballplayer because of his bulk (195 pounds on a 5’9” frame), he did not participate in athletics when he was a student at Portsmouth’s High Street School (now Norcom High School) because he was too small, he once told a reporter from his hometown newspaper. After high school, however, he played semi-pro ball in the area until he joined the Negro Leagues’ Indianapolis Clowns for a short and not entirely successful stint in 1950, hitting .214 in 31 games. According to James A. Riley in the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues, Peete (who appeared in game accounts and other sources as “Peet”) struck out too much.
Part way through that season, Peete went north, to play semi-pro baseball in Canada for the Brandon Grey in Manitoba. There, he didn’t hit for a much better average than he did for Indianapolis—he ended the year hitting .220—but occasionally showed some of the strength that would later impress Keane and others. In a July tournament in Moosomin, he hit what at least one history of Western Canadian baseball describes as “a tape measure home run.”
The following year, the Army drafted him. While his military service cut into his professional career, he nonetheless spent most of his two-year hitch playing baseball. Initially, it was for his post team at Camp Pickett in Virginia. There, according to the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the African-American newspaper for his hometown, he batted clean-up and hit .382. When the Army sent him to Asia for fifteen months, until his discharge in 1953, he was a member of the Special Services division, playing baseball as well as football to entertain American troops in Japan and Korea.
Not long before he was honorably discharged from the service in 1953, Peete learned that—half a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major leagues—owners in the Piedmont League were contemplating integrating that league.
At least one newspaper account of his minor league career reports he was skeptical of the prospect and, given the facts of life for an African-American in the South then, such skepticism would seem logical. Some cities, like Birmingham, Alabama, still had laws on the books making it illegal for African-American players to compete on the same team as white players, and even in Portsmouth, the minor league team had not allowed African-American fans to sit in the bleachers with white fans until 1952. Other cities in the league were less open to African-American fans. Even into 1953, they had to wait at a special entrance to get into the ballpark at Norfolk, sometimes not gaining admittance until as late as the fourth inning, according to Bruce Adelson in his recent history of the integration of the minor leagues, Brushing Back Jim Crow.
In fact, the prospect of integrating the league was such news that The Sporting News followed the story in its pages during the months before the season began, and reported in early March that Portsmouth had set a precedent when it signed not one but several African-American players, three of whom lasted into the season, including Peete. The other two were pitcher Brooks Lawrence, who would win 15 games for the Cardinals the following year, and pitcher Jim Mason, whose career lasted a total of two minor league seasons.
Peete had an impact nearly immediately. Getting into the tenth game of the season as a pinch-hitter, he hit a grand slam. From then on, he was a favorite, especially of the African-American fans. In June of 1953, the Norfolk Journal and Guide ran a long, laudatory profile of Peete:
“The 210-pound outfielder plays almost flawless ball,” the paper reported. “. . .Peete makes the hard ones look easy and he has a deadly throwing arm. It’s nothing to see his throwing hold sure doubles and triples to resounding singles. The players [are afraid] to take liberties with his right arm.”
Peete ended the season hitting .275, with four home runs and 56 RBI. The next season, at Lynchburg (also in the Piedmont League), he improved to .311 with 17 home runs and 79 RBI, led the league with 170 hits, and made the league all-star team. Beyond his hitting, he also showed ability as a fielder; giving support to the Journal and Guide’s assessment of his throwing arm, Peete ranked second in the league with 19 assists from the outfield. Afterwards, the Cardinals’ International League team at Rochester picked him in a minor league draft.
Portsmouth owner Frank Lawrence (no relation to Brooks) praised Peete highly in a substantial Sporting News profile of the player in March 1955. Predicting that Peete would join the parent club by mid-summer, he cited Peete’s hitting as well as his speed and throwing arm as keys to what he predicted would be a successful major league career.
Peete spent only a portion of the season at Rochester before the Cards moved him to their American Association team at Omaha. There, the team worked to correct a glitch in his hitting. Although he was a left-handed batter, he tended to hit to left field. Because of his strength and clear power (he once hit a home run estimated at 500 feet and routinely hit balls to left with more power than the average right-handed hitter, Keane told a reporter from the Omaha World-Herald in 1955), by tinkering with his stance, the club hoped he’d pull the ball to right more often.
Despite his slight flaw, Peete hit a combined .310 between his time at Rochester and Omaha in 1955 and had an even better season in 1956, when he was enjoying an all-star season and leading the league in hitting with a .350 average in mid-July when the Cardinals called him up to the major leagues.
The move was not popular in Omaha. Reporting it, the World–Herald ran a story, “Omaha’s First-Division Dream Blurs as Big Cards Grab Peete.” The story went on to say that the move was a “staggering blow” to the minor league club’s chances to finish the season in the first division. Responding to the outcry, Cardinals general manager Frank “Trader” Lane felt compelled to reassure Omaha fans. In an interview he gave to KMOX radio at the time, and recounted in the Sporting News, he said, “We’re not unmindful of our minor league clubs but we owed it to Peete to bring him up in view of his fine record.”
Lane also said he made the move to help the major league club “shake off its slump.”
At the time Peete was called up, the team was in fourth place, nine games behind league leading Milwaukee, with a 41-41 record, but it had lost 10 of its previous 15 games. Cardinals manager Fred Hutchinson also noted, in a St. Louis Post Dispatch story by Bob Broeg, that the team’s outfielders weren’t hitting—and certainly the player Peete replaced on the roster, Chuck Harmon, wasn’t; he wound up hitless for the entire season.
While the fans and press in Omaha were upset over Peete leaving the team for the major leagues, the African-American press in St. Louis saw it as a possible redemption for the Cardinals.
A story in the July 20, 1956, St. Louis Argus, for example, criticized Lane’s treatment of African-American players, pointing to two front office decisions as evidence. In the first, Lane had dealt Brooks Lawrence to the Reds, where Lawrence was then in the middle of a 13-game winning streak as a pitcher. The reporter’s second complaint centered on what the writer saw as Lane’s lack of patience with Tom Alston, the first-ever African-American player for the Cardinals; Lane had sent Alston back to the minor leagues although he was, in the possibly hyperbolic words of the Argus sportswriter, “undisputedly the most brilliant defensive first baseman in the country.”
“As America sees it today, the Cardinals as a regular team show no promise of playing a Negro,” the reporter wrote.
In the call-up of Peete, however, the Argus writer saw hope:
“In Charles Peete the Red Birds got a fielder who is hitting better than [outfielder] Bobby Del Greco (who was hitting only .225—although his average against left-handed pitchers was .326). . .It may be that Peete will get the first real break of any Negro ever to appear with the team.”
Peete, however, never caught fire with the Cardinals, although he did have a few games that demonstrated some of the promise Lawrence and Keane felt he had. In the game of July 21—a 13-6 victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers—Peete went 2-for-3 and scored a run; on August 1—a 4-1 win over the Pirates—Peete went 3-for-4. At times, he showed his fielding prowess. In a loss to the Dodgers on July 22, he had two outfield assists. After the game, a Sporting News writer said that, while Peete had not hit as the Cardinals had expected, he nonetheless “displayed a pleasing ability to run down fly balls and . . . a strong, accurate throwing arm.”
After 23 games, the Cards sent Peete back to Omaha, a disappointment. His numbers: .192 average, two doubles, two triples, no home runs, six RBIs. That last total also equaled the number of times he hit into double plays. Some news stories about his demotion speculated that he performed poorly because of a sore thumb.
Then-manager Fred Hutchinson was direct when he expressed is disappointment to a Post-Dispatch reporter, saying, “I’m afraid Peete didn’t show us anything. He just didn’t swing the bat with authority.”
Peete ended the season by winning the batting title for the American Association. Although the Cardinals’ management had given up on him in August, they changed their minds by the end of September, when they recalled him to the major league roster for the 1957 season. In The Sporting News, Broeg said Peete was still one of the Cardinals’ top prospects; other news accounts said he had a good shot to earn a regular spot in the team’s outfield.
The Cardinals never got the chance to see how good Peete might have been.
Peete went to Cuba to play winter ball but had trouble finding his stroke at the plate and his team, Cienfuegos, released him after he went 1-for-24. He managed to land a job playing for Valencia, in the Venezuelan Association. However, instead of flying directly to Venezuela, Peete elected to return home, collect his wife and three children, and take them with him to Venezuela. Writing in the Baltimore Afro-American after Peete’s death, sports columnist Sam Lacy lamented, “If Peete had gone direct to South America from Havana, [he] would be alive today.”
In death, Peete earned perhaps more press coverage than he did when he was alive. Stories about the plane crash, highlighting his presence on board, appeared on the front page not only in St Louis but also in the New York Times. One writer in The Sporting News noted that, although other major league ballplayers had died in plane crashes, Peete was the first to die on a commercial flight.
Many of the accounts of his death stressed his unfulfilled potential. The Sporting News called him the “highly regarded outfielder. . .one of the brightest prospects in the Redbird system.” The Omaha World-Herald said he was “one of the most promising players in the St. Louis Cardinals system. . .given a good chance to win an outfield job in the major leagues.” The St. Louis Argus called him a “coming star.” In his hometown, the newspaper reported that, when they learned the news of his death, some fans were in the midst of planning a Charlie Peete Day for whenever the player could get back to Porstmouth in between playing winter ball and reporting for spring training.
His death also stunned his Omaha teammates.
Infielder Dick Schofield, who hit .295 with Omaha that season and who eventually had a 19-year major league career, said Peete’s death saddened him, for personal as well as professional reasons. “Everyone liked him,” Schofield said in an interview. “He got along well with everyone. We all thought he’d be an outstanding player for a good long time. If you hit .350 in triple-A, that’s a sign you’re a pretty good hitter and we expected he’d be around [baseball] for a while.”
Backup catcher James Command, who had a brief stay with Philadelphia in the major leagues, echoed Schofield in his recollections. “I remember him as a good, solid hitter and I assumed he was destined to be a very good major leaguer,” he said in an interview.
Despite Peete’s abbreviated professional career, monuments to him still exist. A successful Little League in Portsmouth bears his name, The Charles Peete League, and, in 1962, Frank Lawrence—owner of the Portsmouth team that gave Peete his first shot—opened the Tidewater Baseball Hall of Fame, devoted to paying tribute to ballplayers who had spent at least part of their lives in southeastern Virginia. In the inaugural class, Lawrence included Christy Mathewson, Hack Wilson, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra. . .and Charlie Peete.
Most of the details about Peete’s early life, time in the military and his professional and major league career came from newspaper articles published during the 1950s, including The Sporting News, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Times, the St. Louis Argus, the Omaha World-Herald, and the Norfolk Journal and Guide.
For background on the Piedmont League and particularly on its integration, I turned to Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947–1959 by Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt, and Brushing Back Jim Crow: The Integration of Minor League Baseball in the American South by Bruce Adelson. For background on Charlie Peete in the Negro Leagues, I turned to The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues by James A. Riley.
His major and minor league statistics come from pertinent editions of the annual The Sporting News Baseball Guide and Record Book, and his statistics for his brief stay in Cuban Winter Ball in 1956 come courtesy of Freddy Berowski in the research department of the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Library at the National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. Confirming sources are Retrosheet, Baseball-Reference, The Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd ed., Lloyd Johnson and Miles Wolff, eds., and Minor League All-Star Teams, 1922-1962 by Jamie Selko.
Details about Peete’s play in Canada, as well as statistics, come from a website devoted to Western Canadian Baseball: http://www.attheplate.com/wcbl/index.html.
Lastly, the quotes from Peete’s former teammates, Dick Schofield and James Command, come from short interviews I conducted with each for an article I wrote about Peete for the St. Louis Cardinals publication, Gameday Magazine.