This article was written by Rich Puerzer
Several people served as the architects of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates team, but no one had as much influence as general manager Harding “Pete” Peterson. Peterson had been employed by the Pirates organization throughout his entire adult life, serving as a player, minor-league manager, scout, director of scouting, vice president, and general manger. Peterson helped to construct the 1979 team through his years developing talent as a scout and through player acquisitions as the general manager. Peterson even influenced the leadership of the team as he had traded for manager Chuck Tanner. Pete Peterson put together the team that would become known as “the family.”
Harding William Peterson was born on October 17, 1929, the eldest child of Lewis and Gladys Peterson. The Petersons lived in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a town just across the Arthur Kill from Staten Island, New York. Lewis Peterson worked a stationary engineer. As a youth Harding Peterson, then known as Hardy, played several sports, but baseball was always his favorite. His early heroes were Bill Dickey and Joe DiMaggio, and he always chose to emulate DiMaggio in his backyard after attending the occasional Yankees game.1 After high school, Peterson attended nearby Rutgers University, where he played on the varsity squad as a catcher in the 1948, 1949, and 1950 seasons. In 1950 Peterson was a second team All-America selection by the American Baseball Coaches Association, the first-ever baseball All-America selection at Rutgers. The 1950 Rutgers team, managed by former Washington Senators outfielder George Case, had a fantastic season and finished third in the College World Series, Rutgers’ only appearance in the tournament.
After Rutgers, Peterson signed with the Pirates in 1950, beginning a 35-year run with the organization. He began his professional career with the Tallahassee Pirates of the Class D Georgia-Florida League, where he hit .275 in 45 games. In 1951 he was promoted to the Waco Pirates of the Class B Big State League. Peterson, then 21 years old, had an excellent season. He caught all 148 games, hit .301, and drove in 122 runs. Beginning in 1952, his baseball career was interrupted by a two-year stint in the US Army during the Korean War. Peterson was stationed for a time in Korea, serving in an observation battalion from the fall of 1952 until July 1953. He was discharged in time to rejoin the Pirates organization during the 1954 season.
Peterson, now 24 years old, was assigned to the New Orleans Pelicans of the Double-A Southern Association, batting .282 in 79 games. In 1955 he began the season with the Williamsport (Pennsylvania) Grays of the Class A Eastern League, but after only 12 games, he was promoted to the Pirates. He made his major-league debut on Thursday, May 5, grounding out to the pitcher in a pinch-hitting appearance against the Milwaukee Braves at Forbes Field. Peterson stuck with the Pirates, serving mainly as the occasional replacement for the primary catchers, Jack Shepard and Toby Atwell. He played in 32 games, until his season abruptly ended in a game on August 25 in Pittsburgh against the Chicago Cubs. In the fifth inning Cubs center fielder Jim Bolger collided with Peterson while scoring from third base on a fly to left field. Peterson was charged with an error on the play, but worse, he suffered a broken bone in his right forearm.2 The injury proved to be especially challenging, because it did not heal properly. Peterson eventually had surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore involving a bone graft and the insertion of a six-inch pin in this arm. He missed the rest of the 1955 season and all of the 1956 season as he recovered from the injury. While rehabbing, Peterson began scouting for the Pirates, beginning his path toward the front office
Having finally recovered, Peterson returned to the playing field in 1957, beginning the season with the Columbus (Ohio) Jets of the Triple-A International League, where he played until he was recalled by the Pirates in mid-July. Playing in 30 games, he batted .301 and played in the final major-league game at Ebbets Field, against the Brooklyn Dodgers, on September 24, and the New York Giants’ final game at the Polo Grounds on September 29. The 1957 season was the apex of Peterson’s playing career. In 1958 he split time with three minor-league teams, the Lincoln (Nebraska) Chiefs of the Class A Western League, the Salt Lake City Bees of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, and the Triple-A Columbus Jets, along with a two-game appearance with the Pirates in early May. While his playing dreams were fading quickly away, Peterson decided that he would like to pursue managing. In 1959 the 29-year-old was given the reins of the Wilson (North Carolina) Tobs of the Class B Carolina League as a player-manager. Peterson caught 94 games and hit .261 for the Tobs (short for Tobacconists) but his true impact came in managing the team. The Tobs finished second in the league with a record of 71-58 and won the league championship with a 4-0 series sweep over the Raleigh Capitals, a team that featured 19-year-old second baseman Carl Yastrzemski. He also got back to the Pirates for two more games, his last as a major-league player. In 1960 and 1961, Peterson was the player-manager of the Burlington (Iowa) Bees of the Class B Three-I League. He led the Bees to finishes in the middle of the league each of the two seasons, and had the opportunity to match wits against Earl Weaver, who managed a Baltimore Orioles farm team, the Fox Cities Foxes. Peterson’s last year as a player was in 1961, and he worked solely as a minor-league manager over the next few seasons.
From 1962 to 1967, Peterson managed Pirates farm teams: Kinston of the Class A Carolina League, (1962-1964); Asheville of the Double-A Southern League (1965-66), and Triple-A Columbus (1967). After the 1967 season, Peterson, then 37 years old and with a family, gave up the idea of becoming a major-league manager, a job he knew would require him to continually move his family. He jumped at the opportunity to become the Pirates’ farm director and director of scouting. In these positions Peterson helped to sign and develop a number of future major-league players, including some who would help the Pirates to win the 1971 World Series as well as finish first in the National League East Division in 1970, 1972, 1974, and 1975. Peterson worked closely with Pirates general manager Joe L. Brown, and learned the skills necessary to lead the front office of a major-league baseball team. When Brown retired in 1976, the general manager job was split into the baseball side, assumed by Peterson as he became the head of player personnel, and the business side, taken by Joe O’Toole. Peterson eventually took on both jobs and the title of general manager on January 18, 1979.3
Peterson’s first task upon taking the job as head of player personnel was to find a manager. Danny Murtaugh retired after the 1976 season and left big shoes to fill. Peterson pursued Chuck Tanner, who managed the Oakland Athletics in 1976 and was still under contract with the A’s. In early November, Peterson persuaded A’s owner Charlie Finley to trade Tanner to the Pirates for catcher Manny Sanguillen and $100,000. The trade proved very successful; Tanner went on to manage the Pirates for nine seasons.
A major-league manager had not been traded for a player since 1967 (the Washington Senators traded manager Gil Hodges to the New York Mets for pitcher Bill Denehy and $100,000 after that season ended). The deal was the first of many moves Peterson made that would improve the Pirates. He was not afraid to trade away some of the younger players the Pirates had developed for more established talent. Shortly after Tanner was in place as the new manager, Peterson picked up veteran left-handed reliever Grant Jackson from the expansion Seattle Mariners for young infielders Craig Reynolds and Jimmy Sexton. In March of 1977, he traded outfielders Tony Armas and Mitchell Page to Oakland for second baseman Phil Garner. In December of 1977, near the end of the winter meetings in Hawaii, he took part in a four-team trade that brought the Pirates pitcher Bert Blyleven and outfielder-first baseman John Milner. In April of 1978, he traded three players to Oakland in order to get Sanguillen back, and in December of 1978, he acquired reliever Enrique Romo from Seattle in a deal involving five other players. Early in the 1979 season, Peterson made two somewhat controversial trades, one sending pitcher Jerry Reuss to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Rick Rhoden and another sending shortstop Frank Taveras to the Mets for shortstop Tim Foli. Peterson also ventured into the free-agent market, something his predecessor and mentor Joe Brown did not do. Peterson signed pitcher Jim Bibby and outfielder Lee Lacy as free agents. Perhaps his best deal was made near the trade deadline during the 1979 season, when he acquired third baseman Bill Madlock and left-handed reliever Dave Roberts from the San Francisco Giants for a trio of young pitchers — a move that solidified the Pirates infield and gave them a potent bat and strengthened their bullpen for the pennant and World Series drive.
The many moves made by Peterson clearly positioned the Pirates to contend for and eventually win the World Series in 1979. However, the moves also left the Pirates with a paucity of talent left in the farm system to bring up or to trade. After the 1979 season the Pirates declined in the NL East division. Aside from a third-place finish in 1980 and a second-place finish in 1983, they finished at or near the bottom for the next several seasons. The aging of several players, including future Hall of Famer Willie Stargell, and the departure of other key players did not help. Blyleven, disgruntled over how Tanner managed the pitching staff, demanded a trade after the 1980 season and was sent, along with Sanguillen, to Cleveland for almost no return from the four players received from the Indians. The free-agent signings of first baseman-catcher Gene Tenace for 1983, and former All-Star outfielder Amos Otis for 1984 proved to be huge wastes of money with each player being quickly released. During the 1984 season, pitcher John Candelaria, unhappy with his contract and the team, called Peterson a “bozo” and an “idiot.” He was traded to the California Angels in August 1985. Peterson made two especially poor trades for the Pirates in December 1984. On December 12, he sent pitcher John Tudor and catcher Brian Harper to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder George Hendrick. Tudor won 21 games for the Cardinals in 1985 and Harper had a solid major-league career, while Hendrick made it clear on and off the field that he did not wish to play in Pittsburgh. Then, on December 20, Peterson traded infielder Dale Berra and two prospects, including outfielder Jay Buhner, to the New York Yankees for shortstop Tim Foli and outfielder Steve Kemp. Buhner went on to have an excellent career, primarily with the Mariners, while Foli, in his return to Pittsburgh, and Kemp did very little for the Pirates. Peterson did not help his cause after he claimed that he was unaware Kemp had undergone offseason shoulder surgery before he was obtained from New York. After last-place finishes in 1984, a bad start in 1985, and the embarrassment of the drug scandal centered in Pittsburgh and implicating several Pirates, Peterson was fired in May 1985. He remained with the Pirates as a scout for the remainder of the season.
Peterson relocated to Florida and left baseball for four years. But at age 59, he made a comeback. Soon after the 1989 season, Peterson was hired as general manager of the Yankees, replacing Bob Quinn, who left the Yankees to become the general manager of the Cincinnati Reds.4 During the 1989 season, Peterson had been writing to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, lobbying for the job of general manager and providing advice on how to bring success to the team. The primary message in these letters was that stability was a key to a successful organization.5 However, Peterson came to the Yankees in a period when the Yankees were the antithesis of stability. He was actually hired as something of a co-general manager, working in parallel, theoretically, with George Bradley, who was the Yankees’ director of player development and scouting. Peterson worked out of the New York City office, and Bradley was to work out of Tampa, Florida, office. Both men were to have an equal say in decision-making, with Steinbrenner overseeing everything. As might be expected, things did not work out well for this management arrangement. In 1990 the Yankees won only 67 games and finished last in the American League East. As a result of the evolving scandal involving Steinbrenner and Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield, Peterson was forced to trade Winfield to the California Angels in May. In June Peterson was tasked with firing manager Bucky Dent and replacing him with Stump Merrill. The ballclub, on and off the field, was in turmoil. On August 20, 1990, Steinbrenner, in his last official move before a supposed lifetime ban from baseball stemming from the Winfield scandal, made Gene Michael general manager and demoted Peterson to Michael’s special assistant.6
Following his tumultuous time with the Yankees, Peterson went back to scouting, first with the Toronto Blues Jays, and then with the San Diego Padres, who hired him in 1992 to scout Florida spring training, the Florida State League, and the Florida Instructional League.
Peterson’s son, Rick Peterson has had a successful career in major-league baseball, working primarily as a pitching coach with the Oakland A’s, New York Mets, and Milwaukee Brewers. Harding “Pete” Peterson retired from baseball in 1995, and lived in the Tampa, Florida, area until his death at the age of 89 on April 16, 2019.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted:
Finoli, David, and Bill Ranier. The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia (New York: Sports Publishing LLC, 2003).
Ranier, Bill, and David Finoli. When The Bucs Won It All (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Inc., 2003).
Sahadi, Lou. The Pirates: We Are Family (New York: Times Books, 1980).
1 Bob Hertzel, “Sensitive Peterson Tries to Mold Pirates Into Champs,” Pittsburgh Press, March 25, 1984: C3.
2 Lester J. Biederman, “Bucs Renew Mastery Over Cubs,” Pittsburgh Press, August 26, 1955: 24.
4 “Peterson to Yankees,” New York Times, October 14, 1989.
5 Murray Chass, “Yanks Cycle of Change Meets Stabilizing Force,” New York Times, November 11, 1989.
6 Mark Gallagher, The Yankee Encyclopedia (Champaign, Illinois: Sagamore Publishing, 1996), 307.