This article was written by T. Scott Brandon
This article was published in The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)
Curt Flood, Gene Conley, and Danny Ainge had nothing on Baltimore native Peck Lerian, who challenged the reserve clause and earned fame on both the basketball court and the baseball diamond. Showing great promise as the leading member of the Philadelphia Phillies’ young receiving corps at the close of the 1920s, he also stood out as the starting guard for the lauded Hagerstown Elks basketball team many years before the founding of the NBA or its precursors. Ultimately forsaking his basketball career to play major-league baseball, he joined the Phillies for the launch of the 1928 season and progressed from a seldom-used bench warmer and occasional pinch hitter to become the team’s primary backstop by mid-summer. At the conclusion of the 1929 season, just as he was coming into his own, his life and career were tragically cut short by an out-of-control vehicle.
Peck was descended from prominent German American community leader Jakob Lerian, who founded the dominant Lerian Meat Market and took a leadership role in the area’s German-speaking Lutheran congregation.1
Jakob and his wife Elizabeth had five children, the youngest of which, Jacob, was Peck’s father. In 1898 Jacob left home and married Josephine Kaiser,2 who, like her new husband, was a descendant of butchers who had emigrated from Germany. The couple settled in Baltimore while Jacob continued working with his brothers in the family business. Walter Irvin Lerian, their second son, was born on February 10, 1903.3 Peck, his older brother Henry, and younger brother Wilmer all grew to find success in their chosen fields, but Jacob would not live to see his sons’ achievements, dying in May 1909 at age 37 4 and leaving Josephine to raise three small children as a young widow.
Josie, a devout Catholic, and her sons regularly attended Mass at St. Martin’s parish, the largest parish in Baltimore,5 and the small family became well known amongst its many parishioners. Henry and Peck had both started school before their father died, attending St. Martin’s Male Academy, a parochial school at St. Martin’s parish. Peck met some of his closest childhood friends at St. Martin’s, including Robert and William Ashton. He would often play with the Ashton children and became welcome at their home as if he were a member of the family.
When the older Lerian boys had matured enough to find employment of their own, Henry and Peck both started working to help pay for food. Henry continued to attend school as often as he could, while Peck dropped out entirely after the eighth grade and threw his energy into finding odd jobs, earning as much money as possible to contribute to the family’s meager income. The older boys insisted that Wilmer stay in school rather than work like they did so that, as he grew older, he would have a strong foundation for a good career. By the age of seventeen Peck had found regular employment, taking a job as a file clerk for a local bond company, while Henry worked as a pipe fitter in a Baltimore shipyard, allowing young Wilmer to continue with his studies.6
In his time away from the bond firm Peck made a name for himself as an athlete, playing guard for local basketball teams and starring as a catcher on the diamond. It was there that he received his nickname, using his cannon-like arm to throw out potential base stealers while still crouching or kneeling behind the plate. Gifted with exceptionally long, strong arms, he would reach back and rifle the ball to second base. While unleashing these bullet-like throws his right arm would stretch across his body on the follow-through, with his hand quickly brushing the dirt. When practicing his snap throws, making several tosses in rapid-fire succession, his friends said that the way his hand grazed the ground then snapped back up made him look like “a chicken peckin’ corn,”7 and the nickname “Peck” stuck with him for the rest of his life.
Peck’s baseball career began in earnest in 1919, when he tried out for and won the catcher’s spot on the St. Martin’s Catholic Club of Baltimore. The team, representing venerable St. Martin’s parish, boasted one of the most talented sandlot teams in the Baltimore area. Due to its prominent place in the Baltimore community and the caliber of its players, the St. Martin’s squad attracted a great deal of interest from local baseball enthusiasts. One avid follower was Billy Ashton, the father of Peck’s childhood friends Robert and William Ashton. In a pleasant twist of fate, Ashton was named vice president of the International League Baltimore Orioles in 1920, and as one of his first official duties with the team, he persuaded Orioles owner Jack Dunn to give St. Martin’s youthful backstop a tryout.8 Dunn agreed and liked what he saw in the tryout, signing the seventeen-year-old Lerian to a professional contract with the Orioles. Although under contract during the 1920 season, he did not jump directly to the Orioles—one of the finest minor-league teams of the day—but continued to refine his skills with St. Martin’s.
After showing steady improvement throughout the 1920 season, Peck was one of five new recruits invited to join the 1921 Orioles for spring training in Goldsboro, N.C.9 Several carloads of friends made their way to the Baltimore train station to bid Peck farewell. Before departing he was presented with a mitt as a gift from his teammates on the Baltimore Collegians and St. Martin’s basketball teams. He also received a badly needed new pair of baseball shoes, which had been secretly purchased with pennies donated by young parishioners at St. Martin’s.10 Young Peck was leaving home for the first time, having just turned eighteen, but he already had great expectations to live up to. After several years of playing competitive basketball and baseball, his juvenile athletic prowess had been so well documented that even the Orioles viewed him not as a typically fresh recruit, but as a more experienced veteran.
Lerian and his fellow recruits looked forward to learning all they could from the established players. The 1921 Orioles are generally considered to be the greatest of the dominant Orioles squads that played from the late ’teens through the 1920s. The Orioles 1921 entry boasted a lineup featuring second baseman Max “Camera Eye” Bishop, former New York Yankees third baseman Fritz Maisel, and double threat Jack Bentley, who went on to win the IL Triple Crown that season as a first baseman while also compiling a 12–1 record on the mound. Jack Ogden, who would win 31 games that year, and youngsters Lefty Grove (25 wins) and Tommy Thomas (24 wins) anchored the mound corps. No regular member of the staff, backstopped by former Athletics and Indians catcher Ben Egan, had a losing record in 1921.11
Spring training began with most of the Orioles players arriving in Goldsboro during the second week of March. Without delay Peck and the other rookies were put through strenuous workouts, as Jack Dunn, the field manager and team owner, looked them over. Following several days of arduous training Peck’s throwing arm was sore and badly in need of a day off. Sunday provided the first rest offered to the team, and after dutifully attending Mass with his fellow Catholics,12 Peck spent time with Orioles trainer Dr. Fewster to help get his arm ready for Monday’s practice.
Peck had been working extra hard on his throwing during the first week of camp, because Dunn had noticed a hitch in his motion when trying to pick runners off base. While playing sandlot ball Peck’s arm strength compensated for the slight delay in throwing the ball, but against top-level competition the hesitation provided a weakness that the faster, more sophisticated runners in the IL could exploit. He continued working with Dunn and Egan to eliminate the hitch in his delivery, but progress was slow and grueling as he spent hours each day reinventing his throwing motion.
He also took every chance to talk—and more importantly listen—to the fabled Orioles stars, and frequently spent his time off the field discussing the finer points of the game with the veterans. Throughout spring training, Orioles fans in Greensboro could easily find Peck at the team hotel, as he often sat in the lobby discussing baseball with Egan and Dunn long into the night.
After spending the first few weeks of camp rounding into shape, the Orioles started their exhibition schedule in April. Equally as talented as many major-league teams of the day, the Orioles played exhibition games against several big-league teams during spring training. Peck’s first action against major-league competition came in early April, catching for Jack Bentley and Jack Ogden as the Orioles lost a close game to the Brooklyn Robins in Baltimore.13 Dutch Ruether and Leon Cadore held Peck without a hit in four trips to the plate. Peck spent the balance of spring training with the Orioles, but the team already had Egan entrenched behind the plate, with Cal Davis and Wade Lefler providing capable support.14
When the regular season began, Peck was assigned to the Waynesboro Villagers, members of the Class D Blue Ridge League. He played in 78 of the team’s 97 games and was among the league leaders in fielding percentage by a catcher, with a .980 mark and earning honorable mention on the end-of-season All-Star team.15 Waynesboro would only finish third in the six-team league, but Lerian was one of many standouts on their star-studded club.
The Orioles were pleased with Lerian’s inspiring performance at Waynesboro and assigned him to the Newark Bears for the upcoming season. After earning All-Star recognition while receiving $150 per month in 1921, Peck expected a sizeable raise upon moving up to Newark. When the team essentially renewed the previous year’s conditions in his 1922 contract he decided to hold out, threatening to stay home in Baltimore rather than play for less than he had shown he was worth. The team would not budge and, as allowed at the time under the reserve clause, unilaterally renewed his contract, effectively barring Peck from playing Organized Baseball in 1922 unless it was for the Bears. Peck made good on his promise not to sign, playing sandlot ball all year instead of reporting to Newark.
He started the season playing for “Joe Ward’s Ephrata Diamond Stars,” a semipro team in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, but moved closer to home later in the summer. He took a day job with the American Chain and Cable Company, along with a position on the semipro York (Pennsylvania) ACCOs, sponsored by the firm. At both stops, Peck’s lightning-fast throws made headlines as he cut down runners with impunity. He played the balance of the sandlot season with York and then returned home in the fall to take care of his mother and younger brother. Upon settling in Baltimore he caught on with “Brooks’ All Stars,” an industrial semipro team that played in a Maryland regional league.16
Peck provided the steady catching and strong bat Brooks’s team had lacked all season, just in time to face the club’s arch-rival, a slugging team from Laurel, Maryland. When the club traveled out to Laurel, Peck first met Dutch Ulrich, a new pitcher the team also recently acquired, who would pitch for Brooks that day. Throughout the game Ulrich was up to the task, holding Laurel’s powerful lineup to a single run while Brooks’s team brought home six. As the innings wore on Peck noticed that this new pitcher had much better control, movement, and speed than the other hurlers he had caught during the year and determined to become better acquainted with the young flamethrower. The two became friends, training together in Baltimore and following each other’s careers through the 1920s.17
As the 1923 season dawned Peck, freed from the constraints of the reserve clause after sitting out Organized Baseball for the 1922 season, returned to York, where he had become a local celebrity playing with the ACCOs. During a road trip through the Philadelphia suburbs, Peck caught the eye of the Philadelphia Phillies, who tried to sign him away from his semipro team on a trial basis. As one of the most popular and talented players on the ACCOs, Peck was well compensated by the club and his salary was not far below the Phillies’ meager offers. At the time, Peck was the sole economic support for his mother and younger brother, making him deeply mindful of his financial obligation to the family. A longer baseball season meant he would probably be unable to continue playing professional basketball in the off-season. Combining the funds earned from his basketball exploits with his salary from the ACCOs, Peck earned more money as a semipro star than he would as a trial player with the Phillies. In the end fiscal responsibility won out over the honor of playing in the major leagues, and he remained with York’s semipro outfit.18
Peck’s return to Organized Baseball would not be delayed long, however. Hoping to capitalize on his immense local popularity, the York White Roses of the upstart Class B New York–Penn League19 made Peck an offer that would bring him back to the minor leagues while allowing him to play professional basketball in the winter. Playing minor-league baseball again while remaining in York, which had become a second home to the young backstop, combined the best of both worlds for Peck, who happily affixed his signature to the contract binding him to the White Roses for the balance of the 1923 season. Just as the team had anticipated, Peck’s loyal fan base followed him from the sandlots to the New York–Penn League, an easy transition for his admirers, since the White Roses shared a home field with the ACCOs.
The White Roses played a full schedule against the five other New York–Penn League teams, as well as hosting exhibitions with some of the finest Negro League squads of the day. A weekend series against the legendary Hilldale Daisies of the newly founded Eastern Colored League provided an early test of Peck’s abilities. Hilldale featured a lineup stacked with some of the greatest Negro League players of the day, including third baseman Judy Johnson, catchers Biz Mackey and Louis Santop, speedster George Johnson, and player/manager Pop Lloyd. Hilldale won the first ECL pennant in dominating fashion, though York became the first white team to hand the Daisies two losses in a series.20.
The second game of the series featured a catching duel between Peck and Hilldale legend Biz Mackey. Throughout his sandlot and minor-league career, Peck had developed and perfected a ruse he called his Cigar Store Indian play. Standing, seemingly at rest, with his arms at his sides, he would spring into action just as a throw was about to reach him, snaring the ball and applying a quick tag. Every time he received a new mitt, he prepared the glove for this play by unstitching the leather, and cutting a ball-sized hole in the padding. Re-stitching the glove, he created a pocket that was just the right size for securing the ball.
With Fred Warfield at bat, Mirror Briggs on third base, and two down in the fifth inning, Peck got his first chance to try the play in a professional game. Warfield, well known for his ability to beat out infield hits, hit a high chopper to third base that was expertly fielded by York’s Bill Batch. Without a chance to nab the speedy Warfield at first base, Batch instantly fired the ball to the plate where Peck stood placidly. Briggs barreled in, expecting to score easily, when Peck sprang into action, snaring the ball in his specially modified glove, and applied a quick tag. The stunned Daisy had no chance to avoid Peck’s swiping tag, which earned roars of disbelief from the Daisies bench.
The Daisies were also busy on the base paths. With the speedy George Johnson on first and two out, weak-hitting Tom Allen stepped to the plate. Seeking to disrupt York’s defense, Johnson took off on the first pitch. Without a trace of the hitch that distressed Jack Dunn, Peck reached back and, from his crouch, rifled the ball to second base in plenty of time to retire the surprised Johnson.21 The Daisies remained fixed on their bases for the rest of the game.
Throughout the balance of the season with the White Roses Peck continued his stellar defensive play and frequently contributed at bat, but after reaching the high .300s as a semipro, his .252 batting average22 was a slight disappointment and something he vowed to improve the following year.
At the conclusion of York’s season he returned home to Baltimore and resumed his professional basketball career as a guard for the mighty Hagerstown Elks. The Elks played in an East Coast professional league that was more a loose collection of professional fives than a formal league. Several teams stood out above the others, and among the leaders, the Elks were generally considered the team to beat. Although Hagerstown, with a population of less than 30,000 inhabitants,23 was much smaller than the hometowns of other league members such as New York City, Buffalo, New York, or nearby Baltimore, their team was feared around the circuit. Much like his reputation in baseball, he was better known for his defense than his offense, though he could score for the Elks when necessary. With Peck and Maryland basketball legend Valentine Lentz both starring, the Elks were proclaimed by Baltimore Sun sports editor Paul Menton to be the “greatest team in the country” for cities of comparable size to the modest western Maryland village.24
Peck’s characteristic role in the Elks’ attack was to contribute a handful of points, often distributed evenly between the floor and the free-throw line, and provide rock-solid defense. His primary assignment against the tough competition faced by the Elks was to shut down high-scoring opponents with what the papers often called “remarkable guarding,”25 leaving the bulk of the scoring to his teammates. Local sports editors hailed his skill at both stifling opposing scorers and setting up his fellow Elks on offense.
As the basketball season wore on, Peck received and quickly signed his 1924 contract offer from the White Roses in early January.26 The Elks used January to warm up for the championship series in which they would face off against defending champ Hendlers A.C. Just prior to the opening of the series Menton proclaimed Peck to be “the most improved basketball player in Maryland” during the 1923–24 season.27 The teams split the first two games of the series, with Peck making a strong contribution in both games.28 With the championship now hanging on the outcome of the tie-breaking third game, both teams ignored the need to settle the title, foregoing the decisive contest, sharing the championship. Peck continued playing for the Elks through February, when he began to prepare for spring training with the White Roses.
Back with York for the 1924 season, Peck started the year off on a high note, driving in the team’s first run of the season, while expertly handling duties behind the plate. Throughout the summer Peck built on his Opening Day performance, asserting his value both offensively and defensively. By early June he had boosted his average over the .350 mark, breaking into the top five in the New York–Penn League batting race and leading all White Roses hitters.29
Peck had a brush with the law in York that summer, though it was hardly through any wrongdoing of his own, and in the end his true colors as an exemplary gentleman shone through once again. Before an afternoon game with the visiting Grays, he was riding downtown in a car driven by fellow White Rose Neal Dougherty. In an eerie instance of foreshadowing, Dougherty lost control of his vehicle and it jumped the curb, rolling up on the sidewalk in front of a local clothing store.
York plainclothes police officer Myers was present at the scene and detained Dougherty for questioning regarding the incident. Dougherty, perhaps not realizing that Myers was a police officer, was visibly and vocally upset at the interruption in his afternoon’s planned activities, loudly railing against the non-uniformed agent. Myers promptly took Dougherty into custody and transported him, along with Peck, to the police station.
Upon arrival downtown, the two White Roses were taken directly to appear before Chief of Police Buttorff, who reexamined the events surrounding the accident and subsequent outburst. Peck, ever the gentleman, offered his assistance in clearing the matter, explaining that, although the vehicle jumped the curb, it was simply an accident and that no malice was intended, nor any disrespect to officer Myers following the incident. Chief Buttorff was satisfied that, although Dougherty was out of line, no real harm was done, and released the players with only a stiff warning. Following the official chastisement, a sufficiently humbled Dougherty chauffeured Peck to the ballpark in time for the late afternoon game.30
At the conclusion of the 1924 season Peck was named the most valuable catcher in the New York–Penn League, having batted a very respectable .310 while compiling a .991 fielding average to lead all backstops.31 The York press also tabbed him as MVP of the White Roses. His standout performance caught the attention of the Birmingham Barons of the Class A Southern Association,32 who drafted him for the 1925 season. Peck had made such a favorable impression with York’s fans that when they heard the news they took up a collection and presented him with a new watch and cash before he left town.33
As he progressed through the minor leagues Peck also excelled on the basketball court, playing for competitive amateur and professional teams in and around his native Baltimore. Chiefly starring at right guard, he continued to play for the Elks,34 while also starring for the 104th Medical Regiment, St. Martin’s cagers, and Baltimore’s professional city team.35 Peck often shared the court with younger brother Wilmer, who had become an accomplished basketball player himself.36 By 1925, Peck was earning more money collectively between his professional basketball and minor-league baseball careers than he would have made by playing major-league baseball alone.
Early in the 1925 season, Peck played admirably for the Barons, catching the eye of George Weiss, general manager of the Baltimore Orioles and owner of the Eastern League New Haven Profs. Lerian’s tenure with the Barons would be short-lived, as Weiss, who had been watching his progress with interest, dreamed of adding Peck’s hot bat and steady glove to New Haven’s anemic lineup. He negotiated with Birmingham to purchase Peck’s contract rights, settling with the team in July.37
Weiss’s appraisal of Peck turned out to be prophetic, as Lerian immediately showed with both his bat and glove that he was ready for Eastern League competition. During his first trip through the league he caught several opponents by surprise with his Cigar Store Indian play, leading to more cautious base running and more diligent coaching around the circuit.38
Peck spent the 1926 season splitting time behind the plate with Johnny Berger, but as the 1927 season dawned Berger found a roster spot as a bullpen catcher for the Washington Senators, leaving the New Haven catching duty to Lerian. Peck responded with an impressive season at-bat. He took his place as the third batter in New Haven’s lineup, compiling a 16-game hitting streak in late May and early June. His bat did not cool off as the season progressed, and he was found leading the league in batting late that summer with a .378 average, while continuing his commendable performance behind the plate.39
While Peck rose steadily through the minor leagues, William F. Baker’s Philadelphia Phillies were mired in the National League’s second division year after year. The forlorn team, starting a patchwork squad of hand-me-downs and young players signed to low-cost contracts, struggled to draw fans to the vacant stands at the Baker Bowl. As the team’s 1928 spring training camp opened, team captain Jimmie Wilson was slated to handle the majority of games behind the plate. However, in the first week of exhibition contests he injured his finger trying to catch a foul tip.40 The thought of entering the season with no better backup catcher than the untested Johnny Schulte and incapable Harry O’Donnell prompted new Phillies manager Burt Shotton to rapidly hunt for available, bargain-priced catchers. Just before the Phillies opened their City Series with the cross-town Philadelphia Athletics they selected Lerian, New Haven’s star backstop, whose salary requirements—enough to replace the money he would lose by “retiring” from basketball—still fit into Baker’s limited budget.41
Peck’s acceptance of Baker’s contract terms and decision to join the Phillies was solidified by Philadelphia’s geographic proximity to Baltimore, making it easier for him to visit and help his mother and young brother Wilmer during the season. In addition, his friend Dutch Ulrich, from Brooks’s All-Stars, was already a three-year veteran with the Phillies, having established himself as one of the top pitchers on the beleaguered mound staff.42 Sadly for all involved, Ulrich missed all of spring training fighting double pneumonia and, unbeknownst to Lerian or the Phillies, would never play again, succumbing to the disease in February, 1929.43
Peck quickly showed that he could be much more than a backup for the hapless Phillies. Although his hitting suffered to some extent against major-league pitching, his glove work behind the plate showed such promise that Baker started shopping the highly regarded but comparably expensive Wilson elsewhere, looking to acquire some cheap talent and much-needed operating capital.44
Peck rode the bench as the season started, learning the team’s signs and pitchers’ styles while the Phillies showcased Jimmie Wilson in hopes of eliciting trade offers. He made the most of his time in the dugout, creating what he called his “little black book,” a small pocket notebook in which he compiled the pitching techniques and penchants for each of the Phillies hurlers he would be catching along with the hitting preferences and tendencies of every batter the Phillies faced.45 On April 16, in the second game of the Giants series, Peck made his major-league debut in the seventh inning as a pinch hitter for starting pitcher Alex Ferguson. Trailing the Giants 4–0 with Bill Kelly on first base, Phillies manager Burt Shotton sent Lerian to face Giants hurler Bill Walker,46 who had been cruising through his first major-league starting assignment. Although Walker was beginning to lose his effectiveness, he retired Lerian without advancing the runner.
Peck’s next chance to face major-league pitching came just three days later in Philadelphia’s home opener, when Shotton again called on him to take the pitcher’s spot during a critical inning. As the sixth inning opened, “Jumbo” Jim Elliott and the visiting Robins held a 4–2 edge, spoiling the mood of the 12,000 fans who had come to welcome their Phillies home. With Pinky Whitney on second base after doubling against the Baker Bowl’s short right-field wall, Lerian stepped in against Elliott and collected his first major-league hit and RBI by knocking his own double against the wall, scoring Whitney in the process. Shortly thereafter he scored his first run when Fresco Thompson drove him home.47
Lerian’s role with the team changed dramatically on May 11. Without warning Shotton pulled Jimmie Wilson out of the lineup in the second inning of the Phillies’ game against the Cardinals and it was announced that the Phillies’ star catcher had been traded to the opposition. The Cards needed an established backstop to replace the recently dealt Bob O’Farrell, who had been sent to the Giants earlier in the month. Wilson, who was generally regarded as the best all-around receiver in the NL, fit the Cardinals’ requirement nicely.48 In exchange, the Phillies received cost-effective youngsters Spud Davis and Homer Peel, who would have little impact on the Phillies’ success (or lack thereof) but more importantly would not further stretch Baker’s already constrained payroll. When Davis caught up with the Phillies in Cincinnati he was immediately handed the starting catcher’s job, but it would soon be Lerian who would show greater value as the Phillies’ new receiver. By the end of May, Peck had supplanted Davis in the Phillies’ lineup, starting most of the games behind the plate.
At the end of May, Peck found a perfect opportunity to again utilize his Cigar Store Indian play. The Boston Braves had purchased George Sisler’s contract from the Washington Senators on May 27. Sisler, who was approaching the end of his Hall of Fame career, joined the team in Philadelphia two days later to make his NL debut. When he stepped to the plate in the top of the first inning, Sisler received an enthusiastic reception from the Phillies crowd, anxious to see for the first time the man who owned the (since broken) single-season hits record in action. He did not disappoint the fans, collecting one hit and scoring two runs on the day—but he would have had another hit if not for Lerian. With runners on first and second in Sisler’s first time at bat, he lofted a soft pop to short left field. Pinky Whitney and Barney Friberg converged on the ball but couldn’t reach it. Meanwhile, Peck raced down to third to cover for Whitney. Friberg picked up the ball on a bounce and fired it toward third, where Peck stood stoicly. Just before Lance Richbourg reached safely, Lerian sprang to life, grabbing the relay throw and tagging Richbourg out.49.
Throughout June, Peck enjoyed a number of career firsts and established new monthly highs in virtually every offensive category. He commenced a modest five-game hitting streak and became a local hero in Philadelphia on June 19, driving in the winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game of a scheduled doubleheader against the Robins. With the score 10–9 in the Robins’ favor, Heinie Sand on first, and Pinky Whitney on second with one out, Peck stepped to the plate. Brooklyn manager Wilbert Robinson tapped flamethrower Dazzy Vance to stop the comeback attempt. Vance started with a ball outside, then caught too much of the plate with his next offering, which Peck laced down the third base-line. Whitney and Sand both hurried home and Lerian ended up on third base with a game-ending triple.50
Peck capped his breakthrough month with his first major-league home run on June 27. Down 7–4 in the top of the eighth inning against the Giants at the Polo Grounds, Phillies manager Shotton tapped Lerian to bat for pitcher Claude Willoughby. Facing Vic Aldridge, Peck wasted no time at the plate, promptly hitting a game-tying home run that sent Aldridge to the showers.51 Peck’s offensive emergence, during which he batted .414, continued into early July, with three consecutive multi-hit games from June 30 through July 3.
Inevitably his production declined, and as Lerian’s bat cooled so did the Phillies, finishing the season in a 25–65 skid. Facing Pat Malone on September 26 in the Phillies’ last game against the Cubs, Peck had one final highlight, hitting his second career home run.52 Almost inevitably, the Phillies lost the game, kicking off their final three-game losing streak of the season.53
As the season mercifully ended Peck—along with fellow rookie Chuck Klein, who joined the team mid-season to take over right field for aging fixture Cy Williams54—stood out as bright spots in a miserable season in Philadelphia. According to John Kieran of the New York Times, Rogers Hornsby called Peck “the best young catcher he has seen come up in quite a while.”55
During the season, in addition to finding success on the diamond, Peck found love off the field. He met a young Philadelphia lady who swept him off his feet. As their relationship blossomed they began making plans to wed before the start of the 1929 season. At the close of the season Peck’s fiancée fell ill, and he delayed his return trip to Baltimore to stay at her side while she recovered. As the winter progressed, so did her illness, and she was unable to recover her health. In a tragic end to his romance, his fiancée died before they could wed, and Peck returned home with a broken heart to care for his mother and younger brother.56
He stayed in shape the balance of the off-season by playing with the Baltimore All-Stars baseball team while also scrimmaging with the St. Martin’s squad. When it was too cold to play outside he moved indoors, took up his old position at guard for the Baltimore city professional basketball team, and practiced with the St. Martin’s cagers.
In late February Peck packed his baseball gear in a trunk and, with a heavy heart, boarded the Phillies’ train as the team passed through Baltimore on February 28, on the way to Winter Haven, Florida. When the train arrived in Winter Haven the next day, it was discovered that Lerian’s trunk carrying his baseball shoes and catching gear had been lost en route. Although the railroad searched up and down the line between Baltimore and Winter Haven, no one could locate Peck’s belongings.
Without his baseball gear—especially his comfortable shoes—Peck could only offer encouragement to his teammates as they loosened up in the Phillies’ first-ever Sunday warm-up. In an effort to get their star catcher into the action, several of his teammates offered to loan him their shoes for the unprecedented workout, but none fit well enough for Peck to play. He finally resigned himself to purchasing and breaking in a new pair of “kicks” while borrowing the tools of ignorance from his counterparts until his equipment could be found.57 The Phillies had a day off on Tuesday, which allowed Peck to find a new pair of shoes and some catching equipment before the balance of the team arrived in camp.
During spring training, Peck remained very active in the Catholic Church, making time each day to attend Mass along with Catholic teammates Lefty O’Doul, George Susce, and Denny Sothern.58 While attending daily church services with new teammates O’Doul, who was acquired from the Giants during the off-season, and Susce, his new understudy behind the plate, Peck quickly developed a bond, in particular with O’Doul. During batting practice, Peck’s newfound friend had noticed a deficiency in Peck’s swing and offered some “help” with his batting. Trying in vain to follow Lefty’s suggestions, along with the lingering effects of a broken heart, Peck would endure a season-long slump at the plate.59
With spring training drawing to a close the Phillies prepared to return north to face the A’s in Philadelphia’s City Series prior to the start of the regular season. Before the team left Florida, Peck disappeared from camp for a few days. None of his teammates or coaches had any idea where he went, but were relieved when he returned to Winter Haven just in time to catch up with the team on their journey home. Peck did not explain his absence to anyone until he returned to Baltimore. Upon visiting his mother and younger brother Wilmer, Peck told Wilmer that he had spent some time at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Realizing that his baseball career would support him as long as a typical career or trade, he looked into various programs to improve the outlook on his post-baseball working life. While there he also negotiated for the school to offer Wilmer, Peck’s superior on the court, a basketball scholarship. In exchange for arranging to send Wilmer to school, Peck, who wanted to become a sports writer after his baseball career ended, asked that his younger brother use his college education to find a good job so Wilmer could help finance Peck’s college attendance when he was no longer able to make a living playing baseball.60
In the preseason City Series the Phillies played Connie Mack’s Athletics to a draw, each team winning two games before running out of time before Opening Day. Peck saw action in three of the four games, batting 1-for-5 with a double and a walk. With only a few days left between the close of the City Series and the start of the regular season, the Phillies played one last warm-up game against the Orioles in Baltimore. Warm-up turned out to be a misnomer for this contest, which was played in frigid conditions at Oriole Park. Peck’s catching suffered from the inhospitable conditions, allowing two passed balls on the day.61 The cold snap did not let up, and the Giants-Phillies opener scheduled for April 16 had to be postponed for two days due to the uncooperative weather.
The cold start to the season turned out to be an omen for the 1929 Phillies. The team broke out of the cellar, but still could not reach the first division, finishing in fifth place, 27 1⁄2 games behind the Cubs. Throughout the season, Peck was charged with primary catching duties, appearing in 103 games, with Spud Davis and George Susce providing backup.
Team struggles aside, as the year progressed, Peck took part in several memorable games and feats. On May 18, Peck’s home run and three RBIs helped the Phillies and Robins set a record (later broken) by scoring 50 combined runs in their doubleheader, splitting the games 20–16 and 8–6.62 During the July 6 doubleheader with the Cardinals, he rested on the bench after playing in the first game, watching the Phillies give up a post-1900-record 28 runs on 28 hits.63
Grover Cleveland Alexander earned his 373rd and last major-league win against the Phillies on August 10. Peck had a front-row seat to the postgame celebration, warming up on-deck as Tommy Thevenow made the last out. Alexander pitched four innings of relief to earn the win, which at the conclusion of the game was celebrated as the NL record, thought to have topped Christy Mathewson’s record by one.64 Later research showed that Alexander and Mathewson are actually tied at 373 wins apeice.
Peck’s last major-league game was another record-setting affair. In the first game of the Giants-Phillies doubleheader on October 5, Mel Ott and Chuck Klein entered the game tied with 42 home runs each. Klein homered off of Carl Hubbell to take the lead, after which the Phillies pitchers walked Ott six times to secure the title for Klein. With his 43rd home run, Klein broke Rogers Hornsby’s single-season NL homer record. Meanwhile, in the fifth inning of game one, Lefty O’Doul collected his 251st hit of the season, erasing another of Hornsby’s records. O’Doul collected three more hits on the day, finishing the season with .254. Peck ended his career going 1-for-3 for the day, raising his lifetime average to .246.
At the conclusion of the season, the New York Times named him the top-fielding catcher in the NL.65 Peck was also a leader in a much less desirable category, being one of only six players in the majors in 1929 to fail to score 75 percent of the times he reached base (while collecting at least 50 hits that year). Only Shanty Hogan, Dutch Hoffman and Johnny Gooch had worse scoring percentages.66
Peck stayed in Philadelphia after the Phillies disbanded, watching the A’s defeat the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. On October 15, he returned home to Baltimore, where he quickly reunited with his sandlot acquaintances and began playing. Peck played his final game, an exhibition match on Sunday, October 20, between the Baltimore All-Stars and the Baltimore Black Sox, featuring Negro League stars Dick Lundy and Oliver “Ghost” Marcelle. He had one hit in a losing effort, but kept the speedy Black Sox in check, allowing just two stolen bases on the day.67
On Monday, October 21, Peck attended a Redemptorist sermon at St. Martin’s Church. During the sermon, the preacher admonished attendees to live an honorable life, because no one knows the hour or day that the end may come. Following the service, Peck walked to the trolley stop at the corner of Fayette and Mount streets to catch a ride home. While he waited, a car driven by August Meyers nearly collided with a Hecht’s delivery truck, driven by Charles Lloyd. In an effort to avoid a collision, Lloyd swerved and lost control of his truck. The vehicle headed straight toward a group of children playing on the street. Given just a moment to act, Lloyd swerved again, missing the children. His truck jumped the curb, crashing through the trolley stop. Peck, without a moment to react, was caught as the truck plowed into a brick building.68
The impact of the collision tore a hole in the building, and trapped Peck between the truck and crushed wall. It took over an hour to remove him from the accident site. A passing motorist rushed him to Franklin Square Hospital,69 where Peck was diagnosed with severe body bruises, internal injuries, and multiple broken bones. His doctor optimistically described his condition as “serious.”70
Upon hearing word of the accident, fifty men from St. Martin’s and six Baltimore firefighters lined up to offer blood for a badly needed transfusion.71 Two St. Martins donors were selected, and when the doctors felt that Peck was strong enough to withstand the transfusion, a risky procedure in those days, the donors each gave a pint of blood. Before the transfusion was completed, Peck succumbed to his injuries.
Over 1,000 mourners attended the funeral mass held at St. Martin’s, among them several major leaguers. John McGraw was said to have coveted Peck, trying to negotiate a trade with the Phillies before the accident. Truck driver Lloyd was convicted of manslaughter in December, 1929, and Hecht’s was ordered to pay Peck’s mother a settlement of $22,500. The Phillies, meanwhile, slid back down to the cellar in 1930, featuring one of the worst pitching staff records in history.
After news of his death spread, those who knew Peck provided a clear picture of the player, and the man. Giants manager McGraw called him “the future catching star of the National League,” while Rogers Hornsby said he was the top young catcher in the league. The Catholic periodical the Ligourian mourned the loss of an exemplary role model, eulogizing Peck as the “perfect Catholic gentleman.”72
While Peck’s time in the major leagues may be largely forgotten, his place in Maryland baseball history is not. Peck was inducted into the Oldtimer’s Baseball Association of Maryland Hall of Fame in 1959,73 in recognition of his position as one of Maryland’s baseball greats—one whose life and career were cut tragically short.
Baltimore Sun, Baltimore-area newspapers (various unknown)
Ephrata, Penn.–area newspaper, ca. 1922.
Los Angeles Times New York Times
Patterson Evening News (25 September 1928)
Washington Post The Sporting News
York, Penn. Gazette and Daily (ca. 1922–24)
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2 National Baseball Hall of Fame Player
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18 Robert, “Lerian and Ulrich Mates in 1st ”
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30 “Nabs Ball Player,” York Gazette and Daily, ca. 1924.
31 “Pennsy Fans Say He Will Deliver in Fast Society,” unknown newspaper, 1 April 1925.
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33 “Pennsy Fans Say He Will Deliver in Fast Society”
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35 “Peck Lerian, Catcher, Dies After Crash”
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37 “Peck Lerian, Catcher, Dies After Crash”
38 Interview, Dr. Henry J. “Jack” Lerian, 30 August 2004.
39 Interview, Mr. Walter Lerian, 30 August 2004.
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49 Philadelphia Inquirer, 30 May 1928.
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55 “Sports of the Times,” New York Times, 30 December 1928.
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57 Article, from Walt Lerian Hall of Fame file, dated 14 March 1929.
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60 Interview, Dr. Henry J. “Jack” Lerian, 30 August 2004.
61 “Baltimore Beats Phillies,” New York Times, 14 April 1929.
62 “Robins Win First 20–16; Phillies Take Final 8–6,” Washington Post, 19 May 1929.
63 “Cards Score, 28–6, After 10–6 Loss,” Washington Post, 7 July 1929.
64 “Alexander Sets NL Record; Cards Split 2,” Washington Post, 11 August 1929.
65 “Jackson of Giants Tops Shortstops,” New York Times, 27 December 1929.
67 “Rommel and Carroll Pounded as Black Sox Trim All-Stars Twice,” Baltimore Sun, 21 October 1929.
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69 “Peck Lerian, Catcher, Dies After Crash.”
70 “Lerian, Catcher, Hurt as Auto Mounts Curb,” Washington Post, 22 October 1929.
71 “Crash Is Fatal to Lerian,” Baltimore News, 22 October 1929.
72 Ligourian, December 1929.