An all but forgotten minor league baseball franchise with an unlikely nickname spurred an unlikely friendship between two men who after more than 50 years have discovered that they also share a most unlikely hero.
Fritz Peterson was a left-handed pitcher with a future when he stopped off at Golden Park in 1965. He started that season in the Class A Carolina League where his scorching performance impressed the New York Yankees enough for them to promote the 22-year-old hurler to their Double-A affiliate in Columbus, Ga.
His record at Greensboro was the stuff of which dreams are made. He was 11-1 in 14 starts with an earned run average of 1.50 and 83 strikeouts in 108 innings. At Golden Park he went 5-5 with a 2.18 ERA in 12 starts with 62 strikeouts in 91 innings. On that team were six players who would later wear Yankee pinstripes.
That season vaulted Peterson all the way from Golden Park to Yankee Stadium. He went 133-131 in a career that included stops with the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians. His wishy washy record is not indicative of his skills on the mound.
The unlikely nickname of the ball club in Columbus was the Confederate Yankees — an oxymoron if there ever was one — and the team was appropriately (or inappropriately) a member of the Southern League. It featured teams in Asheville, N.C., Birmingham, Ala., Charlotte, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., Knoxville, Tenn., Lynchburg, Va. and Macon, Ga. Sagging attendance had forced the team to rush from Augusta to Columbus in the winter before the 1964 baseball season.
Behind that move was Dick Steele, a popular Columbus businessman who still looked like a University of Georgia tackle. Later on he would hire local sportscaster Jim Koger, a bald-headed dynamo who added a 6-foot-7 female bat girl along with daredevil parachutists who would jump out of air planes with the game ball once the Columbus Astros came to town.
Steele was more conventional. His batboys were his son Ricky for the home team and neighborhood friend John Shinkle for the visiting teams.
The Confederate Yankees stirred up controversy that serious scholars from Marquette University to Columbus State University have continued to study decades after the club’s demise and years after Golden Park was home to its last minor league team.
Peterson revived talk of the Confederate Yankees on Facebook in 2014 when he paid homage to the former club owner. His son Ricky, now a businessman in Atlanta, responded. This has led to an interesting friendship between the pitching phenom and the bat boy and revealed that Dick Steele, who died in 2002, is a hero to both of them.
Their social media relationship was rekindled recently when the retired southpaw popped up on Facebook openly discussing his struggles with Alzheimer’s Disease, talking about it as comfortably as he does his 12 years in Major League Baseball or the season that he won 20 games for a Yankee team that was somewhere between mediocre and pathetic.
Below are examples of their Facebook exchanges. Their personal posts spotlight a child’s love of his daddy and the game of baseball, a ball player’s dreams and what goes on behind the dugout on a minor league baseball team.
Listen in as Fritz Peterson and Ricky Steele discuss one short season out of their lives.
FRITZ PETERSON — On Martin Luther King Day, I would like to remember the life of a great and courageous man named Dick Steele, the owner of the Columbus Confederate Yankees, where I played in 1965. Mr. Steele was a champion of the civil rights movement at a time when integration was not especially popular in a part of Georgia that was geographically closer to Alabama than Atlanta. Mr. Steele insisted that the team stay in integrated hotels when we were on the road — it’s hard to imagine, but black and white ballplayers in the south had previously been forced to stay in different hotels. I remember he took a considerable amount of criticism in his hometown for his actions, and I’m sure it affected his business, but he was the kind of man who did the right thing. Baseball is full of heroes like Mr. Steele, some not as well known as Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, but still hugely important people in baseball history. If the Hall of Fame had a Civil Rights wing, Dick Steele would have earned a place there.
RICKY STEELE — My dad would have been so honored to read this post. He transitioned to our Father’s House on March 17th, 2002. I stand in his place as Richard E. Steele, Jr. to humbly thank you for your very kind and generous words.
Most folks do not know that the largest hotel in Columbus, Georgia in the 1960’s was the Ralston Hotel which dad owned with a couple of partners. It was a segregated hotel until the new group bought it. Dad led the way to integrate the hotel before other hotels were forced to do so. The Ralston Hotel was the first very nice hotel in the South to allow ball players from the other Southern League teams to stay as a group as opposed to dropping off black ball players off at the “colored” hotel as you describe in your commentary.
I normally do not cry this early in the day but you brought on a gusher as you described your remembrance of my dad from your brief stop in Columbus as a minor league pitcher before moving up and becoming a great New York Yankee.
Although we have not seen each other in 50 years since I had the joy of being a bat boy on the club with you, I hope to see and thank you personally before my transition to the Father’s House.
God Bless You, Fritz Peterson!
FRITZ PETERSON — Through the miracle of Facebook, I reconnected today with Ricky Steele, who was the batboy for the Columbus Confederate Yankees when I played for them in 1965. I think it’s important that baseball fans remember his dad, Dick Steele, who was the team owner back when it was the Yankees AA Southern League farm club in Columbus, Georgia. Mr. Steele was a great and courageous man who was a champion of the civil rights movement at a time when integration was not especially popular in a part of Georgia that was geographically closer to Alabama than Atlanta. Mr. Steele insisted that the team stay in integrated hotels when we were on the road — it’s hard to imagine, but black and white ballplayers in the south had previously been forced to stay in different hotels. I remember Mr. Steele took a considerable amount of criticism in his hometown for his actions, and I’m sure it affected his business, but he was the kind of man who did the right thing. Baseball is full of heroes like Dick Steele, some not as well known as Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson. I hope that by telling this story, more people will learn about Mr. Steele’s life and respect his legacy as I do.
FRITZ PETERSON — To all of my friends and fans who have wondered where I’ve gone, this has been one very difficult year….
As most of you know, I was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s several months ago after falling apart very quickly. We didn’t know what was happening to me, going to specialist after specialist and having every test known to mankind done. There was a point when I didn’t think I was going to make it. After many months of rigorous testing, and ruling other things out, we were left with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Although it was harsh to hear, I know that God had this planned for me from the beginning, and I will continue to be grateful for every day I have on this journey. It has become very important for me to raise awareness of this disease and continue to have faith that one day there will be a cure.
I am on a great combination of medications that have allowed me to become myself again (for the most part), and with the help of my family, I am able to do most everything that I enjoy on my own. My daughters drive me to my favorite coffee shop, Mugby’s, where I plan on writing memoirs of pranks. The great Sparky Lyle said that I was the best prankster in baseball, and I hope to get many more stories on paper while my memory allows. It will be great to have you all with me along the way.
I wanted to thank all of my friends and fans for your lovely thoughts and prayers throughout this very trying time. Your kindness has brought many smiles to my face and I will be forever grateful. A special thank you to Tony Ficca (Feces) who is not only a dear friend but my right hand man and illustrator. Many, many thanks to John Tormey, my great friend and premier New York attorney for your constant calls and check ins and hours of time and research. Last but certainly not least, to Drew Wildstein for all of your wonderful support and positive encouragement. You are all such a blessing.
I look forward to getting back onto Facebook from time to time with light hearted posts, updates and stories. Please don’t take offense while I won’t be able to respond to personal messages as my daughter does most of the typing.
FRITZ PETERSON — As the seasons change, I watch this tree transform into many different forms. Much like life, and its ups and downs, brings different emotions and phases. I remember how terrifying it was to receive the diagnosis of prostate cancer in 1999. My wonderful Dr. Williams said he could give me 10 years of life and I was very grateful for that. Today, I can’t show Dr. Williams that I have far outran that sentence as he passed away from lung cancer around 2007. (He wasn’t even a smoker) That was a winter effect in my life with very barren leaves. As the years went by and the cancer stayed within the acceptable range, my tree of life grew thick, green leaves.
As this new season with Alzheimer’s disease has rapidly moved in, I am reminded that the beautiful colored leaves falling to the ground do not cement my fate. This is a temporary season of life and I’ll take the beauty of the changes as they come and go.
As the The Byrds sang, There Is A Season Turn! Turn! Turn!
I would like to thank my “Angel” daughter for helping to get my thoughts and words on paper as I can no longer type.
RICKY STEELE — You are a Man among men, my friend. God has given you a platform over the last 76 years to live life to the fullest and to be an example to others about His Amazing Grace.
Personally, I thank you for your kindness to me 54 years ago as a 12 year old bat boy in Columbus, Ga.. Little did I know that 45 years later you would give me a great blessing when you posted a tribute to my father, Richard E. “Dick” Steele, Sr. on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. I knew the story but little did I know the impact my dad had on you and I assume others on the team way back then.
Your involvement with Baseball Chapel was one of the many testimonies to God’s grace in your life. You have inspired thousands of folks over the years as you battled cancer, written great books and shared your life story.
You are in my prayers and I look forward to reconnecting with you one day in our Father’s house. My earthly father will enjoy seeing both of us once again.
On behalf of many, many folks who remember the greatest fastball to every be pitched at Golden Park and those who are part of the Friends of Golden Park, we all wish you peace and great blessings, Fritz. Thank you for sharing your amazing talents with all of us.