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Former General Manager Hank Peters Left Lasting Impact With Orioles

January 6, 2015

It took more than two decades and a couple of invites before former Orioles general manager Hank Peters finally made his way to Baltimore, but it didn't take long for him to make an impact with the Orioles.

Even during a Hall Of Fame announcement week, it is ironic but fitting that Peters, 90, gets top billing a few days after his Jan. 4 death, because in real life, he was never comfortable in the spotlight. One of the game's most respected executives, Peters spent 12 mostly hectic years, from 1976-1987, as general manager of the Orioles, a stretch that produced two American League pennants, one World Series championship and 10 straight winning seasons.

There is more than a touch of irony connected to Peters' career with the Orioles. He had twice passed on an opportunity to join the Orioles' front office, and each time Harry Dalton, another highly successful general manger, was at least indirectly involved. A native of St. Louis, Peters was an assistant to Jim McLaughlin when the Browns moved to Baltimore after the 1953 season.

Peters' decision not to move with the team created the vacancy that would eventually lead to the hiring of Dalton, who became general manager 10 years later, and was instrumental in the Orioles' rise to prominence, with four pennants and two World Series crowns during a six-year period. When Dalton left the Orioles to take over front office control of the California Angels in 1971, club president Frank Cashen offered the general manager job to Peters, who had helped build the Kansas City/Oakland Athletics franchise into a powerhouse.

"I had recently taken the job as director of minor league baseball," Peters explained years later, "and I felt an obligation there. The timing just wasn't right for me to make the move." 

With Dalton gone and Peters out of the picture, Cashen put together a front office tandem that included Don Pries and Walter Shannon.

Four years later, however, when owner Jerold Hoffberger was in the process of selling the National Brewing Company and more seriously pursuing a sale of the Orioles, Cashen came calling again, this time looking for his own successor. With Cashen returning to the brewery the third time proved to be the charm for Peters and the Orioles.

Baseball was in uncharted waters at the time, with free agency approaching, and there were times when Peters undoubtedly questioned his decision. Before the Orioles had ever played a game under his watch, Peters made the kind of bold move that few rookie general managers would have made. Virtually on the eve of Opening Day, in search of a proven left-handed bat for the middle of the batting order, Peters sent 20-game winner Mike Torrez , rising star Don Baylor and promising rookie right-hander Paul Mitchell to the A's for outfielder Reggie Jackson and left-handed starter Ken Holtzman.

It was a trade that sent shock waves through baseball. Free agency was looming on the horizon and with Jackson already embroiled in a spring training holdout, the Orioles were somewhat empty-handed as the season began. Jackson's holdout lasted more than a month and resulted in a raise to the then unheard of salary of $200,000, which further stirred unrest, especially with Holtzman, who felt he should've been compensated more for holding up his end of the bargain.

It was a tumultuous time, and even though that trade on its own merit hurt the Orioles for the  1976 season, Peters engineered a big-time comeback when he made the unhappy Holtzman the centerpiece of the now famous 10-player trade with the Yankees. With Scott McGregor, Rick Dempsey and Tippy Martinez as mainstays, the Orioles would contend for the American League pennant for seven straight years, winning two (1979 and 1983) along with the team's most recent World Series championship (1983).

As an organization, the Orioles badly misread the free-agent market, balking at Jackson's request for a five-year contract worth $300,000 per year. Jackson eventually signed with the Yankees for $2.9 million over five years. But Peters quickly reacted realizing early on the importance of long-term deals for the team's best young talent, a tactic that has become commonplace. 

With Eddie Murray providing the needed bat in the middle of the lineup, and Cal Ripken Jr. emerging later, the Orioles were able to maintain a core group that was the envy of baseball.

In the midst of baseball's dramatic makeover, the Orioles underwent the change in ownership from Hoffberger to Edward Bennett Williams who came equipped with a strong "do it now" philosophy. 

Eventually, the Orioles' minor league system, hit hard by expansion losses and compensation for free agent signings, dried up and the mid-1980s turned into a disaster. 

It came as no surprise to those who knew him, but Peters' run with the Orioles came to a close after the 1987 season as much for his refusal to fire longtime associate Tom Giordano, head of the club's minor league operations, as it did the team's woeful on-field performance. Looking back on his tenure here after being inducted into the Orioles' Hall Of Fame, Peters acknowledged there had been some turbulent times.

"Nobody knew what baseball was getting into with free agency," he said. "We were in uncharted waters. But in the end I think we had a pretty good run -- a couple of pennants, a World Series championship, a couple of close calls and a lot of winning seasons. Looking back, I think it was a pretty good body of work."

Indeed it was, even though it had a complicated beginning. 

***

Every Hall of Fame announcement generally comes with equal parts surprise and disappointment, but fortunately, the one this year brought very little of either. 

Left-handed pitcher Randy Johnson and right-handed pitcher Pedro Martinez were slam dunks. Righty John Smoltz was not far behind and second baseman Craig Biggio, falling only two votes short of election last year, had finally become a foregone conclusion.

With four new members on the heels of the 2014 class of six players (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas along with managers Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa) the only real disappointment for this voter was the continued lack of support for shortstop Alan Trammell. In the moderate surprise category, I'd put Curt Schilling's considerable vote advantage over Mike Mussina (215-135) at the top of my list. But that's a discussion for another day.

I'm planning a more in-depth look at the process and this year's results in this month's print issue, coming out Jan. 16, but for what it's worth, and in the interest of full disclosure, in addition to Mussina and the four new inductees, the others who rounded out my full ballot of 10 were: Jeff Bagwell, Edgar Martinez, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell. 

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com