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Hochman: Plane crash ended Peete’s chance at Cards history

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Charlie Peete, Cardinals

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Sixty springs ago, he was supposed to spring into St. Louis’ consciousness.

He never made it there. And today, Charlie Peete is a Cardinal forgotten — or, really, a Cardinal never known.

“Anybody who’s interested in baseball, and the whole what-if factor, would be really fascinated by Charlie Peete,” said Webster University professor Joe Schuster, who also is an author.

I’d never heard of Peete. Had you? I grew up here, figured I knew my share of Cardinals trivia. Nope, didn’t know of him.

For years, Schuster hadn’t heard of him either. But Peete’s tale is intriguing, tragic and seldom-told. It’s one of history that could have been made, and one that could’ve altered the course of history.

See, the plan for the 1957 season was to have Peete in center field for the Cards. The stout player they called “Mule” reminded some of the compact Hack Wilson.

Back in 1955, Peete hit .310 in Class AAA, and in 1956 he led Class AAA with a .350 batting average. Peete’s on-base percentage that season, in nearly 500 plate appearances, was a formidable .444.

Sure, Peete spilled his cup of coffee. During a 1956 call-up to the Cards, he hit only .192 in 59 plate appearances.

But the Cardinals, accounts showed, portended Peete in center. And if he got the starting job, it would’ve been historic: The Cards had never had an African-American in their everyday lineup. Yes, Tom Alston became the first African-American Cardinal in 1954, seven seasons after Jackie Robinson first played for Brooklyn. But he wasn’t a full-time starter.

“Because of where things were in the mid-50s in St. Louis with race relations, Peete more than had to earn everything he got on the playing field,” said Brian Finch of the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum. “The fact that he did — it was meaningful. He was opening doors. … And he was only a couple years after Tom Alston, so he was still fighting some barriers that existed, whether unspoken or not, throughout the leagues he played in.”

Peete would play winter ball. First in Cuba. Then in Venezuela. After his stint in Havana, he flew back to the States to get his family, in November 1956. It was Charlie and his wife, Nettie. And their three young children.

Headed to Venezuela, their plane hit a mountain near Caracas. There were no survivors.

MAN WITHOUT A CARD

Charlie Peete never was on a baseball card.

At first, Finch wondered why he couldn’t find one in the Cardinals’ collection. Then he realized that Peete must have died before Topps began making their 1957 set.

“It makes it all the more sad that he never had a card,” Finch said. “Every child has that childhood dream of making it to the majors, and to codify that dream by being on a major-league baseball card. And to not even (have) had that?”

Online, there is one. Eight years ago, an online blogger named Bob Lemke designed two sides to a card in the style of the 1956 Topps, stats on the back (the only thing missing was a stain from a bubble gum stick).

Lemke also wrote a touching tribute, paying homage to the late ballplayer. There’s not, to be sure, a lot out there about Charlie Peete. In fact, it’s not even clear if it’s spelled “Charlie” Peete.

While that’s the spelling on his baseball-reference.com page, as well as in Associated Press articles, Lemke wrote that Peete’s autograph was signed “Charley.”

(I reached out to Lemke for this story. Didn’t hear back for a while. Finally, an email from his wife: “Bob passed away January 3, 2017. I am sure he would have liked to talk to you.”)

In a 1955 team photo of the Class AAA Omaha Cardinals, he’s listed as Charlie Peete. But in the article about his passing, he was listed as Charley Peete, who “had been recalled by the Cardinals at the end of the season for a spring-training chance.”

On the front page of this newspaper — Nov. 27, 1956 — that article was sandwiched between headlines that read SOVIET PUPPET PREMIER ORDERS ‘TOUGH’ POLICY ON ‘CRIMINALS’ and PSYCHIATRIST, WIFE QUARREL; SHE SHOOTS HIM.

The story shared details about the crash, the names of those on the plane and the last radio message.

Decades later, as a baseball fanatic in the Midwest, Finch also hadn’t heard of Peete.

“I then knew his name while working for the Cardinals,” Finch said, “but definitely he came on our radar after the death of Oscar Taveras,” the Cards outfield prospect who died in a car crash in 2014. “Their story is, unfortunately, very similar. While they both were tragic, with Taveras, we could see him rising through the system. And in this day and age of baseball, there’s so much focus and spotlight put on the prospect coming up.

“We could see Taveras coming as sort of this bright star. Peete was a little bit of an unknown.”

‘A Baseball Legacy’

Charles Peete was born 88 years ago this month in Franklin, Va. In the 1930s, his family moved to Portsmouth. He would go on to play in the Negro Leagues. And serve in Korea. In 1953, he returned to play for a minor-league team in his hometown, becoming one of the first African-Americans to do so.

“Mr. Peete really left a baseball legacy in the city of Portsmouth,” said 42-year-old Antonio Lamb, the president of the Charles Peete Little League. “For years, going back before me, he’s always been a household name in the city. If you grew up in the downtown area of Portsmouth, you played for Charles Peete Little League. That was the thing to do. That was the recreational sport throughout the city.”

The teams in the league are named after Major League teams, but all the hats have the same logo — the initials CP.

“Every single year, at the beginning of the season, we have his history written up, and we give it to the parents and kids,” Lamb said. “It honors his legacy and shows the kids that, yes, an every-day child from Portsmouth can grow up and be just like Charlie Peete.”

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