CHARLES “MULE” PEETE
AND PORTSMOUTH’S CHARLES PEETE LITTLE LEAGUE
By Bruce Ebert, Museum Services Assistant, and Diane Cripps, Curator of History
With Special Thanks to Michael Latham of the Charles Peete Little League Board of Directors
Charles Peete in his Merrimacs uniform in 1953. Portsmouth Public Library.
By all accounts, Franklin-born, Portsmouth-raised Charles Peete had everything it took to be a standout major-league ballplayer.
He began his career in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns and played semi-professional baseball in Canada. Then in 1953 he signed on to play with Frank D. Lawrence’s Portsmouth Merrimacs of the racially integrated, mid-level Class B Piedmont League. He was the first African American to play in that league since baseball’s color line was broken in 1946.
Three years later, in 1956, he had moved up to leading the Triple-A American Association in hitting with a .350 average for the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm team in Omaha. Johnny Keane, who would later manage the Cardinals to the 1964 world championship over the New York Yankees, was his manager in Omaha.
The moment he had dreamed about – promotion to the Cardinals – came in July, but it came about while he was nursing a split thumb. Playing with the injury, he hit only .192. Even so, he managed to have some brilliant moments.
His first hit, on July 21, came off the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Roger Craig – a single to left field in a game in which he went 2-for-3 with a run-batted-in. St. Louis won, 13 to 6.
Five days later, Peete hit a two-run triple off the great Robin Roberts of Philadelphia, giving the Cardinals a 7 to 6 lead in a game they eventually won, 14 to 9.
On Aug 1 in Pittsburgh he had an RBI triple in a game that also featured another Hampton Roads-bred player, Pirates catcher Hank Foiles.
After a fast start, Peete went into a 0 for 13 slump and was sent back to Omaha. Rather than take his slump with him, he went right back to his hitting ways and won the American Association batting crown.
He was truly a prospect – and then tragedy struck.
On November 27, 1956, en route to winter baseball in Venezuela, Peete, his wife, Nettie, their three children and 20 others died when their plane crashed into a mountain near Caracas.
Peete was projected to go on to be the starting centerfielder for the 1957 Cardinals, despite his disappointing midseason callup in ’56. Had he lived, he would have become St. Louis’s first African American starting player. Years later, in a haunting profile, St. Louis Post-Dispatcher writer Ben Hochman wrote, “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.”
In Portsmouth, however, Charles Peete is far from forgotten. For decades since his death, a Little League that bears his name has provided boys and girls a chance to play on the baseball fields of Portsmouth.
The league that honors his memory was founded in 1968 and is still known for rousing traditions woven tightly into the city’s fabric. Opening Day starts with a parade featuring players, coaches, officials and local dignitaries, with the Wilson High School band adding to the festivities as the procession makes its way to the ballfield at Elliot Avenue and Deep Creek Road.
Then the big moment: The ump cries “Play ball” and the season officially begins.
“It’s all about the kids,” says Michael Latham, a member of the league’s board of directors. League alumni include former Olympics track star LaShawn Merritt and Dallas Mavericks basketball star Dorian Finney-Smith.
And who knows? It still may be that one of the kids who tries on their uniform in Portsmouth will someday suit up with a major league team and fulfill not only their own potential, but the promise of the man whose name is now meant to inspire Little Leaguers in our own community.