A highly regarded Cardinals outfield prospect died in a violent accident as he was on the verge of fulfilling his potential with the big-league club. The tragic story of Charlie Peete is chillingly similar to that of another star-crossed Cardinals phenom, Oscar Taveras.
Fifty-eight years later, on Oct. 26, 2014, five months after he had made his major-league debut with the Cardinals, Taveras, 22, was killed in a car crash in the Dominican Republic. His girlfriend also died in the crash.
Like Taveras, Peete was a potent left-handed batter. Playing for the Cardinals’ Omaha affiliate, managed by Johnny Keane, Peete was the 1956 batting champion of the Class AAA American Association. Like Taveras, Peete was planning to play winter ball and then report to spring training as a strong contender for a starting spot in the Cardinals’ outfield.
Path to the majors
Peete was born on Feb. 22, 1929, in Franklin, Va. He went to high school in Portsmouth, Va. After serving a two-year hitch in the Army, Peete began his professional baseball career with the independent Portsmouth team in the Piedmont League. The Cardinals signed him in 1954 and he quickly advanced to Class AAA the following year. Because of his thick build (190 pounds) on a short frame (5 feet 9), Peete was nicknamed “Mule.”
In July 1956, Peete was promoted from Omaha to the Cardinals. Hampered by a split thumb, he hit (10-for-52) .192 in 23 games for St. Louis and made 13 starts in center field.
There were some highlights.
Peete got his first major-league hit, a single to left, off the Dodgers’ Roger Craig on July 21, 1956, at St. Louis. Boxscore
Five days later, July 26, Peete had his most significant game in the majors, hitting a two-run triple off Phillies ace Robin Roberts, giving the Cardinals a 7-6 lead and propelling them to a 14-9 victory at Philadelphia. Boxscore
Peete also had a RBI-triple against the Pirates’ Ron Kline on Aug. 1 at Pittsburgh. Boxscore
Peete had his batting average above .250 before going into an 0-for-13 tailspin that led to his being sent back to Omaha. He finished the minor-league season with a .350 batting mark, winning the American Association hitting crown. The runner-up was Yankees shortstop prospect Tony Kubek, who hit .331 in 138 games for Denver.
The Sporting News wrote that Peete’s performance “made him one of the brightest prospects in the Redbirds system” and described him as a “highly regarded outfielder.”
Bill Bergesch, Omaha general manager, predicted to the Associated Press that Peete would be a Cardinals contributor in 1957. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” Bergesch said. “He can do everything the rest of them (in the majors) do _ plus hit the ball a little harder than most.”
Disaster in Venezuela
Accepting a chance to play winter ball in Cuba, Peete signed with a Cienfuegos team that included Senators pitchers Camilo Pascual and Pedro Ramos and Dodgers shortstop Chico Fernandez. Peete expected to spend the winter in Cuba. But he slumped early and was released.
The Valencia team in the Venezuela winter league wanted Peete. He could have flown from Cuba to Venezuela to begin play. Instead, Peete chose to return to the United States to meet his wife, Nettie, and their children, Ken, Karen and Deborah, and bring them to Venezuela with him.
At 10 p.m. on Nov. 26, the Peete family boarded a commercial flight at Idlewild Airport in New York. The plane was scheduled to arrive in Caracas at about 7 a.m. on Nov. 27.
The flight was late. At 8:05 a.m., the French pilot, Capt. Marcel Combalbert, 34, radioed to the control tower that he was preparing his approach to the seaside airport.
It was raining and foggy. Clouds limited visibility.
About two miles from the airport, the four-engine Constellation slammed into a 6,000-foot mountain top. All 25 people _ 18 passengers and seven crew _ on board were killed.
“We are terribly shocked,” Cardinals general manager Frank Lane said. “It’s not a question of any effect on the ball club. It’s the terrible tragedy of the thing.”