Perfection On The Mound
By Brandon Chinn ’14
Perfection, in baseball, is all but unattainable. A perfect game, in which a pitcher prevents even a single hitter from reaching base over the course of nine innings — 27 putouts in a row — is exceedingly rare: Since being founded 144 years ago, Major League Baseball has witnessed a mere 23 perfect games in roughly 390,000 games played.
With that in mind, it is notable that a teenage boy raised in McMinnville, Ore., should throw a perfect game in college. But in the case of Andy Petersen ’33, he didn't pitch just one perfect game while at Willamette — he pitched three. Eighty years later, he remains one of the greatest Bearcat athletes of all time.
Referred to by The Collegian as a “nonchalant, dark-haired, loose-jointed mound star,” Petersen pitched his way into the national spotlight when he threw his first perfect game as a sophomore on May 21, 1931. He struck out 15 batters, and only two balls were hit past the infield. Not only was this the first of three perfect games, but it was also the first perfect game at any level of baseball in five years. “He was a phenom, no question about it,” Andy’s son, Larry Petersen, says. “He had a very strong arm and the natural ability to throw.” The elder Petersen continued to lead the Bearcats to exciting victories during the 1931 season. While pitching remained his specialty, he soon became known as an offensive threat as well. After hitting a grand slam in a 14-2 victory over Linfield College, Petersen put down Pacific University by allowing only three hits on the mound and going 6-for-6 at the plate with a triple and two doubles. He finished first on the team in hitting that year with a dazzling batting average of .597.
What might have been most impressive about the young athlete was his ability to rise to the occasion when it mattered most. Against Whitman College in a best-of-three conference championship series, Petersen helped Willamette capture a narrow 2-1 victory in game one by pitching a complete game, allowing a single run while striking out 15. He backed himself up by hitting the game-winning home run late in the contest.
Whitman bounced back to win game two, but, after just a single day of rest, Petersen again took the mound for game three and pitched brilliantly, registering 17 strikeouts in nine innings while only surrendering a single run to help lead the Bearcats to a 3-1 win and the 1931 conference title.
Word of Petersen’s dominance was spreading. Not long after the conclusion of Willamette’s 1931 championship season, the Detroit Tigers offered him a $5,000 contract to leave school and play professionally. After mulling it over, he turned down the generous offer, deciding to instead return to Willamette and maintain his amateur status. “He felt strongly that a good education would take him further in life than a career in professional sports,” Larry says.
He picked up in 1932 right where he left off the previous year. In an early-season victory against Oregon State Agricultural College (later Oregon State University), an amazing 23 of Petersen’s outs in the 12-inning game were recorded via the strikeout (the Major League record for strikeouts in a game is 21). He followed up the next week with 18 strikeouts against the College of Puget Sound (later the University of Puget Sound) and also hit two home runs in the 6-5 win.
By the time his collegiate career was over, Petersen had tossed two more perfect games, and his accomplishments on the field went along with a multitude of student activities. Petersen was one of Willamette’s starting five in basketball, and in 1932 he served as the junior class president, the president of his fraternity, and a member of the executive class council.
He turned down the generous offer from the Detroit Tigers, deciding to instead return to Willamette and maintain his amateur status. “He felt strongly that a good education would take him further in life than a career in professional sports.”
Despite returning to Willamette, the three-time All-Northwest Conference pitcher was still regarded as a hot commodity in the baseball world. This appeared to be true not only at the professional level, but in the higherlevel college ranks as well. The University of Hawaii, scheduled to visit Japan for a month-long tour, inquired about Petersen and was granted permission to take him on the trip.
Interestingly enough, it was with the bat that Petersen made his biggest impression. Playing in Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo, he launched a home run to center field that traveled beyond the plaques marking the landing spots of balls hit by Yankee greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig just a few weeks earlier. Petersen’s family has always remembered his towering homer for its symbolic value. Larry still recalls the sense of pride: “I thought one of the best things to come from the whole trip was that he hit the ball farther than they had.”
Petersen departed Willamette after the 1932 season and received five different offers to play professionally. He decided to join the New York Yankees and underwent spring training with the team, playing with Ruth, Gehrig, and several other eventual first-ballot Hall of Famers.
At the time, Petersen would not have understood the gravity of the experience the way people do today. “It’s phenomenal looking back,” Larry says. “But, based on what I’d seen him do in the later years and what I’d heard from his friends, it wasn’t too surprising.”
A combination of arm injuries and homesickness, however — combined, probably, with a desire to be with his girlfriend — motivated Petersen to leave the Yankees after just a few months. He returned to Oregon and was a major contributor on the mound for the Portland Beavers Triple-A club in 1934, and he retired from baseball in 1935. He led a quiet life until passing away in 1984.
Hall of Fame
This fall, 81 years after his departure from Willamette, Petersen will be inducted into the Willamette Athletic Hall of Fame. The recognition is about his undeniable prowess on the field, but it is also about the legacy he leaves behind. “This induction would have made him very proud and it makes the entire family very proud,” Larry says.
Petersen was inducted into the NAIA District 2 Hall of Fame in 1965 (Willamette joined the NCAA Division III in 1998). He joined McMinnville High School’s Hall of Fame in 2007.
“It is an honor for us to recognize Andy and his marvelous career,” Willamette Athletic Director Dave Rigsby ’00 says. “His dominance on the baseball field is unlikely to ever be matched. He’s one of those quietly successful Bearcats over the years whose time has certainly come.”
People who know the story would agree that Andy Petersen was a true superstar, one of the best pure athletes of his time. On the mound he was utterly commanding, and at the plate he was explosive. What separates him from others the most, though, is his rare relationship with athletic perfection. When he is finally inducted into the Willamette Hall of Fame this fall, it will be a fitting ending to a thrilling, occasionally perfect, athletic story.
Bearcat Baseball in 1931, from The Wallulah
A shot of Peterson from the 1932 Walluah
One of many Collegian snippets earned by Petersen
A few of the "Willamette University Hoopers" from The Collegian; Peterson is far left.