Classic Yankees: Joe Pepitone

He was born October 9, 1940, the same day as John Lennon. While Lennon was something different to the music world in the 1960s, Joe Pepitone was something different to the New York Yankees.

The corporate, GM like Yanks changed a lot in the 1960s, with guys like Fritz Peterson, Pepitone, Jim Bouton, Phil Linz, etc. Not for the better record wise, either. Since Pepitone shared a birthday with Lennon, is it now any surprise that “Pepi” was the first to bring a hair dryer into the clubhouse? Or (Wikipedia), that in his book Ball Four, that Jim Bouton describes Pepitone as being extremely vain? Bouton said that Pepitone went nowhere without a bag containing hair products for his rapidly balding head. He stated that Pepitone even had two toupees, one for general wear and one for under his baseball cap, which he called his “game piece.” Bouton told a humorous story about how the game piece came loose one day when Pepitone took off his cap for the national anthem. Once, Mickey Mantle put talcum powder in Pepitone’s hair dryer. When Joe turned it on, he wound up looking like George Washington in a Revolutionary War-style wig. Pepitone, a brash rookie, got Mantle back by putting dishwasher detergent in his whirlpool. Only Pepi.

Later, Pepitone posed nude (full frontal) for a magazine, and had some run-ins with the law. Trouble seemed to find him, and his commitment to the game was always under question. He was a talented player. He once hit 30 homers in a season, once drove in 100 runs. He won three Gold Gloves at first base. He played in two World Series and was an All-Star. But when his name is mentioned, it’s with the sighs of “what could have been,” “slacker,” “loafer,” “uncommitted,” “partier,” etc. Heck, Pepitone himself titled his 1975 autobiography Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud.

Trouble found Pepitone, born in Brooklyn, even before he signed with the Yankees in 1958, for during his senior year in high school, he was shot. As the BaseballPage.Com states, “While a student at Manual Trades High School in Brooklyn one year earlier, Pepitone was shot in the stomach during a schoolyard dispute. When he signed with the Yankees, one club official privately believed Pepitone might well wind up either being stabbed in an alley or committed to a mental institution.” It continues, “no one in the rich history of the New York Yankees ever wasted his God-given natural ability more than the enigmatic Pepitone, who lacked the focus and commitment necessary to live up to his full potential.”

Pepitone didn’t have a good upbringing. The book The Yankees in the Early 1960s has some sad information about Pepitone’s upbringing. The link should take you to pages where you can read about some of it. Some quotes below come from that link.

Roy White (via BaseballPage.com) said that he thought Pepitone had “the quickest bat that I had seen in major league baseball…and, to this day, I still say that. He had the most compact swing I have ever seen.”

Whitey Ford added: “The only Yankee first baseman I’ve ever seen who even came close to Don Mattingly defensively was Joe Pepitone, who could have been one of the greatest Yankees ever if he paid a little more attention to playing.”

Ford added, “Pepitone had so much ability, but he let his off-field behavior get in his way.” From Bill Monbouquette, a one-time teammate: “Pepitone had as much ability as anybody I’ve ever seen play.” Another one-time teammate stated “Pepi had all the talent in the world. He just never put that ten cent head of his together.” Even Ted Williams stated that Pepi should have been a $100,000 a year ballplayer.

Ralph Houk was known as a “player’s manager.” Houk was a decorated war hero who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, from which he got the nickname “Major.” A true leader of men. But even he couldn’t reach Pepitone. There were fines, suspensions, threats of trades.

Back to Wikipedia for this quote:

“A much-discussed legend was that while on his way to 1962 (my note: or earlier, since he was signed in 1958) spring training in Florida, Pepitone spent his entire $25,000 signing bonus. He bought a Ford Thunderbird, a boat which he towed with the Thunderbird, and a dog. He arrived at Yankees spring training in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with a new car, a new boat, a new dog, and was wearing a new shark-skin suit.” Brash rookie? Pepi was it.

The Yanks saw a good arm, smooth fielder and extremely quick lefty bat that they thought was perfect for the short porch at the Stadium. Pepitone made it to the big leagues in 1962, serving as Moose Skowron’s backup at 1B, and also playing all three OF positions. He made his MLB debut on April 10th. Less than two months later, on May 23rd, he hit two HR in the same inning. He hit just .239, and had 7 HR and 17 RBI in 138 at bats. OPS+ 86. He didn’t play in the WS. One example of Pepi’s brashness was one day when he went to 1b to replace Moose Skowron for defensive reasons. The rookie Pepitone tongue-in-cheek went up to Moose and said, “I guess you’re the one with the weak glove.” He also frequently warned Skowron that he was going to take his job. You couldn’t imagine any Yankee doing that to one of his teammates just a few years beforehand. Heck, when Moose was traded, Pepitone responded by sending Moose a telegram saying: “Dear Moose: Told you so. Joe Pep.”

The Yanks traded Moose, and the 1B job was Pepitone’s for 1963. He responded by hitting .271 (his high as a Yankee), with 27 HR and 89 RBI. OPS+ 108. He was an All-Star and finished 17th in MVP voting. He never walked much, an average of 35 times / 162 games, and this would hurt his OPS; that and his .258 lifetime batting average. In the WS, Pepitone went 2 for 13. He just missed a game-tying HR with two out in the 9th inning of Game 3, a 1-0 Yankees loss. He is most remembered for losing a ball in the white shirts of the crowd in Game 4, while the game was tied. Jim Gilliam went all the way to third and scored on a SF. The Dodgers won the game 2-1 and swept the series. Whitey Ford said to Pepitone later, “See, I told you Joe that you would mess up one of these games.” I don’t know if Whitey was kidding with some black humor or was serious.

1964 and another pennant. Pepi’s average dropped to .251, but he hit 28 HR and had his only 100 RBI season with exactly 100. The OPS+ dropped to 91 however. He was once again an All-Star. Even though Pepi was the primary 1B from 1963-1966, he also saw time in the outfield as well. In the 1964 WS, he went 4 for 26 with 1 HR and 5 RBI. He hit a shot off of Bob Gibson in the ninth inning of Game 5, and was barely thrown out by Gibson on a close and controversial call after the athletic Gibson recovered the ball and made an off-balance throw to first. The Yanks were down 2-0 at the time, Mantle on first, and Pepitone became the second out. Tom Tresh then tied the game with a two-run HR. Had Pepi been safe, Tresh’s HR would have been a walk-off, two-out, three-run HR. Instead, in the top of the 10th, Tim McCarver’s three-run HR would win the game for St. Louis.

Pepitone’s WS HR was a grand slam in the ninth inning of Game 6. But as in 1963, the Yanks lost the Series.

After that, Pepitone basically became a symbol of the CBS years. As stars like Mantle, Ford, Maris, Richardson, Kubek and Howard were aging, injured and/or retiring, it was players like Pepitone, Mel Stottlemyre, Tom Tresh and Horace Clarke who were now the new identity of the Yankees. Later Roy White, Bobby Murcer, Gene Michael, Fritz Peterson… Unfortunately for them, the dynasty crashed with a thud in 1965 from 1st to 6th place, then to dead last in 1966, 9th in 1967.

Pepitone helped contribute to the decline in 1965. Although he was an All-Star for the third and final time and won a Gold Glove, he hit just .247. The HR dropped from 28 to 18 and the RBI from 100 to 62. He did have a 98 OPS+. But the Yanks needed he and Tresh to pick up the slack. Tresh, to his credit, did have 26 HR. But Mantle went from .303-35-111 to .255-19-46. Howard from .313-15-84 to .233-6-45. Maris broke a hand. Kubek hit .218 and retired after 1965.

A lot of the Yanks of the era adopted the Playboy, 1960s style however. If you thought that commercial of Steinbrenner and Jeter (criticizing Jeter’s off the field lifestyle) was a hoot, imagine if instead of CBS, the “Boss” ran the Yanks in the mid-1960s. Hoo boy. Pepitone enjoyed the night life. In many ways, he was taking after his idol, Mickey Mantle. Heck, he’d go out and party it up with the Mick. It would catch up to him. Pepitone, many thought, had the ability to be a HOF. Instead… not only that, Pepi ran around with the wrong crowd, and I’m not just talking women or Mantle here.
The Yanks needed a leader. A captain. If only Pepitone had more Munson-like qualities in him than Mantle’s nightlife qualities.

In 1966, when the Yanks finished dead last for the first time since 1912, Pepitone did have a rebound year. Although the average (never great) was just .255, he did hit 31 HR and drive in 83 runs. OPS+ 118. He won his second Gold Glove and finished 27th in the MVP voting.

After 1966 came a big change for Pepi. Mickey Mantle’s knees were shot and in order to keep Mantle in baseball (for by this time, the Yanks were so bad that they needed Mickey as a drawing card), the Yanks decided to switch Mantle and Pepitone. Mantle went to 1B and Pepitone to CF. The Yanks had Stottlemyre, Peterson, Downing, Pepitone, Mantle… and not much else. For this was the CBS Years, now known derisively to many as the “Horace Clarke Years.”

Injuries and off the field distractions (Pepitone would eventually go through three divorces) helped to lead to off –years in 1967 and 1968. In 1967, Pepitone played in 133 games, and his power numbers were significantly lower than that of 1966. .251-13-64. From 31 HR to 13. 83 RBI to 64. OPS+ 104.

In 1968, it was just 108 games. .245-15-56. OPS+ 119. Pepitone was in the on deck circle when Denny McLain gave up Mantle’s 535th, a one-for-the-road HR that Denny just laid in there for the Mick. Pepitone, seeing what was going on, went up to the plate and put his hand out, as if to say, “Put one right here for me, too.” McLain knocked him on his ass.
After Mantle’s retirement, Pepitone moved back to first base and had a bit of a comeback year. He won his third and last Gold Glove, and led the Yanks with 27 HR in going .242-27-70. OPS+ 105. But during that season, he left the team twice, was suspended once and was fined once. The Yanks had enough. Even though the Bronx Bombers hit a puny 94 HR in 1969, 53 by Pepitone and Murcer, they found it necessary to trade Pepitone to Houston for Curt Blefary. Blefary never did much with the Yankees.

In half a season with the Astros, Pepitone hit .251-14-35, not bad considering the cavernous Astrodome. But he didn’t mesh. Midway through the season, he was dealt to the Cubs. He hit .268-12-44 for Chicago. For the 1970 season, the numbers weren’t bad. .258-26-79. OPS+ 106.

Pepi only got into 115 games for the 1971 Cubs, but hit .300 for the only time in his career, hitting .307-16-61. OPS+ 122.

He got into only 66 games for the 1972 Cubs. .262-8-21, OPS+ 92 in 214 AB. In 1973 he went .268-3-18 in 31 games for the Cubs. He was traded to the Braves for Andre Thornton (later to have some good years with the Indians) but got into only three games for the Braves, going 4 for 11. For 1973, .276-3-19, OPS+ 89 in 123 at bats.
His major league career was over. .258 with 219 HR. OPS+ 105. 162 g. ave. .258-25-84. He was 6 for 39 in WS play, .154, with that one grand slam HR and 5 RBI.

He then went to Japan for a few years, and didn’t acquaint himself well over there. From Wikipedia: In June 1973, Pepitone accepted an offer of $70,000 a year to play for the Yakult Atoms, a professional baseball team in Japan’s Central League. While in Japan, he hit .163 with one home run and two RBIs in 14 games played. According to an edition of Total Baseball, Pepitone spent his days in Japan skipping games for claimed injuries only to be at night in discos, behavior which led the Japanese to adopt his name into their vernacular–as a word meaning “goof off”.
In other words, over in Japan, A “Pepitone” is Japanese slang for a slacking ballplayer.

In a previous job that I had as a compositor/typesetter, I worked on a great book entitled You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting. (Wa being Japanese for “team spirit or harmony”). There was a lot of Pepitone material in the book, and none of it was very flattering. I do recommend the book if you can find it. It was twenty years ago that I worked on it. It was a great look at Japanese baseball.

Joe played some slow-pitch softball after retirement, and in 1982 was briefly the Yankees hitting coach.

Trouble however, still found Pepitone. From Wikipedia:

Pepitone spent four months at Rikers Island jail in 1988 for two misdemeanor drug convictions after he and two other men were arrested on March 18, 1985, in Brooklyn after being stopped by the police for running a red light in a car containing nine ounces of cocaine, 344 quaaludes, a free-basing kit, a pistol and about $6,300 in cash. Coverage of the story by WOR-TV (Channel 9) in the New York area featured clips of an incredulous Pepitone declaring, “I didn’t know cocaine was illegal”, and his brother Vinnie, a New York City detective, staunchly defending his character. He was released from jail on a work-release program when Yankee owner George Steinbrenner offered him a job in minor-league player development for the team.

I remember when that happened. Yogi Berra, managing the Yanks at the time, just shook his head and said what many would say about Pepitone. “What could have been.”

In January 1992, Pepitone was charged with misdemeanor assault in Kiamesha Lake, New York, after a scuffle police said was triggered when Pepitone was called a “has-been.” He was arraigned in town court and released after he posted $75 bail.

In October 1995, the 55-year-old Pepitone was arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated after losing control of his car in New York City’s Queens-Midtown Tunnel. Police found Pepitone bloodied, disoriented and mumbling as he walked through the tunnel. Authorities charged Pepitone with drunken driving after he refused to take a sobriety test. Pepitone pled guilty. When asked if he was staying away from alcohol, Pepitone responded: “I don’t drink that much.”

In the late 1990s, Pepitone was given a job in the Yankees’ front office.
Pepi is now 70. He signs autographs and baseball memorabilia at autograph shows (I met him at one once, and yes, he still wears his toupee), and worked in a public relations capacity for the Yankees. He wore #25.

Hopefully Pepi has got it together now. He’ll always be known for what could have been.

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7 Responses to Classic Yankees: Joe Pepitone

  1. Rosie says:

    Joe pepitone is my 4th cousin , but I have never met him

    • Teri Pepitone says:

      Rosie, Joe is something like a 7th cousin to my father…could we be related?

  2. Pete Pepe says:

    Joe was the best. I read his book 6-7 times over the years. I got him to sign it a few yrs ago at a show and he was surprised to see it. Hope he's doing well.

  3. John P. Blay says:

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  4. cooolbreez says:

    I remember when I was 10 years old at old Yankee Stadium. We were sitting right behind home plate and from that angle i could see into the far end of the Yankee dugout. There was Joe Pepitone and I caught his eye and waved to him. What a thrill for a kid when he waved back! I couldn't believe Joe had waved to me. I never forgot and for that small gesture he'll always be a favorite of mine.

  5. Terri says:

    Joe had a sister named Sadie is there a way I could find her? We were friends many years ago and worked together in Orbach Department Department Store