The Tale of Joe Pepitone
By Ed Botti
March 13, 2021
Throughout the history of Baseball there has always been what we call “the characters of the game” and many have resided in the Bronx. One of my favorites was Mickey Rivers.
For the most part, these characters allowed their abilities to take over, and let their personalities follow. In other words, their personalities were subordinated by their performance.
Then there is the category of the players who let their enigmatic personalities control their game. At the top of the list of a player that falls into this category, often referred to as “wasted talent” is Yankee first baseman/outfielder Joe Pepitone.
“Pepi” as he would eventually be nicknamed by his teammates is the poster child of a player that lacked the focus and discipline necessary to reach their full potential.
The question is why?
Photo 1963 Topps
To gain an understanding of what his peers thought of him, Roy White once stated “Pepitone has 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 once stated “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….if he only paid a little more attention to playing”.
Pepitone’s years in pinstripes were before my time. I have a vague recollection of him as a Cub. But one thing I do remember very well is how the adults in my life, as a young ball player, would tell me stories about Pepi, and most of those stories either made me laugh, or left me thinking why would someone throw it all away. A pretty solemn thought for 10 year old little leaguer.
Joe Pepitone was born in Brooklyn New York in 1940 and signed with the Yankees in 1958 right out of Manual Training High School (now known as John Jay High School). The warning signs were there for the Yankees that he might be a high risk sign, but the talent level was through the roof, so they ignored them.
Trouble in school. Trouble in the neighborhood, and the fact that he was involved in an incident and shot in the stomach his junior year of high school.
At 18 he was a 6’2’’, 178 lb. first baseman/outfielder. The scouting report at the time stated he had soft hands, great speed, a strong arm, and fast powerful left-handed swing.
Pepitone was on the Yankees radar when he when he was only 14 years old. Veteran scout Bill Skiff later stated “You could see the great natural talent he had even then, the quick wrists, the arm, his terrific instinct in the outfield. Actually, we thought he would make it quicker than he did.”
A perfect fit for the Yankees. So they took a chance. He signed in 1958 for $25,000, the equivalent of $229,290.49 today. A fortune to an Italian American kid from the streets of Brooklyn.
He left Brooklyn and went to Auburn, NY to join the Yankees farm system at Level D, playing in 16 games and hitting .321.
In his words on being drafted by the Yankees he would state the following.
Photo by Herb Scharfman
“I never thought about anything; I was a stickball player, and my brother’s team needed an outfielder. I went out there and hit three home runs in one game on a high school field, and I was fourteen years old. There was a scout that saw me, and the whole thing started from there. Even in the minor leagues, I had no expectations of getting to the majors; I just loved the game so much, you know? I was just having fun. Baseball allowed me to get away from my strict father. My friends partied their ***** off, and I couldn’t do anything. And when my father died at 39 years old, I was free, man; my mother couldn’t hold me back, nobody could. I got a $25,000 bonus when I signed with the Yankees, and I almost spent the whole bonus on my way down to spring training. I bought a car and a boat, bought a dog and put it in the boat, and he was barking all the way down to spring training. [Laughs] Joe DiMaggio, I swear to god, he asked me, “Are you here to play ball or for vacation?” “A little of both,” I told him. Next day, everything was gone, they took everything back. And that’s the way it was, even when I made it to the majors. It was fun, and my father wasn’t around to knock the **** out of me, so I did what I wanted to do. It was all in front of me, man!”
The New York Daily News praised Auburn’s newest outfielder and first baseman as an “outstanding Brooklyn baseball prospect.”
Everyone seemed to overlook what was right in their faces, and only saw the talented left handed swing.
Pepi spent the next four years working his way through the system.
He finished his minor league apprenticeship in Amarillo, Texas AA league for the Gold Sox in 1961. He tore up the league by hitting .316 with 87 RBIs, 24 doubles, and 21 home runs.
The future was wide open.
The following spring Pepitone made the cut for the 1962 Yankees. Initially, he was a bench player backing up the established veteran Moose Skowron at first base, and seeing some time in Ralph Houk’s outfield rotation.
In Brooklyn it was a big deal that a 22 year old local kid made the world champion Yankee’s roster. He became the toast of the old neighborhood back in Park Slope, and didn’t miss a chance to indulge in all of the celebrity that followed.
The problem was he never stopped.
In his rookie season, he hit only .239 and played in 63 games. Two of his seven home runs came in the eighth inning of a 13-7 victory against the Kansas City A’s.
At that point in time only 14 players in the history of MLB had hit 2 home runs in an inning. Joe DiMaggio was the only other Yankee to do it.
His free spirt and lack of regard for rules would begin to surface at the Major League level. Pepitone spent part of the 1962 season back in the minors; a failed attempt to outfox Manager Ralph Houk about nighttime partying and curfew was the last straw for Houk. During a June road trip, Pepitone prepared himself to sneak out at 1:30 A.M. Houk and Yankees GM Roy Hamey came out of the elevator as Pepitone headed in. He told them he was looking for roommate Phil Linz. Houk checked out the story and found Linz in bed.
Houk, a no nonsense and tough type of guy, sent him to Triple-A Richmond. Pepitone played in 46 games and hit .315 with 27 RBIs, and got a call back to the big club.
Despite his carousing and penchant for ignoring rules, the Yankee front office immediately took notice of his God-given abilities and admired his swagger and confidence on the field. A changing of the guard was inevitable. Pepitone was so brash and cocky that he would actually warn Skowron that he was coming for his job. That fall, after the Yankees defeated the Giants in the 1962 World Series, where Pepitone did not play a single inning, the Yankees made the move and traded Skowron to install Pepitone as the starting first baseman for the 1963 season.
A little background on the Moose/Pepi relationship– In a 2015 interview with Dan Epstein, Pepi told the following story.
“Moose was always on my *** about my partying. All the Yankees were like that in those days, don’t **** with my money; get home early! That’s the way it was. They roomed me with Moose one time. He really went to bed at 10 o’clock and drank milk, all that ****. I went out one night with Billy Hunter, and Moose said, if you’re not home by 1 o’clock curfew, I’m putting the chain on the door. I came home about three in the morning, bombed out of my head with Billy Hunter. Sure as ****, the chain was on the door”
“Sleep out in the hallway! he yelled out. I kicked the door down, the chain went flying, and he grabbed me. I weighed 175 pounds at the time, and Moose was like 220. I said, “Ohhh, ****!” The next day, Ralph Houk came to me and said, you’re not rooming with Moose anymore. He doesn’t want you!”
After learning of the trade, he sent a note to Skowron that read “Dear Moose, Told you so”.
Photo Kidwiler Collection/Diamond Images
When the 1963 season started, the Yankees and the fans were thrilled with the results, as Pepi went on to hit .271 with 27 home runs and 89 RBI, and he became an All-Star. His slick fielding and strong arm just added to it all, and most people at the time thought the next great Yankee was there.
But the late nights and refusal to follow rules continued.
In 1963 he made more headlines, this time for a fight in a Yankees-Indians game on August 21. Barry Latman hit Pepitone on the right wrist in the third inning. In the eighth, Indians pitcher Gary Bell threw a fastball behind Pepitone and his next pitch hit Pepitone’s ribs.
Pepitone charged the mound, but the umpire grabbed him, and fined Bell $50. On his way to first base, Pepitone screamed at Bell, who then challenged him to fight. Pepitone charged the mound, and Indians first baseman Fred Whitfield wrestled him to the ground sparking a bench-clearing brawl. Pepitone was ejected and fined $250.
Up until the infamous Armando Benítez fight in 1998 when he beaned Tino Martinez, this was considered the worst brawl ever at Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees would go on to win the Pennant in each of Pepi’s first 2 years (1963, 1964). In 1963 none other than Mickey Mantle would tell the media that he expected Pepitone to be a key contributor to the success of the team defending their World Series title.
Mickey was right as Pepi would go on to hit a clutch solo home run in the 2-0 pennant clincher over the Twins in 1963.
He had it all, including the respect of one of the greatest Yankees of all time.
He was also gaining the well-earned reputation as one of the game’s most flashy and ostentatious players. He forever will be known as the first Yankee to bring a hair dryer into the clubhouse, something somewhat unusual in 1963.
As is still the case for the most part in sports, the front office of the team couldn’t care less about his eccentricity as long as he performed.
There were no team psychologists in 1963. No one to look after a young kid spiraling out of control. Yes, the players did patrol themselves, but none were prepared for a kid like Pepi. He was on his own.
The Yankees would go on to play the Dodgers in the 1963 World Series. The first rematch since 1956. The first time outside of the 5 boroughs. The Yankees lost in four straight; Pepitone played in each game, only hitting .154 for the Series.
He got two hits off the great lefty Sandy Koufax in a game one 5-2 loss. In game three Pepitone’s two-out, ninth-inning blast off Don Drysdale seemed to tie the game. Unfortunately Ron Fairly chased it down 360 feet from home plate to preserve the 1-0 shutout. It was the Yankee hardest hit ball of the game.
The Dodgers finished the Yankees off in a tight 2-1 victory in Game Four, Koufax’s second win in the Series. Pepitone blamed his fielding for the game four loss. After a long Mickey Mantle home run to tie the score at 1-1 in the top of the 7th inning, third baseman Clete Boyer fielded a Jim Gilliam groundball and fired it to Pepitone at first base in the bottom of the 7th. “Boyer’s throw was perfect,” said Pepitone. “It was right there. I just lost it in the crowd. All I could see was spots. The ball hit me on the right wrist, then went up my arm and bounced off my chest.” Gilliam would come around to score the eventual winning run.
His off the field antics and late nights would continue and his 1965 season saw a drop in production as he hit .247 with 18 home runs and 62 RBI. Another fight in Detroit resulted in the fans throwing things on to the field, including firecrackers.
Pepitone ignored new Yankee Manager Johnny Keane’s mandated 5:00 P.M. batting practice one too many times and on July 16 it resulted in a benching and a $100 fine.
The benching lasted one day, he was put back in the lineup the next night and singled home Tony Kubek to win the game, 5-4.
“I feel great again,” declared Pepitone. “I’ve been upset and said a lot of things I shouldn’t have. But I had a talk with Johnny and Ralph [Houk] today, and everything’s fine. All I want to do is help.”
Similar tardiness and disregard for rules continued. In a mid-August doubleheader against the A’s, and Keane’s reporting time of 11:15 A.M a team rule, he showed up an hour late.
He was again fined $100. He claimed, he overslept.
He somewhat rebounded in 1966 by hitting .255 with 31 home runs and 83 RBI.
An off-the-field pursuit reopened past emotional and physical wounds for Pepi. Looking for justice for the 1958 shooting, Pepitone had sued the New York City Board of Education for $100,000.
The jury gave a unanimous verdict against Pepitone.
When 1967 rolled around it, was clearly the tail end of the great Mickey Mantle’s career, and an opportunity for Pepitone. Pepitone publicly stated that he wanted to become a team leader, settle down and take the game more seriously.
Pepitone agreed to move to center field to give Mickey’s bad legs a rest and play first base. His new lease on life didn’t last long, as his late nights and partying seemed to get even worse.
His production dropped in 1967 and 1968, due to some injuries, and off field distractions.
In 1969, after Mantle’s retirement, he had a solid bounce back season leading the team in home runs with 27. But it was a tumultuous season.
In 1969 as the counter culture movement hit its peak, he amused reporters with his haircut, long sideburns, trips to Las Vegas and Hollywood, and socializing with stars such as Frank Sinatra.
On April 11, he had four hits, including a home run, three RBIs, and two stolen bases in a 9-4 victory over the World Series champion Tigers.
He was all over the back pages again. But temptation and irresponsibility would rear its ugly head again.
In August, he failed to show up for a game against the Twins. Houk said he knew Pepitone had “personal problems,” but there was no indication that the veteran Yankee would not show up. Pepitone got Houk’s approval to skip the next game.
Two weeks later, he left during the middle of a game against the White Sox at Yankee Stadium without getting permission from Houk. He was fined $500.
Yankees owner Mike Burke attributed Pepitone’s personal issues, such as back alimony and separation from his second wife as negatively impacting his mood. “He has not been effervescent. He seems drained of enthusiasm and desire to play ball.” Burke would say.
Living beyond his means and over spending was also a contributing factor as well. Yankees GM Lee McPhail would later say that the team “frequently advanced” Pepitone’s substantial salary.
Pepitone left the stadium before an August 30 game against the Royals in protest to the fine. “I didn’t stay Friday night because I didn’t think I should have been fined,” he explained to reporters upon returning.
Pepitone completed the 1969 season by leading the team in home runs with 27, but batting only.242. Besides the disappearances, benching and injuries, he played in 135 games.
Just prior to the Christmas holiday season of 1969, the Yankees had enough and traded him to Houston for first baseman/outfielder Curt Blefary.
The fun and glory of playing for the Yankees came to an abrupt end for Pepitone.
When he got to Houston he soon realized how good he had it in New York. They were even stricter.
Pepitone didn’t show up for a team workout during the All-Star break, and was fined $250. He did not hide his unhappiness and the tension with Houston’s management grew: “I can’t stand Harry Walker (Manager). I can’t stand Spec Richardson (GM). I can’t stand all their regulations. I can’t stand a million rules”.
So, he went back to New York and he announced that he would not head to St. Louis for the team’s road trip. The Astros suspended him indefinitely without pay.
A week later, the Cubs picked up Pepitone on waivers for $20,000.
Photo 1973 Topps
“I’m very happy,” he said. “Everything has worked out just great. Going to a contender is the greatest thing of all. I only hope I can help them.”
Cubs’ manager Leo Durocher was thrilled to have him: “I plan to start him in center field. I’m not at all worried about the problems he has had with any other club. All I know is he’s a helluva player and I think it’s a helluva deal. I’m very pleased and happy.”
Pepitone had the best year of his career in 1971, batting .307 in 115 games.
1972 did not play out the same way. The Cubs’ reluctance to offer him a salary increase and off field issues brought him to the point of calling it quits.
His retirement didn’t last long.
By the end of May Cubs’ General Manager John Holland and Durocher, persuaded him to come back.
Pepitone finished 1972 with a .262 batting average in 66 games. But when the Cubs fired Durocher in July and replaced him with Whitey Lockman, he lost his biggest advocate in Chicago.
In 1973 he played in 31 games for the Cubs and batted .268 before being traded to the Atlanta Braves for rookie Andre Thornton in mid-May.
“It’s a shock to me,” I knew I gave the club a little trouble but I didn’t think it would lead to this. I believe the reason I was traded was the money troubles I’ve had with the team. I don’t believe it was because of my ability. I can do as good a job as any first baseman”.
He played three games for the Braves going 4-for-11 at the plate, and on May 26, he quit.
Enticed by a two-year, $70,000 contract with the Tokyo Yakult Atoms, Pepitone went to Japan later that year; the Atoms wanted Pepitone bad and reportedly paid the Braves $150,000.
A sixth-inning single in his first game knocked home the winning run in a 2-1 victory over the Yomiuri Giants.
The disciplined Japanese players and coaches had a difficult time understanding the Bohemian Pepitone. After 14 games, Pepitone had enough and asked for his release.
Pepitone would later admit the anguish that he caused his family by his behavior. “I gave them ample reason to be concerned about me, about my self-destructiveness, and I’m sorry about that. Truly sorry that I brought them down so many times. I know now that you can’t **** over yourself without messing up the people you care about most, and with that knowledge comes the greatest pain of all. You do what you have to do, and you pay the price, but you pay it doubly when you see how it has hurt others you love.”
His awareness was genuine. His promise failed.
He would return once again to professional baseball in 1976, playing 13 games for the Hawaii Islanders in the AAA Pacific Coast League. He hit .222 with 1 home run, and he was done with playing.
George Steinbrenner hired Pepitone to be a coach in the Yankees’ minor-league system in the early 1980’s. His most notable student was Don Mattingly, whom he taught the finer points of playing first base.
Steinbrenner later promoted him and brought him to the Bronx in 1985. He continued to associate with the wrong people and was arrested on drug and gun charges. He ended up serving a 6 month prison sentence.
As we have seen with many others, Steinbrenner did not turn his back on Pepitone, and arranged for Pepitone to be in a work-release program during the prison sentence.
In 1992, he was arrested for a fight at a Catskills hotel because someone called him a “washed-up nobody.”
In 1995, Pepitone got into even more trouble with the law. While driving in the Queens-Midtown Tunnel he hit two cars and the walls of the tunnel. He was arrested on DUI charges.
At nearly 80 years of age, he found comfort through therapy that revealed a transparency regarding the reasons for his behavior.
“I began seeing a psychiatrist and I learned that I’m bipolar. Then, I rebuilt my relationships with my family. I’m closer with my second and third wives and three of my children. I’ve been in a long-term relationship of 12 years with a wonderful woman named Irene Thomas” he recently stated.
The National Alliance of Mental Disorder – New York City Metro describes bipolar disorder as being associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs. The exact cause of bipolar disorder isn’t known, but a combination of genetics, environment, and altered brain structure and chemistry may play a role.
Manic episodes may include symptoms such as high energy, reduced need for sleep, and loss of touch with reality. Depressive episodes may include symptoms such as low energy, low motivation, and loss of interest in daily activities. Mood episodes last days to months at a time and may also be associated with suicidal thoughts.
Treatment is usually lifelong and often involves a combination of medications and psychotherapy.
Whether Pepi is bipolar or not, I don’t know. Some people use a disorder or an addiction as an excuse for bad behavior, and that may very well be the case here. But his behavioral patterns do suggest that he is, and was suffering from bipolar disorder.
History will show the he had a good major league career. However, his natural talents should have allowed him to achieve much more than he did. His quick short swing that sprung from his 6’2’’ frame was the basis of excellent power. He also was an outstanding contact hitter who never struck out more than 63 times in a single season, to go along with his tremendous defensive skills at first base. He won three Gold Gloves.
The one thing he didn’t have was focus and discipline, it seems that now his problems may have been diagnosed.
It’s tragic that during his youth and playing years most turned away from his issues because of his talent and the promise of greatness.
In today’s world of professional sports there are many tools available to the player and the team to diagnose and treat self destructive behavior and addiction.
In Pepi’s years it seems most laughed it off if he was producing on the field, or traded him away if he wasn’t producing.
No one tried to find out why?
A truly sad story about wasted talent.