Obituary: Joe Pignatano (1929-2022)

RIP to Joe Pignatano, who won a World Series with the Dodgers as a backup catcher. He also had a long coaching career and was the last surviving coach of the 1969 “Miracle Mets” team. He died on May 23 in Naples, Fla., at the age of 92. He had been suffering from dementia. Pignatano played for the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1957-60), Kansas City Athletics (1961), San Francisco Giants (1962) and New York Mets (1962). He also coached for the Senators, Mets and Braves in an on-field role through 1984.

Joseph Benjamin Pignatano was born in Brooklyn on August 4, 1929. As a catcher for Brooklyn Specialty Trades (later renamed Westinghouse Vocational High School), he was named as an honorable mention for the All-Brooklyn Baseball Team in 1946, courtesy of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.. The following year, the Eagle placed him on the All-Brooklyn Vocational First Team. Pignatano received a final honor from the Brooklyn newspaper in 1948 when it named him to the Brooklyn Eagle All-Stars, which played exhibition games against the Washington Post All-Stars. The Eagles, led by manager George Sisler, also featured future Dodger Billy Loes as one of its ace pitchers. Pignatano played a few games of the series, but he couldn’t stay on the team for long. In April of ’48, he had been signed to the Dodgers’ farm team in Cairo, Ill., by scout Art Dede. He reported to Cairo near the end of the team’s season and rapped out 3 hits in 8 at-bats for his first professional action. The team then released him after 3 games, apparently without the knowledge of the parent club, because Brooklyn re-signed him after getting a fiery phone call from his mother.

Pignatano spent 1949 and ’50 with Class-D teams in Cambridge, Mass., and Valdosta, Ga., respectively. He discovered his hitting stroke in Valdosta, hitting over .350 for much of the first half before dropping to .285 by the end of the season. He also swatted his first 4 professional home runs for Valdosta.

See Joe Pignatano at Baseball Almanac

Military service called Pignatano away from baseball before the Dodgers had a chance to promote him. He remained out of pro ball for two years, returning to the Class-B Asheville Tourists of the Tri-State League in 1953. He hit very well in his return to baseball, topping the .300 mark for the first time with a .310 average, 6 home runs and a surprising 13 triples. He also almost killed his manager on a hot summer day. Pignatano had decent speed for a catcher early in his career, stealing 22 bases in 1953. But he attempted to steal home in a game against Charlotte on July 29. He was called out, which caused manager Roy Hathaway to argue so strenuously that he passed out. Hathaway was led back to the dugout, where a team doctor determined the cause of the fainting spell to be partly from the heat and partly from the excitement.

Pignatano’s defense may account for his steady progression through the Dodgers minor league organization, even when his offense didn’t justify the promotions. For instance, he hit an even .200 for Double-A Fort Worth in 1955 but was promoted to Triple-A St. Paul in 1956 anyway. While catching for Fort Worth, he came one assist short of a Texas League record when he threw out four base-stealers in one game. He might have tied the record, but the other team just stopped running on him entirely. Dixie Howell, a former Dodgers and Reds catcher who was working as a player/coach in the Dodgers’ system, called him “one of the best catching prospects I’ve seen in a long time.”

After a good offensive season for St. Paul in 1956, the Dodgers purchased his contract and added him to their Opening Day roster for 1957. Pignatano didn’t see much action with the Dodgers. He pinch ran in a game on April 28 and took over behind the plate on June 4 against the Cubs after starter Roy Campanella was hit by a Dick Drott pitch and had to leave the game. He singled in his first major-league at-bat off Jim Brosnan in that game. The Dodgers sent Pignatano to the Triple-A Montreal Royals soon after, promoting Johnny Roseboro to be the third-string catcher behind Campanella and Rube Walker. Pignatano returned in September and ended up appearing in 8 games, with 3 hits in 14 at-bats for a .214 average. As fate had it, he was behind the plate for the final inning of the final game at Ebbets Field. Brooklyn beat Pittsburgh on September 24, and Pignatano entered the game in the fifth inning. He and starting pitcher Danny McDevitt worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning to complete the 2-0 shutout.

The tragic car accident that ended Campanella’s career in January of 1958 dramatically altered the Dodgers’ catching corps. Of the three catchers (Roseboro, Walker and Pignatano), Pignatano was the only right-handed hitter, so was able to make the team. As the fading veteran Walker played himself out of the lineup, Roseboro ended up as the starting catcher, with “Piggy,” as Pignatano was called, as his reliable backup. It was a role that he served for the next three seasons.

Joe Pignatano scores after hitting a 2-run homer against Cincinnati. Gino Cimoli greets him at the plate. Source: Cincinnati Enquirer, August 3, 1958.

Pignatano didn’t hit for a particularly high average in 1958 — a mere .218 — but he hit a career-high 9 home runs and didn’t commit a single error behind the plate in more than 400 innings. He only had 1 passed ball, too. What’s more, those home runs tended to come at the most opportune moments. His first career home run, on June 18, was a two-run blast off Philadelphia’s Robin Roberts that landed just fair and broke a scoreless tie. The Phillies thought it was foul, and when the umpires failed to reverse the decision, Phillies fans rained beer cans onto the field of Connie Mack Stadium until the umps threatened to rule the game a forfeit. Pignatano’s solo shot on July 14 broke a 1-1 tie and enabled the Dodgers to defeat the Cincinnati Reds and Joe Nuxhall. He beat the Reds again on August 2 with a 2-run homer in a 3-2 ballgame. All total, three of his homers broke ties, and two more tied up a ballgame.

Pignatano never hit with that much power again — the 9 homers in 1958 represent more than half of his career total — but he improved his batting average into the .230s during the rest of his Dodgers tenure. He hit .237 for the Dodgers in 1959, with two key moments that helped propel the Dodgers to the NL pennant. The first moment came against San Francisco on September 17. The Dodgers were losing 1-0 in the seventh inning when they loaded the bases against Mike McCormick. Pignatano, who had walked, was on first base. He took a big lead off first base, and when Chuck Essegian hit a grounder to third base, Pignatano sprinted to second base and arrived at the bag at the same time the throw did. Second baseman Darryl Spencer dropped the ball, allowing the tying run to score. Then Jim Gilliam and Charlie Neal hit back-to-back doubles, giving the Dodgers a 5-1 lead that they never relinquished. The Dodgers moved past the Giants in the standings for good in that series. In San Francisco, Spencer was blamed for dropping an easy throw and was traded out of town. Dodgers manager Walt Alston saw the play differently.

“The way Pignatano went into second base kept us alive. It was a perfect ‘take out’ play,” he said. “I like to look back on Pignatano’s heady base running as our turning point.”

The other key play came on September 29 against the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves and Dodgers had to play a best-of-three playoff to decide the NL pennant. Los Angeles won the first game but had to rally in the ninth inning to tie the second game at 5 and send it into extra innings. Pignatano entered the game as a pinch-runner and remained as a catcher for reliever Stan Williams. Williams was wild, but Milwaukee couldn’t score off him. (“It was the hardest I ever saw him throw. They were all looking for the fast one. But they had to find it first,” Pignatano commented after the game.) In the bottom of the 12th inning, with two outs, Braves reliever Bob Rush walked Gil Hodges. Pignatano rifled a single past third baseman Eddie Mathews into left field, and Carl Furillo hit a grounder that Felix Mantilla snagged behind second base, but his threw to first baseman Frank Torre was wild, and Hodges scored to send the Dodgers to the World Series. Pignatano caught just 1 inning behind the plate in the World Series, but the Dodgers knocked off the Chicago White Sox in six games to be crowned World Champs.

The Dodgers fell to fourth place in the NL in 1960. Pignatano batted .233 in 58 games and lost playing time to catcher Norm Sherry. In January of 1961, his contract was purchased by the Kansas City Athletics. He got into a career-high 92 games as part of a catching tandem with Haywood Sullivan and also set highs in most offensive categories. Pignatano slashed .243/.347/.358, with 10 doubles and 4 home runs, in 1961. He drove in 22 runs and scored 31 times. He had 4 hits against Detroit on May 31, including a home run and double, to lead the A’s to a 6-4 win. He also scored the go-ahead run on a Dick Howser double.

Pignatano found himself on the move again when he was traded to San Francisco in December, in exchange for outfielder Jose Tartabull. He was acquired to back up veteran Ed Bailey behind the plate, but the Giants were pleasantly surprised by rookie Tom Haller, who took over the starting job and made Pignatano superfluous. Through July 14, he played in 7 games, with 9 plate appearances. He singled once and walked 4 times for an odd .200/.556/.200 slash line. The most action he saw came when a fan somehow smuggled a live rooster into Candlestick Park and tossed it onto the field. Being a veteran catcher, Pignatano caught the fowl.

The expansion New York Mets acquired him in mid-July, giving him a bit of infamy for being part of one of the worst teams in baseball history. The catching position was a bit of a mess (though no worse than any other position), as seven Mets appeared behind the plate in ’62. Pignatano appeared in 27 games with the Mets and hit .232. It ended up being his final games in the major leagues. In his final at-bat in the majors on September 30, he lined into a triple play against the Cubs. He spent 1963 and ’64 playing for Buffalo and Rochester of the International League. In his final season of pro ball, he batted .203 with Rochester in 88 games but led the IL catchers in fielding with a .994 fielding percentage.

In parts of 6 seasons, Pignatano played in 307 games and had 161 hits for a .234/.332/.351 slash line. His extra-base hits included 25 doubles, 4 triples and 16 home runs. He drove in 62 runs and scored 81 times. Of those 16 homers, three came against Hall of Fame pitchers — Robin Roberts, Warren Spahn and Jim Kaat. Defensively, he threw out baserunners at a 45% rate and had a .990 fielding percentage as catcher.

Pignatano wasted no time getting into coaching, signing with the Senators for the 1965 season, along with his former Dodgers teammate Rube Walker. He almost found himself back in action when Senators catcher Doug Camilli broke his thumb in 1966, and the coach was activated briefly to take his place. The Senators opted not to use Pignatano, who was two years removed from playing baseball.

The 1962 Mets have existed as a punchline in baseball circles for years, and Pignatano got his shots in, too. One time he heard Washington’s Woodie Held talk about a mammoth drive to deep center that Mickey Mantle hit in Cleveland Stadium. He said it took four relay throws to get the ball to the plate because of the headwinds. “That’s nothing,” Pignatano replied. “When I was with the Mets it used to take us at least four relays to reach home, and we had the wind with us.”

Despite the mockery, Pignatano returned to the Mets as a coach in October of 1967, along with new manager Gil Hodges and fellow Senators coaches Walker and Eddie Yost. Pignatano was named bullpen coach, and he held that role for 14 seasons. The timing was perfect, as the Mets were about to transform from a perpetual joke to America’s favorite Cinderella team. Pitchers Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and Jerry Koosman and batters Tommie Agee, Cleon Jones and Donn Clendenon were part of the team that made up the “Miracle Mets” of 1969, which came out of nowhere to win the NL pennant and the World Series. It should be noted that the Mets had a pretty baseball-rich coaching staff, too. Manager Hodges and his first base coach, Yogi Berra, are both in the Hall of Fame. Third base coach Yost had a pretty impressive playing career as well, and Pignatano and Walker had plenty of baseball knowledge. Pignatano also had a green thumb and grew tomatoes in the bullpen of Shea Stadium.

Joe Pignatano and Mets reliever Craig Swan tend to the vegetable garden in the Mets bullpen in Shea Stadium. Source: The Courier-News, August 2, 1980.

The coaching staff was a group of close-knit friends. Hodges had just played a round of golf with Yost, Walker and Pignatano when he died of a heart attack on April 2, 1972. Pignatano was just steps away when Hodges collapsed in front of his motel room, and the former catcher tried in vain to rouse him. He and Berra were close as well. One story about the two of them came when they attended an Ash Wednesday service in St. Petersburg. When Berra got to the front of the line to receive his ashes, the priest recognized him and took a moment to ask him about his health and the Mets’ chances in the upcoming season. As they were leaving, Berra said, “Did you see that? Did you see what that priest did?” “Did I see it?” Pignatano replied. “I was right behind you. I had to wait five minutes for my ashes.”

Pignatano remained a part of the Mets coaching staff until 1981, under various roles and managers. During his time with the team, he put up with Tug McGraw’s antics, including having pizza and cakes delivered to the bullpen. He reached another World Series in 1973, though the Mets fell short against the Oakland A’s. He put up with the Yankees raiding his prized tomato and radish plants when the two teams shared Shea Stadium during Yankee Stadium’s mid-1970s renovation. One of the pitchers who came through the Mets’ bullpen during that time was Pete Falcone — Pignatano’s cousin. Pignatano was fired on the last day of the 1981 season, along with Mets manager Joe Torre and the rest of the coaching staff. He moved to the Atlanta Braves in 1982 when the team hired Torre and stayed there for three seasons. Torre and his coaches were fired after the 1984 season.

Pignatano as the pitching coach of the Durham Bulls in 1988. Source: Durham Sun, June 3, 1988.

Pignatano retired for a couple of seasons but agreed to serve as the pitching coach for the Durham Bulls in 1988. He didn’t stray too far from baseball after that, whether it was participating at fantasy camps, taking part in events honoring the Mets or Dodgers or even coaching the Colorado Silver Bullets all-women’s professional ballclub in the 1990s. He was welcomed as a public speaker for any kind of public events, and he came armed to those talks with a million stories from his playing and coaching career. He spent his final years in Naples with his wife Nancy, who passed away in 2020 after 66 years of marriage. He is survived by two sons, Neil and Frank, and their families.

One final anecdote, about Pignatano’s first day at a Met in 1962: “The first day I got to the Mets, I sat in the dugout talking to [Casey Stengel] for about an hour, and then a writer came over and shook my hand and welcomed me to the team. Then he asked Mr. Stengel who was going to catch that day and he said, ‘Pignatano, if he ever gets here.'”

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