Obituary: Joe Pepitone (1940-2023)

RIP to Joe Pepitone, an All-Star and Gold Glove winner for the Yankees, though his on-field accomplishments were frequently overshadowed by his larger-than-life persona and off-field actions. He died in Kansas City, Mo., on March 13. He was 82 years old. Pepitone played for the New York Yankees (1962-69), Houston Astros (1970), Chicago Cubs (1970-73) and Atlanta Braves (1973).

Joseph Anthony Pepitone was born in Brooklyn on October 9, 1940. He signed with the Yankees right after graduating from Manual Training High School (now known as John Jay High School), but his career — not to mention his life — was almost cut short before it began. On March 4, 1958, a high school friend stuck a gun in Pepitone’s ribs and jokingly told him to “Stick ’em up.” Then the gun went off, and the bullet went right through him without hitting any vital organs or his spine. He recovered well enough for the Yanks to offer him a $25,000 contract to sign, but it was one of the first of many incidents in his life that stand out from the life of a “normal” ballplayer.

Joe Pepitone, shortly after breaking into the majors with the Yankees. Source: Lexington Ledger, May 27, 1962.

“Missed my heart by about an inch. Yeah, I was pretty close to death. But the doctors were good, and I pulled through,” Pepitone said of his experience in a 1959 interview. At the time, all the major-league teams had shown interest in the young ballplayer, but the choice came down to the Yankees and the Dodgers, formerly of Brooklyn. Though Pepitone had grown up a mile from Ebbets Field, his father was a die-hard Yankees fan. Ignazio “Willie” Pepitone died of a heart attack at the age of 40 a couple of weeks after Pepitone got shot, and Joe ended up choosing the Yankees. The two had a tumultuous and abusive relationship that Pepitone later detailed in his autobiography,

Pepitone’s debut with the Yankees in 1958 was short but sweet — 14 RBIs and a .321 batting average in 16 games at Class-D Auburn. He repeated his performance in the winter instructional league, cementing his spot as a desirable prospect. “I’m delighted with young Pepitone,” said Steve Souchek, his winter league manager. “He came here with no pro experience. We signed him right out of Brooklyn’s Manual High School, but the boy loves to play ball and has shown surprising power.” The only issue that Souchek had with Pepitone was his hair — he personally buzzed the curly brown locks off Pepitone’s head when the rookie refused to get a haircut.

As Pepitone advanced through the minors, he occasionally was compared to another Italian Yankee star — Joe DiMaggio. Pepitone didn’t hit quite that well, but he posted solid batting average and home run totals as he advanced through the minors. In 1961, he slammed 21 homers and drove in 87 while playing for the Amarillo Gold Sox of the Texas League. The following season, the Yankees brought him to the major leagues. He started off as a pinch-hitter and occasional backup first baseman and outfielder. His first hit was a pinch-single off Detroit ace Jim Bunning on Friday, April 13. His first homer came on May 5 against Washington pitcher Marty Kutyna. Still, he wasn’t hitting particularly well until injuries to Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle gave him regular playing time. He made the most of it, with 9 hits, 3 home runs and 7 RBIs in a 5-game span between May 22-27. Two of those homers came in the same inning against the Kansas City A’s on May 23. He led off the eighth inning with a solo homer off Dan Pfister and later hit a 3-run blast off John Wyatt.

Bottle cap. Source: National Museum of American History.

Pepitone’s rapid success with the Yankees brought him all kinds of attention. He even got to meet his childhood idol, DiMaggio, who said, “You’re Joe Pepitone, aren’t you? You’re the kid who bought the boat.” Pepitone’s reputation had preceded him. Early on as a Yankee, Pepitone used more of his bonus money than he probably should have to buy a car and a boat. He also got married — the first of three times in his life — and struggled be apart on road trips. In fact, when his off-field struggles began to affect his play in the minors, the Yankees sent veteran minor-league manager and scout Bill Skiff to straighten him out. It was a sign the Yankees knew his talent, but the team also knew his personality.

Eventually, Pepitone fell back to earth, the the Yankees sent him to Triple-A Richmond to get more work as a first baseman. He returned to the team in September of 1962 and finished his rookie campaign with a .238 batting average and 7 home runs. He did not appear in the World Series as the Yankees topped San Francisco. When the ’63 season began, Pepitone was the Yankees’ everyday first baseman.

Pepitone was the punch that the Yankees lineup needed. Injuries reduced Maris and Mantle to part-time roles in 1963, and Yogi Berra was nearing the end of his storied career. But the rookie first baseman provided some of that missing power with 27 home runs, 89 RBIs and a .271/.304/.448 slash line. He was selected to the AL All-Star Team for the first of three straight seasons, and his slick fielding at first base gave the team one of the best infields in the American League. He was a sparkplug in many ways, including the day he was at the center of one of the biggest brawls in Yankee Stadium in decades. New York hosted Cleveland for a doubleheader on August 21, 1963. Pepitone had 3 hits in the first game and started off the scoring in the nightcap with a 2-run double off Barry Latman. He was hit by a pitch in his next at-bat, and then reliever Gary Bell hit him again in the bottom of the eighth inning. In between those two at-bats, both teams had thrown inside plenty of times, and New York pitcher Stan Williams had been hit (by Bell), as had Cleveland first baseman Fred Whitfield (by Williams). Pepitone said he wasn’t angry until he got to first base after Bell had hit him. “Then I began calling him names and he hollered back at me, daring me to come to him. So I did. But I got grabbed from behind [by Cleveland’s Whitfield]. I figured I was going to get hit so I might as well start swinging first.” Whitfield suffered some bruises from getting slugged by Pepitone, and a couple of Cleveland infielders were spiked in the resulting fracas, which some witnesses called the wildest fight in the stadium’s 40-year history.

The 1963 Yankees won 104 games and reached the World Series, where they were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The sure-handed Pepitone was labeled as a goat (in the original, bad sense of the word) after committing a couple of gaffes at first base. But the Yanks as a team were shut down by the impressive Dodgers pitching, most notably Sandy Koufax, and scored a total of 4 runs in the Series. The Yankees didn’t fare any better in the 1964 World Series, losing to St. Louis in 7 games. But Pepitone had his greatest postseason moment in Game Six of that Series. He belted a grand slam home run off Cardinals pitcher Gordie Richardson, breaking open an eventual 8-3 Yankees win.

The World Series grand slam put an exclamation point on another productive season. Pepitone drove in 100 runs in 1964, the only time in his career that he reached 3 digits in RBIs. He homered 28 times while batting .251. He had also become an integral part of the team. Pepi, as he was called, was always good for a quote for any sportswriter, and he was the source and the butt of many clubhouse jokes. He was called many things — clown, ladies’ man, flake, hot dog — and as long as he produced and the Yankees won, things were fine. But then the Yankees started struggling, with a sixth-place finish in 1965, and Pepitone’s home run and batting average dipped to 18 and .247, respectively. Even though his defense had improved to the point that he won a Gold Glove at first base, he was subject to more criticism from the media.

His hair, oddly, was a particular sticking point. Pepitone had a lush but receeding head of hair, and he spent more time tending to it than any other Yankee. Per Ball Four by Jim Bouton, Pepitone became the first ballplayer to bring a hair dryer into the clubhouse — and the victim of a classic clubhouse prank when someone loaded the hair dryer up with talcum powder, creating a blizzard when Pepi turned it on. Sportswriter Dick Young wrote about (or possibly fabricated) a one-on-one conversation between Pepitone and general manager Ralph Houk, where Houk threatened to trade him unless he became more of a serious ballplayer — and get a haircut. Yankee management and media felt that, that in spite of his productivity, Pepitone had lever lived up to his potential because he was too wrapped up in other things. From Pepitone’s perspective, the goofiness was a way to bring some levity into his life. He said that whenever he went hitless two days in a row, he got depressed. “When I get depressed, I don’t feel like doing anything. That’s why I kid around,” he explained. “I get depressed when I’m not having fun.”

The Yankees became a second-division team in the late 1960s, and Pepitone’s batting average hovered in the .240s and .250s. He had some big moments, like reaching a career-high 31 home runs in 1966. He also moved to center field for a couple of seasons when Mantle’s chronic injuries forced the aging slugger to move to first base. During the “Year of the Pitcher” in 1968, Pepitone had an OPS+ of 120, when a .245/.311/.403 slash line was 20% better than average — in spite of several injuries that cut into his playing time. On the downside, he racked up an impressive amount of fines from no-nonsense types like Houk and manager Johnny Keane, and the impetuous ballplayer threatened to quit when he felt like he was getting picked on by management. His personal life began to turn around when he married Diane Sandre, a Broadway actress. He tried to stress his new-found maturity, though he was still good for a quote. When asked about his move to center field, he said (tongue firmly in cheek), “The reason the club decided to make the switch is they recognize I have star quality and they want to see me out in the open where the fans can see me. This way I’ll finally get the raves I so richly deserve.”

Pepitone’s final season with the Yankees in 1969 was close to his usual numbers — 27 home runs, 70 RBIs, a .242 batting average. However, his second marriage was reportedly in trouble, he was running into financial problems, and then he disappeared from the team for two days. He later stated that he was feeling depressed and wanted to get away from everyone. The Yankees fined him $500 and suspended him, and it seems like the episode was the final straw. That December, New York traded Pepitone to the Houston Astros for catcher Curt Blefary.

Pepitone and his infamous hair dryer. Source: Daily News, July 25, 1968.

The Houston experiment lasted about half a season in 1970. It started off well enough, with Pepitone saying how happy he was with the Astros and manager Harry Walker saying, “I told him I don’t care if he grows his hair down to his behind. All I want him to do for me is hustle, and that’s what he’s doing.” For 75 games, Pepitone played like he usually did, as he hit .251 with 14 home runs. But he injured his arm, and he and Astros management had different opinions on how injured he really was. In late July, Pepitone bolted from the team before a road trip and showed up at his men’s styling salon in Brooklyn. “I can’t stand Harry Walker. The guy is unbelievable. I can’t take him anymore,” he was quoted as saying.

Within a few days, the Astros had placed him on waivers, and the Chicago Cubs picked him up. It was a perfect match, because the Cubs were managed by Leo Durocher, who was as close to the managerial equivalent of Joe Pepitone as you could find. “I know Leo personally, and he knows how to handle me,” the ballplayer said. “Rather than yell at me Leo will just rap me in the mouth. That’s the way I prefer to be handled.” His new teammates quickly took to him as well, and Pepitone homered 12 times with the Cubs in 56 games over the remainder of the 1970 season. He then slashed .307/.347/.482 in 1971, which were the best offensive numbers of his career. Though he fell outside of the top 10, he spent much of the season among the NL’s batting average leaders. The fans loved his output, his teammates loved his clubhouse antics and his jokes about his hair (which he now admitted was largely a hairpiece), and the media loved his quips and quotes.

The honeymoon ended when Pepitone retired on May 2, 1972. At the time, the Cubs were off to a poor start, and the first baseman was hitting .125. “I am no longer interested in playing professional baseball,” he said. Shortly after that, he opened a new bar on Division Street in downtown Chicago called “Joe Pepitone’s Thing.” Shortly after that, he started preparing for his unretirement, after the mandatory 60-day stay on the voluntarily retired list.

“It cost me $20,000, but I got two million dollars worth of publicity,” he said of his time away from the Cubs. He rejoined the team in July, and it took him a little while to get his stroke back, but he hit well over the end of the season to finish with a .262 batting average. But the damage had been done with some of his Cubs teammates. Also, Durocher and the Cubs had had parted ways, and the new manager, Whitey Lockman, was suspicious about Pepitone’s desire to play ball. The Cubs fans began to boo him as well. “But you’ve got to understand. They boo me because they like me,” Pepitone protested in mid-April of 1973. “I have never been booed in hate.”

Source: Daily News, September 7, 1970.

Pepitone started the ’73 season rather well with the Cubs, as he hit .268 with 3 homers through 31 games. But the Cubs traded him to the Atlanta Braves on May 19, getting back cash and minor-league first baseman Andre Thornton in return. “Pepitone is the winning type of ball player with a great deal of experience,” said Braves vice president Eddie Robinson. “This trade gives us added strength in our offensive lineup, and I think Pepitone will be an exciting player for Atlanta fans to watch.”

Braves fans had just 3 games in which to watch Pepitone. He went 2-for-4 with an RBI against San Francisco on May 22, 2-for-4 against the Giants on May 24, and 0-for-3 with a walk against St. Louis on May 25. And then he retired, again. On his way out the door, he blasted his former team. “I hate the Cubs for trading me like they did. If they had done it last year when I quit I could understand it. But they didn’t, and while they did it this year I hate them for it and will always hate them.”

The Braves tried to talk him out of it, but the team released him on June 19. He signed with the Yakult Atoms in Japan, but he lasted just 14 games before leaving the country to take care of “private matters.” He never returned. Pepitone later wrote an article in the New York Times alleging that the Yakult manager made him play on an injured ankle, and the team charged him $2,000 a month rent for a two-bedroom apartment where the doorways were 4-feet-5-inches high. “Don’t remind us of that guy. His story is not even worth a comment,” replied Yakult general manager Yoshio Tokunaga, who angrily denied all allegations. Pepitone was scheduled to return to Yakult in 1974 but never joined the team in pre-season training and was released.

Pepitone returned to pro ball briefly in 1976. He tried to catch on with the San Diego Padres and spent a couple of weeks playing for the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Hawaii. He was released in mid-May, officially ending his playing career.

Pepitone played for 12 seasons in the majors and had a slash line of .258/.301/.432 to show for it. His 1,315 hits included 158 doubles, 35 triples and 219 home runs. He drove in 721 runs and scored 606 times. He won 3 Gold Gloves at first base and had a lifetime .993 fielding percentage at the position. Baseball Reference credits him with 9.8 Wins Above Replacement, and his career OPS+ is an above-average 105.

Pepitone released a tell-all memoir, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud, with Barry Stainback, in 1975. The details of his sexual adventures made the headlines, but he also wrote about the issues with his father, marital problems, financial problems and the nightmares that haunted him ever since his father’s death. It was compared to Bouton’s Ball Four, except the only dirt that Pepitone dug up was his own. He married for the third time to Stephanie Deeken in 1974, and that marriage lasted until her death in 2021. After a series of jobs outside of baseball, Pepitone returned to the Yankees organization as a minor-league hitting instructor for several years. He was promoted to hitting coach of the Yankees in May of 1982 and held the job for the rest of the season.

Pepitone was arrested on drug and weapons charges on March 18, 1985. He and two other men were stopped by police after their car ran a red light in Brooklyn, and a bag with cocaine, drug paraphernalia and a gun were found. He was acquitted on all but two of the seven charges against him and was sentenced to six months in prison in May of 1988. He served three months. He was welcomed by the Yankees to Old-Timers Game on July 15, 1989, and hit a 3-run homer to end the game in a 3-3 tie. He was also welcomed back to the Yankees organization as a roving minor-league hitting instructor. There would be other legal issues, including a 1995 arrest for driving while intoxicated. Pepitone paid a fine and lost his drivers license, but it was his last scuffle with the law. He continued to make special appearances with the Yankees and was inducted into several Halls of Fame, including the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. He had a total of five children.

In a 2015 interview with Dan Epstein for Rolling Stone, Pepitone relived some of his glory days and his adventures — getting high with Mickey Mantle, buying drinks for the mob, joking with Sinatra. When asked about his life, he said, “I live in a little house on the water, and I’ve got my boat, which is all I want. I’m comfortable… If I was playing today, making twenty million, I’d probably be dead in three days!” he laughed. “It’d be nice to have a larger boat, but that’s alright. One of these days, I’ll be back on a larger boat — when they bury me at sea!”

For more information: Elite Funeral Chapel

Follow me on Twitter: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Instagram: @rip_mlb

Follow me on Facebook: ripbaseball

Support RIP Baseball


One thought on “Obituary: Joe Pepitone (1940-2023)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s