“There’s trouble on Joe Pepitone’s line,” was the title Bill Madden gave a chapter of his 2003 book Pride of October: What It Was to be Young and a Yankee. The title alluded to what Madden heard when he first called Pepitone at his Long Island home to arrange interviews for the book. Long before he struggled to reach the former first baseman, there was trouble on Joe Pepitone’s line. And there would be again, nine years later.
The last thing Pepitone needed in October 2012 was a woman none of his native charm, good humour, and lingering charisma could seduce. A hurricane named Sandy. Pepitone and the human woman with whom he’s shared his life since the middle Aughts (his third and longest-lasting marriage ended in divorce early enough in the new century) decided they could ride Sandy out at his Long Island home.
It wasn’t the first Pepitone decision ever to backfire. He awoke during the night to see his dog floating on water . . . running through the master bedroom. When it was over, everything he owned was no more, including the house. His three Gold Gloves as the American League’s outstanding defensive first baseman—gone. His World Series keepsakes from 1963, 1964—gone. His scrapbooks full of clips about his baseball life from his high school years until his professional career ended—gone. His assorted other memorabilia—gone.
Fifty years earlier, it might have sent the shakiest Yankee of them all to yet another round among the demimonde, trading his name for transient pleasures, or maybe even another disappearance such as the brief one (triggered by a near-nervous breakdown) that scared the Yankees half to death in 1968.
Now, however—as Pepitone himself records in a new epilogue to his republished 1975 memoir, Joe, You Coulda Made us Proud—he and his lady simply spent the week to follow cleaning up what they could, until they realised the house was a loss and a friend invited the couple to stay in his deceased mother-in-law’s Poconos cabin for a long enough spell. Other than the fishing he’s loved since boyhood, the mountain life left Pepitone restless. He spent enough time otherwise staying in New York to continue his public relations work for the Yankees. He spent time enough in far less agreeable places. What a difference half a century makes.
Pepitone was one of the teammates who fumed when Jim Bouton published Ball Four in 1970. What the book said about Pepitone didn’t rankle, apparently, but what he thought Bouton forgot to say about Bouton did: “Why didn’t he write that he was the horniest [expletive] in baseball?” But four years after the Ball Four hoopla subsided, the horniest [expletive] in 1960s baseball (Bo Belinsky notwithstanding) proved to be Pepitone himself. Exposed by a locquacious, unimpeachable witness: Pepitone himself.
A year out of baseball, the haunted Brooklynite delivered maybe the single most self-lacerating memoir in the history of professional sports. Too free spirited but too emotionally roiled, as he went from Yankee promise to Yankee bust and exile, Pepitone in Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud exposed himself as something far sadder.
He exposed himself as a child abuse victim smothered in too much guilt over his abuser’s death, using celebrity for a fast and slick lifestyle, overloading with peripatetic sex, underloading with the kind of trust that might have let him build a real network of support, not enabling, in the clubhouse and out of it. Psychotherapist Susan Forward wrote Toxic Parents, her clinical study of the wreckage dysfunctional or abusive parents leave in their children, in 1989, decades too late to save Pepitone’s battered psyche.
Born on the same 1940 day as future Beatle John Lennon, Pepitone was raised in Brooklyn’s tough Park Slope section, a mostly Italian working class neighbourhood then. Father Willie survived the collapse of his paper box business and became a construction laborer; mother Angelina worked in a clothing plant. The son of a father who detested sports and would beat his son with a razor strop if caught playing baseball, especially, Willie Pepitone grew into a charismatic man with fundamental generosity and warmth equaled only by raging jealousies and violent impatience with his oldest son.
The discipline was crazed and abusive by any generation’s standard. Pepitone suggests that his mother, a beautiful woman, may have been too terrified of becoming a physical victim herself if she intervened too often in her husband’s abuses of their oldest son. (Pepitone’s two younger brothers, one of whom became a New York police detective, escaped their father’s abuses, somehow.) Once, after receiving a spanking new bicycle, Pepitone was so anxious to show it off to his pals that he got home for dinner three minutes late—and his father beat him to within an inch of his life after destroying the bicycle. Then, the old man replaced the bike.
It was a too-entrenched pattern. Explosive abuses beyond the bounds of reasonable discipline. (“[T]here were times when there was no way I should have been beaten. And that’s when it really hurt, when I hadn’t earned the whacks.”) Equally passionate apologies to follow. The scars and welts on Pepitone’s body—his father even beat him ferociously, with accompanying insults, whenever the kid came home bloodied from a street fight, which was most of the time because the kid didn’t know how to handle himself with his fists and had to use his wits to survive—must have been nothing compared to those in his head.
His baseball abilities as he grew to high school ultimately drew professional scouts’ attention and his father’s bristling presence at his games, not to mention further abuse on days when the boy had less than a stellar game. When the old man learned the word among the scouts following his son was, “Joe Pepitone’s old man is gonna ruin that kid,” he exploded. The kid answered in kind, forgetting for a moment with whom he was dealing. The old man threw a glass ashtray at him; he ducked, but the ashtray smashed an armoir’s glass, blasting shards into his eyes.
The boy recovered but was overloaded at last by years of his father’s abuse. “I think he loved me too much, wanted too much for me, expected too much of me,” Pepitone would write in due course, almost apologising for the old man. By the time he recovered from the glass in his eyes, his father was forced into premature retirement for the sake of his health and—restless and perhaps feeling emasculated—became worse instead of better.
When Pepitone finally blurted out to his mother, “Mom, I wish he’d die,” after yet another of his father’s psychotic rages, that’s exactly what happened, thanks to a heart attack the following day. The spindly boy’s guilt was compounded exponentially when a great aunt, meaning no harm, reminded him of his condition after he’d been shot in a schoolyard incident. She told the boy his father had been taken in his place. Right then and there, any prayer of Pepitone living normally dissipated, though neither the kid nor his family could know it at the moment.
Not long after, Pepitone became a Yankee signing (Casey Stengel called him “Pepperone”) and, legendarily, spent his $25,000 signing bonus on a spanking new convertible, a boat, a dog, and a stylish new wardrobe. (The Dodgers actually offered a higher bonus, but Pepitone and his family were lifelong Yankee fans.) His mother let it pass, perhaps thinking it might help her son ease the pain.
The more praise he earned as a genuine Yankee comer (including from Joe DiMaggio), the deeper it went into Pepitone’s already muddled head. He was one of a generation of Yankees who seemed absolutely enraptured by their newfound status. (“Some of them,” Roger Maris would remember in due course, “would have worn their Yankee uniforms down Fifth Avenue if they could have.”) Known in the system as a rakish flake from the outset despite his obvious talent—a sweet, compact power swing; a knack for fancy footwork around first base— Pepitone could put still people at ease thanks to a gift for laughter and a genuinely generous, sometimes pliant (with teammates but not team officials) personality.
His taste for fast night life and some of his gamy associations made them a little nervous, however. Pepitone had grown up among some Mafiosi—his family was friendly with a local Mafia numbers man he called Jimmy the Bug—and his book’s title, in fact, comes from one wiseguy who accosted him after his baseball career and asked what happened to deflate such a promising career. (On another occasion, another wise guy told him, “You coulda made us all proud, Joey, but you got nothin’ upstairs. You disgraced us.” Pepitone shot back, “I’ve shamed you? I didn’t kill anybody. What have you done to make me proud the last twelve years?”)
By the time he made the Yankees in 1962 (he hit two homers in a single inning in a May game), and despite his marriage to a pretty Floridian who soon gave him two children he doted on, Pepitone also had a knack for finding sex practically at will. There was a mischevious twinkle that somehow made it through the haunting in Pepitone’s dark Italian eyes. That plus his stylish attire and his street charm made sex even more readily available to him than the prodigious home runs he could hit or the gracefully slick fielding style he cultivated at first base had made celebrity available. Pepitone became addicted to both.
The Yankees traded veteran Moose Skowron before the 1963 season to make Pepitone the regular first baseman, and he became something of a protege of Mickey Mantle on and off the field. His indiscipline kept him from becoming one of the truly great Yankee hitters, even though he drove in 100+ runs in 1964, even though his Game Six grand slam helped set up a Game Seven in the 1964 World Series, even though he’d hit 31 home runs in 1966, even though he’d win three Gold Gloves and make three All-Star teams.
Pepitone’s amphetamine-fast night life and extracurricular sex life cost him two wives and three children. (When his first wife remarried and all but demanded he allow the children to be adopted by her new husband, Pepitone admitted, he assented, knowing too well he was in no position to challenge—and wept uncontrollably after it was over.) He partied right into near six-figure debt; when a financial counselor helped him wipe the debt out, he heaved a big sigh of relief—and immediately plunged back into mid-five-figure debt all over again.
He also partied himself off the Yankees and toward a second career onto and off the Astros, the Cubs, and the Braves. At one point, a discouraged Pepitone retired from the Cubs to concentrate on a Chicago nightclub he opened but was forced to close after a raid discouraged his once-vibrant clientele. As a player, he never quite developed the plate discipline that would have made him more than just a free swinging slugger who’d lose much of his long ball power to an injury, though he could still be a useful hitter with the Cubs of the early 1970s. Personally, his life improved when he married a third time, to a former Playboy Bunny he met while he was with the Cubs.
After leaving the Braves in continuing frustration, he wrote, he thought about playing in Japan after seeing the success former Yankee teammate Clete Boyer was having there. He landed a lucrative deal but was so unable to assimilate to Japan’s sports culture that a combination of nagging injuries and his habit of seeking relief with his wife at local nightspots sent him home before a month was gone. (An urban legend sprang up that Pepitone’s surname became Japanese vernacular for a loafer.)
Returning to his native Brooklyn, Pepitone and his third wife had a son and opened a neighbourhood restaurant which promised to thrive until the economy recessed and fire destroyed their home. Knowing how popular Pepitone remained among Yankee fans, however (he’d eventually be name-checked in several Seinfeld episodes), George Steinbrenner saw his better side and hired him to coach in the Yankee system, where he helped Don Mattingly convert successfully from an outfielder to a first baseman who enjoyed a near-Hall of Fame career.
But in the mid to late 1980s he blasted into the public consciousness again, in a wrong-place/wrong-time case finding him arrested and subsequently jailed, after he was traveling in a car with companions that included one with a gun and another holding a quantity of cocaine. Admonished perhaps too severely by the sentencing judge (his brother swears Pepitone’s status as a former Yankee mitigated against him), Pepitone pleaded on camera that he was, fundamentally, not a terrible person. (Steinbrenner finagled a work-release for Pepitone while holding a job for him with the Yankees.) There was no shortage of former teammates who would agree.
“Joe just wasn’t that bad a guy,” Maris once told a Yankee historian while lamenting how Pepitone’s children would take Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud. (The feeling was mutual on Pepitone’s part: “Roger Maris,” he wrote, “was one of the better people I met in baseball . . . The only time I hated to be around Maris was when he was with Clete Boyer and [former Yankee relief pitcher] Hal Reniff and they were out drinking.”)
Unable to let people see past the party boy facade, deathly afraid he’d be exposed as vacuous and empty, Pepitone simply never knew where to find real friends, and never quite found the best place and ways to heal and come to terms with his pounding, unwarranted guilt. He couldn’t believe anyone liked him for himself. Going to all the wrong places for the wrong impression of the unconditional love he craved so hungrily, Pepitone wrecked a promising career and spent decades trying to un-wreck his life.
“I was such a liar, such an asshole for so long, that I came to hate myself, to hate almost everything I did,” he wrote in 1975. “Now, finally, I really believe I’m a nice guy. I’m concerned about other people. I try never to put down anybody, to hurt anyone. I’ve hurt too many people . . . too many.”
Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud isn’t strictly a self-expose, however. Some of Pepitone’s tales of Yankee panky otherwise are as memorable as any that have long since sprung up about the fading 1960s Yankees, from the night Mantle and Whitey Ford pranked him into joining them at a shady Detroit strip club where he found neither teammate, to the day he saw Denny McLain hand Mantle a milestone homer, figured McLain was in a generous mood, asked for a pitch to drive himself, and got knocked on his ass with the first pitch. (His recollections of some of Mantle’s privately haunted hours, among the first to reveal that side of the Yankee legend, are jarring in their poignancy.)
Not to mention the time comedian Pat Henry invited Pepitone to join up as one of Frank Sinatra’s house guests for a month. Sinatra lured his guests into a game of pool for profit. Pepitone lined up a $300 shot. Sinatra flung a small block in the cue ball’s path, spoiling the shot, snickering, “This is my table and we are playing by my rules. What we are playing is dirty pool.” Pepitone avenged the shot by throwing a fireplace log in the path of Sinatra’s own several-hundred-buck shot, tearing the cloth, and hollering, “OK, Frank, if you’re God like they say you are, let’s see you make that shot,” provoking stone silence in the room from those who knew the Sinatra temper—only to find Sinatra cracking up and hollering, “Where the [expletive] did we pick up this crazy bastard, he’s beautiful!”
Pepitone also contributes his own part, however small, to exposing some of the least savoury elements of baseball’s soon to be dead reserve era, particularly (as had Bouton) the one-sided contract negotiations and underhanded bargaining tactics many if not most players faced. By the time Pepitone’s book arrived, Curt Flood’s reserve clause challenge had failed at the Supreme Court, but Catfish Hunter—liberated when Charlie Finley reneged on a contracted insurance payment—had shown what a player could earn in legitimate open market bidding. And, Andy Messersmith was about to obliterate the reserve clause once and for all after pitching 1975 without signing a new contract.
When Sandy poured into his home and destroyed it plus every remnant of the career that once promised to shine, there was one possible sense in which Pepitone could call himself free at last. Sentimental and introspective value to one side, without the physical reminders of the past he imploded so spectacularly, perhaps Pepitone approaching 75 can finally put the demons that shaped his life in their rightful place, away from his space.
Can he let himself?
“[O]ne thing hasn’t changed at all,” he writes to conclude his new epilogue. “I still miss my father, Willie Pepitone, and wonder how my life would have been different if he’d lived to a ripe old age. Every day.” (His mother died at 92 in 2005; his maternal grandfather, whom he adored and praised in the book, died at 103 some years before that; his collaborator, Berry Stainback, died last year.)
The book’s first paragraph began, “My father was a god in my eyes when I was growing up,” and ended with, “[W]hen he wasn’t spoiling the shit out of me, he was beating the shit out of me.”* Still mourning the abuser, the build-to-destroyer, whose charismatic generosity carried a price tag too many children pay in demonic destruction, there’s still a little trouble on Joe Pepitone’s line. He may have asked the one question above all that might be too dangerous, for his serenity’s and sanity’s sake, to answer.
* Fair disclosure: Your chronicler is the son of a similar father, God rest his soul, spoiling the you-know-what out of him one moment, beating the you-know-what out of him the next, often with worse spankings for an inability to handle himself in a fight or for making mere human mistakes than for genuine disobedience or genuine misbehaviour. Like Willie Pepitone, your chronicler’s father died at 39. Like Joe Pepitone, the scars remained.