Joe Pepitone, RIP: The shakiest Yankee

Joe Pepitone, Yogi Berra

Joe Pepitone (left) with Hall of Fame teammate (and 1964 Yankee manager) Yogi Berra. Pepitone once remembered Berra telling him, “I wish I could buy you for what you’re worth and sell you for what you think you’re worth.” (Yogi Berra Museum photo.)

No Yankee position player to emerge in the early post-Casey Stengel era was as talented as Joe Pepitone, who died Monday morning at 82. No Yankee of the same period was equally as self-immolating, either.

As a baseball player, Pepitone was a three-time All-Star and a three-time Gold Glove first baseman with a World Series grand slam on his resumé. As a man, to describe him as a mess was to be polite.

The slender kid from Brooklyn’s tough Park Slope section with a powerful bat, and sure hands and feet at first base, waged a war inside his heart and soul. He threw his career into a wild morass of long nights, reckless spending, wanton sex, and bouts of indifference. He may have been a fresh air blast through the staid Yankee image, but it sprang from and then dug its own tortuous well.

Pepitone was the oldest son of a violently abusive Brooklyn construction worker whom he worshiped and feared at once. The elder Pepitone didn’t seem to know or care about the distinctions between true misbehaviour and simple human error. The bruises and welts on his son’s body (he once clocked his son a shot that sent the kid’s head through the glass of a washing machine door) would prove nothing compared to those in the boy’s head and heart.

When Pepitone began attracting baseball scouts’ attention as a teenager, his father’s temper hit further verbal extremes; a heart attack forced the old man to stop beating him at last. But when the boy interceded in an argument between his parents, and the father lashed at him with particular malevolence, the boy blurted out to his mother, perhaps out of years of pain, “I really wish he’d die!”

Two days later, that’s just what happened, thanks to a second heart attack, sending Pepitone into a mental prison of guilt even as it spun him into a sense of liberation. In time, he’d sign with the Yankees and spend his entire signing bonus (including on a flashy Thunderbird convertible) en route his first spring training camp in 1958. (Stengel invariably called him “Pepperone.”)

He was lively and fun-loving, but he also used his Yankee affiliation to attract women who took him to their beds—even if it meant eventually trashing his first two marriages and costing himself three children. After a trip through the minors that was as randily adventurous as productive on the field, Pepitone reached the Yankees in spring 1962.

He’d show enough that the Yankees traded veteran incumbent Moose Skowron to the Dodgers for 1963. He would have his moments until the Yankees finally threw their hands up and traded him to the Astros after the 1969 season: a solid 1963; blasting a World Series grand slam (Game Six, 1964); a 31-homer season (1966); three Gold Gloves at first base.

He was fan friendly, and stories abound about his unfailing politeness and sincerity when meeting fans during and after his playing career. “To know Joe Pepitone,” wrote sportswriter Bill Madden in Pride of October: What It Was to Be Young and a Yankee, “was always to like Joe Pepitone . . . He just never felt secure enough to believe people could really like him for who he was, a genuinely giving person . . . whose only real weakness was the addiction to celebrity.”

His Yankee popularity was also his entree to such heavy spending bills that it wasn’t uncommon to discover process servers greeting him on the road and at home. The shakiest Yankee of his time, he sometimes disappeared without word and returned with remorse that lasted until the next party, the next bedmate, the next suspension, the next battle in his lifelong mental and spiritual war.

Exiled from the Yankees, Pepitone chafed under the more heavily-regimented Astro regime of the time, got himself suspended when he jumped the team to return to New York, and got himself picked up by the Cubs on the waiver wire in August 1970. A year later, he had arguably his best season as a player. While a Cub, he met a Playboy Bunny who’d become his third wife and with whom he had two more children.

Pepitone still couldn’t defeat his inner furies or avoid damaging his personal and familial relationships, alas. (The Yankees once sent him to an analyst, but he said he feared the analyst was far more interested in Yankee favour than in him.) Two businesses he co-formed failed; the second, a Chicago bar, lost clientele following a Chicago police investigation into rampant drug activity in the area, forcing Pepitone, its celebrity co-owner, to sell his share.

He retired, then un-retired in 1972, then was traded to the Braves in early 1973. Despite seeming to rediscover his form at the plate in four games as a Brave, Pepitone retired from the Show for good in May 1973. He went to Japan on a two-year contract with the Yakult Atoms (long since known as the Swallows).

After driving home the game winner against the Yomiuri Giants in his first game, he and his wife struggled enough to acclimate to Japan. His baseball passion waned; he claimed injuries to stay out of games while hitting the nightclubs or traveling to America and back regardless. Finally he asked for and obtained his release. His surname became Japanese vernacular for loafing.

Pepitone returned to New York, where he started an Italian delicatessen restaurant that also failed. He tried a brief baseball comeback in the Pacific Coast League before playing professional softball for a spell. By the end of the 1970s he’d become a Yankee minor league instructor, a role in which he was credited with helping a solid-hitting kid named Don Mattingly sharpen himself into an above-average defensive first baseman.

He coached first base for the Yankees briefly in 1982. He was arrested in 1985 with two other men when the driver ran a red light but drugs were found in the car. He spent time in New York’s notorious Riker’s Island jail in 1988 on misdemeanor drug convictions; he was busted for a 1992 fight in the Catskills after a man denounced him as “a washed-up nobody.” In 1995 he pleaded guilty to DUI after a crash in the Queens Midtown Tunnel. In the new century, his third marriage ended in divorce as well.

“I gave [my family] 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,” he wrote in his 1975 memoir, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud. “I know now that you can’t [eff] 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.”

Joe Pepitone

Pepitone talking to reporters before a Yankees’ Old Timers’ Day event.

It only took three more decades from there before Pepitone—who once enticed Mantle and Whitey Ford into smoking marijuana, and who maintained a working relationship with the Yankees after his playing days and through all his future troubles—finally seemed to act on such truths. (He may or may not have been prodded, too, by a book written by two nephews, Soul of a Yankee, mixing biography with fantasy in a likely bid to shake and wake their uncle fully at last.)

“I began seeing a psychiatrist and I learned that I’m bipolar,” he told Society for American Baseball Research biographer David Krell in 2018, adding that he rebuilt relationships with his family, his second and third former wives, and three of his five children. Pepitone eventually moved to Kansas City to live with one of his daughters.

Abused children go forward in numerous ways. Not all dive as deeply into the demimonde and wreak the havoc upon their loved ones and their selves that Pepitone wreaked. He came from a time in which child abuse and bipolarity were little discussed, if at all. He chose the wrong salves without building or sustaining real support around him. If he truly rebuilt those relationships and finally came to full terms with his self-immolation, it speaks well of the man he became at long enough last.

But it could have been so much different, so much earlier, for those Pepitone loved and for himself, and in that order. May the Lord confer continued healing upon those he left behind, justice upon the father who so damaged him, and mercy upon himself.