Name: Joseph Anthony Pepitone
Position: First baseman
Born: October 9, 1940 (Brooklyn, NY)
Died: March 13, 2023 (Kansas City, MO)
Yankee Years: 1962-69
Primary number: 25
Yankee statistics: 1,051 games, .252/.294/.423, 166 HR, 112 2B, 24 3B, 541 RBI, 105 OPS+, 7.4 rWAR, 9.9 fWAR
There are players from every era of the Yankees who weren’t good enough to make the Hall of Fame, and who weren’t good enough to be honored in Monument Park or anything like that, but still made a notable impact on minds of fans. By Joe Pepitone’s own admission, he could’ve been even better than he was, and he was pretty good. However, thanks to his play on the field, his exploits off it, and plenty of references in pop culture, his name lives on in the minds of Yankees’ fans.
Joe Pepitone was born on October 9, 1940, in the very city he would go on play in professionally. The oldest of three boys, he grew up in Brooklyn with his parents Willie and Angelina. Although Joe said he loved and admired his father, the elder Pepitone could be abusive, both physically and emotionally. In one particular incident, Joe telling his father “I hate you!” caused Willie to hurl an ash tray in the direction of his son. It didn’t hit Joe, but it smashed against the wall, causing shards to fly in his eyes. There was no permanent damage, but the physical abuse did end after that harrowing incident. His father passed away in 1958, just the day after Joe had told his mom that “I wish he’d die” after another blowup between the two of them.
Pepitone was introduced to baseball by an uncle, and honed his game playing in the sandlots of New York City. A star in high school at Manual Training High School (now John Jay High School), Pepitone also played for Nathan’s Hot Dog semipro team when he began to catch the eyes of scouts. However, he had another nearly life-altering incident before he began his professional career.
In March 1958, just weeks before Pepitone would begin in minor league career, he was shot in an incident at his high school. A classmate had found a gun on the docks, and had pointed it — possibly, hopefully jokingly — at Pepitone, who didn’t know what was happening, tried backing away. The gun accidentally went off, and Pepitone had been shot straight through the stomach. Thankfully, Pepitone somehow escaped mostly uninjured, and signed for the Yankees shortly after that.
Minor League Years and Breakthrough
Ahead of the 1958 season, the Yankees said the local kid and intriguing prospect for $25,000 and assigned him to the Auburn Yankees in upstate New York. At just 17, Pepitone impressed, OPSing .900 in 16 games.
The next year, Pepitone truly began to make his mark, recording 61 extra-base hits in 123 games with the Class C Fargo-Moorhead Twins. He spent 1960 in Binghamton, and then ‘61 with the Amarillo Gold Sox where he continued to impress. That got him an invite to big league spring training with the Yankees for 1962. The Yankees were riding high that year, coming off a World Series title and Roger Maris’ record-breaking 61 home runs the season prior. Yet, Pepitone was still impressive enough that he managed to crack that team and made the Yankees to start the 1962 season.
Pepitone made his MLB debut on Opening Day of that season, coming in as a pinch-hitter for pitcher Whitey Ford with the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead in the sixth inning. His career got off to an inconspicuous start, as he grounded into an inning-ending double play and was replaced as pitcher Ralph Terry took over for him. Three days later, he recorded his first big-league hit — a single when he was again pinch-hitter for the pitcher’s spot.
Early on, Pepitone’s playing time was sparse with Bill “Moose” Skowron entrenched as the Yankees’ first baseman. However as the calendar turned to May, manager Ralph Houk began to use him more, often deploying him in the outfield. That run included a May 23rd game where he hit two home runs in one inning. However despite showing some flashes, Pepitone was struggling a bit over the course of June and July. That plus an incident where he was spotted out after curfew led to the Yankees sending him down. Upon dismissal to the minors, he got back on track, hitting .315 with an .885 OPS with the Richmond Virginians. Pepitone ended up returning to the majors in September, appearing in eight more MLB games before the end of the season. However, he wasn’t included on the World Series roster as the Yankees eked out a dramatic seven-game victory over the Giants.
Despite all that, Pepitone seemed to regain the trust of the Yankees’ front office, who showed their faith by trading Skowron ahead of the 1963 season. With the first base position his for the taking, Pepitone quickly rewarded that faith. On Opening Day, he homered twice and doubled once in an 8-2 win over the Kansas City Athletics.
The 1963 season would go on to be a breakthrough one for Pepitone. He slugged 27 home runs and was named an All-Star, starting the game at first base. Pepitone helped the Yankees to another AL pennant in ‘63, but this time they fell short in the Fall Classic, getting swept by the Sandy Koufax-led Dodgers. While he was far from the only one in a rut, Pepitone struggled in the World Series, going just 2-for-13.
Becoming a name; on and off the field
As Pepitone became a regular on the field, his stature began to grow off the field. He was regarded as a fashion icon among baseball players of the time, and is alleged to be the first player to ever bring a hair dryer into a locker room. Add in the fact that he was of Italian heritage playing in New York City, and he became a beloved figure.
In 1964, Pepitone took a step back from ‘63 but was still named an AL All-Star, clubbing 28 home runs over the course of the season. He again helped the Yankees to the pennant, but this time they fell to the Cardinals in seven games. Pepitone again didn’t have the best of series, going 4-for-26 with two walks and a controversial hit-by-pitch from Bob Gibson in Game 2. (Gibson and catcher Tim McCarver protested that the ball had hit the bat and not Pepitone, but the umpires disagreed, which helped lead to a Yankees run and win.)
Pepitone did at least notch his first career World Series homer when he crushed a grand slam off Gordie Richardson in the eighth inning of Game 6, which put that game to bed.
Little would anyone have guessed at the time, but the loss in Game 7 in 1964 would be the last postseason game Pepitone would appear in for the Yankees or any other team.
After the ‘64 campaign, the Yankees let go of rookie manager and team legend Yogi Berra and replaced him with Johnny Keane, who had just led St. Louis past the Yankees in that World Series. Pepitone and Keane would have their disagreements during the year, with the first baseman twice getting fined for showing up late. On the field, he was again named an All-Star and even won a Gold Glove in 1965, but the Yankees slipped to sixth in the standings, beginning to show the malaise that would overtake them during the CBS ownership years.
In 1966, Pepitone put in arguably the best season of his major league career in an individual sense. He slugged 31 home runs and 21 doubles, both of which would go down as career highs. Unfortunately, he was one of few young players truly making a mark for the team. With much of the dynasty era beginning to age out of their primes, Pepitone, a still productive but now 34-yea- old Mickey Mantle, and company could only do so much. Keane got fired after a 4-16 start, to replaced by a returning Houk. That couldn’t change the Yankees’ fortunes as they finished in 10th place, the franchise’s first last-place finish since 1912.
In 1967, the Yankees had Pepitone take over in center field, with Mickey Mantle playing first in an attempt to keep the aging star on the field. That part of it worked, and Pepitone had another solid season on the whole, but his defense in center left a little to be desired. The team in while again wasn’t that great, finishing in ninth.
Still playing center in 1968, Pepitone had the best offensive season of his career in New York according to OPS+. His .245/.311/.403 batting line equated to a 120 OPS+ that trailed just Mantle and Roy White among Yankees, although he was limited to just 108 games. While the team improved, they still finished a distant fifth, and off the field, the front office began to sour on Pepitone and his off the field antics. Several times, the team reportedly had to get the NYPD’s help to track down Pepitone before games.
With Mantle now retired, Pepitone returned to first base for 1969. He recaptured his Gold Glove-winning form defensively and put in another solid season at the plate. Off the field however, he no-showed a few games, left during the middle of one, and also dealt with some injuries. After one such incident and apology, he was sent up late as a pinch-hitter in a game against the expansion Seattle Pilots and was booed by fans after making an out. Between all that and the fact that he was one of the higher paid players on a struggling team, the Yankees moved on after the ‘69 season, trading him to Houston Astros for Curt Blefary.
Post-Yankees Years and getting plunked by Kramer
After his departure from the Yankees, Pepitone played four further seasons in the majors. He quickly clashed with the overbearing and totalitarian nature of the Astros’ management, leading to Houston selling him to the Cubs partway through the 1970 season. There, he jived with manager Leo Duroucher, putting in a solid second half in 1970, and his best season in years in ‘71.
After that, Pepitone briefly retired, having not gotten an expected salary increase for 1972. While he eventually returned, injuries also affected that season, limiting him to 66 games. After a slow start to 1973, the Cubs traded him to the Braves. The move to Atlanta shocked him a bit, and he quit the team after just three games. He tried to go to Japan and play overseas later that season, but after 14 games and a .163 average, Pepitone requested and was granted a release from the Yakult Atoms. Other than a very brief stint in the Padres’ minor league system in 1976, that would be the end of his professional baseball career.
After his playing career, Pepitone spent some time with the Yankees as a coach, helping Don Mattingly master first base defensively. While he was arrested several times and even did prison time after a 1988 drug conviction, Pepitone remained a beloved figure in Yankee lore. He was a regular attendee of Old-Timers’ Days, where he often received nice hands from the crowds. He released an autobiography entitled Joe, You Could Made Us Proud, where he was fairly candid about his foibles throughout his playing career, that also led the endings of his three marriages. Despite all that, his status as a idol of 1960s Yankees’ fans also likely led to some pop culture references that will live on for a long time.
The most memorable of them are the refences to him in Seinfeld, including the story of how the character Kramer plunked him and started a brawl at a Yankees’ fantasy camp.
Besides that, he was also referenced in a flashback scene in The Sopranos.
Pepitone passed away just earlier this year on March 13th at the age of 82. On numbers, you can’t mistake Pepitone for an all-time great, but his status as a beloved Yankee is certainly earned.
Staff Rank: 90
Community Rank: 94
Stats Rank: N/A
2013 Rank: 83
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Krell, David. SABR Bio
Pepitone, Joe. Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud. New York: Playboy Press, 1975.