Name: Joe Pepitone
Position: First base/Center field
Born: October 9, 1940 (Brooklyn, NY)
Yankee Years: 1962-69
Primary number: 25
Yankee statistics: 1051 G, .252/.294/.423, 113 2B, 24 3B, 166 HR, 104 wRC+, 7.4 rWAR, 9.9 fWAR
No one can be Lou Gehrig. Very few can be Don Mattingly. For nine years in the '60s, the Yankees got Joe Pepitone, and really, was that so bad?
(Kinda) Hometown boy makes good
The man ubiquitously known as "Pepi" was born in the heart of Brooklyn just a little over a year before Pearl Harbor, and growing up, his life appeared typical of his generation--he grew his hair out, he was a free spirit, and he didn't always answer to authority. An upbringing that included an abusive father who once beat him and destroyed his new bike just for coming home three minutes late certainly didn't help with that. Nonetheless, Pepitone was a sandlot star who learned the game on the streets of New York and whose claim to fame until high was that he could hit "four sewers" in stickball. While attending Manual Training High School in Brooklyn (which later became the now-defunct John Jay High School), he was dealt a crushing blow when a friend of his accidentally shot him in the stomach.
By sheer luck though, Pepitone survived without any major organs getting hurt, and just two weeks later, he was back in school. (Theoretically, anyway.) The Yankees watched him grow up just a few boroughs over and jumped at the chance to sign him when he finished up school in 1958; Pepitone was one of the team's last big American amateur signings before Major League Baseball instituted the draft in 1965. The Yankees gave him a $20,000 bonus and he reported to Class D Auburn about 260 miles upstate. He only made it into 16 games on the record, but he left a strong first impression by hitting .321 with a .491 slugging percentage.
The next season was a bigger test for him, as he went far, far away from home for the first time to the Fargo-Moorhead Twins in the Class C Northern League. Pepitone was undaunted, and he hit .283/.345/.482 with 35 doubles, 12 triples, and 14 homers in 123 games. Over the next two years with Class A Binghamton and Double-A Amarillo, Pepitone converted from center field to first base, toiled away, and moved up the levels. His .316/.364/.525 triple slash with 21 homers in '61 was actually impressive enough for the Yankees to take the 21-year-old north with them to the Bronx at the start of the '62 season. The Yankees' future at first base had arrived.
The '62 Yankees were coming off one of the greatest seasons in franchise history, and they already had veteran Bill "Moose" Skowron entrenched at first base, so Pepitone did not see much playing time in his rookie season. Manager Ralph Houk often deployed Pepitone as a pinch-hitter, and it was in that role that he registered his first career hit, a clean single to right against Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning. On May 5th, Pepitone slugged the first of his 219 career homers, and it was a big one. The Yankees were inexplicably trailing the lowly Washington Senators 6-2 entering the eighth, but they rallied on a three-run homer by Yogi Berra to make it a one-run game, and Johnny Blanchard walked to bring up Pepitone as the go-ahead run. Reliever Marty Kutyna came in to stem the tide, but Pepitone took him deep to right-center field for a two-run bomb and the Yankees went on to win, 7-6.
Although Houk liked Pepitone's power and his flexibility to be used occasionally in the outfield, he showed little plate discipline and the Yankees were disappointed with his .242/.262/.417 triple slash, so toward the end of July, they sent him to Triple-A Richmond for more seasoning. Motivated to prove he belonged back in the majors, Pepitone set the International League on fire with a .315/.342/.539 triple slash in 46 games. Upon his return to the Yankees in mid-September, he only had two hits in 11 plate appearances, but they were both pinch-hit homers in games the Yankees won. They ended up six games ahead of the Twins to clinch their third straight AL pennant and beat the Giants in seven games to win their 20th World Series title. Pepitone did not play in the Fall Classic, but he received a World Series ring in his first season. Little did he and the Yankees that it would be the only one of Pepitone's career and the franchise would go title-less for the next 15 years.
The Yankees were encouraged enough by Pepitone's performance that they deemed Skowron expendable, so they use him as a trade chip in a November '62 deal with the Dodgers to acquire young starter Stan Williams. The first base job was there for the taking, and Pepitone seized it with an All-Star sophomore season. The lefty took advantage of the short porch in left field by belting 27 homers in 157 games and quickly became a Manhattan idol through both his play and unique style. Pepitone had his uniform fit as tight as possible with flannel, abandoning the previous standard of baggy uniforms. Add in some classic Italian good looks that hearkened back to previous Yankees Tony Lazzeri, Joe DiMaggio, and it was easy to see how Pepitone rose to fame.
With Pepitone at first base and solid seasons from many contributors, especially MVP catcher Elston Howard, the Yankees won their fourth straight pennant with 104 victories, the sixth-highest total in franchise history. It was five more wins than the NL champion Dodgers, but the boys in blue had the devastating duo of Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale ready to tackle the Yankees. The Bronx Bombers were absolutely silenced in the Fall Classic, as they were held to a .171/.207/.240 triple slash in the four-game sweep. Skowron even got his revenge with a Game 2 homer against Al Downing, and in the decisive Game 4, a 1-1 tie was broken in the seventh on a sacrifice fly that followed a three-base error by the normally sure-handed Pepitone at first, who lost third baseman Clete Boyer's throw in the background of white shirts.
The Yankees rebounded from the sweep and an inauspicious start to the '64 campaign under rookie manager Yogi Berra to collect their record-tying fifth consecutive pennant, though Pepitone did not have as good a year as his breakout '63 campaign. He was named an All-Star and topped '63 with 28 homers but his plate discipline took a tumble with a .281 on-base percentage. In the World Series against the Cardinals, he hit his only career World Series homer with an eighth inning grand slam in the Yankees' 8-3 Game 6 victory to force a seventh game, but for the second straight year, he had an OPS south of .600 in the World Series. He would never play another game in the World Series again.
The '65 campaign was the beginning of the end of the Yankees' long period of dominance since the days of Babe Ruth. With the disinterested CBS ownership purchasing the team and stars Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Whitey Ford all declining without much of a youth infusion aside from Pepitone, Downing, and Mel Stottlemyre, not even hiring the manager who just beat them in the World Series, Johnny Keane, helped them stave off their first under-.500 season in 40 years. (That streak of avoiding losing seasons still stands as the record today; the current Yankees are high on the list of over-.500 streaks, but they are still barely over halfway to the 1926-64 Yankees.) Pepitone earned his third straight All-Star nod and even won a Gold Glove at first base, but personal accomplishments were lost amid such a disappointing year.
Things only got worse in '66 as the Yankees completed their tumble from first in '64 to worst in '66 with a last-place 70-89 season. Keane was fired after a 4-16 start with Houk returning to the dugout from the front office. Pepitone might have actually had his career year in '66 with a personal best 31 homers, 2.7 fWAR, and another Gold Glvoe, but as in '65, it was all for naught. In '67, the Yankees asked Pepitone to become a full-time centerfielder in order to allow Mantle to finally shift to first base in an attempt to keep the future Hall of Famer healthy. (The Yankees' ideal future center fielder, Bobby Murcer, was off serving in the military.) Pepitone wasn't a very good centerfielder, but it was a move made the keep Mantle in the lineup. It worked, as Mantle's 144 games marked his most since '61, and despite playing in a high-pitching era, his .245/.391/.434 triple slash was meritorious of a 149 OPS+.
During this time, the Yankees grew even more wary of Pepitone's work ethic, as he sometimes would not show up at Yankee Stadium until minutes before the game. In his book Pinstripe Empire, Marty Appel noted several occasions when Houk and the front office working with the New York Police Department trying to track Pepitone down before game time. To his credit, Pepitone always showed up, but the Yankees certainly deemed his associates shady. There were also bizarre incidents that angered Houk, like an electrician Pepitone hired accidentlaly interrupting a team meeting to set up a personal hair dryer in the clubhouse. Such was life with Pepitone.
Pepitone played one more season as a regular in center field before Mantle retired in spring training of '69, enabling Pepitone to move back to first base. He immediately resumed his defensive prowess with a third Gold Glove that year, and he tacked on 27 homers as well. While they finished just half a game under .500 at 80-81, it was the team's fourth season in five years with a losing record. After the season, the Yankees were finally tired of Pepitone's act, and though he was only 29, they dealt him to the Houston Astros for outfielder Curt Blefary.
Quick decline away from the porch
Somewhat surprisingly, Pepitone only had a couple good years left him in despite his young age. He split the 1970 season with the Astros and Cubs, slugging 26 homers between the Astrodome and Wrigley Field with a 106 OPS+ campaign. He followed that up with a .307/.347/.482 year at Wrigley, good for a 122 OPS+ in '71. That would be his last great year, as he plummeted to 66 games played in '72 and 34 in '73 due to injury and ineffectiveness. He ended his MLB career with three games on the Braves, then midseason in '73, tried to revitalize his career in Japan with the Yakult Atoms. Pepitone was terrible, batting just .163/.265/.233 in 14 games before leaving the team. After two years away from the game, he tried to come back with the Padres' Triple-A affiliate in Hawaii at age 35 in '76, but he only made it into 13 games before being forced to realize his career was over. So ended one of the most colorful careers in baseball history.
Overall, Pepitone didn't have the most glorious of Yankee careers, but he did a fine job anyway despite the controversy and losing teams around him. Fans recognize this fact, as he always receives a warm ovation at Old Timers' Day festivities. Here's to you, Pepi.
Image courtesy of USA Today Sports.
Andrew's rank: 89
Tanya's rank: 84
Community rank: 62.5
rWAR rank: 92
|NYY (8 yrs)||1051||4115||3841||435||967||113||24||166||541||31||23||223||413||0.252||0.294||0.423||0.718||105||1626||7.4||9.9|
Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Pepitone, Joe. Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud. New York: Playboy Press, 1975.