Former Yankee star Joe Pepitone passed away Monday at the age of 82. Born in Brooklyn, Pepi, as he was known, brought style and pizzazz to the staid New York Yankees when he arrived on the scene as a brash rookie in 1962. He was known as much for his waves of dark hair as he was for his power hitting and slick fielding. He shocked the major leagues by bringing a hairdryer into the locker room and though the world may have been on the edge of nuclear war, Pepi stole the headlines with his blow-dried locks.
Pepitone’s emergence allowed the Yankees to trade away their solid first baseman Bill Skowron at the end of the ’62 season for Dodger pitcher Stan Williams. Pepi then took over first base and had several fine seasons for the Bombers. He was a three-time All-Star and helped lead New York to two American League Pennants in 1963 and 1964. He averaged 23 home runs a season over his seven years as a starter for New York and earned three Gold Gloves for his exceptional play at first base. Remarkably, it was Pepi who took over in centerfield when the hobbling Mickey Mantle moved to first base in 1967.
My most searing memory of Pepitone came in the 1963 World Series. It was game four and the Yanks were up against the wall, down three games to zero to the LA Dodgers. The Dodgers had extraordinary pitching that year led by the unhittable duo of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Koufax was pitching another masterpiece in game four, matched by a superlative pitching performance by Whitey Ford. Trailing 1-0 in the top of the seventh, Mantle gave New York hope with a game-tying home run. But in the bottom of the seventh disaster struck for the Yanks. Jim Gilliam hit a routine ground ball to Clete Boyer at third, but Pepitone at first base astonishingly failed to catch the cross-diamond throw from Boyer. The throw hit the heel of Pepitone’s glove and bounded far enough away to allow Gilliam to go all the way to third. Tommy Davis then knocked in Gilliam with a sacrifice fly and Koufax sealed the 2-1 victory for the Dodgers with two scoreless innings in the eighth and ninth. Pepi later explained that he momentarily lost Boyer’s throw in the light-colored shirts of the sundrenched fans behind third base. It was a crushing way to end the series even though New York was thoroughly over-matched by the LA pitching.
Pepitone somewhat redeemed himself in the 1964 World Series with a big grand slam home run against the Cardinals leading New York to a win in game six. Ultimately Pepi’s time ended in disappointment with the Yankees. Known as the “Prince of Potential” or “a poor man’s Joe Namath” the glamour boy never reached the heights of stardom hoped for by Yankee fans. After their AL pennant in 1964 the fortunes for the Yankees faded as did those of the flashy young phenom named Joe Pepitone.
Pepi finished his career playing with modest success for the Chicago Cubs. After he retired in 1973, he became a fixture at Yankee Old-Timers’ games and his warm personality and delightful sense of humor continued to charm Yankee fans. He will surely be missed.
RIP # 25
Baseball Almanac, Baseball-reference.com, Alan Zevin/NYTimes