By Arnie Leshin
Joe Pepitone was a true New Yorker.
Born in the borough of Brooklyn, he attended Manual Training High School there, signed with the New York Yankees, the team he grew up worshipping, in 1958, and wore his Major League pinstripes for the first time in 1962.
But when he was my neighbor across the Hudson in Fort Lee, N.J., he was no longer playing baseball, his days of that were over, he shared a high-tower apartment nearby the George Washington Bridge with his daughter Cara.
And still living with his daughter at her house now in Kansas City, Mo., he was found dead Monday morning according to his son, BJ, and the cause of death was not immediately clear, but BJ Pepitone said a heart attack was suspected.
He was quite a guy, no doubt different than any other athlete I knew. He gained recognition for his flamboyant personality, hairpieces, and penchant for nightlife.
He passed away at the age of 82.
As a player who handled first base as well as he did the women in his life, he helped the Yankees to their second straight World Series title, a team led by Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Elston Howard.
It was a time when most players were staid and conformist, except that “Peppy” drew attention for his off-the-field conduct. He was thought to be the first to bring a hair dryer into the clubhouse.
It was an artifact later given to the Baseball Reliquary and displayed at the Burbank Central Library in California during a 2004 exhibition: The Times They were A-Changin’: Baseball in the age of Aquarius.
He found other things to do. He posed nude for a January 1975 edition of Foxy Lady magazine.
Things were a little different back then, sure,” Pepitone told Rolling Stone in 2015. “When I brought the hair dryer into the clubhouse, they thought I was a hairdresser or something; they didn’t know what the hell was going on, you know?
“I’d walk in with a black Nehru jacket on, beads, my hair slicked back, it was ridiculous. I think about it now, and I laugh.”
Jim Bouton, the former Yankee pitcher, in his groundbreaking 1970 book Ball Four, it revealed the inner workings of baseball teams, recounted how Pepitone took to wearing the hairpieces when his hair began to get thin on the top, and that he carries around all kinds of equipment in a little Pan Am bag.
Pepitone was also known to hang out with the stars. His 1975 autobiography, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud, detailed night life with Frank Sinatra, smoking marijuana with Mantle and Whitey Ford, and his being jailed at Rikers Island just off the East River.
In 1980, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner brought Pepitone back as a minor league hitting instructor and promoted him to the big league team two year later. Pepitone said he would even trim his wigs to comply with the Yankees’ grooming policy.
“This one,” he told the New York Times while holding one wig, “is my gamer. It’s got gray in it. The longer one is my going-outer”.
He was jailed in Rikers Island for about four months in 1968 after two misdemeanors drug convictions, then was rehired by the Yankees to work with minor leaguers.
Despite being treated with goody assignments by the Yankees, he went on his wild and woolly ways. In 1992, he was arrested at a Catskills upstate New York resort for a brawl that started when a man called him a “Washed up nobody,” and pleaded guilty in 1995 to driving while intoxicated.
He joined his beloved Yankees at a high point in the franchise’s history. After winning the 1962 World Series, New York went on to win American League pennants the next two years only to lose in the World Series.
In the 60s, he was an All-Star and Gold Glove first basemen winner in three straight seasons.
He remained with the Yanks through their decline and was traded to Houston after the 1969 campaign for Curt Blefary.
He then went on to play for the Chicago Cubs from 1970-73 and finished his career with Atlanta and the Yakult Atoms of Japan’s Central League in 1973. In that span, he hit .258 with 219 home runs and 721 RBI.
Cara and BJ are children from Joe’s third marriage to Stephanie, who passed away in 2021.
The Yankees said in a statement Pepitone’s “playful and charismatic personality and on-field contributions made him a favorite of generations of Yankees fans even beyond his years with the team in the 1960s.”
We hung out quite a bit in Fort Lee, especially at the time I was covering the Yankees. He had a two bedroom, neat-looking apartment on the sixth floor, with his balcony steering at the GW Bridge.
He was a Heineken beer drinker, his daughter, Cara, liked wine and served me vodka Martinis. We played blackjack and poker and he always welcomed company.
Around the Fort Lee area, he was very well known, and attended Fort Lee High School baseball games seated with the principal John Mardy.
Yeah, quite a guy. Always had enough to do whether good or bad.