They don’t make ballplayers like Joe Pepitone anymore. I’ll leave that up to you, the reader, to decide whether that is something good or bad for our great game.
By the time that Topps issued this card as part of its 1968 set, Pepitone had established himself as arguably the most colorful character in the history of the Yankee franchise. That was certainly a tall task of grand proportions, given the precedence of former oddball Yankees like Frank “Ping” Bodie, Lefty Gomez, and manager Casey Stengel.
Considered a can’t miss-prospect who was fully capable of playing all three outfield positions and first base, Pepitone first reached the major leagues in 1962, joining a Yankees team that featured a conservative front office and a staid approach to playing the game. Pepitone’s flamboyance ran counter to the Yankee way. Incredibly vain, he arrived at spring training flashing a new Ford Thunderbird, bragging about his new boat, and wearing a new sharkskin suit. When the young star didn’t hustle during the regular season, he was greeted with angry catcalls from his veteran teammates, reminding him not to “mess with their money.” They were referring to their almost annual World Series shares, which they felt would become threatened if Pepitone’s lack of hustle continued.
Off the field, Pepitone’s love of the fast lane reflected the lifestyle preferences of established Yankees like Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. Yet, there was something different about Pepitone’s way, which was less discreet, less subtle, and far more palpable. In perhaps his most blatant indiscretion, Pepitone occasionally didn’t show up for games, leading to speculation that he was being pursued by bookies for unpaid gambling debts.
Whether it was cavorting in nightclubs or prancing around the clubhouse, Pepitone provided an unsightly sideshow for Yankee teammates and the New York media. Oh, he won three Gold Gloves and put up some good power numbers–once hitting 31 homers and four other times exceeding 25 long balls in a season–but he never batted better than .271 in New York, rarely drew walks, and committed too many mental errors on the base paths. By the end of the 1960s, his inability to fulfill his immense potential had become a symbol of a once proud Yankee franchise that had lost its focus and gone astray, reduced to also-ran status in the American League.
Perhaps Pepitone’s legacy as a Yankee is best defined by his contributions to the game’s changing cultural landscape in the late 1960s. He became a baseball pioneer of sorts when he became the first man to bring a blow dryer into a major league clubhouse. Pepi’s trendsetting maneuver struck some as ironic, given that he consistently wore hairpieces over his balding pate. In fact, Pepitone used two pieces; he sported a larger wig for social settings and a smaller one–his “gamer”–that snugly fit under his cap and helmet at the ballpark. Both pieces, by the way, looked ghastly. Pepitone also sported long, thick sideburns during the latter stages of his career. Unlike his various wigs, the sideburns were real–but no less hideous.
On December 4, 1969, Pepitone took his sideburns and wigs elsewhere. Convinced that stardom would never happen for him, the Yankees decided to give him up in a straight-up exchange for Curt “Clank” Blefary, another character in his own right. The trade landed Pepitone in Houston, where he would play for the Astros. Somehow, the image of Pepitone wearing a ten-gallon hat didn’t seem quite right.
If there was ever an athlete who didn’t figure to assimilate into a foreign culture, it was Pepitone. Unfortunately, he was the last one to come to that realization. After unsuccessful stints with the Cubs, Astros, and Braves, Pepitone took his act to the Japanese Leagues, where he cashed a far bigger paycheck–paying him $140,000–than he would have earned in the majors. Making like the proverbial lead balloon, Pepitone made no effort to conform to the expectations of athletes in the Far East. He wore his hair long, at shoulder length, rather than the shorter style expected of professional baseball players in Japan. He complained about the long hours of practice demanded from Japanese managers and coaches. He also grumbled about the high prices of food and clothing, further alienating himself from the Japanese public. After hours, he preferred to spend his spare time at the local discos, dancing and drinking for hours rather than mentally preparing for the next day’s game.
In a development that should have surprised no one, Pepitone lasted 14 games with the Yakult Atoms and batted only .163. He did manage to leave a legacy, though, in two different ways. Pepitone left behind a massive phone bill, which he never paid. He also influenced the creation of a new word in Japanese–a “pepitone.” Translated roughly into English, the slang word means “goof-off.” In either language, the word was quite fitting in describing the irresponsible ways of a player who once seemed destined for greatness.
Although his Japanese tenure lasted just a handful of games, Pepitone has not been forgotten in the Far East. The same can be said in western culture. Pepitone was referenced no fewer than three times on Seinfeld, arguably the greatest situation comedy in American history. Who can forget Kramer’s vivid tale of his adventures at Yankee fantasy camp, when he buzzed Pepitone for standing too close to the plate, triggering an all-out brawl?
Knowing Pepitone, that’s just the kind of thing that could have happened to him in real life.