There have been three professional baseball players I’m aware of from my Gravesend/Bensonhurst (Brooklyn) neighborhood: The one-of-a-kind Dodgers’ pitcher Sandy Koufax (who’d refused to play on the Jewish holidays, and made us all proud although we didn’t really know why!), John Franco, and Joe Pepitone, who was the NY Yankees’ first baseman in the mid-1960s.
You can still see the license-plate with Koufax’s name on it, on a black Jaguar on the next block. (Sandy’s? Or maybe a supporter’s?)
The Mets’ great relief pitcher, John Franco, grew up a few buildings over in the Marlboro Projects, and I remember him and his dad, who was a sanitation worker, from when I was a kid. (I vaguely remember some tension with them over a bus trip my parents organized for kids in the Projects to Hershey Pennsylvania when I was a junior at Stuyvesant High School, but don’t have a clue any longer what it was about)
Pepitone was sort of a gangsta from Bensonhurst, beaten by his father, who went on to live the high life as a Yankee in the mid 60s. He went to High school in Park Slope, before it was gentrified. When I lived there in 1977 thru 1982 the Slope was still a dangerous Mecca for activists. Similar in some ways to Coney Island. Even by the late 1970s I’d the opportunity to watch a patron of a particular bar on 7th Avenue come stumbling out with a knife in his back and fall face down on the sidewalk right in front of me. Same as, sometimes, we’d come across bodies on the beach in Coney Island. (They don’t call it Gravesend for nuthin!)
Pepitone was involved in some shooting incidents–he was shot by a classmate while in High School in 1958 and was lucky to survive. He is quoted in a newspaper article about the incident: “The kid was one of those wild ones you read about. He found this rusty gun on the docks and brought it to school. We were just finishing out last class, in office machines, and I was getting my coat.
“I was so frightened, I backed right into the clothes closet. The next thing I knew he had pulled the trigger. I didn’t feel a thing. I looked at my stomach and saw a hole. There was no blood. That’s all I remembered until after the operation.” (“Lucky to Be a Yankee — Luckier to Be Alive,” Associated Press, New York World-Telegram and Sun, February 26, 1962.)
Pepitone was called up by the Yankees in 1962, and he became only the 2nd Yankee ever (the first being Joe DiMaggio) to hit two home runs in one inning, which was special for the rookie as it portended an exciting continuation of the NY Yankee legacy following the thrilling 1961 season. At the end of the year they traded Moose Skowron to the Dodgers to make a spot for Joe to play 1st base, and he got two hits off of fellow Brooklynite Sandy Koufax in the World Series (which the Yankees lost in 4 straight games).
Pepitone was real smooth defensively at first base picking throws out of the dirt–except for one infamous throw by Yankee 3rd baseman Clete Boyer in game 4 of that year’s World Series in LA. Pepitone lost the ball in the glare of the LA crowd’s white shirts, he said, and that cost the Yankees the game and, he felt, the Series. Joe said, “Boyer’s throw was perfect. It was right there. I just lost it in the crowd. All I could see was spots. The ball hit me on the right wrist, then went up my arm and bounced off my chest.” (New York Times, October 7, 1963.)
As a Yankee, Pepitone lived the high life. He was the first pro baseball player to bring a hair dryer into the locker room along with various wigs, and loaded up his Pan Am carry bag with hair accoutrements. Yup, Joe Pepitone. He’d graduated from high school gun issues and now studied bar brawls (following the path paved by Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin and Whitey Ford). Unlike the great Mets’ pitcher Tom Seaver, who’d taken out full page anti-war ads in the New York papers, I do not know if Joe got involved in any of the political movements of the 60s, except to make use of some of the availability of drugs. In fact, Pepitone says he would get Mickey Mantle stoned on something besides alcohol, and after being traded to the Chicago Cubs Joe had this to say to Rolling Stone Magazine’s Dan Epstein in 2015:
“Oh, I loved it. The only year I hit .300 was there [in Chicago, 1971]. I started off going good, and the fans, I got crazy with them. The Bleacher Bums at the Cubs’ ballpark [Wrigley Field] they’d hit me in the back with a [bleeping] football during warm-ups, and I’d turn around and play catch with them. One time, someone hit me in the back with some foil, all wrapped up, and there’s like four joints in it. I went and stuck it in the ivy on the outfield wall, but I remembered where I put it. [Laughs] Once they saw me do that, the regular Bleacher Bums started throwing things at me every day; I’d get hit with a little packet, I’d look and there’s a gram of coke in there. I was like, “Holy [bleep]!” Right into the ivy with it! [Laughs] I’m telling you, I got speed, I got everything. Used to be I was always the first person at the ballpark, and the first one to leave; next thing you know, people are wondering why I’m hanging out at the ballpark so long. Leo [Durocher] goes, “You still here?” “Yeah, I gotta get a rubdown from the trainer!” Then I’d be out in center field with my shorts on, looking through the ivy to find my dope. [Laughs] I loved Chicago! With the [stuff] I was getting in center field, I woulda played for nothing!”
Jim Bouton, in his controversial book “Ball Four,” had a bit to say about Pepitone, like the others, but I think I’ll just leave it here.
And now he’s gone. Joe Pepitone–a great Brooklyn baseball name and colorful player –died on March 13 of this year (2023) at age 82 of a likely heart attack.
Joe exemplified the neighborhood, along with Sandy Koufax and John Franco — in very different ways, personally, but baseball–ah, baseball!–was on every boy’s brain in the early and mid-60s, until the Civil Rights movement, Kennedy assassination, and War on Vietnam kicked it off the frontal lobes. Can’t say I’m nostalgic for those times, but I do remember those World Series, and how after school every day we’d become our favorite players. I remember one 15-year-old sliding safely into 2nd base on the cement of Lafayette High School’s ball “field” (now covered by teachers’ cars). None of us could believe that he would actually slide on the cement! The idiot kid tore up his jeans along with his leg, wearing Number 25 just like his loony local idol.
Seeya Joe. And thanks for the memories. Brooklyn to the end!