Pepitone's baseball legacy: one of the game's unforgettable characters

If Joe Pepitone had dedicated himself to it, he may have become a great baseball player.

Instead, Pepitone, who died March 13 at 82, became one of the game's unforgettable characters.

The best introduction to Pepitone's personality, warts and all, is the 1974 documentary "King of the Hill."

One early scene in the film, which followed the Cubs of 1972-73, is set in spring training in Arizona and focuses on the use of chewing tobacco.

Pepitone is shown playing first base. Sporting sideburns that would have made Elvis proud, he makes a pre-expectorant sound, pats his stomach and spits.

"It's a good thing I'm not coughing today," he says to nobody in particular.

The film then shows him razzing an umpire, tossing off a homophobic slur and finally telling him, "You're really a pain in the (butt)."

The umpire responds, "That makes two of us, Joe."

The narrator tells us, "First base is baseball's most sociable position. There are baserunners, coaches and umpires to talk to, and wild Joe Pepitone loved to talk."

Non-stop talk was only one element in Pepitone's vast repertoire of behavioral quirks. He often displayed the scar from a .38-caliber slug that ripped through his stomach and exited his back when he was accidentally shot by a fellow student showing off a revolver at Manual Training High School in Brooklyn.

Pepitone's stint with the Cubs was short but memorable. He had already achieved the dream of playing for the Yankees, the team he grew up rooting for, even though he grew up in Brooklyn.

He played for a World Series champion in his rookie season, 1962, although he didn't see postseason action.

He did play with two Yankees pennant winners in 1963 and 1964, in the same lineup alongside such greats as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, before the Bronx Bombers fell into uncharacteristic decline. During his stay with the Yankees, he made the All-Star team three times, was a three-time Gold Glover at first base, and hit a homer in the 1964 World Series.

But his accomplishments were overshadowed by his antics.

An Associated Press photo from 1968 showed him singing in the shower at Yankee Stadium after he drove in 6 runs, including four on a grand-slam homer, against the Minnesota Twins.

Jim Bouton portrayed him memorably in his iconoclastic "Ball Four."

"Ovations are nice and some guys sort of milk them. Like Joe Pepitone. If he had just the touch of an injury he'd squirm on the ground for a while and then stand up, gamely. And he'd get his ovation."

In another passage, Bouton wrote that he learned "an awful truth about Joe Pepitone. He has two different hairpieces. He's got a massive piece, which he wears when he's going out, and a smaller one to wear under his baseball cap. He calls it his game piece."

Further elaborating upon Pepitone's obsession with hair and hair pieces, Bouton wrote that Pepitone would carry around a bag containing a hot comb, greases and salves, glue for the hairpiece, hair straightener and a hair dryer.

Not surprisingly, Pepitone opened a Brooklyn boutique and men's hairstyling salon called Joe Pepitone Presents My Place.

By the end of the 1969 season, Pepitone had worn out his welcome in the Bronx, and the Yankees swapped him to the Astros for Curt Blefary.

The honeymoon with the Astros was brief. He was fined $250 for missing practice.

On another occasion, he was suspended after going home to New York instead of joining his team on a road trip, because the team assigned him a roommate, something he said he had never had in his years in the majors.

The Cubs acquired him for the $20,000 waiver price on July 29, 1970.

It seemed like the ideal solution for the Cubs and Pepitone, who plugged a badly needed gap in centerfield.

One week into his stay on the North Side, he told the New York Times, "I feel real good about it; it's one of the best things that's happened to me in all my life." He especially like patrolling center.

Of his new manager, Leo Durocher, he said, "He treats his players like men, not boys.

"He's some kind of guy," Durocher said after Pepitone's 2-run homer helped the Cubs and Fergie Jenkins to a 4-2 victory over the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

In 56 games with the Cubs in 1970, Pepitone drove in 44 runs, while clubbing 12 homers.

He had an even better year in 1971, playing in 115 games and hitting above .300 for the first time in his career.

Off the field, Pepitone opened a bar called Joe Pepitone's Thing on Division Street in Chicago.

But, as he did in New York and Houston, Pepitone wore out his welcome. In May 1972, Pepitone wrote that he was "no longer interested in playing professional baseball" and announced his retirement.

The retirement lasted only lasted until June, but in 1973, after he played in only 31 games, the Cubs parted ways with Pepitone, trading him to the Braves for Andre Thornton.

He lasted only three games with the Braves before he announced his intention to retire. He then jumped to Japan, but only played in 14 games.

Baseball is a sport, but it is also an entertainment medium. And if Joe Pepitone failed to live up to his potential as a ballplayer, he certainly was never boring.

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