"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

CW regarding Joe Pepitone is just speculation

Any study of the 1960s New York Yankees requires some focus on Joe Pepitone. It is hard developing sympathetic views of this first baseman. There is very strong conventional wisdom (CW) about Joe Pepitone, that he couldn't live up to his potential because of personality and behavior issues. The argument is that distractions held him back.
Perhaps it's true. We can be so simplistic in how we characterize these people who ply their craft in such a fishbowl. How many of us can relate to that? It is easy to start over-emphasizing the peccadilloes. When a player seems to be underachieving, we grasp at explanations that might have something to do with the guy's character. We don't treat them like real human beings.
If Pepitone's limitations were so severe, why did he manage such a long big league career in the first place? Any talk of a peccadillo or human failing invites exaggeration. It is very demanding to be a major league baseball player. Pepitone arguably had some very fine years. The Yankees traded "Moose" Skowron in order to install "Joe Pep" at first base.
Pepitone was a master of the defensive phase of the game. I know this because his APBA card (a simulation game) gave him the highest rating for first basemen. Our Minnesota Twins had a first baseman in that mold: Rich Reese. Reese carved out a special niche as a non-superstar player: he hit three pinch-hit grand slams, and he had one season, 1969, in which he played as a superstar. If only he could have spread out that quality.
Pepitone and Reese both threw lefthanded, considered an asset for a first baseman.
 
He's a subject in "Ball Four"
Jim Bouton in his seminal baseball book "Ball Four," a new and revolutionary approach to sports journalism, abruptly inserted this sentence: "I like Joe Pepitone." Anyone who read "Ball Four" in its entirety knew that Bouton did not like Joe Pepitone. Bouton saw Pepitone as vain, shallow and annoying. He accused "Joe Pep" of exaggerating the severity of an injury so he could ultimately stand up with assistance, gamely, and hear the applause of the crowd.
Bouton was a thinker. Baseball historically felt threatened by thinkers. Thinkers might suggest that players needed more leverage with their careers. If Bouton had not given us Ball Four, some other player would have come forward very soon and done it. The publishing business would have seen to that. The best evaluation of Ball Four from a player that I have ever read, was the following: "I think Ball Four was a great book, but what if he was your roommate?"
Bouton was just too rapier-like with his observations. When Bouton wrote "I like Joe Pepitone," it was just posturing so as not to seem overly negative, IMHO.
 
Question marks from early-on
Pepitone was a Brooklyn native. In high school he was shot in the stomach in a schoolyard dispute. A Yankees official, at the time Pepitone signed on, feared that this otherwise fine prospect would be either stabbed in an alley or committed to a mental institution. Highly talented people often live close to the edge. Pepitone spent his whole signing bonus on a fancy car and motorboat.
Far from ending up in a mental institution, he worked through the Yankees farm system, finally arriving with the big club in 1962. He backed up Skowron for a time. Pepitone impressed in his first full season, hitting 27 home runs, driving in 89 runs and batting .271. He was chosen an American League All-Star. Such numbers aren't what we would associate with a flaky derelict. Yet the stereotype grew.
He hit 28 home runs in 1964 which was the last season of the Yankees' dynasty of that era. He drove in a hundred runs in that season playing under Yogi Berra. Again he was an All-Star. Pepitone was truly at his apex in the '63 and '64 campaigns, not only because of the team's success and his own contributions, but because he was a teammate of Mickey Mantle when Mick was still in his prime.
Pepitone was fashion-conscious at a time when males in America felt they had to wear their clothes tight-fitting, lest you be dismissed as a slide rule-carrying "nerd." A very odd outlook on fashion, I might observe. Very dated. "Pepi" also thought it cool to wear his hair long. As Bouton noted in his book, Pepitone brought a hair dryer into the clubhouse. He had two toupees, one for general use and the other that he called his "game piece."
Pepitone had his lifestyle quirks but the team was winning. That changed in 1965 when our Minnesota Twins picked up the torch from the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees fell to sixth place in the A.L. Pepitone's play reflected the demise of the dynasty: he batted just .247. In '66 he looked rejuvenated to a degree as he hit 31 home runs. He won his second straight Gold Glove award at first base. You don't win the Gold Glove as a flaky derelict. Pepitone had talent and he unquestionably showed it. Talk of that lifestyle or personality quirks were perhaps a way to just explain why everything was going to hell.
In '66 the Yankees descended all the way to last place in the ten-team American League. Attendance at the games absolutely evaporated. A search for scapegoats? Such is human nature. The Twins could have used a defensive first baseman like Pepitone, to be sure. We would have taken his 25-30 home runs too.
Pepitone moved to the outfield in order to let Mantle play first base. Mantle needed relief from the rigors of playing outfield. In '69 Pepitone returned to first upon Mantle's retirement. He socked 27 home runs in '69. It was getting harder to overlook Pepi's off-the-field distractions, so he was dealt to Houston where he wasn't likely to get along with straight-laced manager Harry Walker. Pepitone was traded to the Chicago Cubs where he soared with his batting average, all the way up to .307 in the '71 campaign. Strange. He got established in Chicago but would move on again, to Japan for a three-year stint.
Baseball writers will assert as fact that Pepitone was a talented guy who underachieved because of his lifestyle. I don't know. Sometimes these lifestyle oddities are a way for a player to blow off steam, to deal with stress. Maybe Pepitone played up to his ability completely. How would the writers know?
 
Context of the times
Pepitone was at the peak of his production when the Viet Nam war was at its peak for creating discomfort across the U.S. Maybe Bouton was irritated by Pepitone's idiosyncrasies because he saw Pepitone as a self-absorbed guy at a time when he could have been speaking out about the war, as Bouton did.
The '60s baseball era was so different from today. Pitchers had their arms thrown out from overuse all the time. Players were mistreated and taken advantage of. The players union solved a lot of that but then it got too much power. We are flawed human beings.
I remember Joe Pepitone as an interesting player who could generate thrills. He won three Gold Gloves as a first sacker. You don't do that unless you have a fair amount of focus. I congratulate the man for his accomplishments. He was never paid to be a perfect human being. God made him the way he was.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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