Joe Pepitone is in an upbeat mood today. “Everything’s good, and that’s honest,” he confides over the phone to Rolling Stone. “Next time you talk to me, and I’m screaming and yelling at you and don’t want to talk to you, you’ll know everything’s horseshit.”
Pepitone has had plenty of first-hand experience with horseshit times and good times alike, as his mind-blowing 1975 autobiography, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud – reissued this May by Sports Publishing – vividly attests. An All-Star, Gold Glove-winning first baseman for the New York Yankees, Pepitone unsuccessfully tried to out-run his personal demons by playing even harder off the field than on it. He partied with Frank Sinatra, screwed at least half the female population of New York City and Chicago and blew his salary on everything from boats to bespoke hairpieces. He ended up broke, out of baseball by his early thirties and (as the epilogue to the new edition of his book recounts) doing time on Rikers Island on a questionable drug charge.
Throughout it all, though, Pepitone has never lost his sense of humor – nor, as evidenced by his being name-checked on episodes of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos, has he lost his pop-culture cachet. Last year, Little Studio Films optioned the book rights to Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud, and Pepitone is guardedly optimistic about seeing his colorful story make it to the screen. “I just sit back,” he says, “but it seems to be going really good so far. We’ll see!”
For now, though, he’s happy to strut down memory lane and share some thoughts with us about his book, his wild times and those infamous hairpieces.
One of the most powerful things about your book is how raw it is. At a time when most athlete autobiographies were still bland and G-rated, you didn’t sugarcoat anything.
That book, to me, was more therapy than anything. The co-writer I had, Berry Stainback, we’d sit there smoking a joint and talking. And then he’d shut the tape off and say, “Joe, look – maybe this is why this, or this is why that.” We’d get into that conversation about growing up, and [how it affected] the way I was. Really, he was like a therapist for me. And because he was that way, I laid it out the way it was, and the things I did, and to whom. It was an honest book; there was no bullshit.
I know you weren’t a fan of your former teammate Jim Bouton’s book, Ball Four, but in many ways the publication of Ball Four made your book possible.
Eh, I didn’t read his whole book – I just read certain things that were said about some guys on the club, where he’s the last one to talk, you know what I mean? And I didn’t like how he shit-talked about Mickey [Mantle], and stuff like that. I mean, we had a saying in baseball that, “What you see here and what you say here, let it stay here.” I don’t think in my book I got on anybody’s ass, or talked about anybody bad. I’m harsher on myself than anybody else.
However, the story of you getting high with Mickey Mantle is one of the funniest things in your book.
Oh, yeah! He didn’t like that too much. In front of people, he’d tell them, “That was bullshit, that would never happen!” But it was true! He came to my room, him and Whitey [Ford], and they could smell the shit in the room. They said, “We heard you do that shit. What’s it like?” “Well, try it!” “Oh, no no no!” “C’mon, take a hit!” They each took a hit; next thing I know, they’re talking to me about all kinds of shit, and they’re laughing at anything I said. I could have had them jumping up and down on the bed, if I’d wanted to! [Laughs]
Were a lot of ballplayers smoking marijuana back then?
Oh, I really don’t know. My thing was, I was a loner. When I went out at night, I loved to go out by myself. If I went out with my friends, I’d worry about them and pick up their checks, because I wanted to make sure they were having a good time. Later on in my career when I would go back to New York, I would see some other ballplayers doing that shit in clubs or whatever, but they weren’t people I really knew well. But on my team, at that time, I think I was probably the only one that was doing shit. I wish some other guys on the team were doing it, because then maybe I could have got that shit for nothing! Maybe they’d give me some! [Laughs] But when you’d come into the clubhouse with glassy eyes, they all thought you’d been out drinking, because most of the guys on the club drank pretty good, you know?
Still, you cut a pretty conspicuous figure in a very straitlaced Yankee clubhouse. You were the first major league ballplayer to bring a hair dryer into the locker room – a pretty radical move in the early Sixties.
Well, yeah, things were a little different back then, sure. 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.
The hairpieces you wore, on the field and off, are a big part of your legend. When did you first start wearing them?
I still had a lot of hair when I made it to the majors in 1962, but it was real curly, and I was straightening it a lot with that chemical shit and it started to get thin on the top. Then the next year, when we won the AL Pennant in Minnesota, [Yankees catcher] Elston Howard said to me, “When we win this son of a bitch, I’m gonna cut your fuckin’ hair! I’m gonna get rid of that long hair shit on ya!” And sure as shit, I hit the home run to win it, and they grabbed me and threw me down on a table; Ellie came over and cut big pieces out of my hair. And it never grew back! [Laughs] Anyway, the [NFL] Giants used to play at Yankee Stadium in those days, and [Giants quarterback] Y.A. Tittle had my locker during the winter. There was a little box underneath the locker, and some of Y.A. Tittle’s stuff was in there – including a hairpiece that Y.A. wore once in a blue moon. So I put the son of a bitch on, and I combed my hair over it and I thought, “Hey, that son of a bitch looks good!” I wonder what I could get for that hairpiece today, if Y.A. Tittle had signed that bastard!
That hairpiece belongs in both the football and baseball halls of fame.
So that was it from that day on. I went out and I got one, combed my hair over it. And then I had that new-style beehive bullshit; I saw a picture of it the other day, and I was like, “Holy shit – I remember some old Italian ladies used to wear their hair like that!”
Yeah, it looked like something the Ronettes would wear.
No shit, right? That big beehive! [Laughs]
You had an Afro hairpiece too, right?
That was in Chicago. Yeah, man; I was cool! I even talked funny! [Laughs] My personality fit my hairpiece at the time.
The New York City of the 1960s was quite the playground for a flamboyant young Yankees star, wasn’t it?
In the Sixties? Oof! It had everything! It was one big party, and everybody wanted a piece of my ass! I saw an interview last night with [Darryl] Strawberry, talking about all the shit he and [Doc] Gooden did with the ’86 Mets. The shit they did in the Eighties, well, I did it in the Sixties! [Laughs] There’s things that can’t even be mentioned! It was just the time of my life, I was free and everybody wanted to be hanging out with me.
Mob guys included.
Oh, yeah; everything was crazy. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and I was going out with some of those guys at night. Julie Podell, who ran the Copacabana, gave me a Copa credit card, and his wife gave my wife some silverware; we were really close. Next thing you know, I’m going there night after night, buying drinks for some of these wise guys, and they’re buying me drinks and I’m sending them drinks – and what am I making, sixty-five hundred dollars a year? I get in a hairspray commercial with Yogi Berra and Hank Bauer, and I got five thousand dollars – which was almost as much as I was making for the season. So I went to the Copa that night with my check, and I told Frank, the maître d’, “Have Julie cash it for me!” And he came back with thirty-five dollars. He said, “Julie says, ‘Buy your fucking friends a drink with this!’ He took the rest of it off your tab.'” Jesus Christ, I was crying!
Judging by what you write in the book, it sounds like Frank Sinatra liked you because you were one of the few people around him that didn’t kiss his ass.
The first time I hung out with Frank at his house in Palm Springs, we were playing pool and he messed up my shot right as I was about to win the game. I was like, “What the fuck is this?” He said, “It’s my table, my game and we’re playing dirty pool!” He had two fireplaces down there with these big logs, and I swear to god they must have weighed fifty pounds each. So right as he was about to make his shot, I took one of these logs and I put it between his ball and the cue ball. I said, “If you’re God like they say you are, let’s see you make that fucking shot!” [Laughs] Jilly Rizzo’s eyes totally bugged out, and everybody’s like, “What the fuck are you doing?” But Frank just started laughing. He said, “You’re a sick motherfucker! You know, you’re crazy!” He’d come to some of the games when I was with the Cubs, and every time he was there I’d hit home runs!
When the Astros sold you to the Cubs in the middle of the 1970 season, it resulted in a brief renaissance for your career. What sticks out in your mind about that Chicago experience?
Oh, I loved it. The only year I hit .300 was there [in 1971]. I started off going good, and the fans, I got crazy with them. The Bleacher Bums at the Cubs’ ballpark, they’d hit me in the back with a fucking 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 shit!” 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 centerfield with my shorts on, looking through the ivy to find my dope. [Laughs] I loved Chicago! With the shit I was getting in centerfield, I woulda played for nothing!
Do you have any regrets about writing the book? Forty years later, has your perspective changed on anything in it?
Well, the new epilogue talks about some things that have changed since after the book was written. To be honest, though, I don’t like going back and getting into the book; I get flashbacks that you can’t believe. There’s times where I’m in my car, driving, and I see everything in Technicolor in front of me – my father, my wives, how I was at that time with the drugs and all that other bullshit. My third wife, who I love to this day, I think about the time I hit her – it was just one smack, but I want to cut my hands off, because I’m not that kind of person.
How are you doing these days?
Everything is fine. Look, I played at a time where players weren’t making anything like today’s money; but I’ve got two pensions and I’ve got social security. I live in a little house on the water, and I’ve got my boat, which is all I want. I’m comfortable, I eat steak when I want, I go out when I want – which I don’t do much anymore – and I’ve got a nice girlfriend. It’s a very normal life. If I was playing today, making twenty million, I’d probably be dead in three days! [Laughs] It’d be nice to have a larger boat, but that’s all right. One of these days, I’ll be back on a larger boat – when they bury me at sea! [Laughs]
Last question, Joe. After being mentioned on Seinfeld several times, how does it feel to be known as the man who designed Central Park?
You know, I should tell you a good story about that! When they came out with that on Seinfeld, I was like, “How’d they fuckin’ know about that?” Because there was something that happened in Central Park back in the Sixties, with me and a friend of mine. We saw some girl in the street who’d just come from a party in one of those high-class buildings by the park, and she wanted to hang out with us. For the rest of the night, we kept driving around Central Park. Can you imagine what was happening? [Laughs] I think the cab driver made about eight hundred that night. I remember about half the time, my ass was sticking out the window! Talk about discovering Central Park!