‘Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud:’ The Best Baseball Book You’ve Never Read
In 1970, Houston Astros pitcher Jim Bouton published Ball Four, one of the most influential baseball books ever written. Breaking the clubhouse code of omertà by portraying ballplayers as skirt-chasing, hard-partying regular guys rather than paragons of virtuous American masculinity, Ball Four forever changed the way that the press covered professional sports; it also unleashed a wave of massively entertaining (and deeply off-color) player memoirs, including Sparky Lyle’s The Bronx Zoo and Bill Lee’s The Wrong Stuff.
Though Bouton’s best-selling memoir was rather hilarious, most of his colleagues weren’t laughing at the time. “Why didn’t he write that he was the horniest [expletive] in baseball?” complained Joe Pepitone, who had been Bouton’s teammate in New York and Houston. But in 1975, Pepitone would follow the trail blazed by Ball Four and write a tell-all of his own – Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud – a book which was not only far more revealing than Bouton’s, but also made it exceedingly clear that the horniest expletive in baseball was, in fact, Pepitone himself.
Unless you’re a longtime Yankees fan (or a baseball fan over the age of fifty), Joe Pepitone probably doesn’t mean that much to you. Larry David name-checked him on a handful of Seinfeld episodes – including the one where Kramer gets kicked out of Yankees fantasy camp after plunking Pepitone with a fastball – and literally invoked his name (“Joe Pepitone up in this motherfucker!“) in a memorable Curb Your Enthusiasm moment. But unlike former Yankees teammates Yogi Berra or Mickey Mantle, Pepitone is hardly a household name these days. And since Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud has been out of print for several decades, it’s highly probable that you’ve never even heard of it.
Which is a damn shame, because Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud is quite simply the best baseball book you’ve never read. Written with the help of journalist Berry Stainback (who passed away in 2014), Pepitone’s tale is part candid confessional, part therapy session, part bawdy bar conversation over a beer or twelve; it’s Goodfellas with a touch of Ball Four and a heaping helping of Penthouse Letters. And, lucky for you, it’s just been reissued by Sports Publishing in a new edition that packs the same unexpurgated gut-punch of its original Playboy Press edition.
Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud begins with Pepitone’s childhood in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, at the time a working-class Italian neighborhood where you have “to act like a tough guy to get by.” A good-natured kid who loathes conflict and has to rely upon his speed and his gift of gab to dodge the local gangs, Joe worships and fears his father, “Willie Pep,” who rules the streets with his fists. Cracking under the enormous pressure that Willie puts upon him to excel at baseball – and the rage-fueled beatings that he repeatedly administers – Joe tells his mother one night that he wishes his father would die. The next day, his wish comes true, enveloping Joe in a cloak of guilt that he can never fully shake, no matter how hard he tries to laugh, play, spend, party or fuck it away.
And try he most certainly does. A skilled fielder with a left-handed power swing so sweet that even Ted Williams takes notice, Joe rises quickly through the minors to become the All-Star, Gold Glove-winning first baseman with the Yankees – though his promotion doesn’t come quickly enough for some “made” guys, who offer to break veteran first baseman Bill Skowron’s legs in order to give their paisan a clear path to the job. (He respectfully declines their generous offer.) Desperate for love and acceptance, Joe endears himself to fans and teammates with his constant clowning, but runs afoul of the Yankee brass by putting more energy into swinging off the field than on it; he runs up ridiculous tabs at every hot nightclub in Manhattan, and chases tail with a grim compulsiveness, despite the steady toll that his debts and infidelities inevitably take on his first two marriages…to say nothing of his playing abilities.
Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud makes no attempt to sugarcoat Pepitone’s personal peccadillos, least of all his sex addiction. In one horrifically memorable scene, Joe spends the day in bed with a friend of his mother’s, a woman whom he’s lusted after since his adolescence – and who, a few hours after they finish, suffers a stroke that paralyzes half of her body. Months later, Joe goes back for more. “She could move only one hand, one side of her mouth, but it was wildly sensuous to me,” he recalls. “That was the bag I was headed for, the way my mind was working – the freakier the sex, the better.”
Not that Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud is entirely filled with darkness and self-loathing. Pepitone’s an entertaining raconteur, and the book includes uproarious stories about him partying with Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs, taking the stage with Tom Jones at the behest of some mafia heavies, sharing an apartment (and some dynamite weed) with Mickey Mantle and Joe’s unsuccessful attempt to run his own bar in Chicago – the brilliantly named Joe Pepitone’s Thing – during his stint with the Cubs. The first ballplayer to bring his own hair dryer into a major league clubhouse, Joe becomes obsessed with hiding his rapidly receding hairline under a series of ridiculous hairpieces; during one sexual encounter, he becomes so distracted by his slipping toupee that his fed-up date implores him to “take your hat off and fuck me right.”
There is redemption in Pepitone’s story, as well, but – much like the character-driven Seventies film dramas it so often resembles – Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud doesn’t come with neatly wrapped loose ends. Joe eventually begins to unpack and analyze his inner pain and torment, but by then it’s almost too late: by the age of 33, he’s already lost two wives, the custody of three kids and a once-promising major league career. And as the new epilogue in the Sports Publishing edition reveals, more trials (legal and otherwise) will dog him through the ensuing decades.
Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud (a film version of which is apparently in the works) may be one of the most honest books ever written by a professional athlete, yet it’s still immensely engaging despite its parade of painful self-revelations; Stainback definitely earned his co-writing credit, doing a fine job of capturing Pepitone’s colorful, conversational flow while avoiding the hoary clichés and convenient obfuscations that have made so many ballplayer autobiographies so dull and forgettable. The picture their book paints of life in the big leagues at the tail end of the Reserve Clause-era is a vivid and compelling one, as is its swinger’s-eye view of New York and Chicago nightlife in the 1960s and ’70s. As vicarious thrill rides go, Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud is a tough one to beat, even if you’re often tempted to shield your eyes from the carnage Pepitone inflicts upon those around him – and, most damagingly, upon himself.
Dan Epstein’s latest book, Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76, was published in 2014 via Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. He first read Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud at the age of 12, and he’s never been the same since. He’s on Twitter at @BigHairPlasGras