Bad-boy swagger made Cubs’ Joe Pepitone the talk of the town

First baseman and former Yankee wasn’t just a showman – he could play ball

SHARE Bad-boy swagger made Cubs’ Joe Pepitone the talk of the town
Pitcher Ken Holtzman (left) takes a toss from Joe Pepitone during Cubs spring training in 1971.

Pitcher Ken Holtzman (left) takes a toss from Joe Pepitone during Cubs spring training in 1971.

Sun-Times file photo

Correction: This column has been updated to say Joe Pepitone started with the Cubs in 1970.

Crazy Joe...

Gone.

The late Chicago Cubbie Joe “Pepi” Pepitone may have swung into town like a bat out of hell in 1970, but it was his glove, outfield zeal, and New York Yankees allure that sealed the deal.

It didn’t take long before Pepi became the squawk of the town.

Thus, he became one afternoon of Sneed’s life in 1972; a close-up summer interview in the Cubs dugout writing as fast on paper with pencil as Pepitone yakked away in New York noise; a fan favorite; a fun guy.

It’s funny the things I remember about him, the wonder boy who jumped onto first base with the Cubs in 1970 and was gone in a flamboyant flash in 1973.

Only a news photo is left of my memory interviewing him; the newspaper article is left to spontaneous combustion.

But I remember Pepi’s perch: a Cubs cap sitting high on a massive toupee; mutton chops on his face; a religious medal dangling on a Cubs uniform so immaculate it looked like it was Frank Sinatra tailored; a torn matchbook nestling between fingers on his right hand; a cigarette jutting backwards between right thumb and forefinger.

Just like in the bad boy movies.

How did this cocky wild man manage to live so long? Who was this raucous renegade who purchased a Chicago bar called “Pepi’s Thing” almost before unpacking his suitcase, which included a blow dryer for his balding mane and bevy of nicknamed toupees?

So I called Mike Murphy, a radio legend and original “Left Field Bleacher Bum” at Wrigley Field for a little memory fix.

“Pepitone had a car in the player’s parking lot at Wrigley Field — a big black stretch limo — and when the game was over, he loved to drive by Ray’s Bleacher Bar while we’d be drinking beer,” said Murphy.

“And then he’d full stop when he’d get to the stop sign under the scoreboard and blast his special car horn he had under his hood!

“It was the sound of a loud trumpet call to the racetrack,” added Murphy, who described him as “a showman who used the outfield as his stage. Whatta character.

Wild man Pepitone later admitted to hiding packets of pot and drugs, tossed onto the outfield by bleachers fans, hiding them and later retrieving them from vines on the outfield’s back wall

He jokingly claimed it was the reason he was the last one off the field.

Murphy also recalled Pepitone’s Chicago bar called “Pepi’s Thing,” adding “it didn’t last long.” “There was trouble. Look, he was a wild man who brought pizazz. New York-style flair. And he played well with the Cubs.”

It’s true Pepitone was cocky. He once yelled at a rookie pitcher for throwing him a scuffled ball during practice, and had a way of walking onto the field as if he owned it.

He loved singing: “My Kind of Town (Chicago).”

“I loved Chicago,” he would always say.

Well, for heaven’s sake … why not.

A mother’s story ...

It is not unusual for a candidate for political office to mention his mom as a source of inspiration.

Consider Mary Vallas, 94, the mother of mayoral candidate Paul Vallas.

“I grew up as a stutterer and stammerer … started stuttering in first grade and stuttered literally into my 40s,” Vallas told a Women’s Forum recently.

“My mother never gave up,” he said. “She absolutely convinced me that my only problem was that I didn’t work hard enough. And she actually pulled me into believing.”

Heckled and chided as a child, Vallas said he isolated at home and would have fits of anger until his mother, Mary, encouraged him to work harder to overcome his challenges.

So I called Mary Vallas and this is what she said:

“Paul had no voice. We had no choice,” said Mary Vallas.

“He was so quiet because he couldn’t communicate. It was three or four years before he could say “‘Ma,’” she added.

A clinic referral got him started vocally. “They taught him to speak using a button attached to a string being placed in his mouth,” she said. “It was hard work and I wouldn’t let him stop.

“In the meantime, Paul was developing a special skill as a kid; organizing 9 a.m. Saturday morning games with the kids in our neighborhood park — who would be waiting like clockwork outside our house for Paul’s instructions. It became known as Paul’s ‘Neighborhood Project.’

“Sadly, when Paul got older, he encountered bullying at school. Became very, very quiet,” said Mrs. Vallas.

“We were concerned. He was so lonely.”

So she told her son, the second of four children: “You have no choice. There are no losers here. We carry on.”

“Paul then started doing pushups to distract him from loneliness; then did hundreds a day to not only build his body up, but to put that discipline into learning,” she said.

“He started to become a good student; initially compiling sports statistics; then compiling all kinds of statistics and memorizing numbers even though he had never taken accounting. ...

“When Paul graduated from college, he had a bunch of ribbons around his neck and I was curious what they were,” she said.

“They are awards, mom! Not jewelry,” he told me.

“I guess you could say that once Paul started talking … he has yet to stop.”

Sneedlings…

Watch for 300 portraits of Illinois soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan showcased Monday at the Cook County Building.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn, who has accompanied the portrait exhibit statewide, claims this will be the largest venue for this portrait gallery.

Saturday birthdays: actress and singer Queen Latifah, 53; actress and singer Vanessa Williams, 60, and actor Brad Dourif, 73.

Sunday birthdays: NFL coach Andy Reid, 65; actor Bruce Willis, 68, and actress Glenn Close, 76.

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