The Ballad Of John Lennon And Joe Pepitone

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By Palash R. Ghosh | October 7, 2012 3:34 AM EST

Tuesday, October 9, will mark what would have been John Lennon's 72nd birthday.

It is interesting (however, futile) to imagine what the ex-Beatle would have looked like as an elderly man and how he would have evolved and behaved. How would he have reacted to his former band-mate George Harrison's death in 2001? Would he have participated in the Beatles Anthology project of the mid-1990s? What would have been his reaction to The Beatles' enduring fame and popularity? What would he have said about the 9-11 attacks? What opinions would he have had of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, the internet, cell phones, iPods and the rise of trash reality TV?

Of course, none of these questions can ever be answered ... but it's fun to speculate.

While the world celebrates the memory of the man who helped co-found the greatest musical/cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, I would like to focus on a far-less renowned figure who shares John Lennon's birthday: Oct. 9, 1940.

Joe Pepitone was a baseball player who played in the big leagues (mostly for the New York Yankees) for about a dozen years in the 1960s and early 1970s. Pepitone is likely unknown outside of the community of die-hard baseball fans, but I have long been fascinated and mesmerized by him and his strange life story. The multi-talented Pepitone did not enjoy a great career largely due to his apathy towards self-improvement and excessive partying off the field. However, the Brooklyn-born Italian-American became a kind of “cult-hero,” or perhaps an “anti-hero,” to some, specifically because he was a wildly colorful and raffish figure who led an exuberantly licentious lifestyle that ultimately dissipated his athletic talents and almost ended his life.

When I discovered that he was born on the same day as John Lennon (albeit separated by an ocean and about 3,300 miles), I regarded it as something of a cosmic revelation.

Lennon and Pepitone would, on the surface, appear to have little in common. But if one digs deeper,  some startling similarities and parallels (some circumstantial, others more fundamental) emerge between these two seemingly disparate men.

First, take their birthplaces.

When I first laid eyes on the borough of Brooklyn, I was struck by how different it was from Manhattan and by how it reminded me of some English cities, particularly Liverpool.

As once busy seaports, both Liverpool and Brooklyn have seen better days and had declined economically by the 1950s when Lennon and Pepitone entered adolescence.

Essentially working-class in nature, both cities boasted a lively and highly diverse population – proud of their “second-class status.” As Brooklynites were looked down upon by their haughty, more well-heeled neighbors in Manhattan, Liverpudlians were similarly disdained by the people of nearby Manchester, not to mention the blueblood snobs of far-away London.

In this paradoxically open and insular world, Liverpool developed a distinct accent, flavor and culture, quite apart from the rest of England. The same could be said for Brooklyn and its feisty denizens.

Even some of the beautiful 19th century brownstone architecture that grace parts of Brooklyn is highly reminiscent of Liverpool’s grand homes from that era.

Like Liverpool, Brooklyn's unique cultural stew has produced an extraordinary number of artists, writers, poets, singers, musicians, actors, comedians, entertainers and athletes.

And since they were the same age (actually, the EXACT same age), Lennon and Pepitone undoubtedly experienced the roiling changes in post-war western society -- the emergence of rock-and-roll music, the youth culture, sexual liberation, television and the slow decline of 'Old World' values and morality.

As teenagers in somewhat similar urban environments 3000 miles apart, the two also likely witnessed some of the negative aspects of their hometowns: racial violence, gang warfare, alcoholism, drug abuse, poverty, labor unrest, among many other ills.

On a more personal basis, Lennon and Pepitone both endured difficult, even tragic, childhoods.

Lennon's early years are so well known, I need not repeat this history, but suffice it to say that as a boy he was essentially “abandoned” by his birth-parents and raised by his strict maternal aunt. As an adolescent, John's mother Julia reappeared in his life -- only to be killed by a drunk driver in 1958. Roughly at that same time in Brooklyn, Pepitone's father, 'Willie Pep' – a very tough guy who pressured his son to become a baseball star and beat him for any transgression, real or perceived – dropped dead one day after Joe prayed for his old man's demise.

The sudden deaths of their parents cast a dark shadow over both young men and haunted them for the rest of their lives.

Despite the familial tragedies, both young lads began the pursuit of their life’s’ calling – Pepitone was drafted by his hometown Yankees baseball club, while Lennon had already formed a scruffy band with a younger boy named Paul McCartney -- harboring vague hopes of somehow making music a viable career. (One could not imagine either Pepitone or Lennon embarking on routine, dull, safe career paths)

Between 1958 and 1962, Pepitone moved up the ranks of the minor leagues. It might be said that Lennon was also enduring an apprenticeship in the “minor leagues” of rock music by appearing in hundreds of clubs across England and, most notably, on the seedy, dangerous waterfront of Hamburg, Germany. It was an exciting, insecure, unpredictable life for a young man with no fixed ambitions and no hope that a musical career could ever be attained.

Similarly, making it on a minor league roster did no guarantee that one would ever reach the big leagues of baseball. Undisciplined, selfish, vain and lacking in educational qualifications, both Lennon and Pepitone were facing dark futures in the event their current ‘gigs’ led nowhere.

But against all realistic odds, they both “made it” -- again, at roughly the same time. In the summer of 1962, The Beatles passed an audition at EMI Studios in London and recorded their first singles later in the autumn. That same year, Pepitone joined the Yankees – in fact, in a macabre coincidence, on the same day as Joe’s Major League debut, April 10, 1962, Lennon’s best friend Stu Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage.

Over the next three years, as The Beatles conquered the world by releasing one enormously successful album after another, touring the world and making movies, on a much smaller scale, Pepitone made his own distinct impression as a big leaguer with the Yankees.

After a desultory rookie season (as the back-up first baseman to Bill Skowron), Joe became a regular in 1963 -- he dazzled fans with his elegant defense, hit 27 home runs, drove in 89 runs and hit a respectable .271. The good times continued into next season, when Joe smashed 28 homers and drove in an even 100 runs (very good numbers for that long-ago pitching-rich, pre-steroid era).

Pepitone was named to the American League All-Star team in 1963, 1964, and 1965; and he also won the Gold Glove Award for his defensive prowess in 1965 and 1966.

Not only did Joe become a star, but his swarthy good looks attracted myriad female admirers – he was the hometown kid who made good, a prince of the city.

For Lennon, of course, 1963-1965 marked the years of Beatlemania, when the group ascended to a level of fame and popularity no one had ever experienced before. Young, good-looking and rich, Lennon was swimming in money, women and the ability to satisfy any desire he wished. (Granted, Lennon's fame far surpassed that of Pepitone’s since The Beatles were a massive global phenomenon, but within New York itself, Joe, too, enjoyed a kind of “rock star” popularity and all the perks that provided.

By 1966 or so, the skies darkened for both Lennon and Pepitone – the climate had changed considerably from the halcyon early days of their respective careers.

The Beatles grew tired of touring and “retired” to the studio. Lennon, in particular, became bored with fame and even resented the demands made of him by fans, management, the media and the record companies. Deeply unhappy in a loveless marriage and living a bourgeoisie, suburban lifestyle, Lennon descended into drug abuse and lethargy, feeling trapped and discontent.

For Pepitone, the Mickey Mantle-Yogi Berra-Whitey Ford dynasty collapsed and the Yankees record plunged – finishing an unheard of last place in 1966.

Pepitone's drinking, drugging, womanizing and carousing escalated, while his performance on the field suffered. With Mantle on this last legs and the farm system depleted, the Yankees declined into irrelevance.

Still a decent player, Pepitone struggled to ever fulfill his enormous potential – the light in him seemed to extinguish.

As the Sixties progressed, both Lennon and Pepitone exhibited increasingly bizarre and erratic behavioral patterns, Lennon's hair grew longer, his clothes became wilder, he dove headlong into harder drugs and he completely abandoned any pretense of meeting the requirements of others or the marketplace.

Pepitone, meanwhile, only intensified his uncontrolled and undisciplined lifestyle, angering the Yankees (and the baseball establishment) with his selfishness and total lack of decorum.

Joe's “legacy” (if it can even be described as such) was his notoriety for being the first ballplayer to travel with a hairdryer and toupees. Prematurely balding, the extremely vain Pepitone wore hairpieces (one for games, one for the outside world).

By 1969, the Yankees had had it with their wayward, once-promising “star” – he was summarily traded to the Houston Astros.

Also by 1969, Lennon had “had it” with The Beatles and essentially quit the group following the release of their final album, “Abbey Road,” (although this rupture would not be revealed to the public until the following year).

Tired of the Beatles, Lennon was also aggrieved by the hostile treatment accorded to his Japanese performance artist wife, Yoko Ono. Their relationship (and all the outlandish antics they perpetrated) elicited immense ridicule, hostility and contempt from a large swathe of the public.

Essentially iconoclasts and individualists, both Lennon and Peptone did not care what the public thought of them and lived life according to their own terms.

After the Yankees dumped him, Pepitone bounced from one club to another (Astros, Cubs, Braves), until 1974 when he jumped for a disastrous season in Japan (again, a tenuous link to Lennon).

1974 also marked the end of Lennon's viable recording career (excluding his 1980 'comeback' album, Double Fantasy, which failed to excite much interest beyond its novelty nature.)

Like Lennon's life after the Beatles broke up, Peptone post-baseball life was not pretty. Drug busts and arrests marred Pepitone's meandering life (yet another thing he shared with Lennon) -- both men even posed nude (although for vastly different reasons).

There is no record I can find that Lemmon and Pepitone ever met – they did, of course, travel in very different circles. Obviously. Pepitone knew of Lennon, though I doubt the ex-Beatle had ever even heard of the ex-baseball star.

However, if they did meet (perhaps in a Manhattan bar in the early 1970s?), I would like to think that they liked one another and got along quite well, comparing their similar life trajectories.

In the mid-1970s, Pepitone released his autobiography, “Joe You Coulda Made Us Proud” (which was probably ghost-written). It tells a sad a lurid tale of Joe's brutal father and his wild misadventures with sex, drugs and alcohol. The book paints a rather Dickensian portrait of a life with so much promise that went astray.

Joe's candid autobiography could be compared to the confessional songs and interviews Lennon issued throughout the early 1970s. The ex-Beatle openly admitted to acts of extreme self-indulgence and self-destruction (again, much like Pepitone did). Lennon also sought to de-mythologize The Beatles and everything they seemed to represent.

Of course, any Lennon-Pepitone parallels ended with the tragic events of December 1980. John's shocking and untimely death (which had nothing remotely to do with drugs or alcohol) only serves to highlight the improbability of Pepitone surviving into old age.

How on earth did a man as out-of-control as Joe escape a premature death himself. Like the rock star Lennon, Pepitone's entire “image” is predicated on youth. A 72-year-old Joe Pepitone simply fails to register.

In addition, Lennon's name will last forever – he is an immortal icon. Pepitone has already faded from the public's consciousness, save for the memories of older baseball fans and sports historians who recall him as a mere footnote.

I never saw Lennon but I did run into Pepitone once. About seven or eight years ago I saw Joe at an Italian restaurant (where else?) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The party I was with noticed a murmur in the crowd – someone said a “famous ballplayer” was in the joint. I assumed it was one of the contemporary Yankees or Mets – when I heard it was Joe Pepitone, I gasped. Joe Pepitone? He’s still alive?

I went to the front of the establishment and saw the infamous ex-Yankee on the curb talking into his cell phone. He was tall, slender, with a dark complexion, huge hook nose and wearing the worst toupee I'd ever seen, His clothes were badly out of date – long bell-bottomed pants leisure suit, more 'Saturday Night Live' than 21st century Manhattan. A man completely out of place and out of time.

I wanted to speak to him – but what does one say to Joe Pepitone? “Sorry, your career was such a disappointment, Joe”? “It’s really sad you’ve had such a crummy life” (?)

Perhaps I should've just said: “Joe, you coulda made us proud.”

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