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Chicago Cubs history: Joe Pepitone and the 1970 Cubs

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A Yankees star spent three seasons with the Cubs starting in 1970.

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs

A new decade — for both us, and the Cubs — as the team went into 1970. An eagle-eyed reader of this series might notice I skipped 1969, but that’s for good reason. Our intrepid site manager — no, he didn’t insert that himself, I promise — did an incredible series of features all season long on the 1969 team, in honor of their 50th anniversary. So instead of re-treading ground already done so well, we’ll be skipping ahead to 1970.

The Cubs continued to show quality, and though they didn’t win as many games as in 1969 (92) they remained in second place in the NL East.

1970 Cubs

Record: 84-78
Standing: 2nd in the National League East
Managers: Leo Durocher

Billy Williams’ name won’t surprise anyone as being one of the most consistent players for the Cubs in 1970 with a line of .322/.391/.586 and a breathtaking 42 home runs, along with a second-place finish in MVP voting. Not far behind him in production, though, was first baseman Jim Hickman, whose average was .315/.419/.582 and slugged 32 homers himself. Of course Hickman’s prowess meant a decline in playing time for the now 39-year-old Ernie Banks, who had been an All-Star just the year before. Ernie did hit his 500th career homer May 12, 1970:

On the pitching side of things Fergie Jenkins continued to dominate, with 22 wins and a 3.39 ERA. Milt Pappas, though he only had 10 wins on the season, had a beautiful 2.68 ERA.

And joining the Cubs for the first time that season was a first baseman/centerfielder named Joe Pepitone, a former Yankees All-Star.

Joe Pepitone

Pepitone’s career with the Cubs began mid-season in 1970 when his contract was purchased from the Houston Astros. For the bulk of his career, Pepitone had been with the New York Yankees. A Brooklyn native, he made his major league debut with the Yankees at age 21, and by the next season, he was an All-Star.

Pepitone had a career .258/.301/.432 average in his 12 big-league years, but in his three seasons with the Cubs he managed to be especially dominant, moving between first base and the outfield as needed. Though he was using in only 56 games with the Cubs in 1970 thanks to his mid-summer arrival, by 1971 he was hitting over .300 and appeared in 115 games.

In his career he won three Gold Glove awards, all while with the Yankees. While with the New York club, he might have also made the biggest gaffe of his major league career, when — during the 1963 World Series against the Dodgers — he managed to lose sight of a Clete Boyer throw, and the resulting miss managed to put a runner on third who then went on to score the Series-winning run.

His early life wasn’t an easy one. He had an abusive father, and spent a chunk of his early youth living with an aunt in Brooklyn. Though his father ultimately stopped physically abusing Pepitone after nearly blinding him with glass from a thrown ashtray, he continued to verbally berate him. When he was 17, Pepitone was also shot by a high school classmate. That same week, his father died of a heart attack.

During his career he also found himself at the center of several Yankees brawls, against the Tigers and the Indians, the latter of which is considered by some to be one of the most intense beanball games in Yankees history.

Pepitone was a consistent player through his 12 seasons in the majors, enough to make a name for himself as a part of Yankees legend, and certainly to put himself in a high position with Cubs fans during his short tenure with the team, though he’s not likely to be remembered as a Cub to history.

Following his retirement from MLB in 1973 after appearing in only three games for the Atlanta Braves, Pepitone signed a one-year deal with the Yakult Atoms (yes, they really were called the “Atoms” then) in Japan. He performed poorly, and spent most of his time skipping games to party. In fact his slacking off was so epic the Japanese turned “pepitone” into slang that roughly means “goof-off.”

After returning stateside, Pepitone had a rough go of things, landing himself in jail on drug charges, going through three divorces, and being arrested for a DUI among other legal mishaps. He had two businesses fail, and found himself tens of thousands of dollars in debt. He sough therapy in adulthood, which has helped him heal his relationships with two of his ex-wives and three of his five children, and also saw him quit drinking and find long-term stability in a relationship.

Pepitone, who will turn 80 next Ocgtober, has had a storied and often difficult life, but one that bears a much deeper look that can be given here. He has been name-dropped on Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm (Larry David is obviously a Pepitone fan), and Golden Girls among others, meaning that even though he isn’t in the Hall of Fame, he has a pop culture legacy, and a place in baseball history, that will last long after he is gone.