Searching for Joe Pepitone

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His name is Richard and he’s all alone.

When he came into the newsroom, his eyes were sad. His shoulders were slumped and his voice barely rose above a whisper. He clutched a large, wooden plaque and held it up often so that I could see. At the center of the plaque was a photograph – a young man in a baseball uniform. The photo was surrounded by a series of coins arranged in a diamond, like an infield.

Baseball is very important to Richard, though he doesn’t follow the game.

Very recently, his older sister Helen died of cancer. She had been given three years to live but lasted only three months. When she was gone, Richard was alone, living in his sister’s house with nobody to mourn with.

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“It’s very hard,” he said, casting another glance at the plaque. “I’m the lone survivor.”

Which may or may not be true. Richard might have all kinds of family running around out there. He just can’t find them.

That’s why he carries the plaque around, even when he’s walking from Auburn to Lewiston and back again.

His lineage is a funky one. His father, George, joined the circus when he was a kid. Later, he settled down and raised a family. Kind of an extended family, really. There were Richard and Helen and there were some adopted kids. Richard doesn’t know how many brothers and sisters he might have.

George died of the Hong Kong flu in 1980. Few clues leading to his other children were left behind. Richard would like to find them, but there is very little on which to proceed.

What he does know is this. His dad’s sister had a son who played baseball. Played well enough to make it to the big leagues. Well enough to be picked up by the New York Yankees, even. A by-God Yankee who went on to win three Gold Gloves and hit a grand slam in the 1964 World Series.

That man’s name is Joe Pepitone. Richard believes it is his cousin.

It’s not autographs Richard is after or a long night of stories about baseball.

“He would know more about the family than I know,” he said. “He could help me connect to the others.”

So Richard carries the plaque. Years ago, he had it made with plans to give it to his cousin, the baseball stud. Now it’s more of a search tool than a keepsake. Richard hauls it around the way some folks haul around crumpled photographs of missing loved ones.

According to online references, Pepitone is still alive. He is 69 years old and living in Long Island. He’s been divorced three times, has a couple of kids and frequents autograph shows where he signs baseballs and other memorabilia.

“They say I look like him,” Richard says.

Which wouldn’t be a bad thing. Pepitone was a bit of a pretty boy in his day. And more than a little flamboyant.

According to his Wikipedia page: “A much-discussed legend was that while on his way to 1962 spring training in Florida, Pepitone spent his entire $25,000 ($188,106 in current dollar terms) signing bonus. He bought a Ford Thunderbird, a boat which he towed with the Thunderbird, and a dog. He arrived at Yankees spring training in Fort Lauderdale with a new car, a new boat, a new dog, and was wearing a new shark-skin suit.”

In 1975, Pepitone wrote a tell-all book before tell-all books were popular. It was called “Joe, You Coulda Made us Proud.” The same year, he posed nude for Foxy Lady Magazine.

In the late 1980s, Pepitone spent some time at Rikers Island jail after he and two other men were stopped with 9 ounces of cocaine, 344 Quaaludes, a free-basing kit and a pistol.

In 1992, he was charged with assault after a scuffle that developed when someone called Pepitone a “has-been.” Three years later, he was arrested for drunken driving after crashing his car in a New York tunnel.

All good and exciting stuff for a baseball star slash author slash nude model slash prisoner. And all good stuff that Richard doesn’t really care much about.

“I want to find him,” he said. “I need family. When my sister died, I had no one to grieve with.”

And so his search goes on. Where most of us would use a phone book or an online genealogy program to find a lost relative, Richard is trying to use an old, scuffed plaque and the memories of aging baseball fans.

He doesn’t have a phone he can use regularly. He knows almost nothing about the Internet. So he’s going old-school, beating the pavement and telling his story to anyone who will listen. And I’m just trying to help by making that story a little louder.

Are you out there, Joe? You might have a cousin here in central Maine and he’s got a nice plaque to give you. Come on up, why don’t you? Get caught up with family and maybe fill in some gaps for a sad and lonely man. Richard would love to see you and the rest of us would get a kick out of hearing some of those stories about the old days.

Just keep your clothes on, will you, Joe? It’s not 1975 anymore.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can report Joe Pepitone sightings at mlaflamme@sunjournal.com.

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