Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Phil Pepe, 1935-2015

If you lived in the New York Tri-State Area in the 1970s and 1980s and you loved baseball, you read Phil Pepe in the New York Daily News. It was something you chose to do without thinking.

But you sure did some thinking while reading him.

Philip Pepe (no middle name, which is unusual for an Italian-American) was born on March 21, 1935 in Brooklyn. He graduated from St. John's University. In 1957, he joined the sports department of The New York World-Telegram and Sun, and in 1961, just 26 years old, he was assigned to be their beat reporter for the Yankees.

It was just in time, as this turned out to be the year of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris pursuing the single-season home run record. "The M&M Boys" were great copy, and Maris broke the record, completing the famed "61 in '61."

In 1966, weakened by a strike and the growth of television news, the World-Telly went bust, and Phil was hired by ABC radio, writing scripts for the national sports-talk show hosted by Howard Cosell. In 1968, he was hired by the Daily News.

Again, his timing turned out to be great. From February 11, 1968 to May 8, 1970, the old Madison Square Garden closed and the new one opened, the Jets won the AFL Championship and then pulled off a stunning upset in Super Bowl III, Mantle retired with an epic ceremony at the old Yankee Stadium, the Mets pulled off the Miracle of '69 and won the World Series, and the Knicks won their 1st NBA Championship. Pepe covered all of it, including s the Knicks beat writer when they won the title.
Pepe with Tug McGraw, October 17, 1969

He wrote the lead story for the Daily News for every World Series game from 1968 to 1981, including the ones played by the Mets (1969 and 1973) and the Yankees (1976, 1977, 1978 and 1981). In 1982, with the irascible Dick Young bolting the News for the New York Post, Pepe was promoted to the paper's lead sports columnist. He even appeared in commercials for the News.

In 1989, he left the paper, and became the sports director for radio station WCBS, 880 on the AM dial. Every morning, at 15 and 45 after the hour, a 30-second "Pep Talk" would air, in which he would briefly discuss a major sports issue of the day.

From the team's arrival in 1994 until it left in 205, he was the lead announcer for the New Jersey Cardinals, the St. Louis Cardinals' farm team in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League, that played at Skylands Park in Augusta, New Jersey. (The Sussex County Miners play there now.)

He was so esteemed around these parts that the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America -- the organization that votes on baseball's major awards like the Most Valuable Player and the Cy Young Award, and the people who vote on recently-retired players for the Baseball Hall of Fame -- made him its executive director, a post he held for the last 21 years.

Jack O'Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA and, currently, the man who makes the phone calls to the newly-elected Hall-of-Famers, wrote for the Daily News during Pepe's time there. He said, "He was a mentor to a lot of writers of my generation. He was a guy you could always go to. I worked with him at the News, and he was somebody a lot of us looked up to."

Bill Madden succeeded him as the paper's Yankee beat writer in 1982. He said, "He was a mentor tome, and a giant among baseball writers who never got his true credit."

And Mike Lupica, who succeeded Pepe as the paper's lead sports columnist, said, "There was a time, in another time in New York, when whatever had happened the day before or the night before with the Yankees didn’t become official until you picked up the Daily News and read Phil Pepe."

He also wrote nearly 50 books, including the 50th Anniversary retrospective 1961*: The Inside Story of the Maris-Mantle Home Run Chase, Talkin' Baseball: An Oral History of Baseball in the 1970s (12 years before Dan Epstein's equally in-depth and even more fun Big Hair and Plastic Grass), The Ballad of Billy and George: The Tempestuous Baseball Marriage of Billy Martin and George Steinbrennerand the more recent Core Four: The Heart and Soul of the Yankees Dynasty (with David Cone). Outside of baseball, he wrote biographies of Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. 

He wrote "as told to" books with Mickey Mantle (My Favorite Summer 1956), Whitey Ford (Slick: My Life In and Around Baseball), Yogi Berra (The Wit and Wisdom of Yogi Berra), Bob Gibson (From Ghetto to Glory), Jim Kaat (Still Pitching: Musings from the Mound and the Microphone), Bud Harrelson (Turning Two: My Journey to the Top of the World and Back with the New York Mets), Ken Griffey Sr. (Big Red: Baseball, Fatherhood, and My Life in the Big Red Machine) and Gary Carter (Still a Kid at Heart: My Life in Baseball and Beyond).

His marriage to Adele Sbaratta ended in divorce. Together, they had a daughter, Jayne Platts; and 3 sons, David, Jim and John. Their 4 children have thus far given them 5 grandchildren.

He was played by Josh Pais in The Bronx Is Burning, the 2007 ESPN miniseries based on Jonathan Mahler's book about the Yankees and life in New York in general in 1977. (Pais didn't look much like him, and his voice was way too high and nasal for the part. He was credible as a sportswriter, but not as that particular sportswriter.) Sportswriters Maury Allen and Steve Jacobson were also portrayed in it, and each of the 3 got a cameo. Phil's was in a scene where George Steinbrenner is pontificating to the writers, spelling out his "Seven Commandments" for a baseball team's manager; Maury and Steve got to pose with their portrayers in the victorious clubhouse scene at the end.

Phil Pepe died on Sunday, apparently of heart attack, at his home in Englewood, New Jersey. He was 80 years old.
Pepe, Yogi Berra, and longtime Daily News sports cartoonist Bill Gallo.
They're all gone now.

"He truly, truly loved what he did," David Pepe said. "He always felt he was blessed to do what he did for a living. He had a real passion for baseball."

1 comment:

Davan Mani said...

No mention of him breaking the story of Sandy Koufax having a Christian father and that his actual last name was Braun after game 1 of the 1963 WS?