By Marty Appel
Phil Pepe has averaged almost a book a year wrapped around a journalism and broadcasting career that goes back to 1954 when he began working part-time for the New York World Telegram & Sun. If you read baseball books, he would likely be in your library, for he’s done books on or with Bob Gibson, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Tim McCarver, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Thomson, Ron Santo, Duke Snider, Billy Martin, Yogi Berra and many more. In fact his new series, “Few and Chosen,” selecting all-time teams for many franchises in conjunction with legends of those teams, has him churning out even more than one a year.
At 71, he still has the same upbeat enthusiasm that had him tabbed as one of the original “Chipmunks” that covered New York baseball – an eager and inquisitive band of young writers in the early ’60s. Some thought his toothy smile inspired the very name.
He has been a colleague of Dan Daniel, whose career began before Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees, and a protégé of Dick Young, who he calls “the hardest worker and best reporter I ever knew.” Of Daniel, he says, “he was outwardly a curmudgeon, but down deep, a pussy cat.”
He knew Red Smith and John Drebinger, Milton Gross and Arthur Daley, Jimmy Cannon and Frank Graham – all the giants of the industry that he walked into.
The Pepe resume is remarkable for the places he’s been, the people he’s known. The St. John’s University product joined the World Telegram full time in ’57, and stayed until the paper folded in 1966. He then worked with Howard Cosell writing scripts at ABC Radio before joining the Daily News in 1968 where he stayed for 23 years. He wrote the lead story on every World Series game from 1969-1981, covered most of Ali’s championship fights, was the beat writer for the Knicks during their championship years, covered in the first Super Bowl and three Olympics.
In the meantime he began a radio commentary career in 1985 at WCBS FM in New York, which ran for 18 years and allowed readers who thought his name was “PEEP” to discover it was pronounced “PEPPY.” He also did 12 years as the play-by-play man for the New Jersey Cardinals of the New York Penn League, and now writes for YESNetwork.com.
He did his first book, “Winners Never Quit,” in 1965, taking the theme of John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles of Courage” into sports.
His first major breakthrough book included a tinge of mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Bob Gibson was to do an autobiography with one John Lake, who had been sports editor at Newsweek. About three months before the manuscript was due, Lake vanished without a trace. It came to be thought of as a suicide, but no body, and no note, have been found to this day. Enter Pepe. Editor Zander Hollander called Phil and said, “can you do this in three months?”
Pepe’s deadline writing as a newspaperman came in handy. He got it done. Gibson was, as advertised, not always the most pleasant guy to work with. “I came on too strong at first, and Gibson told Zander to ‘tell that guy it’s my book, not his.’ But things got better; I deferred to him and the interviews went smoothly, and ‘From Ghetto to Glory’ received nice attention.
“But when I approached him on a day he was pitching against the Mets at Shea Stadium the following year, he snapped at me: ‘You of all people should know that I never talk to the press before the game on the day I’m pitching!!.”
Phil had a fine relationship with Mantle, and recalls sitting in a restaurant with him, reviewing a manuscript for “My Favorite Summer: 1956” (“Mickey was very diligent, making all the necessary corrections, deletions, additions and so on”), when there was a commotion at a nearby table. An old gentleman was unable to pay his check. It was something like $96, and the guy had obviously overdone it without realizing the prices. Mickey paid the tab, a total stranger. He just felt bad for the guy.
“It was astounding how many lives he touched and to what degree,” recalls Phil. “Mostly he was gracious and patient, including the day at a New York bookstore where he signed almost 2,000 books, a store record. More than anything, I realized that he was embarrassed by the attention and was really a very humble guy who didn’t think he was worthy of such adulation.”
Pepe says he preferred the immediacy of newspaper writing, and the excitement of filing a story on deadline, but with books, “you put it on a shelf, you don’t wrap fish in it the next day. You pass it along to your children and your grandchildren, and it’s there forever.”