Baseball and Crime

Every walk of life, every culture, every community and every course of human endeavor is dotted with it's share of crime. Some minor, some major. Some seemingly innocuous and others glaringly flagrant. Baseball is no exception, of course. Throughout it's relatively brief history, it has had its thieves, its con men, its muggers and even its murderers.

While a seemingly morbid subject, it is nonetheless fascinating to me and, I daresay, to most people. It makes ballplayers, who would be otherwise glorified and put upon a pedestal by worshipful youngsters, appear to be exactly as they are... human. Not so nice humans.

I'd like to add to this thread periodically with some of baseball's more publicized crimes and the criminals who perpetrated them, as well as some of the more obscure ones. Feel free to add your own, if you are so inclined....

The Adventures of Denny McLain or, The HOF Career that Never Happened - McLain was never liked very well in baseball circles, and for good reason. He was a brash, cocky braggart who, when he wasn't pitching, hustled golf, promoted rock concerts, hosted a talk show and even performed as a concert-level organist (he described himself as an organist who happened to play baseball.) In 1969, a rookie once tapped him on the shoulder. McLain turned around and said to the youngster, "Listen, busher, never touch a superstar." His team nickname was 'Mighty Mouth.'

McLain could never seem to hold onto money, despite his astronomical (for the times) $200,000 salary. He was always losing card games, as well as other bets, around the clubhouse. He eventually got evicted from his home, his office furniture was repossessed and the IRS came after him for back taxes. At one point, his assets were $413 and he owed $446,000.

In 1967, through a bookmaking operation ran by McLain, a man named Hubert Voshen placed an $8,000 bet on a horse called Williamston Kid. When the horse came in, Voshen was due $46,000, money that McLain and his partners didn't have. Voshen, not without connections of his own, demanded to be paid and was passed around from bookie to bookie, receiving several calls asking him to be patient (one of these calls purportedly came from McLain's father-in-law, HOFer Lou Boudreau.) Voshen finally arrange an audience with Tony Giacalone, an enforcer with the Detroit chapter of the Cosa Nostra. Giacalone invited McLain onto his boat and 'persuaded' him to pay up by crushing two toes on his left foot. McLain later denied that the boat incident ever happened. He subsequently gave two different accounts of how he broke his toes.

He missed a good deal of the '67 season due to his injuries and when the Tigers and Red Sox were tied for first place on the final day of the season, McLain was pressed into duty (he had won 20 games in 1966). He was still suffering much pain from the foot injury, and didn't last three innings, giving up four hits and three runs. Teammates blamed him for losing the pennant to Boston. In yet another ironic wrinkle, Tony 'The Enforcer' Giacalone's brother had bet heavily against the Tigers for the that final game (wonder what he knew??)

McLain and his partners finally raised the $46,000 to pay off Voshen, but the money was never delivered. In October, 1968, Voshen played a round of golf then went out for lunch. During his meal, he was paged to a phone where he took the call then immediately rushed out to his car, according to witnesses. An hour later, the car was found wrapped around a tree on a highway outside Detroit. Voshen was dead. The pavement was good, visibility was high, the road was straight. Most of these events were chronicled in a Sports Illustrated story in 1970 that McLain said was 90% lies. He claimed he was talked out of suing, however. Three days before the article appeared, Bowie Kuhn suspended him for actions detrimental to baseball.

He returned from his suspension on July 1, 1970 and pitched horribly for the rest of the year. He went from 24-9 in '69 to 3-5 in '70. During his suspension and after his return, McLain didn't act as though he was interested in returning to baseball's good graces. He threatened a parking lot attendant with bodily harm over a parking space, he dumped buckets of ice water over two sportswriters and he started accumulating several different varieties of guns. He was accused of brandishing one in a Chicago restaurant as well as carrying one onto a commercial airliner. Kuhn suspended him again, this time for the rest of the season. He also 'suggested' a psychiatric evaluation which McLain complied with. He was given a clean bill of health.

His right arm wasn't as healthy. His fastball was gone and he led the majors in losses in 1971 with 22 while pitching for the lowly Senators. After a short stint in the minors in 1972 (during which time he considered accepting a $25,000 bribe to throw a game) he was called up to Atlanta. McLain later admitted he would probably have taken the bribe, but the call-up came before he had the chance. He pitched crappy and was released after appearing in 15 games. Just four years after his phenomenal 31-win season, and only three years after his second consecutive CY Award, he was out of baseball for good.

McLain went downhill from there. He declared bankruptcy in 1977. After allowing his insurance to lapse, his house burned to the ground and he lost everything, including his Cy Young Awards. His weight ballooned from 190 to 300 lbs and he suffered a mild heart attack. From 1981-1984, McLain, respectively, took a job as a mortgage broker and helped a disco owner obtain a $40,000 loan, was threatened by mobsters with the loss of his ears when the disco owner couldn't pay it back, was busted at an airport with cocaine stuffed in his golf bag and was indicted for, among other things, racketeering, extortion, loan-sharking and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. He was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to 23 years in jail.

After spending two and a half eventful years in state prison, the sentence was overturned in 1987 on a technicality - the trial had been unfairly rushed. He subsequently pleaded guilty in a second trial and was given another five years. the judge, in an unusual twist, also ordered him to revise his autobiography to reflect that he had pleaded guilty, saying, "It's about time you start getting things truthfully in order for a change."

After his release, McLain cleaned up his act. He worked as a PR man for a hockey team in Indiana and a company that sold alcohol-free wine cooler. In 1989, he took a job playing the organ in a Michigan bar. The bartender was Leon Spinks, another shooting star who had his troubles with the law.
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Joe Pepitone, wasted talent, wasted life - Just a week after Denny McLain was convicted in 1985, plain-clothes cops pulled over a Buick Riviera after it had run a red light. Inside, they found $70,000 worth of cocaine, heroin and quaaludes, drug paraphernalia and a loaded .22 deringer. The driver looked vaguely familiar under his cowboy hat, sunglasses and black leather jacket. Without waiting to be asked, the man said, "I'm Joe Pepitone, formerly of the Yankees."

Pepitone was a true baseball rebel throughout his career. He had a world of talent and was regarded by most of the baseball world as a harmless fun-lover who never lived up to his potential. Certainly not a criminal. He was more famous for his hairpiece and his blow-dryer than his play on the field.

Pepitone grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn where one either grew up tough or didn't survive. His father, Willie, beat him constantly for such things as coming home late. If a kid at school beat Joe up, his father would beat him up for allowing himself to get beaten up.

Major league scouts noticed Joe when he was only 14 years old and by the time he was 16, he could hit a ball over 400 feet. His father was a frustrated player himself and he drove Joe mercilessly to become the best ballplayer ever. If Joe struck out or made an error, he would receive a beating. Willie also beat up any fan who heckled his son and once got himself arrested for running onto the field to attack a pitcher who had beaned Joe.

Finally, the abuse reached a head when Joe was nearly blinded by an ashtray his father had flung at him. A cabinet was smashed and Joe had to have glass slivers removed from his face. At one point, Joe told his mother that he wished his father was dead. The next night, his father did die. He was only 39. Joe believed he was to blame for his father's death, yet he was also relieved that Willie was finally gone. The mixed emotions sent Joe into depressions. He began having nightmares very regularly and still had them 20 years later.

Some of the baseball scouts began losing interest in Joe because of the mental anguish he was obviously under, but the Yankees signed him in August, 1958. He was touted as the next in the Ruth/Gehrig/DiMaggio/Mantle tradition. In 1962, he was brought up to the big club.

A natural extrovert, Pepitone jumped head first into the NY celebrity party scene. He got up onstage at the Copacabana and danced with Tom Jones. He sang on the Merv Griffin Show. He met, and partied with, Frank Sinatra and started drinking Jack Daniels because Sinatra did. He also played some darned good ball, smacking 27 homers in his first full season. But almost immediately, he began having problems with money, women... and crime.

Pepitone wanted to live big, even if he hadn't yet put together a career that would merit it. He would blow $600 a night taking friends out on the town and he bought expensive cars on a whim. Once, his paycheck was $15 because he owed so much to the Yankees. By 1965, he was $40,000 in debt and creditors hounded his every move. Men would walk up to him and ask Joe for his autograph and when he held out his hand, the man would hand him a subpoena. Creditors came to Yankee Stadium more than once to repossess his car. He was even approached by two huge hoods who suggested he pay off his tab at the Copa "or you're gonna have a problem."

The Yanks finally hired a financial advisor for him and he was able to pay off his debts in a couple years. Within months, he was $20,000 in the red again. Pepitone was impressed by mobsters and loved the movies that glorified them. He began hanging out with them and the mobsters were tickled to have a young ballplayer in their midst, particularly a paisan from Brooklyn. His 'friends' even offered to help him break into the Yankee starting lineup at first base one night, saying, "We're gonna help you out with that little problem ya got wit Skowron. We'll get in touch wit him after the game and the next day, you got the job. He won't play so good with cracks in his legs." To his credit, Pepitone said he wanted to win the job on his own.

As a star on the rise playing for the World Champion Yankees, Pepitone had his choice of hundreds of willing women. The fact that he had gotten married in the minors didn't stop him from taking full advantage. He would pick up a girl, have sex with her, send her away, then find another girl the same night. After the 1964 season, he went partying in Miami for a month. His wife had detectives track him down and tell him that if he didn't come home, he would be charged with desertion. When he finally returned a week later, he found all his clothes in a suitcase on the front porch. His second wife, Diane, found slips of paper with 150 names of women Joe had been sleeping with, including some of her closest friends! She left him soon afterward. After he left baseball in 1974, he got married for a third time, to a former Playboy bunny.

Pepitone loved the money and fame that came with being a major leaguer, but he never particularly liked baseball. "There's so much dead time in it," he said in his book Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud. "It's the most boring sport in the world to watch." By 1968, he had lost interest in the game and bounced around to Houston and to Chicago. After 14 games with the Tokyo Yakult Atoms in 1973, he hung up his spikes for good. His disrespect for authority and total lack of discipline were even more glaring in Japan than in America.

Always looking for a way to make money, Pepitone opened up hairstyling salons, restaurants and bars, but they all failed. The only thing he excelled at no longer interested him. Finally, in desperation, he turned to drug peddling. Guess what? He wasn't particularly good at that either.

Cut to the beginning of my narrative, to that Buick Riviera on Rockaway Avenue and Newport Street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1985. After being caught red-handed, Pepitone could have gotten as much as 15 years to life in prison for criminal possession of a controlled substance and possession of a loaded weapon. He received only six months and only had to serve two months.

Even the title of his book was something a mobster said to him, not anyone inside his family or baseball. Joe, ya coulda made it ta Cooperstown but instead, ya ended up at Rikers Island. Say it ain't so, Joe.
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