Pepe died Sunday night at his home in Leonia, N.J. First word is that he suffered a sudden death, a heart attack probably. No matter the cause, the fourth estate has lost a giant. Not only have we lost an industry icon, we've lost one of the planet's most avid readers of newspapers, one of its most interesting folks and one of its good guys. And what hurts most here in the New York market, here where Pepe worked for decades as a beat man, columnist, author, official scorer and all around sports guy, is that we lost one of our own, one of our best. Damn it.
Pepe's death at 80 will touch tens of thousands. People who read him regularly in the New York Daily News -- and before that The World Telegram and Sun -- will recognize the loss. So, too, will those who listened to his "Pep Talk" on WCBS FM radio and those who read his books -- he authored more than 40 -- and the thousands he wrote about. His passing touches us, the folks in his diminishing circle of friends, like a left hook from Smokin' Joe, a blindside tackle by LT or a home run swing by Mick. There were no signs of sickness.
As recently as mid-November when I was driving him home from a baseball writers' meeting at Citi Field, Phil repeated a line he had come to favor in recent years: "I plan to live forever," he said. "So far, so good." And now this.
Pepe was a newspaper man's newspaper man. He knew his stuff, whether he was writing on boxing, football, basketball or baseball, his area of greatest expertise. Or on anything. He had remained as current in retirement as he had been when he was writing three or four columns a week -- columns about everything. If you covered sports in this city, or any other, Phil was a must-read.
He had contacts and ethics, fact and opinions, and he knew his way around a typewriter and some laptops. Phil wasn't fond of cellphones, either. He was one of those gifted guys who could handle any assignment a sports editor gave him and make his story read as if he had expertise in the field.
Pepe always wrote the right story. Not all of us do. His fingers didn't operate at Maury Allen speed, but he never met a deadline he couldn't beat. He and I argued about deadlines. They are a necessary evil in the business, emphasis on evil. I hate them. More time was an element in writing better, more comprehensive stories. His sense was, "What good is a better story that's late?" He had a point.
I always was amazed at the number of people Pepe knew in any sports setting, the number of anecdotes he had on any member of the sports society. He had Billy Martin's confidence, something available to a limited number of journalists. Mickey and Whitey and Yogi trusted him. So did Seaver, Gibson and Koufax. I'm sure people in other sports respected him, too. The guys in the business -- from Bill Gallo to Dick Young to Leonard Koppett -- respected his skills and finished product.
Pepe's birthplace was Brooklyn. He had impact there and the other four boroughs and the big city's satellite communities. He wrote for The Sporting News when it was "the baseball bible." He authored a series of paperbacks -- "The Book of Lists." He was partial to the lineup he created for players whose surnames began with E. I don't know why.
He liked nice cars. He seemed comfortable in any gathering. And he loved jazz and standards. He knew his stuff in that area, too. He was proud that his name appeared on the back of a Gap Mangione album. He had SiriusXM in his car, I have it in mine. My preset stations and his didn't overlap. But just last month, he hit me with this revelation: "McCartney's song ... 'My Love' ... great song." Phil wasn't big on "Long Tall Sally."
He had seen "Spotlight," compared it with "All the President's Men" and highly recommended it. No wonder. "It's a newspaper movie," he said. "It depicts the way newspaper offices used to operate."
He loved watching his grandson play baseball and monitoring his progress in the Blue Jays' system. He was proud of his son's work as an agent. "I should have done that," he'd say. At one time, he was a part owner of the New Jersey Cardinals. "I learned from George [Steinbrenner] what not to do," Phil said.
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Though we had shared press boxes, meals and cabs for years, I came to know Phil much better through our work on the annual winter dinner staged by the New York Chapter of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. It's been a big deal for a long time. Black tie and slick. Under Pepe's guidance, it's become a bigger and better deal. He ran the dinner -- an overwhelming responsibility -- and, for the past 12 years, I've edited the journal, SCOREBOOK. He was on my speed dial for sure.
Phil's three sons usually came to the dinner. They enjoyed him, they were proud of him. They love him.
Phil had great passion for the dinner. His energy belied his age. The dinner turns 93 next month. He wanted to be on the dais for the 100th. I wanted him there, too. The dinner is Jan. 23. Phil's gone. So what do we do now? A lot of what I do for MLB.com involves obituaries. Some are written in advance. Phil knew that and said, "No need to do mine." I wish that had been true.