’68 Sports Illustrated cover boy Pepper never made it with the Tigers

Don Pepper, Johnny Bench, Alan Foster (back row), with Mike Torrez and Cisco Carlos on the cover of Sports Illustrated in March of 1968.

Usually when an athlete appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated it’s because he’s earned it through some achievement on the playing field. But Tiger prospect Don Pepper got his cover shoot before he ever collected a hit in the major leagues. Unfortunately, a series of circumstances kept him from ever getting a hit in the big leagues. But he doesn’t regret it – that much.

45 springs ago – in March of 1968 – Pepper was corralled along with four other hot prospects by SI to appear on the cover of the iconic magazine. The young Tiger farmhand posed with Cardinal pitcher Mike Torrez, White Sox pitcher Cisco Carlos, Dodger pitcher Alan Foster, and a young Cincinnati catcher identified as “John Bench”. Chances are you’ve heard of Bench and maybe Torrez, who had a long, successful career for several clubs, but the other three, including Detroit’s Pepper, are not household names. Yet they, like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali and other legendary athletes, did something none of us have ever done – appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. For the 24-year old Pepper it would be the pinnacle of his baseball career.

Born in upstate New York, Pepper was a tall, muscular farmboy – quite literally. He was raised on his family’s turkey farm just outside Saratoga Springs, and the physical labor helped his frame fill out at an early age. He starred for his high school football, basketball, and baseball teams, and the Detroit Tigers plucked him (no pun intended, gobble gobble) from the free agent pool as an 18-year old after his graduation. Pepper spent the next few years learning to be a pro ballplayer at the lower levels of the Detroit farm system, spending his first time away from home. He struggled to play defense, but he showed good promise with the bat. Unfortunately for him, Pepper was a left-handed hitting first baseman, and the Tigers had Norm Cash cemented at that position in the 1960s. Ol’ Stormin’ Norman was a wild, reckless country boy, but he could wallop the ball into the porch at Tiger Stadium. With Cash in Detroit, Pepper really had nowhere to go.

But in ’66, in his fifth season as a pro, Pepper forced the Tigs to take notice. He smacked 19 homers and hit .302 for Montgomery. As he made his way up the Tiger organizational ladder, Pepper played with Tommy Matchick, Dave “Soup” Campbell, and John Hiller, players who later earned their stripes with Detroit. Pepper was also a teammate of Jim Leyland, who never quite made it to the big leagues.

Pepper’s performance at Montgomery earned him a September call up to the Tigers, what was called “a cup of coffee.” On September 10 he made his big league debut as a pinch-hitter against the Kansas City A’s, grounding out. In two more pinch-hitting appearances that month he struck out and flew out, facing future Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter in one of his trips to the plate. In all, Pepper spent four weeks with the Tigers and saw action in four games. It was barely enough time for his teammates to learn his name.

In the spring of ’67, Pepper was given a chance to make the team as a reserve infielder and pinch-hitter, but the Tigs were a talented team with most of their stars in their prime. Manager Mayo Smith preferred a bench that consisted of veterans with experience playing a part-time role at the highest level. This philosophy was reinforced in August when the team traded for Eddie Mathews, the power-hitter who was once half of the greatest power-hitting duo in baseball in the 1950s and early 1960s (with Henry Aaron). Worse for Pepper was the fact that Mathews a left-handed hitting first baseman. With Cash and Mathews in tow, it seemed Pepper was an unnecessary weapon. As a result he spent all of the ’67 season at Toledo where he hit 13 homers and led the club in RBI’s.

That brings us to the SI cover shoot in March of ’68. The Tigers had narrowly lost the pennant the previous autumn, falling on the last day. The experts were picking them as one of the favorites, and Sports Illustrated, in their story that accompanied the cover, went as far to speculate that the Bengals might consider giving Pepper a chance to win the first base job:

Pepper is highly regarded by Batting Coach Wally Moses, and something has to crack in the Detroit situation between Pepper, Cash and Mathews, because no team really wants to carry three left-handed hitting first basemen. Pepper is working extremely hard to make the Tigers, and he will force Manager Mayo Smith into making a very tough decision. Do you keep Cash and Mathews and run for the pennant with experience and age even though Detroit partisans have grown more than restless with Cash, or do you open the season with Pepper and see what happens, knowing full well that you did not win last year with both of the veterans?

That’s why Pepper found himself elbowing Bench on the cover of SI – his youth and powerful left-handed bat seemed too attractive for some to resist. But, as any fan of Detroit sports history knows, Mayo Smith did resist. Cash and Mathews went north and the Tigers romped to the pennant and won the World Series. Pepper, a cover boy 7 months earlier, watched from his parents home in upstate New York as the Tigers celebrated after winning Game 7 in St. Louis behind Mickey Lolich. And Bench? He was named Rookie of the Year in the National League. Pepper had spent the entire ’68 season at Toledo once again, hitting 16 homers and driving in 65 runs in 129 games. There were 20 players on that Mud Hen team who would go on to play in the majors, but Pepper was not one of them.

The following March late in spring training, with his path blocked by Cash, Pepper was traded to the Montreal Expos, an expansion team playing in their first season. But rather than report to the Expos, Pepper went back to Saratoga Springs to take over the turkey farm. His father had passed away and someone needed to run the family business. He spent the next few years doing what turkey farmers do, but it wasn’t his thing, and in 1971 he gave it up. By that time, at almost 28 years of age, Pepper was too old and to far removed from baseball to make a comeback.

“My father died, and I felt it was my obligation to go home,” Pepper told Sports Illustrated in 2002. “Looking back, maybe I shouldn’t have.”

After a career as a sales rep, he followed it up by owning a convenience store, and somewhere in there Pepper decided the unused family turkey farm needed a use. He built a golf range on the property and honed his already single-digit handicap game. One of his daughters, Dottie, took to the game like a natural and became a professional golfer, winning several tournaments in the LPGA.

Pepper lives in South Carolina with his wife and has no regrets about leaving baseball when he did. His brief time in the spotlight might seem strange in retrospect (Foster and Carlos didn’t amount to much either), but the story of how he got there and where he went after his Sports Illustrated moment is the story of what happens when a “can’t miss, sure thing” isn’t so sure and does miss.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He was formerly the Web Producer for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.