Pepper Pepper, Bo Bepper, Banana Fana, Fo Fepper, Fee Fi Mo Mepper…Pepper!
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.
...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.