Joe Pepitone and the Hall of Fame are battling over a bat.
Not just any bat. It’s the piece of lumber used by Mickey Mantle when the New York Yankees legend belted a 3-2 changeup from Stu Miller into the right-field stands at Yankee Stadium for his 500th career home run.
Pepitone lent Mantle the bat in the seventh inning of the May 14, 1967, game. After the Yankees 6-5 victory against the Baltimore Orioles, Pepitone claims that Yankees executive Bob Fishel turned the bat over to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum without telling him. It was a piece of history the Hall of Fame was only too happy to display: at the time, Mantle was only the sixth player in major league history to hit 500 home runs, behind Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams and Mel Ott.
Now, the former Yankees outfielder-first baseman is suing to get his bat back.
Attorneys for Pepitone, 80, submitted a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York on June 21, and the case was filed on July 7. Pepitone is seeking the return of the bat, along with “compensatory and exemplary” damages to be determined at trial but no less than $1 million, according to the court documents.
“Pepitone’s bat is a one-of-a-kind historical baseball artifact with an estimated value of more than $500,000,” the lawsuit alleges. “Pepitone did not gift, sell, assign, or in any way transferred (sic) his sole ownership interest in the bat to any person or entity. Pepitone unequivocally demanded that the Museum return the bat on Sept. 1, 2020, as promised.
“The Museum has unreasonably and unlawfully refused Pepitone’s demand to return the bat and continues to possess the bat without legal cause or justification over Pepitone’s objection and contrary to Pepitone’s legal and equitable right to possession,” the lawsuit alleges.
In a statement Friday, the Hall of Fame disputed Pepitone’s claim.
“The bat that Mickey Mantle used to hit his 500th home run was donated to the Hall of Fame by the New York Yankees in May 1967,” according to the statement, which was first reported by The Athletic. “The Hall of Fame owns this historical bat and for more than 50 years, the Hall of Fame has preserved it and proudly put it on display for millions of fans to see as they tour the Museum.”
The Yankees could not be reached for comment, according to The Athletic.
The bat is available to view online through the Hall of Fame’s digital archive.
Mantle finished his career with 536 home runs. At the time, that placed him third on the all-time home run list behind Ruth and Mays. He now ranks 18th overall.
With the memorabilia boom currently at a fever pitch, it is understandable why Pepitone wants the bat back. Auction company representatives we contacted say it would likely bring at least $750,000 but some believe it would go for as much as $2-3 million.
The natural stain wooden bat weighs 29 ounces and is 35 inches long, with “Hillerich & Bradsby/125/Louisville Slugger/Powerized” located in the center of the barrel. Near the end of the barrel is a Pepitone facsimile signature, with “P104” inscribed on the knob. The figure “30½” is handwritten in black on the end of the knob.
Pepitone entered the game as a pinch hitter for Bill Robinson in the sixth inning and hit a two-run homer off Miller, his first of the season, to give the Yankees a 5-4 lead, according to Retrosheet.org.
According to the lawsuit, “in the next inning of the game, Pepitone handed his bat to Mantle and told Mantle that the bat ‘had another home run in it.’ Mantle smiled at Pepitone and took the bat to the plate.”
After connecting for No. 500 — his fourth home run of the season — Mantle returned the bat to Pepitone, the lawsuit alleges.
According to United Press International columnist Milton Richman, Mantle was asked after the game if he was going to keep the bat or give it to the Hall of Fame.
“It’s not mine to give,” Mantle said. “It belongs to Joe Pepitone and he let me use it.
“He’s got it now and I think he went south with it.”
Pepitone agreed there was “no chance” Mantle would get to keep the milestone bat, Richman wrote.
“I’m tickled to death he hit the homer with it, but there ain’t no way he’s gonna get that bat back,” Pepitone told reporters. “I’m taking it home with me.”
According to the lawsuit, Pepitone said he secured the bat in his locker. However, he noticed later that the bat was gone, and Fishel told him the Yankees wanted to send the bat to Cooperstown. He asked Pepitone if he would agree to loan the bat, and the player agreed with the stipulation that he could have the bat returned to him upon demand.
The problem facing Pepitone is that many of the principals involved in sending the bat to the Hall of Fame are dead. Fishel died in June 1988. According to the lawsuit, Bill Guilfoile, who was the public relations director of the museum from 1978 until 1996, assured Pepitone that bat was “his for the asking.” Guilfoile, who was the Yankees’ assistant director of public relations from 1960 through 1970, died in July 2016. Mantle died in 1995.
Also, the lawsuit does not address whether there was any written correspondence, contracts or receipts pertaining to the ownership of the bat. Was it Pepitone’s, or did the Yankees pay for the bats and therefore believed it had the right to remove the bat and send it to Cooperstown? It’s an interesting question.
In a statement reported by The Athletic, the Hall of Fame said the bat “is where it belongs.”
“This bat is one of the tens of thousands of artifacts that, over the last 85 years, have been donated to the Hall of Fame by players, teams, leagues, and fans,” the statement read. “Artifacts allow us to honor the game and fulfill our not-for-profit mission to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations.
“This bat is where it belongs – on display in Cooperstown for fans everywhere to see.”