Whenever I think of Sept. 11, 2001, and its connection to baseball, I think of Frank Tepedino. I first met him a few months after the terrorist attacks, when he came to the Hall of Fame to participate in a public program. Gregarious but modest, Tepedino was a pleasure to interview.
An obscure first baseman who once played for the Yankees and Braves and later became a fireman, Tepedino was one of thousands of first responders who made their way to Ground Zero after learning about the devastating crashes of two planes into the Twin Towers. Like all the other firefighters, policemen and medical personnel who reported to the scene, Tepedino was a hero that day.
Unlike some of the firefighters, he did not actually enter the buildings, which had already collapsed by the time of his arrival. He deserves no extra credit for being a former major leaguer. But as someone who once played the game at the highest level, he does complete the connection between a national tragedy and the National Pastime. He reminds us that baseball players can go on to do good things after their playing days, that it doesn’t all have to end the moment the spikes are put away for good. He also reminds us that baseball, as a sport of entertainment, can do something to help us cope with the aftermath of a mass murder that was perpetrated by evil men that day.
On that awful morning, Tepedino was at home on Long Island and had no idea of what had transpired until his son called him and gave him the news that a plane had crashed into one of the towers, just five minutes from his New York Fire Patrol unit in Greenwich Village. When a second plane crashed into the other tower, Tepedino realized that terrorists were involved. He, one of his sons, and two other firefighters immediately jumped into a car and began to make their way from Long Island to the site of the towers. It took them four hours to reach the scene. Although the buildings had already collapsed, Tepedino and the others did what they could, searching the area for survivors. As they helped in the recovery efforts, Tepedino and his friends worked in 24-hour shifts.
Six years later, Tepedino addressed a school assembly at Rocky Point High School. He explained how the tragedy had affected him. “I lost 343 friends on Sept. 11, 2001,” said Tepedino, referring to other members of the New York Fire Department who died during the terrorists attacks. “I didn’t know them all personally, but they were all my friends.”
Tepedino has dealt with other adversities in his life, principally his struggles with alcoholism. The problem started when he was 19. Now considering himself a recovering alcoholic, Tepedino travels the metropolitan New York area, and sometimes points beyond, talking to youth groups about his addiction.
Given his involvement in Sept. 11 and the hundreds of speeches that he has given about his alcohol problems, Tepedino has become a household name in the metropolitan area. But that wasn’t always the case. As a major league ballplayer, Tepedino had a career that could charitably be described as that of a journeyman, but might be more accurately considered that of a fringe player. Drafted and signed by the Orioles, Tepedino lasted only two seasons in Baltimore’s minor league system. After the 1966 season, he was drafted by the Yankees in the old first-year draft. He quickly worked his way up the chain, impressing the Yankees with his sweet left-handed swing, but he faced roadblocks at first base in an aging but productive Mickey Mantle and the talented flake, Joe Pepitone.
Even after Mantle retired and Pepitone left via trade, the Yankees did not give Tepedino more than a cursory look. From 1967 to 1971, they never gave him more than 43 plate appearances in a season. The Yankees apparently didn’t like his defensive play at first base, so they switched Tepedino to the outfield, where he had to compete with the likes of Roy White and Bobby Murcer. To add insult to injury, the Yankees turned to the punchless Danny Cater to play first base in 1970.
That brings us to 1971, the year Topps issued the above card of Tepedino. It’s pretty clearly a spring training photo taken at the Yankees’ old camp in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The picture was likely taken during the spring of 1970, at a time when Tepedino faced a battle to make the team as a part-time first baseman and outfielder.
As Tepedino poses for the Topps photographer, complete with his wry smile and a furry set of eyebrows, two uniformed Yankees are observing an unknown Yankee in the batting cage. One of the Yankees is wearing No. 51. Researcher David Jordan suggests that No. 51 could be Ron Klimkowski, the late relief pitcher who wore that number in 1969 before switching to No. 24 in 1970. But the man in the picture looks a lot bigger and more muscular than Klimkowski. As for the other man, it’s hard to say. Only the zero on the right side of the jersey is visible, so it could be any multiple of 10 ranging from No. 10 to No. 60. Who knows who could it be?
Just as we have little idea who these Yankees are, Tepedino had little idea about his role in New York. With Johnny Ellis and Ron Blomberg working their way to the majors, Tepedino became expendable early in the 1971 season. One week before the June 15 trading deadline, the Yankees dealt him and spare part outfielder Bobby Mitchell to the Brewers for slugging hit-or-miss outfielder Danny Walton.
Unfortunately, Tepedino did not hit in Milwaukee—he batted .198 in 106 at-bats—and failed to beat out Johnny Briggs for the starting first base job.
Tepedino found himself packing bags again the next spring. Rather remarkably, the Brewers sold him to the Yankees, who somehow felt they needed another first baseman/outfielder. The Yankees used him exclusively as a pinch-hitter, watched him go hitless in eight at-bats, and then packaged him and Wayne Nordhagen in a deal for Braves right-hander Pat Dobson.
The trade turned out to be the best break of Tepedino’s career. Not only did it give him a chance to play with Hank Aaron after having played with Mickey Mantle, it gave him a significant role for the first time in his career.
Playing as the backup to Mike Lum at first base and serving as a pinch-hitter, Tepedino batted .304 in 165 plate appearances. Joining players like Dick Dietz and Chuck Goggin, Tepedino helped form one of the best benches in the game in 1973. Collectively, the Braves’ backup players became known as “F-Troop,” as observers likened them to the rag tag military unit of the popular 1960s television show.
The 1973 season represented Tepedino’s lone moment of glory as a major leaguer. His hitting fell off the following summer. By 1975, he was back in the minor leagues, on his way out of baseball. At the age of 27, Tepedino had played his final game.
If the story had ended there, Tepedino would have been just one more obscure player who had sipped a mere cup of coffee in the major leagues. But the story did not end at that point. There was a battle to be won with alcoholism, and an important job to do on one of the nation’s worst days. For Frank Tepedino, playing big league ball was just the beginning.