Aug 2, 2020

Joe Pignatano: The Longest Serving Coach In Mets History (1968-1981) A Brooklyn Born Italian / American

Joseph Benjamin Pignatano was born in Brooklyn, New York on August 4, 1929. He grew up less than a mile from Coney Island, where the A ball Brooklyn Cyclones now play, on West 15th Street.

As a boy on the streets of Brooklyn all Piggy did was play was baseball. It was either was hard ball, stickball or softball.

In 1948 he tried out for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and was one of just two players who got selected. He was sent to Cairo, Illinois to play, then was given a check, released and sent home. With no money in his pocket he slept at a Chicago train station, until a cop felt sorry for him & put him up at a hotel for the night.

When he got home, his mother called the Dodgers wanting to know why her boy was tossed out on the street. No one knew why & as a result he was given another chance.

This time he did better & signed a contract. He played minor league ball until 1951 when he went into the military, serving two years in the Korean War. He returned to the minors playing through the ranks, batting a solid .299 in 1957 in the International League. From there he got his promotion to the Dodgers big league club, playing in his home town of Brooklyn at Ebbets Field.

He would only play in only eight games in 1957 hitting .214 (3-14) with one RBI. On Tuesday September 24th, 1957, he replaced Roy Campanella in the 5th inning of the last game ever played at Ebbets field. He went on to catch the last five innings of a shut out thrown by rookie pitcher Danny McDevitt.

In 1958 he went with the Dodgers to Los Angeles, becoming the backup catcher behind Johnny Roseboro. The third string catcher was future Mets coach Rube Walker who was finishing out the final season of his playing career.

Pignatano hit .218 in 63 games, with a career high 9 HRs, driving in 17 runs. In 57 games behind the plate he threw out 12 of 18 base runners attempting to steal (67%). 

In the Dodgers 1959 Championship season, he hit .237 in 52 games, playing mostly against lefthanders. He got to catch in 49 games throwing out 46% of base runners attempting to steal, posting a .997 fielding %.

1959 World Series: Pignatano singled advancing Gil Hodges to third base, in the 12th inning of the second game of a best of three playoff series with the Milwaukee Braves. Hodges would score on Carl Furillo’s hit, which led to the Braves Felix Mantilla making a crucial throwing error.

In the 1959 World Series Pignatano got to play one inning against the Chicago White Sox.

After the Championship: He played one more season in L.A. playing in 40 games, throwing out 12 of 19 base runners attempting to steal, but with Roseboro behind the plate & Norm Sherry becoming a favorite target of Sandy Koufax, Pignatano was sent to the Kansas City A’s.

There he had career highs in games played (92) hits (59) average (.243) doubles (10) walks (36) & RBIs (22). At the start of the 1962 season he was traded to the San Francisco Giants for Jose Tartabul (Danny Tartabul’s father) and after only seven games had his contract purchased by the expansion 1962 Mets.

Mets Playing Career: He joined New York that summer & debuted on July 14th in a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his first Mets at bat he doubled going 1-4. The next day he doubled again driving in a run against the San Francisco Giants. He played In 27 games with the ’62 Mets driving in two runs, batting .232.

In 25 games behind the plate he made just one error (.991%) with 100 put outs throwing out just 4 of 13 base runners attempting to steal.

Trivia: On the last day of the season at Wrigley Field, in his last career at bat, he hit into a triple play in the top of the 8th inning. It was a pop up back behind second base, Cubs infielder Ken Hubbs made the grab then got Ritchie Ashburn & Sammy Drake out on the bases.

Piggy played two seasons in the minors, winning the International League Championship in 1964. 

Playing Career: In his six season career he batted .234 with 161 hits 16 HRs 25 doubles & 62 RBIs. He threw out 45% of would be base stealers posting a .990 fielding %.

Pignatano worked in the off season as many players of his era did. He was a plumbers assistant for ten years & then worked at an A& S department store for more than twenty years.

After his playing career he remained friends with his old team mate Gil Hodges. Hodges had become manager of the Washington Senators & in 1965 asked Pignatano to be his first base coach.

Mets Coach: In 1968 he joined Hodges in his move to New York, becoming the Mets bullpen coach. He also served as a part time first base coach as a backup to Yogi Berra. In the bull pen his job was to get relief pitchers warmed up and report their status to Hodges.

On that coaching staff he worked with another former teammate, Mets pitching coach Rube Walker. Pignatano & Walker would start a coaching relationship that lasted 14 years, serving the longest terms of any coaches in Mets history.

Pignatano, Rube Walker & Gil Hodges worked very closely, spending all their time together on the road. 

Quotes- Joe Pignatano: "On the road, we were always together. We talked about what we had to do and then we went out and did it. All three of us came from Washington and we inherited Yogi Berra and he fit just like a glove.

Pignatano & Rube Walker would serve under five different managers; Gil Hodges, Yogi Berra, Roy McMillan, Joe Frazier & Joe Torre through the 1981 season.

Piggy's Famous Bullpen Vegetable Garden at Shea
The Shea Stadium Vegetable Garden: Pignatano was famous for maintaining his tomato plants & vegetable garden in the Mets bullpen.

In 1969 he found a wild tomato plant growing, he tended to it and nursed it throughout the season. As he said in later years : "We got some tomatoes off it, but most important, we won the whole thing."

As the Mets did win the whole thing,after the World Championship season, he felt the tomato plant was a good luck charm and continued to maintain it through the seventies.

Eventually the garden grew to be thirty feet long, sprouting out zucchini, eggplants squash, lettuce & pumpkins. He was very proud of his garden, as ot also saw two different generations of Mets fans tend to its needs.

After he left the Mets in 1981, the garden was still maintained by a few players & Pete Flynn's ground crew.

In 1969 Piggy helped groom Tug McGraw in the bullpen to becoming one of the game’s best relievers. "McGraw had to be the best," said Pignatano, "But Cal Koonce did a good job, Ron Taylor and Don Cardwell did nice jobs, too. But the guy that did the greatest job was McGraw."

Pignatano was there for all the good times; the 1969 Championship, the close knit teams of the early seventies & the 1973 NL Pennant.

Piggy & Bud Harrelson at Citi Field
He was also there for the bad times. He was golfing with Gil Hodges when he suffered his fatal heart attack, and then suffered with the team’s demise after the passing of owner Joan Payson.

He said after Hodges & Payson passed, the people running the ball club wouldn’t spend the money to get good players or keep the ones they had. He blamed Charles Payson and of course M. Donald Grant for running the team into the ground.

Post Mets Career: After the Wilpon/Doubleday ownership took over in 1981, Joe Torre & his old coaches were fired. Piggy went along with his Brooklyn friend Torre to Atlanta and coached under him for three seasons. He then coached in the minor leagues until 1986, before retiring from baseball.

2007: Pignatano & Danny McDevitt
Throw Out First Pitch Before a Cyclones Game
His favorite years in baseball, were the ones he spent in New York, with the Brooklyn Dodgers & Mets. His biggest thrill (of course) was the 1969 Championship. Over the years he frequently visited Shea Stadium, Citi Field & appears at various Mets & Brooklyn Dodger events.

Honors: In 2007 he was at Ralph Kiner night at Shea Stadium, and was also honored at Keyspan Park in Brooklyn. He & pitcher Danny McDevitt threw out a ceremonial first pitch, prior to a Cyclones game, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the last game ever played at Ebbets Field.

Honors: Piggy attended the closing ceremonies of Shea Stadium in 2008 & was on hand for the celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the 1969 Mets team in 2009.

Pignatano is one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, & one of the most popular Mets coaches in team history. He is one of the last living members of the Brooklyn Dodgers team. He still lives in Brooklyn and is the cousin of former Mets pitcher, Pete Falcone.

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