Remembering Joe Pignatano: The Longest Serving Coach in Mets History (1968-1981)

Joseph Benjamin Pignatano was born on August 4, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York. 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 pockets, he slept at a Chicago train station, until a cop felt sorry for him & put him up for the night at a local hotel.

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

This time he played better at the tryout, was offered a contract & he signed a deal. He played minor league ball until 1951 when he went into the military, serving two years in the Korean War.

In 1957 he returned to the minors, batting a solid .299 in the International League. From there he got his promotion to the Dodgers big league club, playing in his hometown of Brooklyn at Ebbets Field.

MLB Dodger Career: Pignatano would only play in eight games in 1957 hitting .214 (3-14) with one RBI. 

On Tuesday September 24th, 1957, Pignatano 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 Dodger win, 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. 

On June 24th he came in the 8th inning of a tie game with the Reds in at Crosley Field. He homered in the top of the 10th, following a Gil Hodges two run HR as the Dodgers won 13-10. In July, when the Reds came to L.A. Pignatano homered off Joe Nuxhall breaking a 1-1 tie. The Dodgers went on to a 3-2 win.

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 %. 

He hit his only HR of the year, on May 20th, a three-run shot in an 8-4 win over the Reds in the first game of a double header.

1959 Play Off Series: That season the Dodgers tied for first place with the Milwaukee Braves. The Braves had won the two previous NL Pennants, winning one Championship. 

The Dodgers won the first game, played in Milwaukee 3-2. 

In the second game, played at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Dodgers were down 5-2 in the 9th inning, but they rallied to tie the game. Pignatano came in to pinch run & remained in the game replacing Roseboro at catcher. 

In the 12th inning, his good friend Gil Hodges drew a walk off Bon Rush. Pignatano singled advancing Hodges to third base. Hodges would score the walk off winning run on Carl Furillo’s infield hit, where the Braves Felix Mantilla made a crucial throwing error.

1959 World Series: In the 1959 World Series Pignatano got to catch the 9th inning, the Dodgers 1-0 Game #5 loss to the Chicago White Sox. The Dodgers went on to win the Series, in six games, their first Championship in Los Angeles.

After the Championship: He played one more season in L.A. With Johnny Roseboro as the teams
main catcher & Norm Sherry becoming a favorite target of Sandy Koufax, there was not much room for Pignatano. He 
played in 40 games, throwing out 12 of 19 base runners attempting to steal.  In January 1961 he was purchased by the Kansas City A’s.

A's Career: In the 1961 season with Kansas City, he had career highs in games played (92) hits (59) batting 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 in a Mets loss at Wrigley Field, he hit a liner that looked like a sure hit. But second baseman Ken Stubbs snagged it, threw to Ernie Banks at first & got Richie Ashburn off the base.

 Banks threw to second base nailing Sammy Drake for a triple play. Pignatano is the only player in MLB history to hit into a triple play in his final career at bat.

Pignatano then played two seasons in the minors, winning the AAA International League Championship in 1964. 

Career Stats: In his six-season career he batted .234 with 161 hits 16 HRs 25 doubles 62 RBIs & a .332 on base %. He hit HRs off three Hall of Fame pitchers in his career, Jim Kaat, Robin Roberts & Warren Spahn.

Behind the plate he caught 267 games, threw out 45% of would be base stealers posting a .990 fielding %.

Side Job: 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 tight friends with his old teammate 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 & also spent 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.

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."

Piggy's Famous Bullpen Vegetable Garden at Shea
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.  

Quotes- Joe Pignatano: "McGraw had to be the best, 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."

Piggy & Bud Harrelson at Citi Field
Pignatano was there for all the good times; the 1969 Championship, the close knit teams of the early seventies & the 1973 NL Pennant.

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 was the 1969 Mets Championship. Over the years he frequently visited Shea Stadium, Citi Field & appeared 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 was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet, & one of the most popular Mets coaches in team history. I had the pleasure of meeting him during one of the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the 1969 Mets.

He was one of the last living members of the Brooklyn Dodgers teams. He was also the last surviving coach of the 1969 World Champion Mets.

Family: Joe Pignatano & his wife Nancy were married for 66 years, they had two sons. They lived most of thier life in Brooklyn, then later in Southwest Florida. 

He is the cousin of former Mets pitcher, Pete Falcone.

Passing: In his final years he suffered from dementia & would live out his life in a nursing home in Naples Florida. On May 22nd, 2022, he passed there, at age  92. 

Quotes- Lee Mazzilli: "To me he was Uncle Joe. He loved
the city & loved talking about his days with the Dodgers & with Gil. He was a baseball lifer".

Jim McAndrew- Former Mets Pitcher: 'it was his home away from home. He had five or six hours a day down there with his tomatoes. He really took care of them. When we were on the road, the grounds crew helped out. They had the water. He never shared them" McAndrew said with a laugh. "Hewas going to reap the fruits of his bounty".


Popular posts from this blog

Former Mets Broadcaster: Fran Healy ( 1984-2005)

Remembering Mets History: (1977) The Felix Millan / Ed Ott Brawl In Pittsburgh

Remembering Bobby Ojeda's Tragic Boating Accident (1993)

The 1970's Oakland A's Ball Girls- (MLB's First)

Remembering Vixen Founder / Guitarist; Jan Kuehnemund (1961-2013)