MARCH 11, 1968
The decision at the time seemed clear-cut. One year after being touted by SI as one of the best prospects among the rookie crop of 1968, Don Pepper quit baseball to run his family's turkey farm in Sarasota Springs, N.Y., home to 45,000 fowl. "My father died, and I felt it was my obligation to go home," says the 58-year-old Pepper, who shared the cover with future Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench and pitchers Cisco Carlos, Alan Foster and Mike Torrez. "Looking back, maybe I shouldn't have."
While Bench became a two-time National League MVP as a member of the Cincinnati Reds' Big Red Machine, Torrez won 185 games in an 18-year career and Foster pitched well enough to stick around the big leagues for 10 seasons, Carlos was back in the minors by 1970, and Pepper never returned to the game, even after the farm went under in '71.
A hefty 6'4", left-handed, power-hitting first baseman in the Detroit Tigers' organization, Pepper earned a call-up to Detroit in 1966, appearing in four games and going hitless in three at bats. The following season he hit .277 and had 13 home runs for Triple A Toledo, prompting his appearance on SI's cover. However, Pepper couldn't displace veteran Norm Cash in spring training and started the season back in Toledo. The following spring Pepper was sold to the Montreal Expos, but before his new team could farm him out to an affiliate, he assigned himself to the family farm.
After Pepper pulled the plug on the unprofitable turkey venture in 1971, he became a sales representative for a gift products company and built a golf range on his farm. Later he helped manage a service station and ran a convenience store. In '96 he went to work for Ryan's Family Steak Houses, Inc., a chain of restaurants throughout 23 states, and now serves as director of maintenance. Sometimes when he's on the road making sure that the 315 steak and buffet houses are running smoothly, he thinks back on his baseball days and wonders what would have happened if he had stayed in the game.
Though Pepper never blossomed into the home run king he had dreamed of becoming while growing up in Saratoga Springs, his oldest daughter, Dottie, became a champion on the LPGA tour, winning 17 events in the last 15 years. Don owned his driving range when 10-year-old Dottie was still learning the game. She spent many hours at the range perfecting her swing, and Don, once a six handicapper, taught Dottie course-management skills and reminded her to always have fun.
"My dad was the voice of experience," says Dottie, whose sister, Jackie, is a married mother of two in Hamilton, Ohio. "After not quite making it [as a professional athlete], he gave me a lot of advice of what not to do. I benefited from that." Don and his wife of 37 years, Lynn, live 20 minutes from Dottie in Greenville, S.C., and catch up with her whenever she's in town.
A few years ago Carlos went to see Dottie play, at an LPGA event near his home in Cave Creek, Ariz., and to ask her to autograph a story that included a picture of the '68 SI cover. He wasn't able to meet with Dottie that day, but whenever he hears or reads about her, he thinks back to that cover shoot with Don and the promise of making it big in the majors.
A call-up to the Chicago White Sox in 1967 yielded seven starts for the 26-year-old righthanded Carlos. He went 2-0 with an 0.86 ERA in 41? innings, which earned him the cover spot and a place in Chicago's rotation in '68. However, the hard-throwing Carlos went 4-14 with a 3.90 ERA as a rookie. He began the following season 4-3 with a 5.66 ERA and then was sold to the Washington Senators. Carlos appeared in only six games during the rest of '69 and was called up and played in five games in '70 before being sent back to Triple A Denver.
After pitching for four more years without getting back to the majors, Carlos took a job in sales at a kitchen design center. "I was having so much fun, and the money was good," says Carlos, 61.