Low And Outside: The Crime And Punishment Of '70s Houston Astros Pitcher Mark Lemongello
Before the dreaded 2017 cheating-with-video embarrassment, the Houston Astros had been relatively bereft of scandal. Here, we uncover the dastardly doings of a former pitcher from over 40 years ago.
“My head was messed up.” In an uncharacteristic moment of clarity and self-awareness, these were once the words of former Houston Astros pitcher, Mark Lemongello, known for his frequent outbursts of self-assault, sometimes slapping himself after ineffective pitches or outings.
Lemongello wore the Astro orange rainbow from 1976 through 1978. Bizarre events and an encounter with the law haunted his life shortly after his baseball career ended: Events that were singularly unique among pro athletes to that point, and haven’t been matched since.
What made Lemongello’s audacious lawlessness stand out, though, was its perpetration against family members.
“If You Walked Away”
In the summer of 1976, while the country was in the grips of Bicentennial fever, I was on-air at the time at KLOL-FM 101, playing “progressive” rock on Houston’s leading AOR (album-oriented rock) station as a 21-year-old DJ (about which more can be read here):
One July day at the station, I opened a box of new promotional releases from Private Stock Records, none of which ended up being playable on our format. I couldn’t help but be drawn to a lemon-yellow-colored vinyl 45 rpm single by some new pop singer, Peter Lemongello, a cover of singer/songwriter David Pomeranz’s “If You Walked Away.”
Besides noticing the connection between the singer’s last name and the sunny hue of the plastic, I also remembered the name of a newly-acquired pitcher on the Astros with that same unforgettable surname. And, without an online search engine to check, I was left wondering for years if Mark and Peter were related, or if this was just some sort of million-to-one coincidence.
Despite the yellow record and the countless times Peter was announced as a guest on TV shows as Peter “Lemon Jello,” the name is correctly pronounced “le-MAHNJ-ul-oh,” as many sources cite, but the passage of time has apparently rested on the former.
Selling and Setting Records
Peter (the singer) was born on Long Island in 1947. His cousin, Mark, was born in nearby Jersey City, New Jersey eight years later.
While Mark prepared himself for a baseball career, cousin Peter was becoming an accomplished cabaret singer, even appearing on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1973, performing “Do I Love You,” a Paul Anka-penned song (Anka, incidentally, composed The Tonight Show theme song).
Failing to gain traction with that song and with a stint on the CBS affiliate Epic Records later that year, Peter was on the doorstep of creating a national commercial sensation at about the same time cousin Mark was being fitted for his orange-striped Astros jersey.
Frustrated by a lack of record sales to this point, Peter Lemongello hit upon the idea of recording a full-length album to be sold exclusively on TV.
Incorporating a city-by-city marketing strategy, he and his management partners (and recruited investors) began an advertising campaign, dubbed Love ’76, with an around-the-dial TV blitz in the New York market beginning on the first day of 1976.
His commercials for the record appeared on all six New York TV channels several dozen times a week. Sales of the two-record set shot him to immediate fame in the New York area, and the ad campaign found itself moving to Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Reports vary widely, but it’s generally accepted that Lemongello set a record, selling over a million copies of the album, while the May 31, 1976 Time Magazine insisted the total didn’t rise above $43,000.
Either way, ground-breaking inroads were being created in the direct marketing lane that have been copied and built upon in the decades since, thereby whelping the ubiquitous late night “infomercial.”
That new notoriety for Peter garnered invites and subsequent appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Dinah Shore Show in the early weeks of 1976.
In April, Lemongello signed with the mid-level independent record label, Private Stock. Singles for the company (including “If You Walked Away”), as well as a subsequent album (Do I Love You), all failed to chart. Private Stock closed its doors in 1978.
Peter slowly melded a singing career into real estate, occasionally operating in borderline shady dealings.
Pitching a Fit…or Two
Mark Lemongello was signed a week-and-a-half before his 18th birthday in 1973 by the Detroit Tigers as an undrafted free agent out of Bridgewater-Raritan High School in Bridgewater Township, NJ. He sputtered in the Tigers’ farm system until a seven-player trade in December 1975 sent him to Houston.
Along with Lemongello, Houston received catcher Terry Humphrey, pitcher Gene Pentz, and outfielder Leon Roberts from Detroit in exchange for catcher Milt May and left-handers Dave Roberts and Jim Crawford.
Mark made his MLB debut in 1976 at age 21 in mid-September, about the time cousin Peter was recording his second solo album, Do I Love You for Private Stock. It was released in early 1977, coinciding with Mark reporting for Astros’ Spring Training in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
While going 3-1 in four starts for the Astros in 1976, Mark impressed with a 2.79 ERA, before starting the 1977 campaign 1-10. He rebounded, going 8-4 the rest of the way, finishing his age 22 season at 9-14 with a 3.48 ERA as the Astros played .500 ball for the year.
Mark repeated his 9-14 record in 1978, as he watched his ERA inflate to 3.94, as the Astros lost seven more games that year than the year before.
A highlight for Mark in the 1978 season happened in mid-April: He pitched a complete game 6-1 victory for the Astros over the Cincinnati Reds, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench led off the top of that inning with a long home run, dashing Mark’s dream of baseball immortality.
“He would slap himself in the face when he delivered a bad pitch, and he started to develop the reputation of being difficult to deal with.”
Not only was Mark’s performance on the mound deteriorating noticeably, his behavior was drawing even more concern. “He would slap himself in the face when he delivered a bad pitch, and he started to develop the reputation of being difficult to deal with,” ESPN1420 described in 2012.
Mark was shipped, with three other Astros, to Toronto, in the trade that brought longtime catcher and popular broadcaster Alan Ashby to Houston.
Lemongello wasn’t pleased with the move, asking at one point if Canadians “spoke American.”
Continuing to fail to win friends and influence people, Mark’s pitching disappointed as he began 1979 posting a 1-9 record, with an ERA over 6.00.
The Blue Jays jettisoned Lemongello to Toronto’s Triple-A Syracuse affiliate. Needless to say he was less than happy with that news. Mark reportedly threw an ashtray at the head of Blue Jays’ GM Peter Bavasi, narrowly missing him.
Following the 1979 season, Mark married the former Diane Dickerson on October 20, with the newlyweds taking up residence in Phoenix.
Posting a 3-0 record in 25 innings and four starts for the Syracuse Chiefs didn’t keep Toronto from selling Mark’s contract to the Chicago Cubs in April 1980. Assigned to the Cubs’ AAA Wichita Aeros of the American Association, Lemongello’s pro baseball career ended there with a 6-10 record in 27 appearances (17 starts) and a 5.13 ERA.
While with the Aeros, Mark made friends with one Manny Seoane, who had pitched a total of 14 innings for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cubs in 1977 and 1978, respectively. Like Lemongello, Seoane was trying to cobble together a sustainable Major League career.
A year-and-a-half out of baseball left plenty of time for the two 26-year-olds to wonder what might have been…and recklessly plot what might be.
Gall in the Family
In January 1982, Mark Lemongello and Seoane were arrested on kidnapping charges and armed robbery.
They had abducted Mark’s cousin, the singer and erstwhile real estate agent, Peter Lemongello and his brother, former pro bowler and PBA Hall of Famer Mike Lemongello, Jr., and forced them into a van at gunpoint at Feather Sound, a tony subdivision they were building north of St. Petersburg, FL.
According to UPI, investigators said that the kidnapping and robbery was the climax of a dispute between Mark Lemongello and his cousins over a finder’s fee for a home construction job the brothers were doing for Houston Astros’ pitcher Joe Sambito under the auspices of their Heron Development Corp.
“His life was threatened, so he backed off.”
A detective at the scene said that Sambito, who pitched in Houston with Mark, and a landscaper, were at the home under construction at the time of the abduction, according to UPI. He said when the two suspects arrived and began fighting with the brothers, Sambito tried to intervene but backed away when Mark Lemongello pointed a .32-caliber revolver at him.
“His life was threatened, so he backed off,” the detective said. When the suspects left with the cousins in a van, the landscaper called the police.
The detective said that while Peter Lemongello was held in the van by Seoane, Mark accompanied Mike inside a bank where Mike was forced to withdraw “more than $50,000” in cash from a safety deposit box.
A police captain involved in the case said that the brothers had offered Mark a $10,000 finder’s fee, but he wanted $45,000, claiming he had invested that much in the development company.
After obtaining the money, Lemongello and Seoane were accused of taking the brothers to a wooded area north of St. Petersburg, where they were eventually released.
Mark Lemongello and Seoane were both freed on $10,000 bond, according to the New York Times, and, pleading no contest, were ultimately sentenced to seven years probation. Adjudication of guilt was withheld, meaning that the men were ultimately not formally convicted of the charges, according to the St. Petersburg Independent.
Mark and Seoane were also ordered to perform 200 hours community service, stay away from Peter Lemongello, and to make restitution to Peter if a lawsuit were brought against them by the victim and a judgment rendered.
At the time, Mark’s attorney told media outlets that his client would work with a Little League at his home in Arizona to fulfill his community service.
If That Weren’t Enough (And It Certainly Should Have Been)
Incredibly, around that same time, Peter Lemongello was accused of masterminding two acts of arson, having set fire to two of the luxury homes his construction firm was working on at Feather Sound. Added to the charges were counts of bribery and insurance fraud.
“The charges are 100 percent false. When I get into a dispute, I go and see my lawyer, I don’t burn the house down.”
Freed on $160,000 bond, an angry Lemongello insisted to People Magazine at the time: “The charges are 100 percent false. When I get into a dispute, I go and see my lawyer, I don’t burn the house down.
“The police found out that I was newsworthy,” he claimed to the magazine, “that I’d been on the Tonight Show and all that, and it motivated them to go after the publicity by arresting me.”
In April 1983, Peter was placed on 10 years probation for the crimes, fined $5,000, barred from working in Florida as a building contractor while on probation, and was ordered to pay $110,000 to reimburse various insurance companies.
Where Are They Now?
Little is available, publicly, about Mark’s current whereabouts.
Peter Lemongello continued his career in Atlantic City and entertainment hotspot Branson, Missouri, billed as the Las Vegas of the Midwest’s “Italian Crooner.”
Most recently, following the similar leads of Rod Stewart, Michael Bublé, and Harry Connick, Jr., among others, he has adopted the classic songs of The Great American Songbook and regularly appears across the country.
Today, Peter resides in Boca Raton, Florida with his wife Karen and son, Peter, Jr, which brings us, stunningly, to this:
The Lemongello name lives on! In 2019, as Peter’s progeny, Peter Lemongello, Jr. appeared on ABC’s American Idol in mid-March. He turned in a fine, clear tenor performance on a Four Tops song, but the highlight here is the pre-performance video package with Ryan Seacrest interviewing Peter, Jr. his mother, and yes…a 72-year-old Peter, Sr.!
Peter Jr. has already revved up his career since Idol, performing regularly onstage with the likes of Motown greats, the Four Tops, and ‘50s doo-wop stars, J.T. Carter and The Crests. In fact, Peter Jr.’s got an album due soon, as well as performing in and around his home-state of Florida through January.
Here he is in a solo performance at a club in New York City, singing The Crests’ “16 Candles.” Wasn’t sure he’d go for the “money note” at the end, but, danged if he did, and nailed it!