Conjugating Wally Pippby Frank Jackson
January 04, 2012
How many fans present at Yankee Stadium on June 2, 1925, would have guessed that baseball history was being made? On that memorable day, Lou Gehrig started at first base in a game against the Senators while Wally Pipp, the longtime Yankee first baseman, grabbed some pine.
Now, that date was not the beginning of Gehrig’s consecutive games streak. That started the day before when he entered a game against the Senators as a pinch-hitter for shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger. So I guess we could celebrate June 1 as Wally Pipp Eve.
A much harder date to pin down is when Pipp’s name became a figure of speech, as in “poor old so-and-so got wallypipped by that young whippersnapper.” Did that term enter the lexicon during Gehrig’s tenure as the Yankees’ first baseman or afterwards? Did Gehrig ever hear the term, or was he long gone from this mortal coil before sportswriters and fans started to bandy it about? Surely, before Pipp passed away in 1965, he must have heard his name used as a verb in some form or fashion.
On the printed page, Pipp’s name has evolved into several recognizable subspecies. Some folks use capital letters and keep the two names separate (Wally Pipped), others don’t (wally pipped); some use hyphens (Wally-Pipped or wally-pipped); and some have merged the two names into one word (WallyPipped or wallypipped). Just for consistency, I am using “wallypipped” in this article.
Today, 83 years after Pipp retired, there are precious few people alive who actually saw him play, and his deadball era career, though respectable, was hardly legendary. But when wallypipped became common parlance, baseball fans didn’t need to consult a dictionary. They knew exactly what it meant.
To get an idea of the extent of Pipp’s gift to popular culture, just type “wallypipped” into your search engine. The term has even spread to professional football and basketball. Now that is truly special! Sports lingo may migrate to non-sports pursuits, but it rarely migrates from one sport to another.
You might occasionally hear someone say, “I couldn’t get to first base with that hottie,” or “I really struck out on that job interview,” or “I hit it out of the park with that sales presentation.” But you will never hear a sports announcer say, “Man, the Harvard offense can’t get to first base against that Yale defense,” or “Jones calls for a fair catch as he pulls in that can of corn,” or “Three up, three down, a slam-dunk inning for Verlander.”
So when you read about football or basketball players being wallypipped, you know you are in the presence of some unusually versatile sports terminology. In a sense, wallypipp is to sports slang what Jim Thorpe was to sport itself.
Precious few people in history—athletes or non-athletes—have seen their names transformed into verbs, not always for lack of trying. For example, in a conversation with the mother of Egyptian King Farouk, Red Skelton inquired, “Queenie, did you know your son is Farouking Egypt?” That verb never caught on.
It helped, of course, that the full name of Wally Pipp contains but three syllables. The minimum number of syllables (and names) is two. If you’re a Brazilian soccer star, you may think otherwise, but in this case, a one-syllable name just won’t do. Getting pipped just doesn’t have the same cachet as getting wallypipped. Two or three syllables work better. I’m not prepared to say how many syllables would be too many, but it’s safe to say that had Jared Saltalamacchia been in Pipp’s situation, he would not have gotten the same treatment.
Speaking of names, here’s another point to ponder: If Pipp had played under his given first name of Walter, would we say today that such-and-such player got walterpipped? For that matter, if Beaver Cleaver’s brother had been called Walter instead of Wally, would he have loomed as large in popular culture? If the J. Walter Thompson ad agency were known as J. Wally Thompson would it be as revered? Would Wally Cronkite have been as trusted an icon as Walter Cronkite? All questions worthy of the lucubrations of a zen master.
Of course, Pipp’s name fame is due to his replacement by one of baseball’s immortals. But Pipp is not remembered just because Gehrig is enshrined at Cooperstown. After all, how many people can name the predecessor of Bill Terry? Or Willie McCovey? Or Hank Greenberg? Or any other Hall of Fame first baseman? Even if their predecessors had wallypipplike names, that does not mean they would have been suitable for the Wally Pipp treatment. They might not have had wallypipp careers.
For an individual to be properly wallypipped, some prerequisites are in order:
1. The man being replaced must be a capable veteran.
2. He must have held his post for a lengthy tenure.
3. He must be sidelined not because he can’t cut it any more but because he is somehow indisposed, short or long-term.
4. His replacement must be both younger and better.
5. His replacement must also hold his post for a lengthy tenure, preferably longer than his predecessor. A Hall of Fame career and a consecutive games record are desirable but not mandatory.
So one journeyman may be replaced by another, but he has not been wallypipped. An underperforming rookie can be replaced by a more experienced player, but he has not been wallypipped. And an outstanding veteran who is replaced by a youngster has not necessarily been wallypipped. If the veteran has played for a number of teams, that would tend to dilute his legacy. Is there a minimum length of service to qualify? Well, Pipp was a member of the New York Yankees for 11 years, so perhaps we could say a decade is the minimum amount of service.
Also, it is essential that the veteran be relegated to the bench, not immediately traded or released. Benching is the most ignoble fate, as the old-timer is then forced to watch his youthful replacement, in many cases, literally adding insult to injury. Truly, life gave Pipp lemons, but he did not make lemonade from them; rather, the lemonade was made for him and he got a lifetime supply of it. And it still provides posthumous refreshment.
Pipp’s passage to immortality is particularly unusual because his achievement was totally passive. Admittedly, this sounds like a contradiction, especially for an athlete, for whom being active is a given.
Fittingly, when Pipp’s name is used as a verb, it is almost always in the passive, not the active, voice. It is rarely used in the present tense, as in a rookie sneering, “I’m going to wallypipp that geezer,” during spring training. A rookie might think that, but I don’t think he would actually say it. That's way too indiscreet, plus it subjects the speaker to raillery should he fail to achieve his objective. It is more often used in the passive past tense, as in “Gary Greybeard got wallypipped by Adonis Young.”
To actually use the verb in the active voice is rare. Just try to conjugate it:
See what I mean? It’s not something that occurs in conversation. Also, since the term is used in the context of one individual replacing another, it doesn’t work well in the plural, e.g.:
I suppose a team could suspend a bunch of veterans and replace them with prospects, and the replaced players could complain, “We wuz wallypipped!” This situation, however, is almost entirely hypothetical. Those early days of the 1995 season when owners were threatening to replace striking players with scabs might have been the exception, however, had the season actually gone forward in that manner.
Even with a full slate of replacement players, it would have been surprising to hear the replacements say that they had wallypipped the regular players. The active voice just doesn’t fit. In short, one gets wallypipped; one does not wallypipp. For example, it would be unlikely that a rookie would crow, “I Wallypipped that geezer during spring training.” More likely, the vet would lament, “I got Wallypipped by that young blankety-blank!”
I think a compound adjective would also be acceptable, as in “I got the Wally Pipp treatment!” I have yet to hear of any adverbial uses. But one cannot control the evolution of language, so I wouldn’t completely rule out the possibility of “wallypippingly” gliding trippingly over the tongues of sports announcers one day.
Pipp’s immortality in sports slang is some compensation for the insult to his memory. But Pipp was not abducted by aliens and spirited away to another baseball galaxy. Realizing that Gehrig was the first-string first sacker and that Pipp was not cut out to be a bench-warmer, the Yankees traded Pipp to Cincinnati after the season.
Though Pipp was now 33 years old, he proved he still was worthy of full-time duty, as he batted .291 with 99 RBIs in 574 at-bats, a season more or less in keeping with his best years with the Yankees. He hit but six home runs, but he had never been a slugger despite a couple of deadball era home run crowns (his best year was 12 in 1916, and he led the league again the following year with nine).
The 1926 season, however, was pretty much the last hurrah for Pipp, as the next two seasons in Cincinnati evinced his decline. He had but two home runs, 43 RBIs and a .260 batting average in 443 at-bats in 1927, followed by two home runs, 26 RBIs and a .283 average in 272 at-bats the next year. Pipp reached the end of his major league trail at age 35, but in those days that was hardly unusual. Curiously, he again was replaced by a future Hall-of-Famer, this time George "Highpockets" Kelly.
The Gehrig incident points out the dangers of taking a day off when there is a youthful newcomer waiting in the wings, but it tends to obscure the fact that Pipp had been a key member of the Yankees since 1915 when he was 22 years old. In fact, the year before Gehrig replaced him, Pipp had enjoyed his best RBI year with 114, capping off a four-year run in which he never hit less than .295 or knocked in fewer than 90 runs.
For his career, Pipp had 1,941 hits, 997 RBIs and a batting average of .281. Admittedly, Gehrig was an upgrade, but that is no reason to downgrade Pipp. Obviously, the Yankees had been satisfied with his efforts for a decade, and their approval counts for more than, say, the imprimatur of the St. Louis Browns.
As often happened in the days when major and minor league salary discrepancies were not so extreme, Pipp reverted to the minors after his major league career was over, playing for the Newark Bears of the International League (then Double-A status) from 1929 to 1931. Ironically, after Pipp’s last season, Colonel Jacob Ruppert purchased the Bears and made them an affiliate of the Yankees.
Pipp held no grudge against the Yankees and showed up regularly at old-timer games. He also did some ghostwriting for Babe Ruth. A resident of Grand Rapids, Mich. in 1939, he ran into Gehrig on May 2 at the Book-Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. Gehrig asserted that he wasn’t feeling well and might not play that day. Indeed, that was the end of his 14-year streak. So Pipp was there at the beginning and the end of the streak. Actually, he was even there before the streak, as he had once recommended that the Yankees sign Gehrig to a contract.
Somehow, it’s all fitting, as Pipp’s fate is forever fused with Gehrig’s. Granted, no one ever made a movie about Pipp’s life and pitched it as a prequel to Pride of the Yankees. Yes, Pipp was inferior to Gehrig, he was not an inferior player. By the standards of his day, he was a solid professional. And perhaps that leads us to the true meaning of being wallypipped: No matter how competent you are, there’s somebody out there who can do better. In other words, don’t get too comfortable.
The ultimate irony is that Pipp’s fate was more “blessed” than Gehrig. Pipp lived to age 71, roughly double the time the fates allotted Gehrig. Pipp’s eponymous fate was to be linked with professional dispossession; Gehrig’s name was linked to a fatal disease. Neither is desirable, but if you had to choose one, Pipp is the way to go.
So while we must admit that Lou Gehrig was a definite upgrade over Wally Pipp, it must also be admitted that Pipp himself was no slouch. If we can’t get three cheers for Wally Pipp, can we at least get one?
It’s the least we can do for him after all he has done for the language of baseball.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.