Rip Sewell, the eephus and the All-Star Gameby Frank Jackson
July 12, 2013
Historic home runs are inextricably fused with the pitchers who served them up. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Ralph Branca.
But he’s got plenty of company. Giving up a walk-off home run in an elimination game is no way to win friends and influence people. Ralph Terry had to live with Bill Mazeroski’s heroics in the 1960 world Series and Mitch Williams suffered the wrath of Philadelphia fans after Joe Carter took him deep to end the 1993 World Series.
Of course, almost any account of Babe Ruth’s 60th home run in 1927 will mention that he hit it off Tom Zachary. When Roger Maris hit his 61st home run, it was linked with pitcher Tracy Stallard. When Hank Aaron hit No. 715, it was off Al Downing. No matter that all these sluggers hit plenty of home runs off plenty of pitchers. These are the pitchers who were in the arena at the time, so their names are the ones that go into the record books.
One pitcher who achieved this underhanded sort of baseball immortality was Rip Sewell, who served up a three-run home run to Ted Williams in the eighth inning of the 1946 All-Star Game. What made it memorable was that Williams hit one of Rip Sewell’s infamous “eephus” pitches.
The game, of course, was an exhibition, so nothing was on the line except bragging rights. Since the American League was ahead 9-0 at the time, the outcome of the game was not in question. Rip Sewell’s place in baseball history did not begin and end with that one pitch on July 9, 1946, but you wouldn’t know that by reading baseball history books. And that is a shame because his career bears closer scrutiny.
Sewell won 143 major league games, which is hardly Hall of Fame material, but the total becomes more impressive when one considers that he did not earn his first major league victory till age 31.
Truett Banks “Rip” Sewell was part of an Alabama baseball family. Three of his cousins, Luke, Joe and Tommy Sewell, played major league ball, and Luke and Joe were good enough to be voted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Rip is also in the Alabama Sports HOF. But at the beginning of his career that would have seemed highly unlikely.
Born in 1907 in Decatur, Ala., Sewell attended Vanderbilt University and then played semipro ball in Tennessee. His first shot at pro ball did not come until 1931 when he went 17-7 in 188 innings combined with two teams (Class C Raleigh and Class A Nashville). In 1932 he made his first big league appearance with the Tigers. His 12.66 ERA in five relief appearances offered solid evidence that he was not quite ready for prime time. So it was back to the minors for more seasoning—lots of it.
Sewell’s five-year odyssey through Double-A ball included Seattle, Toledo, Louisville and Buffalo. At the last stop in 1937, he went 16-12 with a 3.31 ERA in 239 innings. That caught the attention of the Pirates, who thought enough of him to purchase his contract. So in 1938, he was a 31-year-old rookie in Pittsburgh.
The Bucs had a good season in 1938, but it ended on a disappointing note as they lost the pennant to the Cubs in the waning days of the season. They finished at 86-64, just two games out. And that was the only pennant race Rip Sewell experienced at Pittsburgh.
During the rest of Sewell’s tenure (which ended in 1949) in the Steel City, the Pirates had good years, decent years, and bad years, but they were never really in the hunt for the NL pennant. Their best year was 1944 when they finished 90-63, good enough for second place, but 14½ games behind the Cardinals.
Sewell was sparingly used in his rookie year (0-1 in 17 appearances) but became more useful in 1939, when he went 10-9 in 189.2 innings. On May 1 of that year, 11 days shy of his 32nd birthday, Sewell shut out the Cincinnati Reds 1-0 for his first major league victory.
In the 1940s, Sewell emerged as a mainstay of the Pittsburgh staff, winning in double figures from 1939 through 1945, including back-to-back 21-victory seasons in 1943 and 1944. When he retired at age 42, he had a record of 143-97 and a 3.48 ERA.
Although he spent 12 years with the Pirates, one must characterize the first four years (1938-1941) of his career as B.E. (before eephus) and the remaining years (1942-1949) as A.E. (after eephus).
The eephus came about because Sewell literally shot himself in the foot in a hunting accident in Ocala, Fla. Notably, the incident happened on Dec. 7, 1941. Old-timers always remember where they were and what they were doing when they got the news about Pearl Harbor. Sewell likely got the news in a hospital or doctor’s office.
Carrying 14 pieces of buckshot in his foot made it difficult for him to pivot, necessitating a straight overhand delivery. This change of mechanics inspired him to develop a blooper or eephus pitch with a shotput-like delivery and lots of backspin.
Before we go any further, let us refer to the New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson for a formal definition of the eephus:
A high-arcing pitch likely to reach an apex of 25 feet above the ground between the mound and the plate. The ball is thrown overhand and aimed upwards in the hope that it will, at its most effective, drop from the top to the bottom of the strike zone as it crosses the plate.
The name eephus, by the way, is attributed to Maurice Van Robays, Sewell’s teammate, who witnessed the eephus during the 1942, 1943 and 1946 seasons. “Eephus ain’t nothing and that’s what that ball is,” explained Van Robays. The derivation of the word may come from Hebrew, wherein the word “efes” (pronounced “f-s”) means nothing or zero.
Pittsburgh catcher Al Lopez encouraged Sewell’s development of the eephus and first called for it during an exhibition game against the Tigers in 1942. So for the first time in baseball history, the eephus was delivered on a 3-2 count to Dick Wakefield, who was thoroughly flummoxed by it. Unlike Lopez, Pirate manager Frankie Frisch had not been a fan of the pitch, but he couldn’t argue with results, so the eephus became part of Sewell’s repertoire.
Actually, the eephus was a bit more than nothing. It was the ultimate evolution of the change-up. The trajectory of the ball was unlike anything major league players were used to. No matter what type of pitch major leaguers saw, it was delivered, more or less, on a horizontal plane. The eephus arrived, more or less, on a vertical plane. It was actually closer to what slow-pitch softball players experienced.
Hitting the eephus successfully meant as radical an alteration in technique as delivering the pitch did. The conventional pitch arrived in the strike zone as though shot from a cannon; the eephus arrived in the strike zone as though it had been shot from a howitzer. If they kept records for pitch hang time, the eephus would be the clear winner.
Since the eephus came in so slowly, fans in the grandstand must have yearned to grab a bat and have a whack at it, but making contact wasn’t as easy as it looked. The home run by Williams was the only one ever hit off Sewell’s prize pitch. Before that, a Stan Musial triple was the most productive safety off Sewell.
Due to the slow speed (estimated in the low 40s mph at its slowest) of the eephus, the batter had to supply almost all the power. Williams, acting on advice from Bill Dickey, took a couple of hops forward to generate a little more power. This enabled him to pull the ball over the right field wall, 380 feet from the plate. It wasn’t one of Williams’ longest home runs, but it was certainly one of his most memorable.
The photographic record of the historic home run shows that Williams was out of the batter’s box when he hit the ball. So the home run should not have counted and Sewell’s unblemished record should have remained so. But the game was so far out of reach (NL manager Charlie Grimm had encouraged Sewell to throw the eephus to inject some interest into what had turned into a blowout) and Williams was completing a perfect day at the plate: four for four, two home runs, five RBIs. So why kill the buzz?
Since the game was played at Fenway Park, any umpire who tried to nullify the Williams home run would have needed a police escort after the game. Instead of a unique home run that went down in baseball history, we might have been treated to an equally memorable Ted Williams tantrum.
All-Star Game statistics, of course, don’t count in the regular season totals. So in that regard, no one ever hit a home run that counted against Sewell’s eephus.
Curiously, 1946 wasn’t one of Sewell’s better seasons (at season’s end, he was just 8-12), and the Pirates finished the season in seventh place with a record of 63-91. He was probably surprised to be picked for the All-Star squad, though he had become a familiar face in the Mid-Summer Classic. It was his fourth consecutive (and last) selection.
An intriguing footnote is that Rip’s cousin Luke, the St. Louis Browns’ manager in 1946, was an American League coach at that All-Star Game. One can imagine the conversations the Williams home run engendered after the game and at future family get-togethers.
The eephus, like the knuckleball, is a specialty pitch and most pitchers will never use it in a game. But over the years, there have been some who have occasionally employed it, and sometimes the pitch is known by a different name. The practitioners include Pedro Borbon, Casey Fossum (the Fossum flip), Steve Hamilton (the folly floater), Livan Hernandez, Orlando Hernandez, Dave LaRoche (LaLob), Bill Lee, Phil Niekro, Vicente Padilla (the soap bubble), Satchel Paige, Pascual Perez (the Pascual pitch), Dave Stieb (the dead fish), Kazuhito Tadano and Bob Tewksbury.
How much any of the above knew about Sewell is open to question, but they should all be thankful for Sewell’s efforts off the mound. Though he was highly critical of players’ efforts to unionize after World War II, he played a key role in setting up the baseball pension fund from income derived from the All-Star Game. Allegedly, he and Marty Marion came up with the idea on the train to Boston for that 1946 All-Star Game.
Sewell’s hunting accident was the mother of invention for his eephus, but it also gave birth to more serious health problems down the road. After decades of circulation problems caused by the accident, he had both legs amputated below the knee in 1972. Sewell loved to play golf and he didn’t let his misfortune get him down. Two years later he shot an 89 at a golf course near his home in Plant City, Fla.
When Sewell died at age 82 on Sept. 3, 1989, the obits dutifully mentioned the Ted Williams home run. There’s no getting away from that event, but in truth, there was much, much more to Sewell’s baseball career than that one pitch delivered on a New England afternoon in the summer of 1946.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.