Wally Pipp: Put Me Back In Coach … Pretty Please?

Most baseball folks know the story of Wally Pipp, or rather Wally Pipp’s claim to fame. I thought we’d focus on the player himself rather than the player with whom he was replaced. When we think of great Yankee players it’s not hard to come up with a dozen or so, but folks tend to forget that the man Lou Gehrig replaced for 2,130 consecutive games was a pretty fair player in his own right.

For instance: he once won back-to-back home run crowns. (Granted he finished those years with 12 and nine, but black ink is black ink.) In 1923 and 1924, Pipp topped 100 RBIs. Those totals were good for finishing fifth in a league that featured the slugging feats of Babe Ruth, Harry Heilmann, Goose Goslin, Tris Speaker and Bob Meusel. Pipp was a slick fielding first baseman who could fly as evidenced by his 148 career triples and 125 pilfered bases.

But people don’t remember that. What they do remember is the date—June 2, 1925—when Lou Gehrig was given the opportunity to begin a career that ended with one of baseball’s greatest accomplishments and a record that was thought to be unassailable. Pipp made history, oddly enough, in a manner that other New York Yankees had done. He made history by not playing: Babe Ruth had his famous bellyache. Lou Gehrig had to stop playing because of a disease that would one day bear his name and claim his life. And Wally Pipp had a headache.

So he asked manager Miller Huggins for the day off to rest. Huggins complied with his first baseman’s request. So the Yankees’ skipper inserted Lou Gehrig into the lineup in his stead. Pipp was retired from baseball for 11 years before the Yankees’ first baseman’s job became open again.

Sadly, this is Wally Pipp’s legacy. Often an up-and-coming budding superstar replaces a journeyman player. This was not the case here.

His journey through baseball history began in Detroit when he debuted with the Tigers in 1913. There was nothing to suggest that the 20-year-old Pipp was anything special other than being unusually quick for a first baseman. He had five hits that year, three of which were triples.

Pipp did not play in the majors in 1914, but he resurfaced with the New York Yankees in 1915. The now 22-year-old had a decent year on a second division club. The Yankees, however, were the lesser of two attractions at the Polo Grounds; they were sharing the park with the National League New York Giants. In 1915, in a bit of a statistical oddity, both New York teams finished 69-83.

It was not until 1916 that Pipp began to establish himself as he began to emerge as a bonafide dead ball era slugger. Despite hitting just .262 (adj. OPS+ 123), he led the American League in home runs with 12, and he finished second in the circuit in runs batted in with 93. The Yankees improved that year to 80-74, due in part, to Pipp’s fielding and hitting as he accounted for over a third of the Yankees home runs. Pipp also had 35 more RBIs than anybody else on the club and led the Yankees in extra-base hits with 46—11 more than future Hall of Famer Frank “Home Run” Baker.

The Yankees slid back in 1917 to a 71-82 record. Pipp had also fallen off from his previous season’s production. Despite leading the American League in home runs with nine, Pipp batted just .244 (adj. OPS+ 113). Still, he did lead the Bombers in runs, hits, doubles, triples and home runs, and he was second in RBIs. He also finished third on the club in walks. On a struggling team it seemed as if he shone as the club’s only bright spot.

World War I cut short the 1918 season as the government issued a “work, or fight” decree.

The Yankees enjoyed a fine 1919 season and were involved in their first real pennant race since 1906. The Yanks ultimately finished third, 7.5 games out of first. An 80-59 record was the Yankees’ second-best finish since 1904. In that year, it was Jack Chesboro’s wild pitch that skipped by Highlanders’ (Yankees) catcher Red Kleinow, that handed the pennant to the Boston Red Sox. Pipp managed to remain one of the main offensive forces on the club. Ping Bodie was the only player who managed more extra base hits on the team (41 to 40).

The Big Bang

The 1920 season ushered in a new era in baseball. Leading this revolution was the Boston Red Sox’s former southpaw pitching ace. A husky youngster, this young man would see time in the outfield with the Red Sox in 1919. The double-duty player slugged an almost unheard of 29 home runs that year. In 1920 this former Red Sox would literally rewrite baseball’s record book. The young player’s name was…Babe Ruth.

The complexion of the Yankees would change considerably that year. he Yankees would finish a close third to the Cleveland Indians in 1920, a mere three games back. Pipp would have his first-ever 100-run season while slugging 11 home runs—his second-best total in that category. Unfortunately he would have a part in one of baseball’s all-time great tragedies, a play that cost a young man his life. On August 17, 1920, the Yankees were playing the Cleveland Indians. Pitching for the Yankees was submarining right hander Carl Mays. The Indians’ fine shortstop Ray Chapman, came to the plate with his familiar batting stance—leaning just over the inside edge of home plate.

Mays attempted to jam Chapman with a tight pitch that was up and in on the Tribe’s shortstop. The ball ricocheted off Chapman’s skull with such force and with such a loud crack that Pipp and others thought Chapman managed to get wood on the pitch. Pipp was ready for the play when, to everyone’s horror, Chapman simply collapsed, bleeding profusely from his head.

Chapman died the next day.

The Yankees introduced still another power source into the lineup—Bob Meusel. Pipp, now surrounded with such powerful hitters and the livelier ball, slipped a bit as he batted .296 (adj. OPS+ 95) in 1921, driving in 97 runs and ripped 52 extra-base hits. His efforts would help the Yankees win their first-ever American League pennant. The Yankees would fall to the Giants in the World Series, five games to three. Pipp, for his part, hit fifth in the lineup and batted .154, but he had two runs driven in for the home nine.

The Yankees won their second consecutive pennant in 1922. Pipp continued his fine hitting, posting a career-best .329 (adj. OPS+ 121) average that season. He also scored and drove in over 90 runs and ripped 51 extra-base hits. During the 1922 campaign—according to legend—Pipp was watching a game at Columbia University and noticed a strapping young slugger playing first base. He strongly recommended that this young powerhouse be signed by the Yankees before another team beat them to it. The Yankees, taking Pipp’s recommendation, did just that. Columbia University’s Lou Gehrig was now the property of the New York Yankees.

On June 15 in Detroit, Pipp became involved in a play better suited to a pinball machine than Tiger Stadium (then known as Navin Field). Tiger catcher Johnny Bassler hit the ball back through the box towards Yankee hurler Carl Mays. It ricocheted off Mays to third baseman Frank “Home Run” Baker and then caromed off Baker to shortstop Everett Scott. Scott finally got a handle on the ball and threw to Pipp for the out. The official scorer might have shaken his head when he scored it 1-5-6-3. Equally bizarre was a play in May against the St. Louis Browns. Pipp hit a slow grounder down the first base line, which was fielded by Browns first baseman George Sisler. Sisler lobbed the ball to Urban Shocker for the putout at first. However when Shocker was slow covering first base, Sisler ran over and caught his own throw.

The Yankees would fall to the New York Giants in the Fall Classic for the second consecutive year. The Giants won the series 4-1, and Pipp fared better than he had the previous season. He managed to drive in three runs while batting .286. Unfortunately, Ruth hit .118, and catcher Wally Schang batted .188, dooming the Yanks’ chances of winning.

It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times

The Yankees made it three straight American League championships in 1923, and Pipp would enjoy his first ever 100 RBI season and also batted over .300 for the third and final time in his career. What made his 100 RBI season all the more remarkable was that he smacked just 31 extra-base hits (adj. OPS+ 95). Regardless, it was the second-best total on the team, second only to Ruth’s 131 runs batted in. An ankle injury resulted in the debut of Pipp’s young discovery, a 20-year-old Lou Gehrig. Gehrig appeared in 13 games that year and batted .423. Still the consensus was that young Gehrig was not quite ready yet. More accurately, Lou Gehrig was not ready to supplant Wally Pipp at that point.

Pipp became involved in one of the more bizarre plays of the 1923 season too. In the second game of a July 14 doubleheader against the Cleveland Indians, the Yankees had Joe Dugan on second and Ruth on first. Pipp singled to right field and Dugan went to third. Ruth—thinking that was just a dandy idea—rounded second and chugged into third as well. The relay throw went to Tribe first baseman Frank Brower, who ran over and tagged Ruth. Dugan must have thought he was out as well, because he ambled off to the dugout. Tris Speaker, who had somehow made his way to the infield, took the ball and tagged third base, and Dugan was ruled out. The official scorer couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Yankees would win the first of many World Series in 1923. Pipp chipped in with his best series to date. Although he hit just .250, his four walks resulted in a fine .375 on-base percentage. He also scored two runs and drove in two others as the Yankees finally beat the Giants.

Although the Yankees eventually fell to the Washington Senators in 1924, Pipp could hardly be blamed. The 1924 American League campaign was the zenith of his career, as he batted .295 (adj. OPS+ 107), with a career high in RBIs with 114. Pipp also ripped 30 doubles and a league-leading 19 triples. For good measure he swatted nine home runs as well. The first baseman also showed a mastery of the strike zone, walking 51 times while only striking out on 36 occasions. Pipp was now 31 years old and looked as if he would not relinquish the first base job for years to come.

In 1925 Pipp could not sustain the momentum he had enjoyed over his previous two seasons. In early June, he was still batting in the .230s with little power. His poor play came to a head on June 1. The Yankees’ manager, Miller Huggins, went after Pipp after the Yankees had kicked the game away. Pipp shouted at Huggins: “I hit two ninety-five for you last year, don’t forget that.” Huggins fired back: “You’re not doing it now.”

End of conversation.

The following day Pipp complained about a headache after getting beaned by an errant throw during warm-ups and asked manager Miller Huggins for the day off to recuperate. In a classic “be careful of what you ask for—you might get it,” Huggins granted his request and penciled “Lou Gehrig” onto the lineup card for the game.

Pipp would not see first base again with glove in hand in Yankee Stadium. Later that year in a pinch-hitting assignment, he was beaned and suffered a very serious concussion that almost cost him his life. However it did cost him the rest of the 1925 season. It also cost him his pinstripes.

Better Red Than Dead

Without a position, the Yankees sold Pipp to the Cincinnati Reds. He would enjoy a final run (adj. OPS+ 108) that nearly ended with a National League pennant. Pipp showed excellent command of the strike zone—in 574 at-bats that season he fanned a mere 26 times—helping to power the Reds to a near pennant. The Reds fell two games shy of the flag that the St. Louis Cardinals ultimately won. He played two more seasons and retired.

Wally Pipp may not have roared as Babe Ruth did or thundered in the manner of Lou Gehrig, but make no mistake, nobody ever said that Pipp squeaked.

Pipp’s Blips

  • Wally Pipp received one Hall of Fame vote—in 1958.
  • Pipp finished 14th in MVP voting in both leagues. He finished 14th in 1924 with the Yankees and 14th in the National League two years later. His best finish in MVP voting was ninth—in 1922.
  • Pipp had six seasons with more than 90 RBIs. Pipp finished his career three RBI shy of 1000.
  • Wally Pipp’s 148 triples places him 53rd on the all-time list, tied with another one-time Yankee—Enos Slaughter.
  • Wally Pipp is second all time in triples among Yankee players. Lou Gehrig is first, with 163.
  • Ford Frick was Babe Ruth’s second ghostwriter. Ruth’s first one was Wally Pipp.
  • Lou Gehrig’s streak actually started the day before Gehrig sat in for Pipp. The streak began when Lou pinch-hit for Pee Wee Wanninger, the Yankees’ shortstop.
  • Pipp was in Detroit on May 2, 1939 and ran into Lou Gehrig at the Book-Cadillac Hotel. There, Gehrig confided in him that he did not feel well and might sit out the game against the Tigers—which Gehrig did.
  • Pipp observed: “The breakdown of Gehrig reminds me of the collapse of [Everett] Scott … playing day after day for a record in a book. It takes too much out of a man.”
  • Those who were with Pipp in his final moments claimed he died pounding his fist into his glove and muttering, through half a coma, “I’m ready to go back in, Miller.”
  • Pipp’s 82 strikeouts in 1916 was the highest total in the American League that year.
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