Wally Pipp has been dead for 22 years, and he last played first base for the New York Yankees more than 60 summers ago, yet ballplayers who don't know Christy Mathewson from the Christy Minstrels still tape his name over lockers and holler it in dugouts. And even though he twice led the American League in home runs, played on three Yankee pennant winners and roomed with Babe Ruth, he owes his enduring fame to a game he didn't play.
"It's a running story," says Los Angeles Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia. "If a guy sits on the bench one day and the guy taking his place has a great game, the guy on the bench becomes Mike Pipp or Joe Pipp or whoever Pipp for the whole day."
"It seems to happen every time a regular gets taken out," says San Francisco Giants pitcher Mike Krukow. "If the new guy gets a knock [hit] in his first AB, right there everybody in the dugout starts calling the guy on the bench 'Wally Pipp.' "
The Wally Pipp story—actually there are several stories—has become baseball legend. In the most popular version, one supported in later accounts by Pipp himself (although he wasn't always consistent on the subject, either), Pipp arrived at Yankee Stadium one day in 1925 with a terrific headache. He asked the Yankee trainer for a couple of aspirin. Manager Miller Huggins noted the scene and said, "Wally, take the day off. We'll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow."
June 28, 1987
But for Pipp, there was no tomorrow. He did not get back in there the next day. Or the day after that. As he once put it, "I took the two most expensive aspirin in history." That kid Gehrig not only played well, but he played every day, in sickness and in health, for nearly 14 years. He played 2,130 straight major league games, an unassailable record of endurance that, surprisingly, did not actually begin with Pipp's removal at all, but with a pinch-hitting appearance by Gehrig the day before. Finally, Gehrig was benched by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a crippling disease that took his life and later came to bear his name.
It was Pipp's misfortune to be replaced by the greatest first baseman of all time. Gehrig led New York to seven world championships and eight pennants. He was the first major leaguer to have his number retired, the first player to have a monument erected in his honor at Yankee Stadium. He was, in short, The Pride of (he Yankees—the name of the movie on Gehrig's life. Gary Cooper, of course, played Gehrig.
Who remembers who played Wally Pipp?
[Tony] Armas crashed into the wall while chasing down a Doug Deduces double in Game 5. [Dave] Henderson came into the game and by its end he was being measured for a monument in Kenmore Square.... Is it Wally Pipp time?
—Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 1986
Bob Brenly and Bob Melvin share the catching chores for the Giants. Brenly caught Krukow on Opening Day this April, and Melvin caught Mike LaCoss the following night. "Melvin comes off the bench and hits two home runs," Krukow recalls, "and we're Wally Pipping Brenly's ass big-time."
Brenly at least made it into the season before being Pipped. Teammate Chris Brown, the All-Star third baseman, was Pipped in spring training. After off-season surgery on his left shoulder, Brown sat out most of the exhibition season waiting for the shoulder to heal.
In the meantime, the new third baseman, Matt Williams, was lighting up Cactus League pitching. Though it was only March, the Giants bench was all over Brown with repeated calls of "Wally Pipp." Then one day in Scottsdale, when Williams was having another great game, the fans began chanting "Wally Pipp" at Brown.
Lest Brown get down, he should take heart from the estimable company of players who have also heard the Pipp chorus. Last year, Keith Hernandez, Pedro Guerrero and even Eddie Murray were all Pipped. "I've been in baseball for 38 years and Wally Pipp has always been around," says San Francisco manager Roger Craig.
So why does Pipp, who seems to be just a quintessential footnote, endure so well in the hearts and minds of baseball people?
For one thing, the Pipp legend is a wonderful allegory for the Protestant work ethic: Skip a day of work and you'll suffer dire consequences. Nearly everyone harbors the fear that the boss will find someone younger, quicker and better to do his job. No one wants to find out just how replaceable he really is, particularly ballplayers, who have short careers to begin with. The Satchel Paige maxim—"Don't look back. Something may be gaining on you."—is just another way of saying, "Don't look now, but Gehrig is coming off the bench."
But the Pipp story is not just about people losing their jobs. It is a story of bad timing and opportunities missed, or, from another perspective, of good timing and opportunities seized. "It has to be the right time and the right place," says San Diego first baseman Steve Garvey, "and it has to be coupled with production." Of course, he's right. If Gehrig doesn't hit, Pipp returns to first base and Gary Cooper never gets to make the movie.
We all get Pipped at some time in our lives, whether it's over a girlfriend or a part in the school play. It's just that when it happens to baseball players, they hear that name.
Has [Jim Traber] turned [Eddie] Murray into Wally Pipp...? "I've been filling in for a Hall of Famer, not a Wally Pipp, " said Traber....
—Los Angeles Times, Aug. 10, 1986
Pipp has transcended mere trivia and become a metaphor. His very name conjures up a picture of a player sitting on the bench and watching his replacement sparkle. At the ball yard, nearly everyone knows what it is to be Pipped. (Thus, Pipp is an eponym, that is, someone for whom something is named.)
But when we turn a man into a verb, into a metaphor, there is a danger that we will forget the man. Little is remembered of Pipp, the person, except that he was the warmup act for Gehrig.
"It's a shame," Scioscia says, "but I don't know anything about him. Probably, he was a great player."
If not great, close to it. He had to be pretty good to keep Gehrig in the minors and on the bench for two years. Pipp was a legitimate star, the first home run hitter for the team that would become synonymous with slugging: the Bronx Bombers.
Pipp was born into an Irish Catholic family in Chicago on Feb. 17, 1893. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., before abandoning his architectural studies in 1912 to sign a baseball contract with Kalamazoo of the Southern Michigan League. After Pipp hit .270 with Kalamazoo, the Detroit Tigers bought his contract.
With all of 68 games of Class D minor league ball behind him, Pipp decided to hold out. He demanded a share of his purchase price and threatened to return to school rather than report to the Tigers. Pipp may have been a pioneer for players' rights, but in 1913 he might as well have suggested that baseball be played indoors on a carpet. He was a prophet without honor. His challenge to the concept of players as chattel was so radical that it went almost entirely unnoticed. Later in his career, after the Yankees sold him to the Cincinnati Reds in 1926, Pipp would again demand a portion of the money the ball club had made by selling him. Again, he wouldn't receive a cent.
The feudal barons of baseball were unmoved by Pipp's challenge, and the young slugger soon ended his holdout. On June 29, 1913, he appeared in his first major league game and went 0 for 3 against the St. Louis Browns. After he played in 12 games, the Tigers demoted him to Class AA Providence. Pipp committed seven errors in only 14 games there and was sent down even further, to Class B Scranton. The following year, though, he blossomed for Class AA Rochester, hitting .314 and leading the International League in home runs (15), total bases (290) and slugging percentage (.526).
In the off-season, the Yankees purchased Pipp and made him their regular first baseman. Except for an injury here and there, he held the job from Opening Day, 1915, until that fateful day in June 1925.
Toronto's Cecil Fielder was filling in for first baseman Willie Upshaw, who has a sore right knee. But, despite hitting a three-run homer, Fielder wasn't thinking about anything permanent. "This ain't no Wally Pipp story, "he said.
—The Associated Press, Sept. 25, 1986
Like much of Pipp's career, the circumstances that made him a Yankee were curious. Just after the purchase, Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Captain Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston bought the Yankees for $460,000. Before the partners agreed to purchase the franchise, the other owners in the league had promised to restock the floundering New York club to help establish a strong American League presence in the nation's largest city.
Of course, when it came time to deliver, most of the owners felt it was even more important to have a strong presence in their own cities. Only Frank Navin, the owner of the Detroit Tigers, made good on his word. He sold the promising rookie, Pipp, and another player to the Yankees for the waiver price of $7,500 each.
New York in those days belonged to the Giants. These were the Giants of Mathewson and manager John McGraw, the future Hall of Famers who had taken the team to five pennants in the previous 11 years. The Giants were loved by all and had set a major league attendance record in 1908 that would stand for 12 years.
The Yankees' situation wasn't so rosy. When Pipp joined them, they had never won a pennant and didn't even have their own home park. They used the Polo Grounds when the Giants were on the road. In the previous eight years the Yanks had had just one winning record.
Pipp was the first building block of the pennant-winning Yankee teams of the early '20s. In 1916 the Yankees added third baseman Frank (Home Run) Baker. He and Pipp formed the heart of the original, pre-Ruthian Murderers' Row. That season Pipp became the first Yankee to lead the American League in homers, with 12. Baker finished second with 10. Collectively the Yankees hit 35, tops in the league for the second straight year. They would lead the AL 33 times in the next 45 years. In 1917, Pipp hit nine home runs and again led the league. In his first three seasons with the Yankees, Pipp batted only .251, but as Baseball Magazine noted, "he makes up for the infrequency of his wallops by their length."
Pipp started hitting the ball with greater consistency in 1918, and he was batting .304 when World War I interrupted his season. Pipp enrolled in naval aviation school at MIT in August but was spared overseas duty when the war ended on Nov. 11.
Over the ensuing years, both Pipp and the Yankees improved. In the five seasons from 1920 to '24, he hit .301 and averaged 29 doubles, 97 RBIs and 94 runs a season. The club strengthened itself with the addition of outfielder Bob Meusel, pitcher Waite Hoyt, third baseman Joe Dugan and, of course, Ruth, who was purchased from Boston after the 1919 season for $125,000, Those changes paid immediate dividends, as the Yankees won 95 games in 1920, finishing three games behind the Cleveland Indians.
The Yanks won their first pennant in 1921 and repeated in '22. Pipp, batting in the cleanup spot behind Ruth, hit .296 in '21 and .329 in '22. The '22 Yankee club was the last to play in Manhattan but it was a historic forerunner of the Bronx Zoo teams of the late '70s. The club had so much intramural fighting that Huggins reprimanded his team by saying: "I'm running a ball club, not a fight club."
On July 26 in St. Louis, Meusel and catcher Wally Schang tangled on the bench early in the game. Later, Pipp bobbled a ball in the fifth inning, and when the Yanks returned to the dugout, Ruth criticized his fielding. Pipp lashed out, giving Ruth several rapid-fire slaps to the face. Ruth flailed in return. Teammates had to pull the two apart and Ruth said, "We'll settle this after the game."
Ruth homered twice that afternoon, and Pipp knocked in a run in an 11-6 win. Though Pipp was ready to finish their spat after the game, Ruth waved him off.
"That fight cleared the atmosphere a lot," Pipp told a reporter a number of years later. "We stopped stumbling and fumbling as a club and went on to win the pennant."
In 1923 the American League champions opened the season by inaugurating Yankee Stadium before a record 74.200 fans. The stadium was like the club itself: big, brash, costly and breathtakingly splendid.
The Yankees won the pennant by 16 games and beat the Giants in six games to win their first world championship. But the Yanks were still a few players away from becoming the dynasty that would win seven championships from 1927 to '39. The waning days of the "23 season brought a dress rehearsal for one key star's arrival, though, when Pipp wrenched his right ankle stepping off a train in Boston. Gehrig, just called up from Hartford, played four games down the stretch before Pipp returned for the World Series.
"If that guy [Wally Pipp] didn't come up with a headache, where would Lou Gehrig be?" Dodger manager Tom Lasorda said.
—Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1985
Pipp is remembered for one thing—being replaced by Gehrig—yet, oddly, details of that event are dimmed by time. Not even Pipp's four children know exactly what happened the day their father lost his job to Gehrig.
"My recollection is that in batting practice Dad got hit in the head and Gehrig got to play," Tom Pipp says.
"I think Miller Huggins knew that Gehrig was just going to be a sensational player," Ben Pipp says. "I don't think it could have been just a headache. I think it had to be another reason."
But was it "just" a headache? Or was it a headache at all? Contemporary accounts treated Pipp's benching as just that—a benching. In 1925, Pipp wasn't hitting, and the team wasn't winning. After the championship in '23, the Yankees had finished second in '24, and now Huggins watched as his team struggled through the first two months of the '25 season. On May 6, Huggins benched shortstop Everett Scott in favor of Pee Wee Wanninger. Scott had played 1,307 consecutive major league games, a streak that remains second to the one Gehrig would begin a month later.
But the Yankees' problems were too great to be solved by somebody named Pee Wee. On June 2, the day Huggins started Gehrig, the Yankees were 15-26, half a game out of the cellar and 13½ games out of first. They had lost five in a row. Pipp was batting .244 with only three homers and 23 RBIs. Over the previous three weeks his average was a paltry .181. On the day Pipp sat down, Huggins also benched second baseman Aaron Ward and his catcher, Schang.
The New York Evening Post reported the next day: "Strange potions are brewing in the laboratory of Miller Huggins. The old concoction was good enough while it lasted, but much sunlight had begun to weaken the ingredients, so yesterday the Yankee manager reached into the dark corners of the dugout and stirred up a drastic new mixture in hopes of striking the panacea to keep the Yanks out of the cellar." Whew. The New York Times simply said: "Miller Huggins took his favorite lineup and shook it to pieces."
The day before the shake-up, Ruth had returned to rightfield after missing the first two months of the season with an intestinal abscess—the Bellyache Heard Round the World. But Ruth had dropped at least 15 pounds and was visibly weakened. He came out after six innings. In the eighth, Gehrig pinch-hit for Wanninger. He lined out to right and began his record playing streak—while Pipp was still in the ball game.
"One reason that prompted Huggins to make his radical move when he did," concluded the New York Sun, "was that yesterday the Senators started George Mogridge, a southpaw, on the mound. As is only too well known Pipp is notoriously weak batting against lefties, and lately his hitting has been scant against all varieties of slinging."
Huggins's fresh lineup beat the Senators 8-5 and checked the string of losses at five. In Day 2 of his record streak, Gehrig had three hits. For the season, Gehrig hit .295 with 20 home runs.
Much of Huggins's juggling was for naught. The Yankees finished in seventh place, 69-85, 28½ games out of first. The club would go 40 years before another second-division finish. The June adjustments, largely ineffective, were a prelude to more sweeping changes made after the season. Eight players, including Pipp, were gone by Opening Day the following year.
When Tiger coach Billy Consolo read the lineup last week and included Chet Lemon's name, Kirk Gibson bellowed, "Wally who?"
—SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, June 30, 1986
Despite the newspaper reports that Pipp was benched, the story of his supposed headache persists. In the 1960s or '70s, Ben Pipp says, a pharmaceutical company ran a print ad for its aspirin that featured a baseball player's profile and an admonition to take the aspirin or suffer "a Wally Pipp headache."
The headache story first appeared in 1939, 14 years after the "fact," in a New York World-Telegram column by Dan Daniel. Pipp told Daniel: "The story of Gehrig taking my job often has been written but never has the truth been told. I'd like you to get the real yarn. As a kid in school I was injured in a hockey game. The disc struck over my left eye and hurt the optic nerve.... In addition to impairing my vision, that accident left me with a lifetime of headaches.
"When I came into the Yankee clubhouse at noon...I had one of those terrific pains. I asked Doc Woods, our trainer, for a couple of aspirin tablets. It was my tough luck to have Miller Hug-gins pass just as Doc was handing me the painkiller.
"I had not done so well, but the club was going worse than I was.... Huggins said, 'Wally, if you aren't feeling fit, just take it easy. I'll let this kid Gehrig see what he can do at first base and tomorrow you can go back.'
"Boy, was that a headache! It did not leave me for years...."
Pipp's children do not recall their father suffering from recurring headaches. Also, none of the many New York newspapers that covered the Yankees reported Pipp feeling indisposed. Still, Pipp's remarks to Daniel don't rule out the possibility that he did indeed have a headache and that Huggins seized on that as an excuse for removing him from the lineup along with Ward and Schang.
Far less plausible is a story that Pipp was done in by a beaning. When The Pride of the Yankees came out in 1942, fans saw Pipp—played, in case you didn't remember, by an actor named George MacDonald—pull himself out of a game because of double vision. "Better take me out, Miller," Pipp says to Huggins. "I been seeing double since I was beaned the other day."
This version was supported by a column that ran in The New York Times in 1953. Pipp now dismissed the business about a headache, saying, "It's a very delightful and romantic story...but it just isn't correct.... Here's what actually happened. I was taking batting practice that day and the guy who was pitching for us was a big, strong kid from Princeton, Charlie Caldwell.... Charlie whistled one in and, somehow or other, I just couldn't duck. The ball hit me right here on the temple. Down I went and I was much too far gone to bother reaching for any aspirin bottles."
The Times was guilty of sloppy reporting. Caldwell beaned Pipp all right, but it happened on July 2, a full month after Gehrig had sent Pipp to the pine. On July 3, the Times reported: "It was stated early this morning that the player would live." Pipp was hospitalized for more than a week and played very little for the Yankees after he returned.
Obviously, the beaning had nothing to do with Pipp's losing his job. It had already been lost because of his weak hitting. Probably because these two major events, the benching and the beaning, occurred only a month apart, they became intertwined in Pipp's mind. The psychic anguish of the former and the physical pain of the latter became one.
It is also possible that Pipp, who dabbled in sportswriting for several publications, including SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, after his playing days, just knew a good story when he heard one.
The way [Tito] Landrum played this evening, [Vince] Coleman is going to hear a lot of jokes from teammates about Wally Pipp.
—The Washington Post, Oct. 14, 1985
In life, as in legend, Pipp and Gehrig were inextricably linked. The two happened to meet in the lobby of Detroit's Book-Cadillac Hotel on the day in 1939 that Gehrig finally took himself out of the Yankee lineup.
Pipp and his son Ben had gone to Tiger Stadium that afternoon, and they saw Babe Dahlgren play in Gehrig's place. Dahlgren hit a home run and a double in five at bats as the Yankees clobbered the Tigers 22-2. Though Gehrig sat on the bench and watched Dahlgren's debut, nobody suggested he was now playing Wally Pipp to Dahlgren's Gehrig. No one Pipped Lou Gehrig.
Gehrig never played another game. He left baseball in the most memorable farewell in the game's history. On July 4, 1939, at Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day in Yankee Stadium, the teary-eyed first baseman thanked the New York fans, saying, "You've been reading about my bad break for weeks now, but today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth." He died at 37 on June 2, 1941, 16 years to the day after he replaced Pipp in the lineup.
When Pipp retired, there was little ado about his adieu. He spent 15 seasons in the majors, with a lifetime average of .281. The only position he ever played was first base, and he did it masterfully. He was one of only three players ever to lead both leagues in fielding, and he still holds or shares the record for most seasons leading the American League in putouts, chances accepted and double plays (four years each).
In 1929, playing for the Newark Bears of the International League, he was finally able to get in on the financial action with a percentage of the gate. He made $40,000, according to his son Tom. "It was more than he ever made in the majors," Tom says. After batting .312, he put his first baseman's mitt in permanent storage. "He picked a great time to retire," says Ben Pipp, laughing. "October 1929."
Pipp tried playing the stock market for several years, and Tom Pipp says his father's charts filled the house. Pipp even wrote a book about the market called Buying Cheap and Selling Dear. He also broadcast a pregame baseball show for the Detroit Tigers, wrote radio scripts and dabbled in publishing. For several years he organized community baseball programs for the National Youth Administration. Sometimes, he couldn't find work.
"We kneeled down and said prayers at night that Dad would get a job," Walter Jr. says. "I remember praying next to my sister. Those were rough times."
During World War II, Pipp worked at the Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., and then landed a job as a manufacturer's representative for the Rock ford Screw Products Corporation. Pipp sold automotive screws and bolts to companies such as Buick and Oldsmobile. He had finally found his niche.
"He was very successful," says Dorothy Gibler, Pipp's only daughter. "He was a great talker, a great salesman. He loved calling on people."
"He had a lot of energy, which is why he was a good manufacturer's rep," says Ben Pipp. "Plus, he would always have a baseball story for a buyer."
The former first baseman was in great demand as an after-dinner speaker. He had a wealth of stories and a commanding voice. (His loudness may have stemmed from the hearing loss he suffered in his right ear, due, apparently, to the Caldwell beaning.) He loved baseball, and frequently went to games in Detroit and never missed a Yankee Old-Timers' Game.
Pipp's passion for sports did not end with baseball. He was an avid golfer, playing several times a week for many years and shooting regularly in the high 70s. "He was a fast golfer," Tom Pipp says. "He was a nervous man. He once played 18 holes at the Highland Country Club [in Grand Rapids] in an hour, 41 minutes."
Pipp suffered a debilitating stroke in 1963. He died on Jan. 11, 1965, after five months in a Grand Rapids nursing home.
When he reached the safety of the clubhouse, [Keith] Hernandez saw the name "Wally Pipp " taped over his locker.
—The New York Times Sept. 18, 1986
Though Pipp has been dead for more than two decades, his legacy is very much alive. If it's not Hernandez being Pipped, it's Brenly; if it's not Brenly, it's Brown. It's one story that fits all, though it has been stretched into some strange shapes and sizes.
Ben Pipp visited his daughter Marty last year in Washington, D.C. "I was driving in traffic and all of a sudden I hear my dad's name on the air," Pipp says. "He's been dead, what, 22 years. It was a tire ad. The ad said that Wally Pipp had been going to the ballpark one day when he got a flat tire. Because he wasn't there when the game started, his manager put Lou Gehrig in the lineup, and he played twenty-one hundred or whatever straight games. And then they said that if my dad had had the right tires, he wouldn't have had a flat and he wouldn't have lost his job."
Pipp was delighted with the ad. When he told Marty, she asked whether Ben wanted to sue the tire maker for using Wally's name without the family's permission. Ben just chuckled.
"That's the kind of story my dad would like to tell," he says.