February 17, 2011
Big League Stew honors one birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Players will be culled from both past and present. Please help us in lighting the candles.
Everyone knows Wally Pipp, the baseball player whose name became a verb. Everyone knows that he was the Yankee first baseman who had a headache one day and lost his job forevermore, replaced by Lou Gehrig, the man who held that spot in the lineup every single day for the next 13 years and became the greatest first baseman of all time. Pipp is the most famous afterthought in baseball history.
What gets lost is that he was also a pretty good first baseman. Pipp started his career in the deadball era, so his numbers look low — not just by today's standards, but also by the standards of the mid-1920's, when he ended his career. He led the majors in homers in 1916 with 12, and led the American League the following year with nine. Gehrig's arrival portended the end of his career in the Bronx — he collected a grand total of 17 plate appearances in pinstripes after Gehrig filled in for him on June 2, 1925, and was sold to Cincinnati in the offseason. But he was actually reasonably productive in 1926, and retired two years later after 15 seasons in the pros, finishing three RBIs short of 1,000 for his career.
Pipp was the starting first baseman on the first title team in New York Yankees history. His 826 RBIs in a Yankee uniform are 16th in club history, and his 226 sacrifice bunts are actually a Yankee record. Considering his production and longevity, Pipp is probably the third-best first baseman in Yankee history, behind Gehrig and Don Mattingly. He wasn't a great player, but he certainly was a good one.
Best Year: 1922: 9 HR, 90 RBIs, .329/.392/.466
Pipp finished eighth in the MVP voting in 1922, the highest he ever placed. It was one of only three seasons in which he finished over .300. During his 20s, Pipp was a very consistent player: From 1915 to 1922, he finished with between 2.1 and 4.1 Wins Above Replacement every single year, posting 4.0 WAR in 1916, his second full year in the majors, and 4.1 WAR in 1922, his eighth. He declined after that, averaging just around 1 WAR a year over his last six seasons — although he was OK in 1923 and pretty good in 1924 and 1926, 1925 was basically a lost year, and his final two years in Cincinnati were pretty sorry stuff.
In 1922, Pipp was 29, and at his physical peak, but he wasn't a much different hitter than he was when he came into the league. Instead, the league had changed on him. Pipp never hit more than the 12 home runs than he'd hit in 1916, but dozens of others did. In 1916, Pipp led the majors and was one of only two hitters with double-digit homers. There were none in 1917 and just two in 1918. But in 1919, there were four, and Babe Ruth — in his first year as a full-time outfielder — had 29. In 1920, 11 players had double-digit home runs, and Babe Ruth had 54. In 1921, 13 players had double-digit home runs, and Babe Ruth had 59. In 1922, 15 players had double-digit home runs, and Babe Ruth had 35 in an injury-shortened 110 games. And Wally Pipp, in his career year, hit nine home runs.
Worst Year: 1927: 2 HR, 41 RBIs, .260/.309/.343
Wally Pipp posted his worst season ever while batting third, fourth and fifth for a fifth-place Reds team, and the fact that they batted him in the middle of their order all year tells you something about the quality of the team. Pipp was over the hill, a 34-year-old who simply couldn't hack it as a regular any more. But he didn't get much help from his Hall of Fame teammates Eppa Rixey and High Pockets Kelly, two of the least deserving Hall of Famers ever inducted. (Frankly, the team probably had better names than players: Besides High Pockets Kelly, there was Bubbles Hargrave, Hod Ford, Cuckoo Christensen, Pee-Wee Wanninger, Pinky Pittenger, Pid Purdy, Babe Pinelli and Dolf Luque.)
The Reds best player that season was probably Charlie Dressen, who was better known as the manager of the Dodgers in 1952 and 1953, when they lost to the Yankees in consecutive years. While his former Yankee teammates constituted perhaps the greatest team of all time, Pipp was the worst everyday player on those Reds, as he split time at first with High Pockets Kelly. The next year he was a part-time player, and then he retired.
Claim to Fame: It may seem unfair, but Wally Pipp's claim to fame will always be Lou Gehrig. Eighty-three years after his retirement, few people remember much about the man other than the role he played in Gehrig's career. Even that story is disputed. Some have written that Pipp's headache was due to a fractured skull from a wayward pitch in batting practice, but that story arose from a confusion of the dates: Pipp did indeed fracture his skull in 1925 from a batting-practice pitch, but that injury didn't occur until a month after his initial benching in favor of Gehrig. Pipp sometimes claimed that he suffered from chronic headaches due to a childhood injury, but when Sports Illustrated followed up on that by asking his children, they said they never remembered their father having chronic headaches.
SI concluded that Pipp may well have had a headache that day and asked around for aspirin, but the ultimate reason he sat that day was not because he asked out, it was because his manager wanted to replace him with Gehrig. It wasn't dumb luck, or a lack of nerve on his part. He wasn't hitting well, and so he got replaced by the team's top prospect. Wally Pipp didn't get Wally Pipped: He just got replaced.
Off the Field: After his retirement, Pipp tried a number of different jobs: He played the stock market, worked at a Ford factory producing bombers during World War II, sold screws to car companies, and even wrote for Sports Illustrated. He frequently returned for Yankees Old-Timers Games, played a lot of golf, and frequently gave speeches around the Detroit area, which is where he was buried after dying in 1965. Few remember the career of the Yankees' first great first baseman, but that's understandable — the Yankees' second great first baseman happened to be the best in baseball history.