Classic Yankees: Wally Pipp

He’s best remembered for a “headache” and for the person who replaced him. Even today, his name is brought up anytime a regular has a day off and his replacement does well—the fear being that the regular won’t get his job back.

But what people seem to forget is that Wally Pipp was a good player in his own right, and the first Yankee ever to win a home run title.

Pipp came up with the Tigers at the age of 20 in 1913. He went 5-for-31 with 5 RBI that year.

In early 1915, the Yankees bought Pipp and Hugh High (there’s a name for you) from the Tigers and Pipp would become the regular Yankees first baseman until 1925…and Lou Gehrig.

That year, Pipp hit .246 with 4 HR and 60 RBI. Despite the low average, he stole 18 bases and had 13 triples. The lefty-hitting and lefty-throwing first baseman became to distinguish himself as a triples hitter by hitting 13, he finished his career with 148. He also had an OPS+ of 111 despite a low average.

The next year, Pipp led the majors in homers with 12. He added 14 triples in this deadball era. By leading the AL, and the majors, in home runs it was Pipp who was the first Yankee to lead the league in HR (a good trivia question), a full four years before Ruth became a Yankee. He hit .262-12-93, added 16 steals, and had an OPS+ of 123 in 1916. He also lead the league in striking out—82 times.

Pipp led the league again in homers in 1917 with nine. Ruth himself stated that he didn’t create Murderers’ Row, but that he joined the row. From Wikipedia:

The term was originally coined in 1918 by a sportswriter to describe the pre-Babe Ruth Yankee lineup of 1918. A 1918 newspaper article described it: “New York fans have come to know a section of the Yankees’ batting order as ‘murderers’ row.’ It is composed of the first six players in the batting order – Gilhooley, Peckinpaugh, Baker, Pratt, Pipp and Bodie. This sextet has been hammering the offerings of all comers.”

Of course, the 1927 version would be the more famous Murderers’ Row.

Pipp only hit .244 in 1917, but had those AL-leading nine homers and added 70 RBI and 11 steals. He added 12 triples and had an OPS+ of 113.

Pipp’s heyday saw him playing his home games at the Polo Grounds, the bathtub shaped ballpark in Manhattan that was situated across the Macombs Dam Bridge from what would become Yankee Stadium.  From 1915 through 1922, Pipp’s home field was the Polo Grounds. Only from 1923-1925 did he call Yankee Stadium home.

1918 was a shortened season due to WWI. The season ended around Labor Day, and Pipp played in just 91 of the games that were played. He hit .304-2-44, 11 SB, OPS+ 127. He still managed nine triples.

In 1919 he hit .275-7-50. He had ten triples, stole nine bases and had an OPS+ of 104.

With 1920 came the Babe. Pipp had a fine year, hitting .280-11-76, and with 14 triples. But the OPS+ was “only” 99. Pipp was tied for 2nd on the team in HR, and in many pre-1920 years, those 11 HR would be in contention for the HR title. But not with the Babe coming into his prime. As for that OPS+ number, it wasn’t that Pipp did anything wrong or had a bad year, but that it’s compared to the average OPS in the league. All of a sudden, Ruth is putting up an OPS of 1.379 in 1920 (OPS+ 255!), thus raising the bar. Pipp’s .768 OPS may have been good enough for an OPS+ of 130 in 1918. In 1920, with Ruth on the loose, it was just average.

The Yanks won their first pennant in 1921. Pipp hit .296-8-97, 17 SB, nine triples, OPS+ 95. (Ruth’s was 238). He went 4 for 26 in the WS, 2 RBI, and 1 SB.

The Yanks repeated as AL Champs in 1922—a season that saw Ruth and Bob Meusel suspended for the first several weeks of the season. Pipp hit .329-9-90 with ten triples and finished 8th in the MVP balloting. His OPS+ was 121. He was 6 for 21 in the WS, with 3 RBI and a SB.

1923 saw a new Stadium and the Yanks first WS championship. Gehrig made his debut, but it was still Pipp who was the starting first baseman, hitting .304-6-108, OPS+ 95, with eight triples. He went 5 for 20 with 1 RBI in the WS. It would be Pipp’s only WS title-winning team.

Pipp’s WS stats were a .224 average in three WS, 0 HR, and 6 RBI.

In 1924, Pipp once again had a good year. He hit .295-9-114 and led the AL with 19 triples. He stole 12 bases and had an OPS+ of 107. He finished 14th in the MVP voting.

Then came 1925 and the loss of his job. Pipp did have a bad year. He hit just .230-3-24 in 62 games. His OPS+ dropped to a miserable 62. At the time he was benched, he was hitting .244-3-23. There are different stories as to the benching. One was that he had a headache. Another dealt with a beaning in BP, and the resultant headache. Pipp did get hit by another practice pitch a month later, and did receive a skull fracture. He was in the hospital for two weeks and missed a month. That’s shocking, only a month. He appeared in no games between June 29 and August 7, 1925. Another rumor was that he only wanted a day off, yet another (in Marty Appel’s book Pinstripe Empire) was that he wanted to play the ponies. Whatever.  We all know what happened next. Lou Gehrig, who appeared as a PH on June 1st  (thus starting the streak), was the starting first baseman on June 2nd, 1925, and would remain as such until ALS forced his withdrawal from the lineup after 2130 consecutive games on May 2, 1939.

FYI, on that morning of June 2, 1925, Gehrig was 4 for 24, .167, with 1 RBI. He would then hit .303-20-67 from that point to the end of the season. That 1925 season, unfortunately, was a disaster for the Yanks as they finished 7th in the year of “Babe’s Big Bellyache.”

After being replaced by Gehrig, Pipp hardly saw any action at all, going just 1 for 14 with 1 RBI from June 2nd through the remainder of the season.

Pipp was sold to the Cincinnati Reds in January 1926, and had one good year left in him. He hit .291-6-99 with 15 triples for the 1926 Reds, had an OPS+ of 108, and finished 14th in the MVP voting.

While Gehrig was on his way to 52 doubles, 47 HR and 175 RBI for the 1927 Yanks (winning the MVP, an award the 60 HR hitting Ruth was ineligible for), Pipp slowed down. His 1927 totals for the Reds were .260-2-41, OPS+ 76.

Pipp was 35 in 1928, his final season. He hit .283-2-26 for the Reds, OPS+ 87.

For his career, Pipp was a .281 hitter, OPS+ 104. He had just 90 HR, but had those two years, pre-Ruth, where he led the league in HR. He had 148 triples. His 162 g. average would be .281-8-86, 13 triples, 11 SB.

Pipp still ranks 4th on the Yankees’ all-time list in triples, and despite his pop, is the Yankees’  all-time leader in sacrifice bunts.

Pipp never wore a number, since the Yanks didn’t start wearing numbers until 1929.

Ironically, Pipp, who after retirement lived in Michigan, was at Tiger Stadium on May 2, 1939—the day it was announced that Gehrig had removed himself from the lineup.

Pipp was hired by Sports Illustrated as one of their first writers. He died in January 1965 at the age of 71.

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