The Truth about Wally Pipp
The unpopular reality you may not have heard.
Although Pipp is famously known for wimping out regarding a headache and requesting to be taken of the game in 1925, Pipp was anything but. Tall, and broad-shouldered, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Wally Pipp carried himself with an unmistakable air of confidence and distinction, befitting one of the Dead-ball Era’s premier sluggers. Whether exiting from a train, haggling with management over bonus money, fielding grounders around first base, or belting home runs, Pipp;
“was a high-class specimen of the ball player,” New York Times reporter James R. Harrison observed. “On and off the field, he was a prime favorite.”
The left-handed, free-swinging Pipp became the first player in American League history to lead the league in both home runs and strikeouts. In addition to his batting success, Pipp was one of the finest defensive first basemen of the Deadball Era; in 1915, he led all American League first basemen in putouts, assists, double plays, and fielding percentage.
Headache or Head Trauma?
This “headache story” that Pipp suffered on that famous day in which he was replaced by Lou Gehrig, unfairly characterized Pipp as weak and may have been overblown at best as the actual incident that took him out of the lineup. Throughout his life and during his baseball career, Pipp suffered recurring headaches, the result, he later explained,
“of a schoolboy hockey injury that had also left him with reduced vision in his left eye.”
Although the story of Pipp having a specific headache that day makes for a great story it may have been a snapshot into a long stretch of time in which he suffered head pain daily and learned for the most part to play through it.
Just the Facts?
(Facts uncovered from Snopes founder David Mikkelson)
Interestingly enough the first mention of Pipp’s having a headache on June 2, 1925 didn’t appear in the New York Times until 1941, in an article about Lou Gehrig’s death. Which leads you to believe that the “headache” story was inserted later on for dramatic effect. Even Pipp’s own words later misremembers a beaning he received in batting practice from hard-throwing Yankee rookie Charlie Caldwell, almost unconscious. The problem was that Pipp stated that the head trauma took place the day he was taken out for Gehrig on June 2, 1925. The beaning actually took place a month later. There is a 1953 article in which Wally Pipp himself misremembered the sequence of events surrounding his injury and his replacement by Gehrig.
The story has grown to be an accepted fact. On June 2, 1925, Wally Pipp, the regular Yankee first baseman, reached into his locker and took out an aspirin bottle — so the legend would have everyone believe.
“What’s the matter, Wally?” asked the observant Miller Huggins, the Yankee manager.
“I have a headache, Hug,” answered Pipp.
“Suppose you take the day off,” suggested Hug. “I’ll use that big kid, Gehrig, at first base today.”
Fourteen years and 2,130 consecutive games later, Lou Gehrig called it a career after setting an endurance record which promises to defy all challengers. Pipp never returned to the Yankee line-up again after reaching for that aspirin bottle. But did he ever reach for it?
“It’s a very delightful and romantic story,” chucked Pipp the other day. “I realize that its grown to be accepted as the truth. But it just isn’t correct. I won’t deny that I had a headache that day. I had one which was a pip. Ha, ha. And I’m not trying to make a pun, either. 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. He’s now the Princeton football coach and a might successful one, I might add. 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.
“No, sir. They carted me right off to the hospital. It’s funny how you remember little things, relatively unimportant trifles. As I was wheeled into the room, the nurse remarked, ‘What’s this — another baseball man? Ring Lardner, the baseball writer, was in this same room yesterday. Now we have a baseball player taking his place.’
“I was in that hospital for two solid weeks. By the time I returned to the Yankees, Gehrig was hitting the ball like crazy and Huggins would have been a complete dope to give me my job back. He wasn’t a dope. So he didn’t do it. Not only was Gehrig a better ballplayer than I was, but he was 22 and I was 32. It was as simple as that. But please don’t believe that aspirin story. It just isn’t true.”
It’s hard to explain how a man could mix up such significant milestones in his life as losing his starting job with the New York Yankees and nearly dying from a batting practice beaning, events that occurred a full month apart, but evidently he did. Perhaps his memory simply waned with the passage of time, or perhaps he unconsciously (or even deliberately) conflated two different events to come up with one story that reflected his past in a better light. Afterall he was actually hit in the head and hospitalized so his brain was a bit scrambled over the years.
Simply put, Pipp lost his starting job because he had been slumping.
After winning three straight American League pennants between 1921–23, the Yankees finished a couple of games off the pace in 1924 as the Washington Senators captured their first flag ever. New York expected to regain the top spot in 1925, but that was the year Babe Ruth’s excesses finally caught up with him. The Yankee slugger had allowed his weight to balloon to a hefty 260 pounds during the off-season (his normal playing weight at the time was about 215), he fell ill during spring training, and he finally collapsed on a train as the Yankees were heading north to start the season. The Bambino was hospitalized for several weeks with a mysterious ailment (rumors about the true cause of his condition include a severe case of gonorrhea, exhaustion, influenza, poor diet, a hernia, and alcoholism) and missed the first two months of the season, and even after he returned he was weak and relatively ineffective for the rest of the year. (In 1925 Ruth batted .290 with only 25 home runs and 66 RBI, his lowest totals ever until his final year with the Yankees.)
I’m in Charge!
Heading into that day’s game of June 2 1925, the Yankees were 15–26, had lost five in a row, and were only a half game from the American League cellar. Pipp had started slowly too, batting just .244 with three home runs and 23 RBIs. With his team already near the bottom of the standings and eleven games under the .500 mark at the beginning of June, manager Miller Huggins decided to shake up his line-up and replace some of his slumping veterans with younger players. Several news accounts leave no doubt that Wally Pipp did not sit out the game on that fateful day with a headache;
he was deliberately benched by a manager who had charge of a team that was playing poorly and who opted to sit down some of his older players to give others a try.
When Gehrig got his opportunity to start, he took full advantage of it. And a month later, when Pipp suffered a brain concussion, the changeover was complete. When Pipp returned, Gehrig had won the first baseman’s job, and Pipp’s role for the rest of the season was as a pinch-hitter. Not many people knew that Gehrig’s streak began a day earlier when he entered a game as a pinch-hitter. However, June 2, 1925, marked the beginning of Gehrig’s tenure as the Yankees’ first baseman.
The Yanks tried to trade Pipp to several American League clubs, but couldn’t come to terms with any of them. So, after asking and getting waivers on him;
they sold Pipp to the National League’s Cincinnati Reds. The Reds, still badly in need of a first baseman more than a year after the untimely death of Jake Daubert (Ironically from being beaned in the head), paid what was said to be much more than the $7,500 waiver price.
Once again Pipp asked that he be paid part of the purchase price, and once again he was turned down.
Now 33, Pipp bounced back with a strong performance in 1926, posting a .291 average and finishing fourth in the National League in both RBIs (99) and triples (15). A less productive year followed — .260 with 41 runs batted in — before he ended his major league career in 1928, batting .283 in 95 games. After batting .312 for the 1929 Newark Bears of the International League, Pipp retired from baseball.
Ahead of His Time
Pipp was unique in that he tried having several different careers after he retired similar to what players do today. He devoted the next few years to playing the stock market in Depression-era America, and even
wrote a book on the subject called “Buying Cheap and Selling Dear.”
Often jobless during these difficult times, he organized baseball programs for the National Youth Administration, tried his hand at publishing, worked as an announcer on a pre-game baseball broadcast, and even wrote scripts for a Detroit radio announcer. But money remained scarce.
“We kneeled down and said prayers at night that Dad would get a job,” his son, Walter Jr., later remembered. “Those were rough times.”
During World War II, Pipp worked producing B-24 bombers at Henry Ford’s Willow Run plant near Ypsilanti, Michigan. After the war, he went to work for the Rockford Screw Products Corporation, selling screws and bolts to the major automotive companies in the Detroit/Grand Rapids area, a job he held for the rest of his working life.
Articulate and distinguished-looking, Pipp was an expert golfer, similar to a craze that athletes gravitate to after their career’s are over. He was also a popular after-dinner speaker, and a regular attendee at Yankee old-timer games. A resident of Lansing, Michigan, since 1949, Pipp entered a rest home in Grand Rapids in 1963 after suffering several strokes. In poor health for the last 15 months of his life, Pipp died of a heart attack on January 11, 1965. He was survived by his wife, the former Nora Powers, and four children. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, in Grand Rapids.
Wally Pipp had a whole other dimension to him and is wrongfully labeled as a weak due to a headache he never specifically had. Until I researched this article I had always thought that Wally Pipp took himself out of the lineup due to a little head pain. When in actuality he was never in the lineup to begin with. His head pain was due residual effects of playing youth hockey and from a beaning later after he had been replaced by Gehrig. He also had a full post-playing career which was rare for the those times and similar to the players in retirement of today. Who knew?