Name: George Pipgras
Position: Starting Pitcher (RHP)
Born: December 20, 1899 (Ida Grove, IA)
Died: October 19, 1986 (Gainesville, FL)
Yankee Years: 1923-24, 1927-33
Primary number: 12 (also 14 and 10)
Yankee statistics: 93-64, 4.04 ERA, 3.95 FIP, 247 G, 1,351 2/3 IP, 656 K, 84 CG, 99 ERA-, 98 FIP-, 10.5 rWAR, 16.4 fWAR
The 1927 Yankees are rightfully in the annals of history as one of the finest teams to have ever played the game. The incredible hitters of their "Murderer's Row" lineup like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Tony Lazzeri cemented their legacy, but the pitching was tremendous, too. Incredibly, only nine pitchers were needed for 1,388 of the 1,389 2/3 innings pitched that season, and they combined for a league-leading 3.20 ERA (122 ERA+). While aces Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt made the Hall of Fame, the other men have been largely forgotten by the game. One of these men was a 27-year-old flamethrower named George Pipgras, Pinstripe Alley's 99th greatest Yankee.
A Feller-like upbringing
The story of Pipgras's youth calls to mind the story of the Cleveland Indians' Hall of Fame ace, Bob Feller, albeit several years before Feller's birth. Like Feller, Pipgras was a hard-throwing kid from Iowa who brought his velocity up by firing baseballs at barn doors on his father's farm in the early 1900s, far removed from anything resembling a city. Also like Feller, he had no idea where tha ball was going for a long time. He was tall at 6'2," but he referred to himself as "the runt of the family." His father was taller at 6'4" and all of his brothers were closer to his father's height. One of them, Ed, even followed George to the big leagues, though he only had one season in New York (with Brooklyn) compared to George's eleven.
The Pipgrases moved to a slightly bigger area for the patriarch's new hotel business in time for George to play for a decently-sized high school baseball team. However, by the time Pipgras turned 17, the United States had entered World War I. He enlisted with the Army, spending time in Sioux City (right around the Iowa/Nebraska/South Dakota border) before moving on to Texas and New York.
When he was in New York, a fellow solider, Ralph Works, saw him pitch in company games and suggested that he try a baseball career when he was finished in the service. Pipgras later said that prior to that, he had not given this idea much thought. He was in England and France for nine months, but he eventually caught the flu and had to return home. A couple years after "The Great War" ended, the Yankees signed Pipgras and assigned him to a D-League team in Madison, South Dakota for the 1921 season-the Greys.
Refining the craft
Pipgras's 4.81 RA (run average, since runs weren't specified as earned or not in that league) and 6.0 BB/9 in 172 innings with Madison indicated that he needed some work despite a 12-6 record, but the Boston Red Sox drafted him away from the Yankees. Now in Boston's organization, Pipgras managed to improve with the B-League Charleston Pals of the Sally League in '22. He cut his BB/9 to 3.9 and his ERA to 2.94 while pitching to a 19-9 record in 42 games. The Yankees decided to take him back in a trade and buy his contract; Pipgras made $2,100 in his first season, 1923, which also happened to be the Yankees' first season in their new home, Yankee Stadium. Pipgras described his first trip to the Stadium in the same way that many fans did: "I didn't know a place could be so big."
It took a while, but Pipgras made his major-league debut on June 9, 1923, tossing three innings of mop-up duty in relief of "Bullet" Joe Bush and Carl Mays. Unfortunately for Pipgras, it was difficult to make his way onto the regular pitching staff with the stalwarts on the eventual World Series champions playing so well-Bush, Mays, Hoyt, Pennock, Bob Shawkey, and "Sad" Sam Jones combined to throw 96.7% of the innings for the staff, which also led the league in ERA at 3.62. He appeared in only two games before September. When he was finally given his first career start on September 11th against the Red Sox, he threw a six-hitter at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees did not give him any run support though, and he lost 3-0, but in his second career start on September 27th, he exacted revenge by pitching another complete game in an 8-3 victory at Fenway Park.
Outside of those two starts however, Pipgras struggled in limited duty from 1923-24. His walk rate was an ugly 8.0 BB/9 in 48 2/3 innings, and that unsurprisingly led to a high ERA-7.21 (57 ERA+). He also lost his mother in early April '24 and spent a little time away from the team. The Yankees sent him back to the minors for the next two seasons, which he spent with the Class-A Atlanta Crackers and the American Association's St. Paul Saints. When he was previously with the big club, Pennock took him under his wing to settle down his pitching motion. "The Wizard of Kennett Square" taught him the curveball and told him that he was falling toward first base in his regular motion, which certainly did not help his control. By '26, the work had paid off and Pipgras won 22 games for St. Paul while tossing 312 innings of 3.87 ERA ball while issuing a career-best 3.3 walks per nine.
Pipgras was 27 in '27, and the veterans from that '23-'24 squad were now aged and not starting nearly as many games-there was finally an opening in the rotation that he was ready to seize. Manager Miller Huggins wanted to see him prove himself worthy of the opportunity though, so Pipgras only made it into six games and three starts through mid-June. Encouraged by a 7 2/3 inning, two-run appearance in relief of a wild Hoyt on June 12th, the Huggins gave "Pip" a start against the Red Sox on June 29th. The 27-year-old dazzled in a three-hit, one-run complete game win, striking out six. It was enough to earn him another start four days later in the first game of an Independence Day doubleheader against the Washington Senators, which resulted in another victorious complete game, one-run outing.
From there on out, Pipgras never spent more than five days between appearances. A 4.11 ERA and 104 ERA- in 166 1/3 innings suggested he could do better, but it was a fine rookie season regardless. He caught fire in his last four starts of the season after the 110-win juggernaut had already clinched the American League pennant. Pipgras pitched a shutout and two other complete games with a combined 1.64 ERA while going 3-0 to move to 10-3 on the season.
It was unclear whether Pipgras would get a World Series start against the Pittsburgh Pirates, but his mentor Pennock took a batting practice line drive off the knee prior to Game 2. Pitching on the road at Forbes Field, Pipgras gave up a leadoff triple to future Hall of Famer Lloyd Waner, who scored on a sacrifice fly. The Bucs had a potent lineup with the Waner brothers and Pie Traynor, but Pipgras shut them out for the next six innings while "Murderer's Row" built him a 6-1 lead. Another Waner run in the eighth proved irrelevant; "Pip" went all nine in his first World Series start, a win to send the Yankees back to the Bronx with a 2-0 series lead. Two days later, the most acclaimed team in the history of baseball clinched their title in a four-game sweep.
Now entrenched on the pitching staff, Pipgras threw 1,103 2/3 innings over the next five years, winning 80 games and completing 14 with a pair of shutouts. Although he still made his share of relief appearances out of the bullpen, most of his appearances came in starts. His apex was likely the first year of this run, a league-leading 24-win season in '28. Amusingly, Pipgras recalled that he should have won 30, but the powerful Yanks sometimes struggled to give him run support. His TWTW must not have been high enough.
Pipgras also led the AL in games started (38), innings (300 2/3), batters faced (1,298), and hits (314-all those innings led to all those hits). He completed 22 games, pitched to a 3.28 ERA (88 ERA-) and 3.21 FIP (87 FIP-), and only gave up four homers all year. Pipgras struck out a career-high 139 men (second in the AL) and walked just three men per nine innings.
The '28 Yankees had the difficult task of trying to match the incredible feats of the '27 team, but they won 101 games to do so, capturing the AL pennant. Pipgras pitched the pennant-clincher over the Tigers on September 28th, as the Yanks clipped Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics by 2.5 games. At home for the first two games of the Fall Classic this time, Hoyt won a 4-1 three-hitter in Game 1 against the St. Louis Cardinals, and Pipgras threw a 4-3 four-hitter in Game 2 to beat Hall of Fame veteran Grover Cleveland Alexander. The Yankees beat the Cards in the next two games to secure their second straight Series sweep.
The Yankees had won three straight pennants entering the '29 season, but Philly's Mackmen put that streak to an end with three straight pennants of their own from '29-'31. Pipgras was up and down with a 4.08 ERA during these three seasons, but even if he matched his '28 form, it would have been difficult for the Yanks to catch the A's, who averaged 104 wins per year. The Yankees returned to the Fall Classic in '32 with a somewhat-forgotten 107-win season as Philly declined. The starting rotation was in transition as the next generation of reliable starters entered the fold in Vernon "Lefty" Gomez and Charles "Red" Ruffing. The Yankees led the league in ERA at 3.98, and Pipgras contributed a 4.19 mark, good for a 100 ERA- that was actually a hair better than the 23-year-old Gomez's 101.
In the World Series that year, Pipgras did not start until Game 3. Behind Ruffing and Gomez, the Yankees thumped the Chicago Cubs in the first two games at Yankee Stadium, 12-6 and 5-2. The scene shifted to Wrigley Field for the third game, which took place on October 1st. Pipgras recalled Babe Ruth as "a good friend," and the Bambino gave his nine-year teammate an immediate lead with a three-run bomb in the first inning off Charlie Root. Lou Gehrig sent one out to right for a solo homer in the third, but by the fifth inning, Pipgras had let the Cubs tie it up at four on some doubles and a homer by Kiki Cuyler.
Ruth came up with one out in the fifth as the Cubs' players and fans brutally heckled him for the way he had criticized the Cubs for awarding his old teammate-turned-Cub, Mark Koenig, a half-share of NL pennant money. Famously, Ruth took two called strikes, putting up one finger after the first and two after the second. He then allegedly pointed to center field and took Root's next pitch deeper to center field than any man had ever slugged before for a tie-breaking homer. Here's what Pipgras had to say on the matter:
I remember the whole thing very well. Babe called his shot on that homer, all right. He never said anything when he came back to the dugout. All he did was laugh. The Cub pitchers denied Babe did it, but he did-and it was the only time I ever saw him do it. (I struck out five times in that game.) That was about the only record I got out of the whole deal.
Pipgras did strike out five times, but he won the game 7-5 for his third career World Series victory in as many starts. He needed some help in the ninth from his old friend and mentor, Pennock, to finish it, but the Yankees got the win and crushed the Cubbies 13-4 the next day to finish the sweep. In the three World Series that Pipgras pitched in, his Yankees never lost a game, and he went 3-0 with a 2.77 ERA and a 1.077 WHIP. The Yankees couldn't ask for much more from him on baseball's biggest stage.
Injury curtails one career, sparks another
The 33-year-old Pipgras was a rotation veteran by '33, but his Yankee career came to an abrupt end on May 12th. Yankees owner Colonel Jacob Ruppert did not think he was worth his salary anymore, so he sold both he and infielder Billy Werber to the Red Sox for $100,000. Pipgras proved that he wasn't quite finished yet despite the Yankees' doubts-Boston's poor team gave him an 11-10 record, but he pitched to a 3.90 ERA (91 ERA-) and 3.51 FIP (87 FIP-).
However, Pipgras's season was shut down after a start on August 14th. He only made two appearances in May of '34 before it was revealed that his right elbow was chipped. The righthander was never the same. He spent the rest of the year recovering and made only five subpar appearances in '35 before the Red Sox released him on June 5th. The New York Giants gave him a chance to make it back by offering him a position on their A-ball team, the Nashville Volunteers. He struggled to a 4.80 ERA in 90 innings before ultimately announcing his retirement.
The end of Pipgras's pitching career did not mean the end of his baseball career. He went from pitching for strikes to calling strikes, as he joined the New York-Penn League as an umpire. He did his time as a minor league ump for three years, then called games in the American League from 1939-46. Some of his more notable games included the '40 All-Star Game, the '44 all-St.Louis World Series between the Browns and Cardinals, and Hank Greenberg's pennant-winning grand slam game in the darkness in '45. He described the art as "great," but admitted "off the field, it was a lonely life."
Pipgras scouted for the Red Sox for two seasons and instructed umpires for three years before ultimately ending his career in baseball in the early '50s. He retired to Florida, where he had lived in the off-season since '25, and he rarely took much interest in the game again. It wasn't that he had bad memories-he simply stated "Once you're through with a job, you don't want to go back to it."
Pipgras outlived all of his fellow pitchers on the '27 Yankees, and only Koenig and backup second baseman Ray Morehart remained from the team upon Pipgras's death in October 1986. Sure, "Pip" wasn't the flashiest of pitchers or even that memorable a character from the stellar teams of the ‘20s and '30s, but he often got the job done, especially in World Series play. I'll leave the last words to Pipgras himself:
I liked New York. They tell me it's not such a good place now , but you seem to like whatever city you're working in. We didn't make the money ballplayers make now, but all in all it was a good life.
Andrew's rank: 100
Tanya's rank: 86
Community's rank: 92.2
Avg. WAR rank: 92.5
|NYY (9 years)||93||64||4.04||3.95||247||170||84||14||11||1351.2||1376||724||607||57||545||656||30||1||34||99||98||10.5||16.4|
Maly, Ron. "George Pipgras, Ida Grove, 1976," Des Moines Register. 1976. (Link)
"Pipgras is Reinstated," New York Times. 27 Dec. 1934.
"Wayland Dean Shows Class by Stopping Chicago Sox," Rochester Evening Journal. 11 Apr. 1924. (Link)
White, Paul. "Huggins was Patient with George Pipgras," The Milwaukee Journal. 7 Oct. 1927. (Link)
Wilkens, George. "Pitcher for '27 Yanks Dies in Gainesville," The Tampa Tribune. 20 Oct. 1986. (Link)
"Yanks Beat Detroit Tigers, Clinch Pennant," The Milwaukee Journal. 29 Sep. 1928.