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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #54 Wally Pipp

Forever remembered for a day when he didn’t play, Pipp was an excellent player in his own right.

Wally Pipp Portrait Yankees

Name: Walter Clement “Wally” Pipp
Position: First base
Born: February 17, 1893 (Chicago, IL)
Died: January 11, 1965 (Grand Rapids, MI)
Yankee Years: 1915-25
Primary Number: N/A
Yankee Statistics: 1.488 games, 6.357 PA, .282/.343/.414, 1577 H, 80 HR, 259 2B, 121 3B, 107 OPS+, 107 wRC+, 29.3 bWAR, 28.6 fWAR

Biography

The first time you heard the name Wally Pipp, it was probably not for anything he did on the field. In fact, it was probably the exact opposite.

A day off for Pipp famously led to Lou Gehrig getting the start at first base one day in 1925, and not relinquishing the spot for another 2,130 games. However, it’s unfortunate that Pipp has become a bit lost to history in that way. He was a great player and a vital part of the first Yankees’ championship team, and helped kick off the franchise’s decades of dominance.

Early Life and Career

The son of William and Pauline, Pipp was born in 1893 in Chicago, but mostly grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As a child, he was allegedly struck on the head with a hockey puck, which would lead to regular headaches in this life, and would add a layer to the lore of a certain moment in his career.

Pipp attended Catholic University in Washington, DC, where he played on the same baseball team that would also feature future GM Brian Cashman 75 years later. Pipp is in the photo below in the back row, the first player in uniform from the left.

Pipp would get his first taste of professional baseball playing for the Kalamazoo Celery Pickers of the Southern Michigan League in 1911-12. He played well enough there to be noticed and signed by the Detroit Tigers.

In 1913, Detroit sent him out to play for the minor league Providence Grays and Scranton Miners. Even though he didn’t quite light things up in the minors that season, the Tigers apparently thought highly enough of Pipp to call him up and give him his major league debut on June 29, 1913. He drew a walk that day, and recorded his first MLB hit a couple days later, singling off Black Sox scandal subject and potential would-be Hall of Famer Eddie Cicotte.

In total, Pipp appeared in 12 games for the 1913 Tigers, but didn’t particularly impress, hitting .161/.235/.355. He was sent back down to the minors later that year, and spent all of 1914 there. That season while playing with the Rochester Hustlers, Pipp figured some things out. He put forth an excellent showing by hitting .314/.391/.526, leading the International League with 15 homers. That season seemingly would’ve had him on the Tigers’ radar for 1915, but they surprisingly sold him to the Yankees, under the new ownership of Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast Huston.

Becoming a Yankee Star

New York Yankees Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

Pipp showed a sign of what was to come when he singled off future Hall of Famer Walter Johnson on Opening Day 1915, his Yankees debut. He put in a solid campaign that season, putting up a .706 OPS (111 OPS+) with 37 extra-base hits as he became the team’s regular first baseman.

The next year, Pipp really started to take off, putting a 123 OPS+, while also slugging 12 home runs to lead the majors. At 80-74, the Yankees also finished above .500 for the first time in several seasons. Although they dipped back to the second division in 1917, leading to the dismissal of skipper Bill Donovan, it was through no fault of Pipp’s. In one of the last years of the Deadball Era, he again led the American League in homers with nine, becoming one of the more feared sluggers in the league.

In 1918 with Miller Huggins now in charge, Pipp raised his batting average to over .300 for the first time in his career, and with a 127 OPS+, he was on his way to the best season of his career so far when he was called into military service after playing in 91 games. Upon returning for 1919, Pipp returned to his slugging ways, hitting seven dingers, which was good enough to finish in the top 10 of the league again.

However, Pipp’s power-hitting ways would be dwarfed by the likes of soon-to-be teammate Babe Ruth, who set a new MLB record in 1919 with 29 dingers in a single season while splitting time between left field and the pitcher’s mound for Boston. At the time that the Yankees acquired Ruth from the Red Sox, Pipp was their all-time home run leader at 34 total bombs. By the end of 1920, when Ruth had broken his own record with a then-staggering 54 dingers, he had already zoomed past Pipp on the Yankees’ leaderboard.

Babe Ruth Murderers Row 1921
Pipp, Ruth, Roger Peckinpaugh, Bob Meusel, and Frank Baker

No longer the biggest home run threat in his own lineup, Pipp slugged 30 doubles, 14 triples, and 14 homers in 1920, and with Ruth in tow, the Yankees jumped to 95 wins. They fell just three games short of Cleveland for their first ever pennant. Pipp also continued to cut down on strikeouts, which had been the biggest issue in the early years of his career.

Pipp was solid again in 1921, as this time, he succeeding to helping the Yankees to their first AL pennant and World Series appearance in franchise history. He didn’t have the best of goes in the Fall Classic however, going just 4-for-31 as the Yankees lost the best-of-nine series 5-3 to the Giants.

The 1922 campaign saw Pipp put in arguably the best year of his career to that point. He hit .329 with a 121 OPS+ as the Yankees again won the AL and advanced to the World Series. He was a bit better this time around, going 6-for-21 with three RBI. However, the Yankees again lost to the Giants. On an individual level, Pipp’s year was good enough to finish eighth in voting for the League Award, a precursor to the MVP.

Pipp’s hitting fell off a bit in 1923, as his six home runs was his lowest since his rookie year, with the exception of his military service-shortened 1918. However, he remained a crucial middle order bat and a good defender at first base for the team as they once again won the AL, leading to a World Series meeting against the Giants. This time, they would not be denied.

Pipp went 5-for-20 in the World Series, including an RBI in a crucial Game 5 win. While Gehrig would become known as the first baseman most associated with this era of the Yankees, Pipp was manning first when the team finally got over the hump. He was even involved in the last out of the series, as he caught the throw from second baseman Aaron Ward to clinch the Game 6 victory.

Portrait of 1923 New York Yankees
1923 World Series champions

In 1924, Pipp bounced back and the plate, leading the league in triples with 19*, which has only been topped a handful of times in the century since. He again got consideration for the League Award, finishing 14th in the voting. There would be no pennant this time around however, as former teammate Roger Peckinpaugh and the Senators captured the AL flag over New York by two games.

*Pipp actually ranks fourth in Yankees history with 121 career triples. Somewhat amusingly, their all-time leader is now Lou Gehrig.

Decline and The Day Off

The 1925 season saw the Yankees take a dip in the standings. Ruth was limited to just 98 games that season, as he went into the season out of shape and dealt with his famous “bellyache” that season. As the Yankees struggled to a 69-85 record and a seventh-place finish (their only sub-.500 season from 1919-65), Pipp was one of the players whose downturn helped lead to the poor season. Through June 1st, Pipp was hitting just .244/.296/.372, on pace for the worst offensive season of his career.

On June 2nd, Pipp was not in the starting lineup, Huggins instead opting to a start a soon to be 22-year old Lou Gehrig at first base. The ascendant Gehrig played for the Yankees in both of the previous two season, and showed some potential, but Pipp was locked in at first base. However, Gehrig was given a chance on June 2nd, and took the most of it, going 3-for-5.

After that, Huggins stuck with Gehrig, and the rest is history. He very quickly staked a claim as an elite hitter, and never left the first base spot for the rest of his career, becoming an all-time Yankee and MLB legend. As that happened, Pipp would soon be on his way out.

The exact circumstances of why Pipp got June 2nd off remain shrouded in some mystery. The legend is that Pipp came in with a headache and after hearing him ask the trainer for some aspirin, Huggins told Pipp to take the day off. Pipp himself even gave that legend some credence later in his life. At times, he also seemed to tie that in with an incident when he was hit on the head while taking batting practice, although history shows that happened in July, well after Gehrig replaced him.

On the other hand, there’s a line of thought that Huggins made the move to just try and inject some life into a struggling team. Earlier that season, the Yankees’ manager had benched shortstop Everett Scott, who would soon be shipped off to the Washington Senators. In the same June 2nd game that Pipp got off, second baseman Ward and catcher Wally Schang, also regulars from the 1923 title team, were also on the bench that day.

With Pipp struggling and the Yankees headed nowhere fast in 1925, it’s very possible — and probably more likely — that Huggins just gave him and the others the day off to get a look at what they had on the bench. In the case of Gehrig and Pipp, it quickly became obvious who was the better option for both the present and the future. The man who never took a day off getting the starting job because someone else took a day off for a headache is the stuff of legends, but there’s a non-zero possibility it’s just that.

After June 2nd, Pipp remained with the team for the rest of the season, but never started again, at first or any other position. He came off the bench for another 20 games that season, but struggled even worse than he had been to that point. He was deemed surplus to requirements after the season and was sold to the Cincinnati Reds in January 1926.

Post-Yankee Life

Reds team collage by Spalding Guide
Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images

In a new situation. Pipp had a bit of a bounce-back season in 1926 at age 33. His 108 OPS+ saw him get votes and finish in 14th place in League Award voting, as the Reds narrowly missed out on the National League pennant.

However, he struggled again in both 1927 and ‘28, as his former Yankee teammates were dominating en route to two World Series wins. The Reds didn’t bring him back, and after one season with the minor league Newark Bears in 1929, Pipp retired.

After his baseball career, Pipp held a variety of jobs, and even wrote a book on playing the stock market. A Michigan resident, he was even supposedly in attendance for the May 2, 1939 game in Detroit where Gehrig ended his consecutive games played streak.

Pipp and his wife, Nora, had four children together, and later in life, he became a popular after-dinner speaker as well. He was a regular attendee of Old-Timers’ Day games at Yankee Stadium. Pipp passed away from a heart attack at age 71 in 1965.

It’s certainly understandable how Wally Pipp’s baseball playing career became overshadowed by him not playing on June 2, 1925. However, make no mistake: He was a very good baseball player in his own right. No, Pipp wasn’t as transcendent as Lou Gehrig, but he was an integral part in getting the first great era of Yankees baseball up and running.

Staff Rank: 55
Community Rank: 68
Stats Rank: 42
2013 Rank: 39

References

Absolute Michigan

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

Catholic University

FanGraphs

Snopes

Spatz, Lyle. SABR Bio

Sports Illustrated

Previously on the Top 100

55. Hank Bauer
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