Wally Pipp was one of the most misunderstood baseball players in history. Today he is remembered more for missing a game with a headache than for his heroics on the ball field – and there were many!
In truth, Wally Pipp was a star. He was one of the most important players on the first great Yankees teams. But rather then being remembered for his excellence, Pipp is thought of as a player who sat out a game with a headache and never played again. It’s simply not true.
When Wally Pipp sat out, he was replaced by a rookie named Lou Gehrig who became an immediate star and one of baseball’s greats. Gehrig, of course, would go on to play 2,130 consecutive games. Nothing could get Gehrig out of the lineup; he was the Iron Horse. Gehrig’s greateness and durability is held in direct contrast to the man he replaced, poor Wally Pipp – the man who couldn’t even handle a headache.
In this light, Wally Pipp is portrayed as a slacker. The story of Wally Pipp is often told to warn people about taking it easy or missing a day of work. This cautionary tale implies that by slacking off, a person could be replaced in his own position by the next Lou Gehrig.
We are warned to not be the next Wally Pipp.
The truth is, for toughness and resiliency, every player should have a bit of Wally Pipp in him. Wally Pipp most assuredly sat down, but after that fateful day, Wally Pipp was certainly not out.
Wally Pipp’s Major League career began with the Detroit Tigers in 1913 after playing just over a year of minor league ball. His first Big League game came on June 29, 1913 in Detroit. Pipp’s Tigers that day bested the St. Louis Browns 5-2. Wally went hitless in three at bats, although he did earn a walk. Detroit’s Ty Cobb starred that day, going three for four with a double and raising his average to .402.
Pipp earned his first Major League hit two days later against the Chicago White Sox, but he didn’t hit often enough, and by the end of play on July 12, he was headed back to the minor leagues with an .095 batting average.
In 1914, Pipp displayed his future skills by dominating the International League batting .314 and leading the league in home runs (15) and triples (27). After this remarkable season, Wally Pipp’s contract was sold to the New York Yankees.
In 1915, Wally Pipp was the Yankees’ starting first baseman on Opening Day…and almost every day thereafter. In total, Wally Pipp played 136 games in his first season in New York. Only shortstop Roger Peckinpaugh played in more games that year for the Yankees. And, while Pipp hit only .246, his four home runs were 9th in the American League. Even more impressive were his 13 triples, which were also 9th in the league.
Once he took hold of the position, Wally Pipp remained the Yankees starting first baseman until 1925. In the Dead Ball Era, Wally Pipp was a legitimate power hitter. In 1916, his second season, Pipp led the American League in home runs with 12. The next year, 1917, his nine homers also led the league. Wally Pipp was the first Yankee to ever lead the league in home runs. Further, he is the one of only three Yankees, with Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, to ever lead the American League in home runs in back-to-back seasons.
As a Yankee, Wally Pipp also collected double figures in triples (a true power stat of the day) seven times. In fact, in 1924, the year before his famous headache, Wally Pipp led the league in triples with 19.
A strong middle of the order batter, Wally Pipp also drove in 90 or more runs five times. Pipp also batted over .290 five times in his Yankee career, achieving a high mark of .329 in 1922.
Back when baseball seasons consisted of 154 game seasons, Wally Pipp played in 150 or more games a year for the Yankees six times. He was a rock of consistency. Wally Pipp was an iron horse.
In 1921, the year the Yankees won their first American League pennant, Wally Pipp led the team (along with second baseman Aron Ward) in games played with 153. That season, Pipp hit .296 with 8 home runs, 9 triples, and 103 runs batted in.
The Yankees won the American League pennant again in 1922. That year, Pipp hit .329 with 9 homers, 10 triples, and 94 rbi’s. His exploits earned him consideration for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Pipp starred for the Yankees again in 1923, batting .304 with 109 runs batted in for the first Yankees team to ever win a World Championship.
He then hit .295 with his league leading 19 triples in 1924 (with 110 more rbi’s) before the fateful, and misrepresented, 1925 season arrived.
The story of Wally Pipp’s benching in 1925 has been exaggerated a great deal over the years. In fact, it does not seem that he even asked out of the line-up that fateful day in June due to a headache. Rather, he was sent to the bench because the team was slumping, not because of a headache.
In early June 1925, the Yankees were in seventh place in the eight team league. Much of the team’s poor play was the result of Babe Ruth missing the first months of the season with his famous “belly-ache,” but no player on the team was doing particularly well. Pipp himself was hitting only .244. Yankees manager Miller Huggins felt he had to do something, so he shook-up his lineup. Second baseman Aaron Ward and catcher Wally Schang were benched along with Wally Pipp on June 2, 1925. The man who replaced Pipp was, of course, Lou Gehrig, and, while Gehrig’s consecutive games streak began that day, the story isn’t that simple. It must also be noted that Gehrig wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire before he had this opportunity to start. Through June 1, 1925, Gehrig’s batting average for the season stood at .167.
In his first game, Lou Gehrig had three hits in five at bats including a double. But the next two games, Gehrig went hitless. While it is true that Wally Pipp would never start another game as the Yankees’ first baseman, on five occasions during that month he replaced Lou Gehrig at first base during the game. Gehrig didn’t so much as take his job away, at the start, they shared the position.
What was unfortunate for Wally Pipp, was that Lou Gehrig eventually began hitting…and hitting extremely well. In his first month of regular play, Lou Gehrig hit .348 with six home runs and 14 runs batted in. Gehrig then hit .305 in July, which was solid, but still there were reports of manager Miller Huggins being less than pleased with Gehrig’s overall performance, especially against left-handed pitching. On July 5, 1925, against the Senators, and left-handed pitcher Tom Zachary, the Yankees started Fred Merkle (not Gehrig) at first base. Lou Gehrig’s famous playing streak may have ended that day, in its infancy, if not for the fact that he had a pinch-hit appearance late in the game. Later that month, on July 19, the Detroit Tigers started left-hander Dutch Leonard against the Yankees. Gehrig also began that day on the bench in favor of Merkle. Later in that game, Gehrig did appear, amassing three hits including a home run.
By August of 1925, Lou Gehrig was tearing the proverbial cover off the ball. That month, Lou Gehrig hit .350 with five more home runs. It became obvious, the torch had been passed, but not as simply and as easily as the legend has it.
Yet, Lou Gehrig may never had had the chance to amass the consecutive games streak if not for a terrible situation that happened to Wally Pipp that history has inaccurately recorded as the “headache” that took him out of the line-up. There was no headache that took Wally Pipp out of the line-up in June. The headache came a month later…and it wasn’t just a minor thing.
On July 2, 1925, while he was still ostensibly sharing, at least in some part, first base duties with Gehrig, Wally Pipp was severely beaned in the head during batting practice. The shot to his head actually knocked Pipp unconscious. The beaning was so severe that Wally Pipp was hospitalized for about two weeks.
Rather than having a headache, Wally Pipp may have actually suffered from a skull fracture.
It is a testament to Wally Pipp’s toughness that he returned to the team and was playing again by early August. This iron horse, got himself from the hospital bed to ballpark. Wally Pipp was made of stern stuff. Over the season’s final two months, Wally Pipp appeared in twelve games, mostly as a pinch hitter or pinch runner, but he was back, rising from the brutal beaning.
With Lou Gehrig now firmly established at first base, the Yankees sold Wally Pipp to the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 1926 season. In Cincinnati, Wally Pipp demonstrated his resiliency, and toughness. He appeared in 155 games. Only two players in the entire league appeared in more games batted .That season, Wally Pipp batted 291. Pipp’s 15 triples were fourth in the league, as were his 99 runs batted in. This performance earned Wally Pipp consideration for the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award.
And he still wasn’t done. Wally Pipp played with Cincinnati through the 1928 season, but by then, his career was winding down. In 1928, Pipp appeared in only 95 games, one of the lowest totals of his career.
Still, Wally Pipp had one last hurah. Back in the minor leagues in 1929, Wally Pipp played first base for the Newark Bears of the International League where he hit .312 in 120 games. After the season, Wally Pipp retired as a player.
Rather than being “soft,” Wally Pipp was a hard-nosed high quality baseball player. He was an important star on the first Yankees’ pennant winning teams including their first World Championship. Even after being replaced by one of the baseball’s greatest players, and then suffering from a potentially career-ending injury, Wally Pipp was able to successfully play baseball at its highest levels.
The real Wally Pipp isn’t anything like the legend. Wally Pipp was a Yankee great.