Grand Rapids’ Wally Pipp will always be best known as the man Lou Gehrig replaced at first base for the New York Yankees.
On June 2, 1925, Pipp told Yankees manager Miller Huggins that he had a headache. Huggins gave his veteran first baseman the day off, replacing him with a rookie first baseman who had recently starred at Columbia University. The precocious rookie quickly won the position and remained the Yankees’ first baseman for the next 2,130 games, a record for nearly 60 years.
“The Iron Horse,” as Lou Gehrig came to be known, did not miss another game until 1939, when his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) forced him to retire from the game. To this day, baseball fans will see references to Wally Pipp when a veteran player gets replaced in the starting lineup. Some sportswriters have even had the temerity to turn “Pipped” into a verb to refer to this circumstance.
Wally Pipp was much more than a historical footnote, both as a baseball player and a man. He was an athlete, an architect, a writer, and a mentor. He was devoted to his family, his church, and his hometown of Grand Rapids.
The story of Major League Baseball MLB cannot be told without reference to his name nor can the story of Grand Rapids, which has honored him as one of its athletic greats.
Walter Clement Pipp was born on February 17, 1893, in Chicago to a Catholic family. His mother, Pauline (Stroeber) Pipp, was of German extraction while his father William H. Pipp has been described as both Irish and German, depending on the source. William Pipp was an esteemed homebuilder and architect who was able to provide his family with a comfortable lifestyle.
The family moved to Grand Rapids in 1895 when Wally was 2 years old, where the family remained in residence for several generations. Wally’s uncle, Henry Pipp, had played professional baseball with the Chicago Nationals, the forerunner of today’s Chicago Cubs, during the late 19th century.
From an early age, Wally Pipp showed an athletic bent, playing football in the fall, hockey in the winter, and baseball in the spring. As a young man, he was hit in the head by a hockey puck, which caused him a lifetime of headaches and hearing loss in his right ear. Pipp grew into a sinewy 6’3 with broad shoulders. As an athlete, he was a man among boys at Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids, a school that has produced a number of future NFL players but only one MLB player in Pipp.
An excellent student, Pipp continued his education at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he was a standout on the Cardinals’ baseball team. Among early 20th century major leaguers, Pipp was the rare college man. He followed suit in the family trade and studied architecture, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1912.
Pipp made his MLB debut in 1915. He had spent three seasons as a standout at minor league stops in Kalamazoo, Providence, Scranton, and Rochester. The Detroit Tigers held his Major League rights but had doubts about his defensive skills, which proved utterly ridiculous. They sold his rights to the Yankees for $5,000 in January 1915. It turned out to be a strikingly well-spent five grand by the then-moribund Yankees.
Pipp became New York’s everyday first baseman immediately. Even as a rookie, he was a superb defensive player and he hit the ball with authority. The power that Pipp displayed from the outset of his career was a genuine feat during the “dead ball era.” “Dead balls” were so named because the yarn at the core of the baseball was not wrapped nearly as tightly as on modern baseballs, preventing players from hitting the balls as hard or as far.
Pipp led the American League (AL) in home runs in both 1916 (12 home runs) and 1917 (9 home runs). The 1916 Yankees posted the franchise’s first winning season since 1910, back when the team was known as the Highlanders. Several of Pipp’s homeruns each season were in-the-park homeruns made possible by his noteworthy speed. On seven occasions during his career, he legged out at least 10 triples in a season, a rare feat in today’s game. In 1924, he led the AL in triples with 19.
After missing most of 1918 due to military service during World War I, Pipp returned full-time to the Yankees in 1919, helping lead New York to an impressive 80-59 record. He finished second that year in homeruns to a Red Sox pitcher named Babe Ruth, whose mind-boggling 29 homeruns more than tripled Pipp’s total of seven. In 1920, Ruth and Pipp would become teammates.
The Red Sox famously sold Ruth to New York for $125,000, inaugurating the “Curse of the Bambino” and the championship run of the Yankees, the most successful franchise in professional sports history.
Ruth’s arrival in New York corresponded with the use of a new, more tightly wound “live ball” in the Major Leagues. Ruth rewrote baseball’s offensive record book in the early 1920s, hitting 54 and 59 home runs in 1920 and 1921 respectively.
Yet Pipp remained one of the American League’s best hitters. In 1921, he formed a 1-2-3 punch in the middle of the Yankees’ lineup. Pipp (103), Bob Muesel (138), and Ruth (168) all drove in more than 100 runs while the Yankees raced to their first AL pennant before losing in the World Series to the New York Giants. Pipp and Ruth had an, at times, contentious relationship.
Ruth once berated Pipp in the dugout for mishandling a ball at first base. Pipp responded with a couple of firm open hands and a promise to settle it after the game. Ruth apparently backed down. Nevertheless, the pair got along smartly enough for Pipp to earn money as a ghost writer for Ruth on columns the famed slugger had been contracted to write for a range of national publications.
The Yankees lost to the same Giants again in the 1922 World Series before finally getting the monkey off their back in 1923, defeating their crosstown rivals in the Fall Classic. Even as the personnel started to get younger on these Yankees title teams, Pipp remained a stalwart, driving in over 100 runs in both 1923 and 1924, when the Yankees finished second.
Pipp struggled early in the 1925 season and his early June headache brought about the ascendance of Gehrig, a circumstance that would likely have happened sooner or later.
The 22-year-old Gehrig had dominated the minor leagues for the past two seasons and was bound to find his way onto the field. Despite losing his starting job, Pipp remained friends with the young Gehrig and helped mentor him on the finer points of playing the position. Years after Pipp’s retirement, Pipp and his sons met up with Gehrig after a game in Detroit. The former teammates had a warm conversation like reacquainted old friends.
New York sent Pipp to the Cincinnati Reds of the National League in 1926, where he spent the last three years of his MLB career. Pipp remained a solid player well into his mid-30s, retiring at age 35 with a .281 career batting average, 90 home runs, and 1,004 RBIs.
He was a notable example of a player that was able to flourish both in the “dead” and “live” ball eras, though his heart lay clearly with the former. Pipp wrote about the game for a variety of publications and taught the game to youngsters in Grand Rapids for decades, always stressing what has come to be called “small ball.”
He believed that much of the finesse, strategy, and psychology of baseball had been lost with the reliance on home run mashers for offense. His sport was a game of bunts, hit-and-run plays, and stolen bases.
Pipp left big league baseball behind and returned full-time to Grand Rapids. Wally and Nora raised four children, three boys and a girl. They were longtime parishioners of St. Stephen’s Catholic Church in East Grand Rapids.
Wally worked as a stockbroker and continued to write, publishing a book about stock market strategy called Buying Cheap and Selling Dear. He worked for a time as a pregame radio broadcaster for the Detroit Tigers and wrote copy for Michigan radio stations. Pipp made golf his sport in retirement, joining the Highland Country Club and cranking out several rounds each week. Within a couple of years of taking up golf, Pipp shot regularly in the 70s.
As the Great Depression swallowed up the stock market, Pipp found work in the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency focused on providing work and education to young people.
Naturally, Pipp’s work involved baseball. He organized community baseball leagues in Grand Rapids and across the Midwest. This proved to be the starting point for a decades-long passion for the former big leaguer.
Pipp had long advocated the formation of youth baseball leagues and volunteered significant time to such organizations when they came to Grand Rapids. For years, he worked with Little League, Pony League, and American Legion players in the area.
He also advocated the advancement of women in baseball, stating in the early 1950s that he expected women one day to play Major League Baseball.
Pipp continued working for the National Youth Administration until World War II shifted the focus of the nation’s attention. During the war, Pipp lent his technical expertise to the efforts at the Willow Run bomber plant near Ypsilanti.
Later in life, Pipp worked as a manufacturer’s agent for the Rockford Screw Products Corporation. The job required him to travel frequently and he resided for several years in Lansing. Pipp was personable and an excellent public speaker, making him a natural as a salesman.
Health problems pushed the always buzzing and energetic Pipp into retirement. In 1963, he suffered a stroke and moved into a retirement home in Grand Rapids. He experienced failing health for the last few years of his life but had his family always in close proximity.
He died on January 11, 1965, a month short of his 72nd birthday. Wally and Nora, who died in 1968, lay side by side at Woodlawn Cemetery in front of a black marble family headstone along with several other members of the Pipp family.
Years after Wally’s death, Wally Pipp Jr. mounted a thus-far unsuccessful campaign to have his father inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He made the case based on his father’s record as a power hitter of the “dead ball era” and his reputation as one of the best defensive first baseman of his generation.
Now deceased, Pipp, Jr. contacted members of the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee as well as prominent figures in the sports world. Bob Costas was one of the few to get in touch with Wally, Jr., conceding that Pipp’s case was as good as many others being considered by the Veterans’ Committee. Thus far, Pipp has yet to receive formal consideration for induction.
Whether or not the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown ever honors Pipp, he has been immortalized here in Grand Rapids. The next time you walk the concourse at Van Andel Arena, look for Wally’s plaque. He was a member of the inaugural class of inductees into the Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame in 1972.
Clayton Trutor teaches history at Norwich University in Vermont. He is the author of Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports (2022) and the forthcoming Boston Ball: Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Gary Williams, and College Basketball’s Forgotten Cradle of Coaches (2023). He’d love to hear from you on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor