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The Man Behind the Myth: Wally Pipp

There are few names that are as synonymous with sports as Wally Pipp. After all, the man did become famous for missing a game due to a supposed headache, giving the Yankees' Lou Gerhig the opportunity he needed to play in a historic 2,130 straight games, cementing his status as one of baseball's all-time greats. Meanwhile, Wally Pipp seemingly disappeared into obscurity. So who was Wally Pipp and whatever happened to him?

Early Years

Walter "Wally" Clement Pipp was born on February 17, 1893 in Chicago, Illinois. Sometime after his family moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan when he was a child, young Wally was hit in the head with a hockey puck. He would suffer headaches for the rest of his life as a result, forever affecting history.

After picking up the game of basketball as a youth, Wally Pipp moved on to the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. where he studied architecture and further developed his talents as a ballplayer. Before he had finished completing his degree, Pipp was already a professional, having begun playing for the Kalamazoo Celery Champs of the Class D Southern Michigan League. After hitting .270 in 1912, the Detroit Tigers purchased his contract.

A Bumpy Start

At last! After all of a single summer in the minors, Wally Pipp was in the majors. With a degree in architecture in hand, Wally Pipp surely felt like he was on top of the world. But with overconfidence often comes large slices of humble pie.

His stay in the major leagues was short. Very short. It took just nine games in the summer of 1913 for the Tigers to realize that their newest prospect needed a bit more seasoning. So they demoted him, first to the Providence Grays of the Class AA International League, then further down to the Scranton Miners of the Class B New York State League.

Despite batting just .220 in Scranton, the Tigers decided to call him up for the final three games of the regular season, just to give him one last chance. He failed. In ten at-bats over those three games, he made three hits. While .300 is not a bad number, it wasn't enough for them to keep him around the major league squad in 1914.

Wally Pipp spent all of 1914 refining his skills with the Rochester Hustlers of the International League. He was sensational at the plate, leading all batters in the league in home runs (15), slugging percentage (.526) and total bases (290). After the season, the New York Yankees bought his contract from the Tigers for $5,000.

New York

In those days, the New York ball club of the American League was going through a few changes. For starters, back in 1913, it changed its name from the Highlanders to the Yankees. Two years later, they were sold to a group led by Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston. Shortly after the sale, the club moved to the Polo Grounds, where the Giants baseball and football teams also played.

Wally Pipp didn't do much for the Yankees when he first arrived. In 1915, he hit just four home runs and batted .246, but the following year was much different. In 1916, he led both major leagues by blasting 12 home runs and had a slugging percentage of .417. As a result, he became the first Yankee to lead the American League in home runs. While he wasn't as effective the following year, he did lead the AL in home runs, hitting nine while striking out 16 times fewer than the year before, despite making more plate appearances in 1917.

The 1918 season was a lost year for Pipp as he split his time between baseball and serving as a naval aviation cadet at MIT while the Great War raged overseas. Amidst the tumult of a strange schedule, Pipp appeared in just 91 games while slamming just two home runs. Surprisingly, he was composed enough to hit .302 for the season.

With the Great War having ended the previous November, Wally Pipp looked toward 1919 with much optimism. He played in 47 more games that year and hit five more home runs while the team started to win more frequently. By the end of the year, the Yankees stood at 80-59 and truly looked like a team on the rise.

But they still needed some firepower. Meanwhile, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee was in a jam. Long more interested in the theatre than baseball, he was running low on funds for "No, No, Nanette" and began to look at the cash value of his players as a possible solution. Soon, he began to trade away much of the roster that had made the Red Sox the Team of the 1910's to the Yankees.

This included Babe Ruth, a dominant pitcher who was starting to show some life at the plate. After Ruth was traded to the Yankees for $125,000 before the 1920 season began, it was only a matter of time before the Yankees became the premier dominant force in baseball.

Despite the added firepower, Wally Pipp could still hold his own as most of the players that made the transition from Boston to New York were pitchers, with Ruth having the biggest bat of the bunch. In the early years of the new squad, Pipp hit 11 home runs in 1920, eight home runs in 1921 and nine home runs in 1922, not bad numbers for that era.

But the Dead Ball Era was coming to a screeching halt as Major League Baseball would soon be strictly enforcing a new rule requiring clean, new balls to be in play rather than the old, dirty ones the players had grown used to. Now instead of hitting a soft, squishy ball that could only travel a short distance, players would be targeting a hard, lively ball that could be hit much farther.

Midway through the 1923 season, the Yankees brought in a young pinch hitter named Lou Gehrig. He was only 19 years old at the time, but the team could see potential in the young ball player. They felt the gravity of each of his mighty swings and they knew it was just a matter of time before Gehrig would challenge for a starting spot. Meanwhile, Wally Pipp continued to contribute to the burgeoning dynasty, batting .304 and driving in 109 runs for the eventual World Series champions. He followed that up with nine home runs and 110 RBI in 1924, leading the AL with 19 triples.

Entering 1925, things were looking good for Wally Pipp. He was reliable at the plate and had grown comfortable at first base in the cozy confines of Yankee Stadium, then just three years old. But his career took a dark turn when he got hit in the head by Charlie Caldwell during batting practice in either June or July of 1925. This is where myth meets legend. While Pipp later claimed to have been beaned by Caldwell in early June, according to a Bleacher Report article written more than a decade ago, his head wasn't in the Yankees' injury report until a month later when he suffered a skull fracture.

Regardless of the circumstances behind his demise, on June 2, 1925, Lou Gehrig began his career as a first baseman with the New York Yankees. Having pinch-hit for Pee Wee Wanninger the day before, his historic streak had already begun before he took his soon-to-be-familiar spot at first base. Wally Pipp played sparingly the rest of the year and was shipped to Cincinnati at the season's conclusion.

Later Career and Legacy

Relinquished to the National League for the first time in his life, Wally Pipp played well his first year in Cincinnati. He slugged .413 and hit six home runs in 1926, but after that year his numbered dwindled. By 1929, Wally Pipp was out of baseball.

When his career came to a close, he dabbled in investing and journalism. After he lost his money in the Great Depression, he wrote a book titled Buying Cheap and Selling Dear. He spent his days during World War II building B-24 bombers and after the war became a salesman for the Rockford Screw Products Corporation. Years later, he would be hired as one of the first writers for a little-known sports magazine called Sports Illustrated.

Wally Pipp died on January 11, 1965 at the age of 71, leaving a legacy that many ballplayers never set out to leave. As the years go by, no matter the sport, Wally Pipp's name always comes up whenever a player sits out. That sense of fear a player feels when he sits out is the life lesson that Wally Pipp lived all too well: Don't give your competitor any sort of opportunity. It may lead to something historic for him and spell the end of your career.

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