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Before Gehrig, there was Pipp
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06/19/2003  7:52 AM ET 
Before Gehrig, there was Pipp
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Wally Pipp played 15 seasons in the big leagues and totaled nearly 2,000 hits and 1,000 RBIs. (AP)
Wally Pipp was not the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.

But as baseball fans pay homage Thursday to the 100th birthday of Lou Gehrig, it wouldn't hurt to give his predecessor at first base just a little more credit.

This is not about debunking myths. Yes, it's true: Pipp lost his spot in the Yankees' lineup one day in 1925 and Gehrig proceeded to play 2,130 consecutive games in his place. Instead of viewing Pipp as one of baseball's great trivia answers and the embodiment of an unfortunate baseball soul, however, consider this anniversary an opportune time to see the undiscovered other side of Wally Pipp.

June 19, 1903 - June 2, 1941
Farewell speech 56K | 300K
Farewell re-enactment 300K
"King of Diamonds" bio 56K | 300K
"Gehrig, Gentle Man" 56K | 300K
Bob Costas on ALS 56K | 300K

Radio call of Gehrig's HR
in Game 3 of the '36 World Series

Photo Gallery
All-Time Rankings:   Click stat for full list

 Runs 1888 9th
 HRs 493 20th
 RBIs 1995 4th
 Total Bases 5060 14th
 Average .340 Tied for 12th
 Slugging % .632 3rd
 On Base % .442 3rd

 • Complete career stats >
New York Yankees, 1923-1939
Inscription: Holder of more than a score of Major and AL records, including that of playing 2130 consecutive games. When he retired in 1939, he had a life time average of .340.

Misrepresentations of Pipp are common. Maybe you didn't know that he:

  • Held onto that first-base job in September of 1923, despite occasional starts at first by Gehrig as Yankee manager Miller Huggins rested regulars;

  • Was a durable player who sucked up an ankle injury and helped the Yanks finally beat the Giants in the 1923 World Series, securing his job for all of 1924 as Gehrig returned to the Eastern League for more seasoning;

  • Was the one who went out of his way to help a sometimes-demoralized Gehrig at that '24 Spring Training when practically no other Yankees would do the same;

  • Had a career year with 114 RBIs in 1924, but could do nothing about Babe Ruth missing the first two months of '25 or a struggling team needing a drastic shakeup.

    Walter Clement Pipp was born in Chicago, and maybe on this July 29 someone will celebrate the 90th anniversary of his Major League debut. OK, probably not. But he did play 10 full seasons for the Yankees and 15 Major League seasons in all, finishing just shy of 2,000 hits and 1,000 RBIs, with three trips to the Fall Classic -- not exactly someone who was cheated out of a career.

    Gehrig, who didn't have that many more at-bats than Pipp (8,001 to 6,914), certainly would be giving his predecessor more credit than history has given him. Consider that 1924 Spring Training. Rookies like Gehrig were often crowded out of Yankee batting practice by spiteful veterans, and Gehrig recalled times when his favorite bat was sawed in four parts, "the kind of meanness that was hard to understand." Ray Robinson's 1990 book, "Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig In His Time", paints the ironic picture of Pipp as a compassionate man who rescued Gehrig when he needed help most.

    "Certainly Pipp did not believe his usefulness to the Yankees had come to an end," Robinson wrote. "But he began to appreciate that Lou might have more of a future with New York than he did. . . . Pipp worked hard with Lou that spring." Pipp showed Gehrig some of the tricks at first base -- charging in for bunts, playing behind the runner, circling properly under pop flies, throwing to the right base, etc.

    Gehrig learned and always remained grateful for Pipp's help, even after that fateful June 2 day in 1925. Maybe you didn't know this, either. Pipp was beaned in batting practice that day, hit on the temple and carted away to the hospital for two weeks. According to Robinson, Huggins approached Gehrig in the clubhouse and told him: "You're my first baseman today. Today -- and from now on."

    Pipp was shipped to Cincinnati after the 1925 season, and he spent three years there before his career was over. Well after the fateful lineup move and the start of The Streak, Gehrig and Pipp talked about how it has happened. Frank Graham recounts Gehrig's version of that day's lineup change in the 1942 book, "Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero":

    "All I knew was that Hug told me I was going to play and I got my mitt and went out there and played. But a couple of years later, Wally told me just what was said between him and Hug. He said that an old injury around the right eye bothered him every once in a while and sometimes the pain would be so great he hardly could see out of the eye, and this day it was giving him the devil and he said to Hug:

    " 'Hug, I got a terrible headache. I can hardly see.'

    "And Hug said: 'Well, why don't you take the day off? Take a couple of aspirins and lie down, and I'll let Gehrig play today.' "

    Gehrig, according to Graham, had a good laugh after Pipp's subsequent comment to the player who took his job.

    "Take a couple of aspirins for my headache! Hug didn't know what a headache you were going to be to me. Why, you big bum, there isn't enough aspirin in the world to cure that headache."

    Wally Pipp never would have his number retired by the Yankees. He never would make the Hall of Fame. But he's more than a piece of trivia fun. On this 100th-birthday celebration of Lou Gehrig's life, it is worth hitting the books and taking a closer look at the player Gehrig replaced at first base. In their own curious ways, each man helped make the other famous.

    Mark Newman is a writer for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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