The real Wally Pipp Story…

Today’s the 90th anniversary of Lou Gehrig’s long, long run as the Yankees’ starting first baseman.

As you know, Gehrig took over from Wally Pipp. You probably also know the story.

Except it’s probably not the real story.

The story you probably know is that Pipp had a headache, not even a bad headache, and asked manager Miller Huggins to remove him from that day’s lineup. Just today, I saw this (unsourced, undated) quote from Pipp: "I took the two most expensive Aspirin in history."

There’s another version, which largely absolves Pipp from any charges of malingering. In Ray Robinson’s biography Iron Horse: Lou Gehrig in His Time, we find that Pipp got beaned in batting practice on the 2nd of June. "I couldn’t duck," Pipp supposedly said in 1953, 28 years after the fact. "The ball hit me on the temple. Down I went. I was too far gone to bother reaching for any aspirin tablets, as the popular story goes."

According to Robinson, "There was no way Pipp could have reached for anything. He was groggy and semi-conscious and had to be carted away to the hospital for two weeks."

Uh, yeah. No. We know that didn’t happen because we’ve got Pipp’s game log for 1925, and so we can see that he played on the 3rd, the 4th, the 10th, and in five other games that month. Pipp did get beaned in late July or early August, in batting practice, and did miss more than a month. But by then Gehrig already had a headlock on first base.

So did Pipp have a headache at all on the 2nd of June? According to his SABR bio, he did. In the movie Pride of the Yankees, this exchange comes during a game against the White Sox in Chicago, while Pipp’s batting…

Pipp: Better take me out, Miller. I’ve been seeing double since I was beaned the other day.

Huggins: Tough break, Wally. Have Doc look at you tomorrow. Hey Gehrig!

Gehrig: Who, me?

Huggins: Yes, you.

There’s a great deal of fiction here. Gehrig had pinch-hit the day before, beginning his streak (not that anybody knew that). When Gehrig did replace Pipp, it wasn’t in the middle of a game. It wasn’t in Chicago, either; it was in New York, against the Senators. I’ve no idea why they changed that part. But at least we can trace back the headache/vision story back to 1942, when Pride of the Yankees came out.

Speaking of 1942, though, I’ve got Frank Graham’s biography, Lou Gehrig: A Quiet Hero. According to Graham, Gehrig was hanging around in the locker room, the morning of the 2nd, when Huggins came up and said he was playing first base that afternoon. "Pipp hadn’t been going too well," Graham writes, "and Huggins had thought that a few days rest would do him good. That, at least, was what he told Pipp. It may have been that he had reached the conclusion that the time had come for him to replace Wally with the strong-armed, belting kid from Columbia. Whatever Huggins had said — whatever he had thought — the time had come."

The authors of the just-published, assiduously researched The Colonel and Hug: The Partnership That Transformed the Yankees, reach a similar conclusion. On the 1st of June, the Yankees lost their fifth straight game and fell to 15-26, 13½ games behind the first-place Athletics.

Naturally enough, Huggins made some changes. The next day, Huggins benched three of his regulars: Pipp, along with catcher Wally Schang and second baseman Aaron Ward. From the aforementioned book: "It has often been said that Pipp lost his job to Gehrig because he had a headache on June 2. He may have had a headache that day, but Huggins simply decided to shake things up and bench Pipp and his .244 batting average."

Wally Pipp just wasn’t nearly as good as Lou Gehrig, which wouldn’t have been difficult for a brilliant manager like Huggins to realize. Headache or no headache. 

The term "Pipped" is perfectly fine, a lovely part of the game’s lingo. But it really shouldn’t be used as a pejorative, because Pipp did nothing wrong.