Wally Pipp may be the only baseball player famous for sitting the bench. As the legend goes, Pipp was the New York Yankees’ longtime first baseman when, on June 2, 1925, he called in sick with a headache. Yanks manager Miller Huggins rested Pipp, recommended he pop an aspirin, and penciled in fresh talent. That “fresh talent” was a little known slugger named Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse tore it up and didn’t leave the lineup for another 14 years. Meanwhile, Pipp lost his job and his pinstripes.
Now Pipp’s name is a running joke. He’s a darling cautionary tale: If you’re hurt and don’t suck it up, someone else will do your job—and they may do it better.
It’s a great story. Too bad it isn’t all true.
Pipp the Myth
It’s true that Gehrig took Pipp’s job. It’s not true, though, that the veteran lost it because of an achy skull. (“Please don’t believe that aspirin story,” Pipp once said. “It just isn’t true.”) If anything, Pipp lost his job because the Yankees were playing terrible. The Bombers were 15-26 and had lost five straight. By June 2, Huggins had seen enough. He benched six starters—including a slumping Pipp—and gave the team’s youngsters a shot.
The Yankees won. Gehrig went 3 for 5.
It was the beginning of Pipp’s end. Gehrig soared, and Pipp spent June as a benchwarmer. In July, Pipp was knocked into the hospital after getting beaned in the dome with a batting practice fastball. The accident nearly killed him, and it secured Gehrig’s spot as the new starter. At season’s end, the front office traded Pipp to the Reds.
So Pipp’s parable isn’t exactly what your Little League coach led you to believe. It’s not a tale of “suck-it-up-and-do-your-job.” It’s a less romantic mix of your dad’s brazen advice of “don’t suck out there, kid” and your mom’s over-protective advice of “don’t forget your helmet!”
Pipp the Man
Still, most fans know Wally Pipp the parable, not Wally Pipp the person. Don’t let the Gehrig story fool you—Pipp was no slouch. He spent three solid seasons with Cincinnati and closed his career with the International League’s Newark Bears, hauling in more dough than he ever made in the majors. Proving he had a knack for bad timing, Pipp then retired for good—in October 1929.
Pipp played the stock market for a few years and toyed with a writing career, moonlighting as Babe Ruth’s ghostwriter and penning a finance book called Buying Cheap and Selling Dear. According to Sports Illustrated, “He also broadcasted a pregame baseball show for the Detroit Tigers, wrote radio scripts, and dabbled in publishing.”
When World War II rolled around, Pipp worked in a Michigan plant that made B-24 bombers. Afterward, he landed a sales gig with the Rockford Screw Products Corporation. Pipp went from playing first for the Yankees to peddling screws and bolts—and he loved it. Armed with the gift of gab and endless baseball stories, Pipp spent the rest of his life selling wares to Detroit’s auto hotshots. He passed away in 1965.
The only thing bigger than the 7-foot-1-inch, 325-pound Shaquille O'Neal during his playing career was his outlandish personality. After a remarkable 19-year tenure on the hardwood, these days, Shaq holds court on TNT's Inside the NBA, bringing his trademark humor to the floor and verbally dunking on his preferred sparring partner, Charles Barkley. But well before he hung up his Shaqnosis sneakers in 2011 and stepped behind the commentating desk, the larger-than-life basketball legend had created a sizable name for himself as well. Here are a few things you may not know about this American icon.
1. Shaq was estranged from his biological father until he was in his forties.
Shaquille Rashaun O'Neal was born on March 6, 1972. (He weighed 7 pounds 13 ounces—about average for a baby.) His mother, Lucille O'Neal, had just graduated high school, and his biological father, Joe Toney, was an all-state high school guard who lost his basketball scholarship to Seton Hall because of drug addiction. While Shaq was still an infant, Toney was sentenced to federal prison, and when he was released, Lucille got Joe to legally relinquish his parental rights to Shaq's stepfather, an Army drill sergeant named Phillip Harrison, who raised him from the time he was 2.
Shaq's resulting childhood was a fulfilling one, though he would often return to Vonda's Kitchen, a diner in Newark, New Jersey located right below Toney's apartment, and wonder if he was going to run into his biological father. Once he started to make a name for himself, Toney tried reaching out—one time in Orlando, Shaq left a basketball arena through a back entrance to avoid having to have any interaction with Toney, who had shown up and wanted to meet. Shaq even publicly outlined his feelings about their intentional estrangement in a 1994 rap song, "Biological Didn't Bother." But, with his Basketball Hall of Fame induction on the horizon in the summer of 2016, Shaq finally agreed to meet Joe, then nearing 70, at that restaurant. "I don't hate you," Shaq told him. "I had a good life. I had Phil."
2. Shaq's stepfather once lost some teeth to a Boston Celtics legend.
Harrison, who was also known as Sarge, was a gruff parent who often relied on physical discipline for the young Shaq, claiming he'd rather punish his son himself than see it done on the streets of Newark, beyond his purview. Though tough, Harrison was a pillar in Shaq's life, and Shaq frequently praised Phil for keeping him out of trouble and giving him direction.
Luckily for little Shaquille, Harrison was a ball player himself (he'd actually played against Toney in high school), and he coached Shaq's youth basketball teams throughout his childhood. Harrison would also sometimes brag about the time Dave Cowens, the future Celtics Hall of Fame center, knocked out some of his teeth during a particularly aggressive game of pickup. In August 1969, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, Cowens, who was then a star at Florida State University, happened to be in the Newark area because he decided spend a few days with a fellow FSU teammate who was from nearby. That game of pickup only happened because Cowens decided to bail on his original plan: attending Woodstock.
3. Shaq was already 6 feet 4 inches tall at age 10.
No one was more responsible for kids quitting youth basketball in the greater Newark area than the Big Shaqtus in the mid-'80s. In fact, Shaq remembers a rival's father once storming the court and removing his son from the competition mid-game, shouting, "He's not 10. Bulls***. He's 10, he gonna be the best big man in the world." The man, while enraged, was not at all wrong. By 13, Shaq had grown to 6 feet 6 inches and wore size 17 shoes.
4. Shaq's jersey number was inspired by an NBA legend, with a twist.
Shaquille O'Neal playing for the Orlando Magic in 1995.
TONY RANZE/AFP/Getty Images
Harrison was responsible for Shaq embracing his size and using it to score under the basket, rather than deferring and shying away from his clear physical advantages. By Shaq's teenage years, Harrison had been restationed and moved the family to San Antonio. A now poised and confident player, Shaq led his high school team to a 68-1 record during his junior and senior seasons. The school didn't possess a No. 33 jersey, so Shaq's attempts to honor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the trailblazing NBA center, were thwarted. Hence, his famous No. 32 jersey was born. When he played at LSU, he was able to nab 33, but in his rookie NBA season in Orlando, veteran Terry Catledge refused to give up his 33 jersey, so it was back to 32 for life for Shaq for the remainder of his time with the Magic.
5. Shaq led his college's conference in basically everything his sophomore year.
The 1990-91 season was Shaq's coming out party. During his second collegiate season at LSU, the Diesel was a man among boys, becoming the first player to ever lead the SEC in scoring (27.6 points per game), rebounds (14.7), field goal percentage (62.8 percent), and blocked shots (140 on the year). And he took his opponents by surprise. Those who expected a round mound of rebound (i.e. another Charles Barkley) were taken aback by his sheer power. As rival Darryl "Ice" Jones of Southeastern Louisiana so eloquently put it, "I thought Shaq would be fat. But he's got no fat, none whatsoever. He's just seven feet of muscle, a muscle monster."
6. Shaq was famously left off the original Dream Team.
Shaquille O'Neal is shown on a TV monitor as the U.S. Olympic basketball team is introduced during a press conference in 1996.
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images
And yes, he was upset about it. While the powers that be attempted to choose the best NBA talent possible to represent Team USA and take on the world at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, they reserved one roster spot for a collegiate star. Shaq was a junior at LSU at the time and fully eligible, but the spot instead went with Christian Laettner, a Duke standout who was thought of as more polished. At the time, the international free throw lane was designed differently, and the committee filling out the roster believed that would cause traditional post-up centers (like Shaq) to lose their effectiveness.
Of course, the young Shaq didn't take it well. "I was pissed off," he recalled 20 years later. "I was jealous. But then I had to come to the realization that I was a more explosive, more powerful player, but Christian Laettner was a little bit more fundamentally sound than I was." Luckily, the snub only motivated him: Team USA took home the gold in '92, and they did again in Atlanta during the '96 games. Shaq was on that team.
7. Shaq's LSU teams weren't successful in March Madness.
Somehow, despite featuring the monstrous 7-foot-1-inch, 294-pound Shaq for three full SEC seasons (the Southeastern Conference, the division LSU competes in), his LSU Tigers only went 2-3 in three seasons in the Big Dance, never advancing past the second round. Shaq ended his 1991-92 SEC Player of the Year season with a remarkable 36 points and 12 rebounds (while stunningly going 12-for-12 from the line—a feat he'd never accomplish once he went pro) in an 89-79 loss to Indiana. But these early exits certainly didn't deter NBA scouts; he was still the first overall draft pick in 1992, heading to the Orlando Magic.
8. A rookie Shaq was sickened by the smell of alcohol.
Shaq was immediately the toast of the NBA. Among his many accolades, he was named Rookie of the Year for the '92-'93 season and he nabbed a starting spot in the All-Star Game his first four seasons. But though young Shaq was the new face of the game and the life of the party, at 21, he couldn't stomach alcohol. "Can't even tolerate the smell of table wine," his teammate Dennis Scott used to say. Turns out, there was a good reason for that.
"My father caught me sipping a beer with my cousins when I was, like, 13," O'Neal told Vanity Fair years later. "He made me drink a 12-pack right then. Not only did I get drunk, I hated beer, and I never had the urge to drink again."
Despite his distaste for the stuff, Shaq eventually marketed his own line of vodka, the excellently named Luv Shaq.
9. As Lakers teammates, Shaq and Kobe didn't initially click on court.
Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal during a game in 2001.
Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images
The most prominent portion of Shaq's career was spent in Hollywood, and his eight seasons with the Lakers brought three NBA Championships to the city. But while Shaq's L.A. years are known for being unfathomably dominant, many wonder how fruitful they could've been if he and teammate Kobe Bryant hadn't been so incompatible off the court.
Bizarrely, the two couldn't sync their play properly from the outset based on talent alone. Long before their famous feud and struggle for credit and control of the locker room began, two of their first three campaigns together ended in embarrassing playoff sweeps. It wasn't until head coach Phil Jackson arrived prior to the 1999-2000 season that anything seemed to click. Once Jackson installed his famous triangle offense (emphasizing perfect spacing and high-IQ passing decisions), everything changed; an unstoppable three-peat followed, highlighted by Shaq's averages in the 2000 Finals (45 mins, 38 points, 17 rebounds per game).
10. He destroyed so many backboards the NBA panicked and changed the rule book.
Shaq soundly defeated many inferior opponents over the course of his career, and a few of those opponents were made of solid metal. In one infamous game against the Phoenix Suns in 1993, a particularly thunderous dunk caused the entire basket and its stanchions to collapse; the hoop's whole apparatus had to be wheeled into the tunnel for some mid-game welding. The big man made such a habit of terrorizing the equipment that the NBA freaked out and came out hard in favor of reinforcing their centerpieces. Said competition committee chairman Rod Thorn, "Whether it was Shaquille O'Neal or someone else, with the size of these guys, it was just a matter of time. He just happened to be a little bigger and stronger than most."
The league eventually turned breaking the basket ring or backboard into a technical foul.
11. The New York Times hated his acting performances.
In a cinematic version of love the player, hate the game, The Times's review of 1997's Steel praised Shaq's "endearing smile" and "genial personality," but felt compelled to admit he had an "almost total lack of charisma and acting skills." The year before, they weren't quite as kind to Kazaam (not to be confused with Sinbad's non-existent Shazaam). "Mr. O'Neal can't hold a flickering lamp to Robin Williams," the paper of record claimed (which, to be fair, who can?), and bemoaned that he didn't "slam-dunk the script into the nearest wastebasket." Shaq hasn't done many acting roles since then, but he's done plenty of cameos in everything from The Simpsons and The Real Househusbands of Hollywood to The Lego Movie and What Women Want.
12. Shaq loves nicknames.
Shaquille O'Neal onstage during his Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony in 2016.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Shaq has propensity for clever nicknaming, and it crosses genres: He's had nicknames and alternate personas spin off into a video game (Shaq Fu) and a rap album (his early nickname "The Diesel" became Shaq Diesel, a 1993 rap album featuring Phife Dawg). Other legendary monikers include "The Big Aristotle" (self-christened in 2000) and "M.D.E." (Most Dominant Ever, which he crafted after his second Lakers title). He called his pool at his former Miami home Shaqapulco.
But the Big Fella (that's another one) isn't just giving out lasting pseudonyms for himself—he's the one who coined "The Big Fundamental" for San Antonio Spurs legend and constant Western Conference rival Tim Duncan early in his career, which has stood the test of time.
13. Shaq once blamed his real-life divorce on his on-court ex, Kobe Bryant.
And we all learned about it in a 2008 freestyle rap. While defending himself against a 2004 rape charge, Bryant alleged that Shaq had paid up to $1 million to various women in order to keep them quiet about his own affairs. "This whole situation is ridiculous," Shaq told ESPN at the time.
A few years later, however, when Shaq and his wife of nearly five years, Shaunie O'Neal (née Nelson), separated in September 2007, he was singing a different tune. Quoth Big Shaqtus in verse: "I'm a horse, Kobe ratted me out, that's why I'm gettin' divorced."
Shaq and Shaunie, who had four kids together during their decade-long relationship, officially ended things in November 2009. And though there was no word on seven-figure payouts, Shaunie alluded to the breakup of her marriage during an episode of VH1's Basketball Wives, which she created and is the executive producer on. "Our Blackberries got switched," she said of a time she went to an event at their kids' school, "and I was like, 'Damn, my phone is going off a lot.' Just girl, after girl, after girl—like, 'Baby, last night what you did.'"
14. The "Hack-a-Shaq" technique was actually invented to stop Dennis Rodman.
Blame former Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson for this one. In a December 1997 road game against the Chicago Bulls, Nelson asked rookie Bubba Wells to foul Rodman as many times as possible in order to send the poor-shooting Worm to the line and steal a few possessions. Nelson's ingenious (and incredibly annoying) strategy worked. He went on to victimize Shaq, who was a brutally low 52.7 percent career free throw shooter. The strategy spread through the league like a disease, but in 2016 a rule was approved to curb intentional fouling. The term Hack-a-Shaq, though? Brilliant.
15. Shaq has a major stake in eSports.
Shaquille O'Neal watches the Brooklyn Nets play the Sacramento Kings in 2014.
Call him The Big Controller. Shaq was early to eSports as an investor; in 2016, he, along with Yankees vet Alex Rodriguez and former Phillie Jimmy Rollins, got involved in an ownership group that has a stake in NRG Gaming, a prominent organization of eSports athletes. Now, Shaq is the general manager of Kings Guard, the Sacramento Kings' entrant into the NBA's official 2K league, where competitors face off in NBA 2K, the league's preeminent basketball video game.
And in case you need a soundtrack to your gaming, Shaq has reentered that space as well—he recently teamed with DJ NGHTMRE and Lil Jon to produce the EDM track "BANG," his first new single in 20 years.
Following a big win in the Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals, or any other major sporting event, fans want to get their hands on championship merchandise as quickly as possible. To meet this demand and cash in on the wallet-loosening "We’re #1" euphoria, manufacturers and retailers produce and stock two sets of T-shirts, hats, and other merchandise that declare each team the champ.
On Super Bowl Sunday, that means apparel for the winner—either the New England Patriots or the Los Angeles Rams—will quickly fill clothing racks and gets tossed to players on the field once the game concludes. But what happens to the losing team's clothing? It's destined for charity.
Good360, a charitable organization based in Alexandria, Virginia, handles excess consumer merchandise and distributes it to those in need overseas. The losing team's apparel—usually shirts, hats, and sweatshirts—will be held in inventory locations across the U.S. Following the game, Good360 will be informed of exactly how much product is available and will then determine where the goods can best be of service.
Good360 chief marketing officer Shari Rudolph tells Mental Floss there's no exact count just yet. But in the past, the merchandise has been plentiful. Based on strong sales after the Chicago Bears’s 2007 NFC Championship win, for example, Sports Authority printed more than 15,000 shirts proclaiming a Bears Super Bowl victory well before the game even started. And then the Colts beat the Bears, 29-17.
Good360 took over the NFL's excess goods distribution in 2015. For almost two decades prior, an international humanitarian aid group called World Vision collected the unwanted items for MLB and NFL runners-up at its distribution center in Pittsburgh, then shipped them overseas to people living in disaster areas and impoverished nations. After losing Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, Arizona Cardinals gear was sent to children and families in El Salvador. In 2010, after the New Orleans Saints defeated Indianapolis, the Colts gear printed up for Super Bowl XLIV was sent to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
In 2011, after Pittsburgh lost to the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers Super Bowl apparel went to Zambia, Armenia, Nicaragua, and Romania.
Fans of the Super Bowl team that comes up short can take heart: At least the spoils of losing will go to a worthy cause.
An earlier version of this story appeared in 2009. Additional reporting by Jake Rossen.
All images courtesy of World Vision, unless otherwise noted.