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.