History is filled with stories of near misses. Dewey (almost) over Truman. Pickett nearly breaking through at Gettysburg. Several horses nearly winning the Triple Crown. Maxwell Smart always missing it “by that much.” (Kids, Google “Get Smart” to know what I am referring to).
One near miss in sports history involved an alumnus of CUA and sports Hall of Famer. Wally Pipp was a standout first baseman for the Cardinals baseball team between 1911 and 1913. Although records during this time are incomplete, Pipp appears to have been a key member of the team during his time. Stats from a handful of games in the 1912-13 University Symposium list Pipp 14 hits with at least three home runs. In another symposium from 1911-12, in a game against Holy Cross, Pipp was said to have “played a splendid game in the field and led his team at bat, getting two scorching singles.”
Pipp would play for a minor league team in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1912 before returning to finish his degree in architecture at CUA in 1913. After graduating, he went on to play 12 games for the Detroit Tigers before finishing the 1913 season and spending all of 1914 in the minors. His fortunes would change in 1915 when he was purchased by the New York Yankees, where he would start at first base for the next 10 and a half years, racking up a .280 batting average with 80 homers and over 830 RBIs. He also helped lead the Yankees to three American League pennants from 1921-23, and the 1923 World Series title, alongside some guy named Ruth. See Pipp’s page on Baseball-Reference.com for more of his stats.
So, how was Pipp a near miss? Well, on June 3, 1925, Yankees manager Miller Huggins replaced Pipp at first base with a 22-year-old third-year player that had only been in 13 games the previous two seasons. The day before, this youngster had pinch hit in a game, which no one knew at the time would start a consecutive games played streak that would not be touched until 1995 by Cal Ripkin Jr. The youngster was Lou Gehrig. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this story is the myth that surrounded Pipp’s removal and Gehrig’s ascendancy. According to legend, Pipp was complaining of severe headaches that day, apparently caused by taking a ball to the head recently. Huggins gave him the day off and placed Gehrig at first, and Pipp never started again. What most likely was the case, however, was that Pipp’s numbers during the season had seen a drop from previous seasons, and with the Yankees well behind in the playoff race, Huggins made several changes to his lineup to increase productivity. Gehrig for Pipp seems to have been one such move. Pipp was acquired by the Cincinnati Reds after the 1925 season, where he played his last three seasons (1926-28). You can check out Snopes for more on the “headache” myth.
Despite the respectable numbers he put up in his career, Pipp has not been elected to the baseball hall of fame, and is unfortunately better remembered as the guy Lou Gehrig replaced. If his numbers had not dipped as they did in 1925, would the story have changed? Would Gehrig have gotten the chance to have the hall of fame career that he did? And what would have become of Pipp? Would Cooperstown had called if had put together a few more strong statistical years? These can’t be answered, but it is beyond argument that Pipp deserves more recognition for what he accomplished on the field. At the very least, his alma mater certainly didn’t forget.
Steve Wejroch, Assistant Archivist of the Archdiocese of Detroit, tells us that Wally Pipp’s brother William (1889-1967) was a Catholic priest, ordained to the priesthood for the Paulist Fathers in 1914 and served as a parish priest for the then-Diocese of Detroit, 1925-1965. His assignments included:
- Patrick Parish in Wyandotte, Michigan (1925-1930)
- Elizabeth Parish in Reese, Michigan (1932)
- Michael parish in Monroe, Michigan (1934)
- Sacred Heart Parish in Roseville, Michigan (1936-1939)
- Mary Parish in Royal Oak, Michigan (1942-1945)
- Anne Parish in Warren, Michigan (1949-1959)
- Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish in Birmingham, Michigan (1960-1965).
In a letter written in 1932 by Rev. John Doyle, Chancellor of the Diocese of Detroit, to Bishop Urban J. Vehr, the Bishop of Denver that mentions Rev. Pipp’s connection to “the famous Wallie Pipp.”