Wally Pipp has been dead for 22 years, and he last played first base for the New York Yankees more than 60 summers ago, yet ballplayers who don't know Christy Mathewson from the Christy Minstrels still tape his name over lockers and holler it in dugouts. And even though he twice led the American League in home runs, played on three Yankee pennant winners and roomed with Babe Ruth, he owes his enduring fame to a game he didn't play.
"It's a running story," says Los Angeles Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia. "If a guy sits on the bench one day and the guy taking his place has a great game, the guy on the bench becomes Mike Pipp or Joe Pipp or whoever Pipp for the whole day."
"It seems to happen every time a regular gets taken out," says San Francisco Giants pitcher Mike Krukow. "If the new guy gets a knock [hit] in his first AB, right there everybody in the dugout starts calling the guy on the bench 'Wally Pipp.' "
The Wally Pipp story—actually there are several stories—has become baseball legend. In the most popular version, one supported in later accounts by Pipp himself (although he wasn't always consistent on the subject, either), Pipp arrived at Yankee Stadium one day in 1925 with a terrific headache. He asked the Yankee trainer for a couple of aspirin. Manager Miller Huggins noted the scene and said, "Wally, take the day off. We'll try that kid Gehrig at first today and get you back in there tomorrow."
But for Pipp, there was no tomorrow. He did not get back in there the next day. Or the day after that. As he once put it, "I took the two most expensive aspirin in history." That kid Gehrig not only played well, but he played every day, in sickness and in health, for nearly 14 years. He played 2,130 straight major league games, an unassailable record of endurance that, surprisingly, did not actually begin with Pipp's removal at all, but with a pinch-hitting appearance by Gehrig the day before. Finally, Gehrig was benched by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a crippling disease that took his life and later came to bear his name.
It was Pipp's misfortune to be replaced by the greatest first baseman of all time. Gehrig led New York to seven world championships and eight pennants. He was the first major leaguer to have his number retired, the first player to have a monument erected in his honor at Yankee Stadium. He was, in short, The Pride of the Yankees—the name of the movie on Gehrig's life. Gary Cooper, of course, played Gehrig.
Who remembers who played Wally Pipp?
[Tony] Armas crashed into the wall while chasing down a Doug Deduces double in Game 5. [Dave] Henderson came into the game and by its end he was being measured for a monument in Kenmore Square.... Is it Wally Pipp time?
—Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26, 1986
Bob Brenly and Bob Melvin share the catching chores for the Giants. Brenly caught Krukow on Opening Day this April, and Melvin caught Mike LaCoss the following night. "Melvin comes off the bench and hits two home runs," Krukow recalls, "and we're Wally Pipping Brenly's ass big-time."
Brenly at least made it into the season before being Pipped. Teammate Chris Brown, the All-Star third baseman, was Pipped in spring training. After off-season surgery on his left shoulder, Brown sat out most of the exhibition season waiting for the shoulder to heal.