If not great, close to it. He had to be pretty good to keep Gehrig in the minors and on the bench for two years. Pipp was a legitimate star, the first home run hitter for the team that would become synonymous with slugging: the Bronx Bombers.
Pipp was born into an Irish Catholic family in Chicago on Feb. 17, 1893. He grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., and attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., before abandoning his architectural studies in 1912 to sign a baseball contract with Kalamazoo of the Southern Michigan League. After Pipp hit .270 with Kalamazoo, the Detroit Tigers bought his contract.
With all of 68 games of Class D minor league ball behind him, Pipp decided to hold out. He demanded a share of his purchase price and threatened to return to school rather than report to the Tigers. Pipp may have been a pioneer for players' rights, but in 1913 he might as well have suggested that baseball be played indoors on a carpet. He was a prophet without honor. His challenge to the concept of players as chattel was so radical that it went almost entirely unnoticed. Later in his career, after the Yankees sold him to the Cincinnati Reds in 1926, Pipp would again demand a portion of the money the ball club had made by selling him. Again, he wouldn't receive a cent.
The feudal barons of baseball were unmoved by Pipp's challenge, and the young slugger soon ended his holdout. On June 29, 1913, he appeared in his first major league game and went 0 for 3 against the St. Louis Browns. After he played in 12 games, the Tigers demoted him to Class AA Providence. Pipp committed seven errors in only 14 games there and was sent down even further, to Class B Scranton. The following year, though, he blossomed for Class AA Rochester, hitting .314 and leading the International League in home runs (15), total bases (290) and slugging percentage (.526).
In the off-season, the Yankees purchased Pipp and made him their regular first baseman. Except for an injury here and there, he held the job from Opening Day, 1915, until that fateful day in June 1925.
Toronto's Cecil Fielder was filling in for first baseman Willie Upshaw, who has a sore right knee. But, despite hitting a three-run homer, Fielder wasn't thinking about anything permanent. "This ain't no Wally Pipp story, "he said.
—The Associated Press, Sept. 25, 1986
Like much of Pipp's career, the circumstances that made him a Yankee were curious. Just after the purchase, Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Captain Tillinghast L'Hommedieu Huston bought the Yankees for $460,000. Before the partners agreed to purchase the franchise, the other owners in the league had promised to restock the floundering New York club to help establish a strong American League presence in the nation's largest city.
Of course, when it came time to deliver, most of the owners felt it was even more important to have a strong presence in their own cities. Only Frank Navin, the owner of the Detroit Tigers, made good on his word. He sold the promising rookie, Pipp, and another player to the Yankees for the waiver price of $7,500 each.
New York in those days belonged to the Giants. These were the Giants of Mathewson and manager John McGraw, the future Hall of Famers who had taken the team to five pennants in the previous 11 years. The Giants were loved by all and had set a major league attendance record in 1908 that would stand for 12 years.
The Yankees' situation wasn't so rosy. When Pipp joined them, they had never won a pennant and didn't even have their own home park. They used the Polo Grounds when the Giants were on the road. In the previous eight years the Yanks had had just one winning record.