He died 44 years ago and even though he wasn’t a Hall of Famer his name will always be linked to one of the greatest players of all time.
Yankees first baseman Wally Pipp, then 32, had a nagging headache on June 2, 1925, and manager Miller Huggins suggested Pipp take the afternoon off and watch the game from the bench.
Lou Gehrig, 17 days shy of his 22nd birthday, took Pipp’s place and would not come out of the lineup until 14 years later.
Back in 1921, when Pipp was the Yankees’ regular first baseman, his uncle was a well-known name in Detroit journalism. Edwin G. Pipp, a former editor of the Detroit News, became one of the founders and editors of Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent. When the paper adopted an anti-Semitic stance, Pipp quit in protest and started his own publication, Pipp’s Weekly.
In a May 1921 issue, Pipp claimed Ford had arranged for eleven men to go to Europe to search for materials that would prove various accusations against the Jews were true. Part of Pipp’s editorial read:
The Ford paper started out a year ago to prove that there was an international conspiracy among the Jews to bring on war to their profit.
I personally have heard Mr. Ford say he could prove it.
He and his men have had a whole year in which to prove it, and have failed miserably.
They have looked into the character and personal acts of hundreds of American Jews and have found nothing to prove their charge.
They have had detectives, experts hired away from the government, go over the country in search of anything that would give a semblance of truth to their anti-Semitic campaign, and could prove nothing.
Pipp continued to expose Ford’s anti-Jewish attitudes while his nephew continued his career as the Yankees’ regular first baseman.
With Gehrig entrenched at first base, the Yankees sold Pipp in 1926 to the National League’s Cincinnati Reds where he played until his big league career ended in 1928 with a .281 lifetime average. As Gehrig was adding more games to his consecutive game streak, Pipp played one more season in the high minors (Newark Bears, batting .312) and entered the stock market at the worst possible time.
Pipp, who wrote a book detailing his stock market views titled Buying Cheap and Selling Dear, tried several ways to make money in those tough economic times – including writing for a Detroit radio personality.
As Pipp tried to make a living in several different fields, Gehrig appeared in every Yankees game through the 1938 season. Gehrig batted .295 with 29 home runs in 1938, his lowest average since 1925 and his lowest home run total in ten years.
To stay close to the game, Pipp went to several Tigers games, often chatting with first baseman Hank Greenberg, who hit 58 home runs in 1938. Jewish fans followed Greenberg with a sense of pride and events in Europe with a sense of agony. Six weeks after Greenberg hit his final home run of the season, Nazi mobs rampaged through Germany and Austria, attacking Jews and Jewish institutions. The violence came to be known as Kristallnacht.
As the situation in Europe worsened, so did Gehrig’s play in 1939. Teammates, management, the press and fans were shocked during spring training as the 35-year-old first baseman played like a man of 55. Gehrig saw limited action as the season started, but enough to keep his consecutive game streak going. Manager Joe McCarthy wasn’t going to end the streak. He was waiting for Gehrig himself to do it.
As Gehrig struggled, many Jews were frantically trying to get visas to leave Germany. Those who could leave were allowed to take just ten Reichsmarks – worth about four American dollars. They were forced to surrender property, savings and valuable possessions.
Gehrig took possession of first base on opening day but batted only 28 times in the first month of that 1939 season. He managed only four singles for a .143 batting average and also looked bad in the field.
After talking the situation over with his wife, Eleanor, Gehrig traveled with the team by train from New York to Detroit on the Yankees’ first western swing of the year. Only the Gehrigs knew Lou would not make an appearance in the game scheduled for May 2 and thereby end his streak of 2,130 consecutive games played – a streak nearly 14 years in the making.
Gehrig saw manager McCarthy in the lobby of Detroit’s Book Cadillac Hotel and the pair continued their conversation as McCarthy went up to his room. Gehrig was invited in and it was there that he said, “I’m benching myself, Joe, for the good of the team. I just can’t seem to get going, and nobody has to tell me how bad I’ve been.”
As game time approached, an announcement was made over the public address system that Gehrig would not be playing that day. The Detroit crowd applauded the Yankee legend as he made his way to home plate to present the lineup card to the umpires, the pre-game ceremony usually reserved for managers.
Despite missing their young star Joe DiMaggio, who was out with an injury and on his way to a league-leading .381 average, the Yankees mauled the Tigers 22-2. Rookie Fred Hutchinson gave up eight runs while retiring only two Yankees.
(Hutchinson would go on to gain fame as a big-league skipper with three teams in the 1950s and ’60s, managing the Cincinnati Reds until a few months before his death from cancer in 1964. A world-famous cancer research hospital in his hometown of Seattle bears his name.)
The game was secondary that day; the story was the end of Lou Gehrig’s streak. Besides talking to Gehrig, the press sought out a fan in the stands as the game unfolded. His name was Wally Pipp – the only person to have worn a Yankees uniform the day Gehrig’s streak started who also was on hand when it ended.
After Gehrig was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that would come to bear his name, the Yankees designated July 4, 1939, as Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day. Some 61,808 paying fans turned out for the doubleheader and the ceremonies between games. Former teammates, including Wally Pipp, heard Gehrig make his famous “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech.
Baseball history lives on. We just marked the 70th anniversary of Gehrig’s farewell speech – many of the lines just as familiar to Americans as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His Baseball Insider column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org