SABR

Eric Tipton

This article was written by Mike Huber.

As a baseball coach at Army, Eric Tipton amassed a record of 234-201-5 during the years 1958 through 1977. Tipton, known in the big leagues as Duke or Blue Devil, debuted on June 9, 1939, for the Philadelphia Athletics, as an outfielder. He played in 501 games for Philadelphia and the Cincinnati Reds from 1939 through 1945, and he finished his career with a .270 batting average. However, he is best known at West Point as the skipper of the Army Baseball and Sprint Football teams from the late 1950s to the late 1970s.

Eric Gordon Tipton was born on April 20, 1915, in Petersburg, Virginia. He was a very talented athlete throughout his childhood, emerging as a star quarterback at Petersburg High School. From high school, he went to Duke University, excelling in both football and baseball. In football, he wore Number 20. He was inducted into the Duke University Athletic Hall of Fame in 1976, only the second year of that Hall's existence. Tipton was a triple-threat. In addition to being the star punter, he was also a good passer and runner. As co-captain, he led the 1938 team to a commendable feat: they won all nine games without being scored upon, earning a national number-three ranking.

In 1938, Duke beat Pittsburgh to advance to the Rose Bowl, because "the Panthers had no rebuttal for Eric Tipton's accurate toe." The Pitt-Duke game was played before 52,000 fans in Durham, North Carolina. Many call it the greatest punting exhibition in football history. Coach Clark Shaughnessy listed it as one of the 12 greatest performances he had seen. On that blustery fall afternoon, Tipton kicked the starch out of a fine Pitt team. Shaughnessy described it vividly, writing: "Tipton was a one-man show. The game was played on ice and snow at Durham, North Carolina; before a record crowd, and I doubt that anybody ever kicked a ball more skillfully or consistently than the grim, square-jawed Tipton that afternoon. Seven of his punts left Pitt within its own 10-yard line, while another seven stopped dead or went out of bounds inside the 20. Final score: Duke 7, Pitt 0."

Their next game's crowd almost doubled in size. Ninety-one thousand fans packed the Rose Bowl at Pasadena, California, on January 2, 1939, to watch Southern Cal beat Duke on a forward pass in the last minute of the game, 7 to 3. In fact, a third-string quarterback named Doyle Nave threw the touchdown pass to "Antelope Al" Kreuger. After the touchdown was scored, the radio announcer remarked about the Duke team, "Well, at least, they're still untied."

During Tipton's varsity days at Duke, the Blue Devils amassed an incredible 25 victories against only four defeats, winning the Southern Conference championship in 1936 and 1938. The 1938 team will never be forgotten. Called the "Iron Dukes," that club galloped through a nine-game regular season schedule undefeated, untied and unscored-upon before losing the Rose Bowl.

In addition to his great football play, Eric Tipton distinguished himself on the baseball diamond as well. He is still credited with the longest home run ever hit at Duke. In 1938, he led the Carolina Independent League in hitting, while playing for the Kannapolis Towelers. [Note: Before the Sally League came to town, Kannapolis and nearby Concord were home to teams in the independent Carolina Baseball League, which ran from 1936 through 1938. The league was unaffiliated with minor-league baseball and supported by local manufacturing firms. Today, the Kannapolis Intimidators are the Class A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.] Tipton reported to the Athletics in Detroit on June 9, 1939. He had hit over .400 each of his three varsity years with the Blue Devils. He claimed his greatest thrill he ever got out of baseball came before he entered the pro ranks. "In my last at-bat for Duke, I hit a 400-foot homer with bases loaded to beat our traditional rival, the University of North Carolina." According to a newspaper report, Tipton revealed that his favorite ballplayer growing up was Hack Wilson.

His dual sport career has given him a few accolades. Eric Tipton is one of fifteen men who played major league baseball and was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Indiana (he was inducted in 1965, with six other college football standouts). Of those fifteen, Tipton is in the top half in seasons (7) and games played (501). Others on this distinguishable list include the great Jim Thorpe, Bo Jackson, and the legendary Cal Hubbard, who has been inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the Baseball Hall of Fame (as an umpire). Eric Tipton is in good company.

Baseball and football offers were abundant during his college career, where his .400 batting average and football punts with a net average of better than 40 yards turned the heads of pro organizations. But the Virginian Tipton decided on (1) Sheepskin, (2) Horsehide, and (3) Pigskin, in that order. Immediately after receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in June 1939, he took "Duke's post-graduate course in baseball" (in other words, like dozens of other Duke alumni, he joined Connie Mack's Philadelphia Athletics).

The date was August 12, 1939. Eric Tipton had just signed for the Philadelphia Athletics and was playing left field when he bobbled a grounder in the left-field corner. The common line of the critics was, "Tipton booted one in coffin-corner..." This became an oft-used phrase to describe errors in the outfield: "He did a Tipton." For some reason, this phrase lasted decades.

On September 27, 1939, the outfielder was optioned by the Philadelphia Athletics to the Toronto Leafs of the International League. He had asked A's long-time manager Connie Mack to send him to a minor league team where he could play every day, since he was used primarily as a pinch hitter the previous season. So, Tipton was released to Memphis by the A's and was then optioned to Toronto. This inaugurated a working agreement between Connie Mack and Tony Lazzeri.

The next year, on July 11, 1940, the following story was filed in sports papers across the country: "A little thing like a fence means no more than a line of guards, tackles, and ends to Eric Tipton, former Duke football star now playing in the outfield for Toronto. Chasing a foul drive in the first game with Rochester, July 4, Tipton crashed right through the wooden barrier, and was unhurt, although the fence was wrecked." Eric just barged back unhurt to finish the game. This led sports scribes to nickname him "Eric the Red"-not for the big league team with which he was soon to play, but after the Norse explorer, fearless and daring.

Like most young ballplayers, Tipton took an off-season job. In the fall of 1939, he signed as a frosh grid coach at William and Mary College and he soon rose to assistant coach. Still keeping his hands (and legs) in both baseball and football, he turned down a considerable contract from the Washington Redskins in 1942. He dedicated his playing to baseball. While playing for Kansas City in 1942, he became, by mid-summer, the only unanimous choice by American Association writers for the loop's All Star game. There's a story that accompanies his move to KC. On April 16, 1942, Eric Tipton, new outfielder for the Kansas City Blues baseball team, was not too happy about his welcome greeting into the new town. The next day's papers reported that on his first night in town, thieves stole three suits, a raincoat, and three jackets from his car.

His contract was purchased by Cincinnati from Kansas City on July 18, 1942, and he arrived to the Reds with Frankie Kelleher from the Yankee farm in Newark. He hit his first National League home run in the seventh inning of an 8-4 Brooklyn victory. The former Duke football start blasted Johnny Allen's first pitch into the left field stands, before a crowd of 12,556. He went one for two in the game, playing center field. At the end of that season, he was ordered to report for a physical examination by the Army on October 2, 1942.

A newspaper story from the May 19, 1943, wires tells that "Tipton was thrice turned down by the Navy, because of color blindness, and later flunked by Army draft doctors because a childhood case of measles left him with punctured eardrums. A typical '4F' in the Army but 1A in a major league manager's 'heart,' Tipton seems to have filled one of the game's greatest chasms in the last five years-Cincy's left field spot." In 1943, Tipton had his finest Major League season and was in the top ten in the National League in on-base percentage (.395, 5th), slugging percentage (.424, 10th), runs (82, 10th), and bases on balls (85, 5th). Further, his OPS for that year was .819 (which ranked 4th in the NL), and he only played in 140 games. Stan Musial led in most offensive categories that year, with Tipton not far behind. In 1943, Eric also hit .288 in 140 games and led his team in home runs.

The next season (1944), Tipton proved to be the best hitter for the Reds during their September drive, as he hit at a .354 clip, banging out 40 hits in 113 times at bat, and boosted his average from .286 to .299. He smacked seven safeties in nine swings in a twi-night double-header at Philadelphia, September 21, to raise his average ten points. However, his professional career was coming to a close. 1945 would be his last year in the big leagues and on April 2, 1946, just before his 31st birthday, Eric Tipton was released outright to St. Paul. In 1626 career at-bats in the Major Leagues, he struck out only 127 times (about 7.8%). He finished his career with a .270 batting average (the league average during his career was .265), a .360 on-base percentage, 22 home runs, 151 runs batted in, 20 steals (he was never caught stealing), and a .977 fielding percentage.

He had still been coaching football in the off-season, and in 1953 he was named to coach baseball at William and Mary. And then his future would change forever, as Tipton was named as the United States Military Academy's baseball coach on July 17, 1957. "Coach Tipton taught us a lot about the game of baseball," remembers retired General Fred Franks, West Point Class of 1959. "We used situational drills, which I also took with me to the Army. Tipton believed that we would get better by playing in games. Batting practice was okay, but inter-squad games were better. Go all out. What would happen in certain situations? He would ask the fielders, 'What are you gonna do with the baseball?' Coach Tipton's favorite saying was, 'Fundamentals Win!' I used this concept in the Army as a leader." General Franks also says that the Army players would ask Tipton about playing in the big leagues. "We would often ask him to take batting practice with us. He would hit frozen rope after frozen rope. Tipton also knew many of the managers and umpires in the big leagues." The great Yankee Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra recalled playing against an Army team coached by Eric Tipton. "He was a good man. Army always played us well under Tipton. Every time we came to play, we enjoyed the trip."
Army's baseball program was part of the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League. Both Army and Navy had joined the league in 1948, which consisted of the eight Ivy League baseball teams. Under Coach Tipton, Army garnered the league title three times: in 1960, 1965, and 1966. Tipton's baseball teams finished the season with victories in double-digits sixteen times in twenty years, including an 18-win campaign in 1960 that tied the Academy single-season record for victories.

In addition to coaching the Army Nine, Tipton was named as coach for West Point's 150-pound football squad, recently added to the Academy's intercollegiate program. He became an immediate success. As a matter of fact, under Tipton, in its first six seasons after joining the Eastern Lightweight Football League, Army won four ELFL titles with an amazing record of 32-3-1. In 1963, Army suffered its only losing season in sprint football, but Tipton rebounded and coached the team to win seventeen of its next eighteen games over the next three seasons, en-route to capturing two more ELFL championship titles. In twenty seasons at the helm of the spring team, Coach Tipton won 104 games, while only losing 14; there was one tie. His winning percentage of .878 has not been matched or surpassed, nor has his thirteen league titles, which account for almost half of Army's 30 titles since 1957.

On June 1, 1977, Eric Tipton, Army's baseball coach since 1957, retired after the home game versus Navy. He was 62 years old. In contrasting coaching at the Academy with coaching at a civilian college during an interview in 1959, Tipton felt the only advantage of a civilian school was that the players of a civilian school had more time for conferences and "chalk talks." However, he felt that West Point coaches had the advantage of no worries over discipline (generally speaking), a good schedule in each sport, and the best possible equipment. "You can't beat coaching at West Point."

Tipton had married the former Eva Gertrude Taylor, who hailed from Williamsburg, Virginia, on February 18, 1942. She went by her middle name and was affectionately known to the West Point community as Gert. Eric and Gert had four children: Carole, Nancy, Cristine, and Eric Jr. Upon retiring as coach at West Point, Tipton moved to the Williamsburg area.

Eric Gordon Tipton died of heart failure on August 29, 2001, in Newport News, Virginia, at the age of 86. His 234 victories as Army skipper are still a record.

Sources

Clippings from Eric Tipton subject file, A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center, National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. Copied February 1, 2006. There were several clippings from various newspapers. Although dates were recorded on the clippings, the names of the individual newspapers were not.

Total Baseball: The Ultimate Baseball Encyclopedia, edited by John Thorn, Phil Birnbaum, Bill Deane, Alan Schwarz, Donald Dewey, Nicholas Acocella, Peter Wayner, SportClassic Books, 2004.

Fred P. Hutchinson. Who's Who in the American Association of Professional Baseball Clubs, Syndicate Printing Company, 1951.

P. Velley, "Eric Tipton: All-American Coach," Pointer, Volume 37, Number 4, November 6, 1959, pages 9 and 30.

"Tipton Inducted Into Hall of Fame," Assembly, Winter 1965, Volume XXIII, No. 4.

Personal conversation with General (retired) Fred Franks, United States Military Academy Class of 1959, October 16, 2003.

Personal conversation with Colonel (retired) Morris Herbert, United States Military Academy Class of 1950, February 13, 2006.

Personal conversation with Yogi Berra, February 12, 2004.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/t/tiptoer01.shtml, accessed February 2, 2006.

http://www.collegefootball.org/famersearch.php?id=30024, accessed February 3, 2006.

http://www.ballparkwatch.com/visits/kannapolis.htm, accessed February 12, 2006.

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