Shortstop Johnny Lipon played in American League games from 1942 through 1953; the one game he played in the National League in 1954 was his last in the big leagues. He started his career with a game that earned him a headline in the Boston Globe: “Lipon, Tiger Rookie, Called Star After Only One Game.”1
It was quite a game, his big-league debut on Sunday afternoon, August 16, 1942. He was 3-for-4 (all singles) at the plate, with one run batted in. In the field, he handled six chances, “two of them little short of sensational.”2 He was 19 years old. “It was not just what he did,” wrote H. G. Salsinger of the Detroit News. “It was the way he did it that stamped him as a natural ball player.”3
Lipon was a product of the Detroit sandlots, and a graduate of Chadsey High School. He was born to John Liponga and Agnes (Dombrowski) Liponga on November 10, 1922, in Martins Ferry, Ohio. Both parents were natives of Poland who had arrived in the United States in 1919. John was the sixth of their eight children.
John Liponga, originally a coal miner, had moved the family to Detroit by 1930 and was employed as a laborer in one of the city’s automobile factories. Ten years later he was listed as an assembler in an auto factory.
Johnny was signed by celebrated scout Aloysius "Wish" Egan of the Detroit Tigers as an amateur free agent in 1941. The 18-year-old was placed with the Muskegon Reds in the Class-C Michigan State League and had an excellent season, batting .359 in 119 games, with 35 homers.
He began the 1942 season in Class A1, in the Texas League playing for the Beaumont Exporters. In 114 games, he hit .301 with three home runs (the outfield fences typically being further from the plate in the Texas League). He was brought up to the big leagues on August 10 to help take the place of Bill Hitchcock, who had entered military service, and he enjoyed that August 16, 1942 debut resulting in his being called a "star after only one game."
Of course, it's not possible to keep up a .750 pace, but Lipon did drive in runs in both his second and third games as well. It wasn't until his fourth game that he had a hitless (0-for-3) game and neither scored a run nor drove one in. In fact, he was 0-for-7 in the August 23 doubleheader, and his batting average plunged to .316. It fell further, bobbing up and down around the .200 mark, ending at .191 with nine RBIs and five runs scored at season's end. He had played in 34 games with 140 plate appearances. He committed 11 errors in 199 chances at shortstop for a .945 fielding percentage. The Del Baker-managed Tigers finished in fifth place.
Not long after the season ended – on December 22 – Lipon enlisted in the United States Navy as an apprentice seaman. He was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Station, to the Naval air technical training center in Memphis, and on to the Alameda Naval Air Station in California as an aviation machinist mate 3/c. By early 1945, he was stationed in the Marianas, and served as a flight engineer on a transport plane.4 One article ran with a photograph showing him as a gunner on Naval aircraft.5 He also played baseball on John Rigney's team there, though Rigney said Lipon "misses a lot of games while flying casualties from the Okinawa region."6
He served more than three years, until several months after World War II ended, and was discharged on February 11, 1946. Five days later, he signed again with the Tigers. He remained a lifetime member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Lipon was used only sparingly in 1946. Over the first five months, he had only appeared in six games, with only two plate appearances. Three times he'd been used as a pinch-runner. In September he got into eight more games, wrapping up with big-league stats showing an even .300 average in 20 at-bats. He really needed minor-league playing time, but postwar regulations prevented that, consigning him to the Tiger bench largely inactive. "As a returned serviceman, he could not be optioned to lower company until all other clubs would waive him out of the majors," explained the Dallas Morning News.7 Both the White Sox and Senators claimed him, and the Tigers – wanting to keep him – withdrew the request for waivers.
Lipon spent all of 1947 in the Double-A Texas League, playing in 150 games with the Dallas Rebels. He hit for a .295 batting average with 11 homers.
Manager Steve O'Neill was ready to move Eddie Lake from short to third, and thought Lipon could take over the position, and when Lake was a holdout, Lipon got plenty of opportunity to make the team in spring training. He stuck, and didn't return to the minor leagues until 1954. This was a team with a remarkable number of Detroit natives or those who, like Lipon, had been raised in the area. Lipon hit .290 in 121 games during 1948, and scored 65 runs, driving in 52. He was fairly steady in the field, with only 17 errors; three of them were bunched in one game and cost Detroit the August 7 game in 10 innings. He picked up a couple of votes in league MVP voting.
Red Rolfe took over the reins as manager in 1949. He'd seen Lipon come through in 1948 and called him "steady, if not spectacular."8 Though Lipon's average dropped to .251, he drove in seven more runs. He scored eight fewer. One of his hits – an eighth-inning single – spared the Tigers from being no-hit by Tommy Byrne on June 23 at Yankee Stadium. It was the second time that year he'd spoiled one for Byrne, and the only hit of the game. On May 8, Lipon had broken up a Byrne no-hitter in the seventh, and he had another hit later in the same game. On August 15, 1949, he married Bama Belle Jones of Waco.9
In the offseasons of 1949 and 1950, he joined with another man to open a tool and die shop in Detroit. "He learned the skill, but mostly did public relations work," wrote Owen Canfield in the Hartford Courant.10 Really, Lipon was a baseball lifer.
Lipon had his best year in 1950. Because of his .251 average and what many characterized as a "weak arm" at shortstop, Lipon was seen as perhaps "not up to pennant caliber."11 He only hit two home runs in 1950, but batting leadoff most of the season, he scored 104 runs. Only George Kell (114) scored more. He drove in 63, and batted .293.(F or what it's worth, he is accorded a 1.5 defensive WAR, ranking him third in the league.) The Tigers battled for the pennant and were tied for first as late in the season as September 21, finishing three games behind the Yankees. His contributions did not go unnoticed; even as early as June 8 the Dallas Morning News had run a photograph with a caption that read, in part, "Although given up by the experts as a bad risk, Detroiters say that Jonny Lipon is the real reason the Tigers are giving the Yankees and Red Sox a real battle in the American League pennant race."12 The Red Sox finished one game behind Detroit.
Lipon credited three men for his turnaround: "Rolfe gave me confidence. Jerry Priddy gave me good advice and [George] Kell gave me inspiration." Rolfe believed in him: "He never quit on me…everybody kept after him to replace me, but Red insisted I was a better player than I showed. Pretty soon he had me believing it myself. It wasn't long after that I began to hit."13 Priddy and Kell were such good fielders, he said, that he learned how to become a better one himself.
He enjoyed an excellent start to spring training in 1951, though slumping near the end. It took him a couple of weeks to get going in the regular season, but by May 6 he was up to .273 and he stayed more or less steady throughout the year, finishing at .265, with substantially lower totals in runs scored (56) and RBIs (38). His best day was September 18 in Philadelphia, a 5-for-5 day with two RBIs.
After a decade with Detroit, Lipon was one of the players packaged in a nine-player trade with the Boston Red Sox on June 3, 1952. His hitting had fallen off significantly; over the first 39 games with the Tigers, he was only batting .221 with 12 runs batted in. Even before the season began, there were questions regarding his job security at shortstop, it being said that he was "a good batter but is erratic in the field."14 He'd committed four errors and had a .978 fielding percentage by the time of the trade. One of the worst errors was on May 9 when he bobbled a ball in the 16th inning of the game against the White Sox and then saw three unearned runs score, costing the Tigers the game. On the same day, Johnny Pesky arguably cost the Red Sox a game against the Yankees with an errant throw. Both figured in the June trade. Lipon's best day of the season was on May 23, when he drove in five of his dozen runs, almost single-handedly winning the 9-2 game at Comiskey Park.
Lipon, of course, was only one of the players in the trade, with George Kell the primary target of the Red Sox. Joining Kell and Lipon on their way to Boston were Hoot Evers and Dizzy Trout. The Tigers received Walt Dropo, Fred Hatfield, Don Lenhardt, Johnny Pesky, and Bill Wight. Detroit News sports editor H. G. Salsinger said it was basically a two-for-two trade: Kell and Evers for Dropo and Lenhardt.15 Lipon was said to be "somewhat stunned and silent" after the trade.16 He only started four games in his first month with the Red Sox, Vern Stephens getting most of the work. But by season's end, he had appeared in 79 games for Boston despite only batting a career-low .205. He drove in 18 runs. Two of them won the July 20 game with a two-out bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 12th against the Indians. His .981 combined fielding percentage led all American League shortstops for the only time in his career. (The Fenway Park infield was known to be among the best-maintained in the league.) John Drohan of the Boston Traveler wrote that his "short-stopping held the Sox together" after he'd become a regular more or less after the All-Star Game.17 He later amplified: "Considered only one of the minor pawns in the package deal with the Detroit Tigers last June, Johnny Lipon proved one of the most important factors in keeping the Red Sox in contention the greater part of the season."18
Ed Rumill of the Monitor agreed, mentioning Lipon's contribution on offense. "Although not a .300 hitter or ever close to it, Lipon has come through with some of the most important clutch hits of the month, several times either tying the score or putting the Sox ahead with RBI's."19
Young Milt Bolling became Boston's shortstop in 1953, though a serious ankle injury cost him several weeks of playing time in the summer. Even before spring training, manager Lou Boudreau had concluded (based on his record) that Lipon wouldn't provide sufficient offense. He was hopeful that "bonus baby" Billy Consolo would fill the bill, but in any event, he said, "Johnny Lipon isn't going to get any better as a hitter."20 He did hit well in spring training, though, and made the team – though his first appearance came on May 27. He was later described as "a forgotten man on the roster."21 He appeared in 60 games in all, batting .214 with 13 RBIs. One of those RBIs came on a squeeze bunt in St. Louis on July 25, driving in the winning run of a 7-6 game with what became a single – his first base hit in 26 at-bats. He wasn't as steady in the field as he had been with a .951 fielding percentage. He'd cost the Sox a 3-1 lead by failing to cover the bag on a ninth-inning play on August 1; two runs scored and the game went into extra innings, Detroit winning in the 10th, 4-3.
On September 8 his contract was sold to the St. Louis Browns on waivers for the stipulated $10,000 price. The Browns were mired in last place. Lipon got into seven games. He hit .222 in those games (2-for-9, with one run batted in.)
Lipon wore a number of different uniforms in 1954. He was, first of all, an Oriole by virtue of the Browns having relocated to Baltimore. Then, on February 5, he was traded to the White Sox (with Johnny Groth, who they'd been trying to acquire for three years) for Neil Berry and Sam Mele.22 He went to spring training with the White Sox but just as the season was beginning, the Cincinnati Redlegs offered Grady Hatton and some cash (thought to be $20,000 to $40,000) for him, and the White Sox assented. And 11 days after that, the International League's Havana Sugar Kings bought his contract outright from Cincinnati.
He did get into one final major-league game – the only one he ever played for a National League team – with the Redlegs on April 25. The visiting Cubs were already leading Cincinnati, 7-2, when he pinch-hit for Joe Nuxhall to lead off the bottom of the seventh inning. He flied out to left field. On the 29th he was sold to Havana. Still only 31 years old, he naturally hoped to get back to the big leagues, but it was not to be. His final statistics showed him with a .259 batting average (.346 on-base percentage), with 350 runs scored and 266 runs batted in over the course of 758 major-league games.
In his career, he hit 10 home runs, and they all came in the years 1948 through 1950. After that, the only home run we found was in an exhibition game against the New York Giants, played on August 4, 1952, to raise money for a veterans’ fund. His homer won the game for the Red Sox, 1-0.
With the Sugar Kings, he hit .267 in 1954 and then .234 in 1955. Lipon rebounded – still in Triple-A ball – with a .310 season for the Columbus Jets in 1956. He hit .278 the following year with Columbus, and (in 78 games) hit .240 (with only 10 RBIs) in 78 games in 1958. At the end of September he was released outright.
In 1959 he became a manager in the minor leagues, skipper for the Class-D (Alabama-Florida League) Selma Cloverleafs. The team finished second in the standings, but won the playoffs.
In all, Lipon managed 30 years in the minors, and part of one in the major leagues, for Cleveland in 1971. He served at the helm for Selma, Lakeland, Mobile, Toronto, Charleston, Portland, Toledo, Salem, Shreveport, Columbus, Buffalo, Alexandria, Prince William, Nashua, Gastonia, Fayetteville, and then five final seasons back in Lakeland, of the Florida State League. He even worked some winters managing in Puerto Rican baseball.
Lipon had been a coach for the Cleveland Indians for four seasons, 1968 through 1971. He was elevated to the position of manager in 1971. The Tribe was in last place; manager Al Dark had a record of 42-61 and was relieved of his duties on July 31. Lipon was 18-41 in his time with the club. He said, "I have waited a long time for this opportunity and I most certainly welcome the challenge….There's no doubt in my mind that I'll be the manager of this club for several years to come."23 It didn't work out that way. His contract was only for the remainder of the season – truly an interim manager, and after the season, he was offered another position in the Indians organization. He asked for some time to think about it, and was snapped up two days later by the Tigers, resuming his career managing in the minors. He still had 21 more years of managing ahead of him.
There were good years and there were bad years. To the good, he had finished in second place with Selma in 1959, but his team won the playoffs. He was in first place with a record of 28-9 with Lakeland in 1960 when he was asked to move from Class D up to Class-A Mobile. In 1963 he managed Charleston (West Virginia) to the Eastern League pennant and was named Manager of the Year. In 1964 he was named Oregon's Man of the Year in Sports. The next year, 1965, he led the Portland Beavers to first place in the Pacific Coast League West. In 1967, after leading the Beavers to within one game of first place, having lost a single-game playoff to Spokane, he was named Manager of the Year in the PCL.
There were years he didn't do as well; in 1973 he resigned in late July because his Toledo Mud Hens were losing much too often.
By the time it was all over he had 2,398 wins to his credit against 2,231 losses – but the life of a minor-league manager is often not measured by wins and losses, but rather how well he and his teams serve the functions of player development for the parent club. From 1959 through 1973, including his partial season in the majors in 1971, he worked in the Cleveland system. From 1974 through 1985, he was in the Pittsburgh Pirates system, and from 1986 through 1992, he worked for the Tigers. At that point, he was 69 years old. He retired in 1995 and was honored with the "King of Baseball" award.
Lipon's hometown had been Houston for decades, and he died there on August 17, 1997. His wife had died of a massive stroke in September 1972. The couple had three children – daughters Deliss and Dianna and son Ted John.
In addition to the sources noted in this biography, the author also accessed Lipon's player file and player questionnaire from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, Retrosheet.org, Baseball-Reference.com, Rod Nelson of SABR's Scouts Committee, Bill Lee's Baseball Necrology website, and the SABR Minor Leagues Database, accessed online at Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Associated Press, "Lipon, Tiger Rookie, Called Star After Only One Game," Boston Globe, August 18, 1942: 8.
4 Watson Spoelstra, "Home-Grown Lipon to Fill Gap in Tiger Lair," The Sporting News, December 17, 1947: 19.
5 Lyall Smith, "Lipon Clicks on Rolfe's Confidence in Him," The Sporting News, June 21, 1950: 9.
6 Hugh Fullerton, Jr., Associated Press, "Sports Roundup," Daily Herald (Biloxi, Mississippi), May 8, 1945: 2.
7 "Bob Moyer and Johnny Lipon Optioned to Rebs by Detroit," Dallas Morning News, March 29, 1947: 11.
8 Associated Press, "Art Houtteman Out, Detroit Forgets About Flag Hopes," Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock), March 24, 1949: 22.
9 This is the date he reported on his Hall of Fame player questionnaire. A family tree posted on Ancestry.com gives the date of marriage as October 19, 1951.
10 Owen Canfield, "It Really Didn't Take Much To Get Lipon to Come Back," Hartford Courant, May 10, 1981: D9.
11 See, for instance, Associated Press, "As Prince Hal Goes, So May the Tigers," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, April 11, 1950: 35.
12 "Tiger Spark," Dallas Morning News, June 8, 1950: 20.
13 Associated Press, "Three Men Help Lipon To Become Star Shortstop," Hartford Courant, March 23, 1951: 18.
14 Joe Reichler, Associated Press, "Rolfe Turns to 3-Platoon Plan In Effort to Get Tigers to Hit," Washington (D.C.) Evening Star, April 4, 1952: 72.
15 H. G. Salsinger, "Tigers Believe Dropo, Lenhardt Will Hit Long Ball," Boston Globe, June 4, 1952: 21.
16 Ed Costello, "Pesky Takes Trade with Smile, Dropo Is Silent," Boston Herald, June 4, 1952: 1.
17 John Drohan, "No Lingering After Finale By Red Sox," Boston Traveler, September 19, 1952: 9.
18 John Drohan, "Little-Touted Lipon Lone Sox Atop Fielding Figures," Boston Traveler, December 18, 1952: 41.
19 Ed Rumill, "Red Sox Oppose Tigers in Fenway Park's Last Night Game of Season," Christian Science Monitor, August 26, 1952: 14.
20 John Gillooly, "Bonus Baby Billy Consolo May Be $60,000 Bargain," Boston American, February 28, 1953: 5.
21 John Gillooly, "Lipon Goes to Browns," Boston Daily Record," September 9, 1953: 3.
22 Irving Vaughan, "Sox Get Groth After Three Year Chase," Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1954: A1.
23 Russell Schneider, "Tribe Seeks Unity With Lipon as Dark Ages End," The Sporting News, August 14, 1971.