George Pipgras

This article was written by John Liepa

In the 146 years of professional baseball, no team has come close to attaining the legendary status of the 1927 New York Yankees. They were, and are, the symbol of greatness, both individually and as a team. As the prominent baseball historian Donald Honig said, “Never before or since has there been in the game such a coalescence of talent, such a fusion of lusty hitting and sharp pitching, and all of it torrentially consistent, dismembering the League with a meat cleaver, losing just 44 of their 154 games, setting records … with a near-homicidal attack….” 1 Whether one is a Yankee lover or hater, the names are forever part of baseball lore — Ruth, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Meusel, Combs, Pennock, Hoyt, Pipgras … et al.

“When we got to the ball park,” George Pipgras said, “we knew we were going to win. That’s all there was to it. We weren’t cocky. I wouldn’t call it confidence either. We just knew. Like when you go to sleep you know the sun is going to come up in the morning.”2

Although not as well-known as the superstar batters, it was the pitching staff who provided the balance and strength, leading the league in earned-run average (3.20); and having four of the league’s seven pitchers with E.R.A.s of 3.00 or less.3 On that staff was an Iowa-born, Minnesota-raised farm boy, whose only prior major-league experience was a two-season “stop in for a cup of coffee” resulting in a 1-4 record with a nearly 6.00 E.R.A. average. So how was it that George Pipgras came to be a key link in the Yankees’ rotation from 1927-1933; an undefeated World Series pitcher; and whom Hall-of-Famer “Goose” Goslin in 1928 called “the best pitcher in the American League.”4

George Pipgras was born into a baseball-loving family on December 20, 1899 in Ida Grove, Iowa. His father William was a farmer who played baseball before gloves were used, umpired local games occasionally, and raised five sons — all over six feet tall — four pitchers and a catcher. Pipgras' early life was filled with farm chores beginning at 4:30 a.m. — milking cows, feeding sheep, currying horses — followed by work in his father’s butcher shop in Anton, Iowa. In between were the demands of schoolwork, including forming the battery for his Schleswig, Iowa high school baseball team with his brother Herman. His family moved to a farm in Slayton, Minnesota, where “Pip” continued to pitch for the high school team.

America entered World War I in 1917 and Pipgras, lying about his age, enlisted in Sioux City, Iowa with the U.S. Army 60th Engineers serving for a year and a half in France, England, and Germany with the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). About the lying — Pipgras said because of his 6’ 1-1/2” height, “there were no reflections cast on his veracity, when he told the recruiting officer he was of military age and ready to fight.”5 Unfortunately, after 18 months in Europe, he became a victim of the influenza epidemic of 1918. Returning to Minnesota in 1919, he went back to work on the farm, and to playing baseball for the local town team. It was when pitching a game for Woodstock, Minnesota with eight other farm boys as teammates that he attracted the attention of Frank Flynn, a railroad conductor and volunteer scout for a number of minor-league clubs.6 Woodstock was a nondescript team without one complete uniform. Pipgras was pitching against a salaried and uniformed team from Jasper, Minnesota, and lost in the ninth inning, 2-1, but acquitted himself so brilliantly that the opposing manager offered him $350 a month to join the Jasper team. He was about to accept when his buddies asked him to stick with them until an even better offer came from Joe Farley of a Fulda, Minnesota team. Joe had seen the Jasper game and he offered Pipgras $400 and board and lodging to pitch for Fulda. Pipgras accepted and was pitching for Fulda when Ralph Works, a former American League pitcher, scouting for the White Sox, dropped in and tried to sign him for Chicago. Pipgras wanted to accept, but he had already accepted terms with Jimmy Hamilton, manager of the Joplin, Missouri team. He played for Joplin in 1921, but was so wild, they almost immediately farmed him out to Saginaw, Michigan where in a game against the London, Ontario Club, he walked 15 men in five innings, lasted one game, and was given a ticket back to Minnesota.

Down on his luck, nearly broke, and stranded back in Worthington, Minnesota, “Pip” spent 35 cents on a breakfast and with 15 cents in his pocket, wondered if his dream of the big leagues was over. His choices were limited. On the one hand, the farm and the corn fields beckoned. On the other, Minnesota’s harsh hobo laws threatened, because Pipgras was convinced hed end up a hobo if he couldn’t get a job pitching somewhere. Although at a crossroads, he was intelligent enough, had a strong work ethic and grit, to go with his strong arm, to know that with steady work and self-improvement, he could get to the Majors. He had made up his mind he was not going back to the cornfields - he had seen Paris with the A.E.F. Playing a hunch, he placed a five-cent phone call to a baseball savvy friend to see if any midwestern teams were looking for a pitcher.

“Sure,” said the friend. “Hop over to Madison, South, Dakota, and tell the manager I sent you. The South Dakota League season is opening today and he needs a pitcher.” “If I’m going over there, I guess I’ll have to hop,” replied Pipgras, “because I haven’t got enough money to ride.”7 The fare from Worthington to Sioux City where Madison was to open was 60 cents, so his friend called the manager to wire him the 60 cents — to be paid back out of his first pay check. Pipgras went to Worthington’s telegraph office, got the money order, grabbed a train for Sioux City and got there just in time to pitch the opening game of the season. He stayed, pitching in 24 games with Madison and finishing with a 12-6 record while his team finished in the second division.

The Boston Red Sox secured Pipgras in the Spring of 1922 for $1,000 before the season started and sent him to Charleston in the South Atlantic League. He pitched 42 games for Charleston, winning 19 and losing 9 and was a key factor in Charleston’s winning the league title. His record led to his recall by Boston; interest by Bob Connery, the New York Yankees’ head scout; and on January 3, 1923, he was traded with outfielder Harvey Hendrick to the Yankees for the 1923-24 seasons. As the Yanks won their third pennant and their first World Series in a row in 1923, Pipgras warmed the bench, while finishing with an anemic 1-3 record. That was followed by an even more disappointing 1924 record of 0-1.

While he had been in Madison, he attended a social in the Normal School where cakes were served, along with complimentary speeches about the ball players. One of the servers was a teacher in the school, Eva Peterson, who caught Pipgras' eye and he asked to see her again. They were married in June of 1921, and by the time he had joined the Yankees, he was the father of a baby girl, Le Morn. Despite his disappointing two years with the Yankees, manager Miller Huggins was good in nurturing young players, and saw something in Pipgras’ raw talent and dedication to his craft that others did not.

Pipgras was fast, but wild, so Huggins sent him down to work on his control. “Two years in the minor leagues will cure him,” Huggins said — and he was right.8 In 1925, he was farmed out to Nashville and Atlanta of the Southern League, where he had a 19-15 record. The next season, the Yankees sent Pipgras to St. Paul where he established a very respectable 23-18 record. In 1927, he was called back up to the Yankees and became a regular.

“In my control,” Pipgras replied when the question was put to him, “It isn’t so good now, but it used to be awful. It began to improve steadily last year because I pitched a lot of games in St. Paul, and it’s still getting better. I have found that the only way to acquire control is pitching in games. Pitching in batting practice never helped my control. If it had I’d have as good control now as Pennock, Shawkey, Hoyt, Shocker, and Ruether, because I sure did have enough of it. The difference between pitching in practice and games is this: In practice you’re just laying the ball over the plate so the fellows can hit it. In games you’re mostly working the corners of the plate and trying to make the hitters hit at bad balls ... when I first came up I didn’t have anything but a strong arm and a fast ball. I’ve learned a great deal since I’ve been with this club and I don’t know half of it. Herb Pennock taught me to throw a curve ball and Bob Shawkey has helped me more than I can tell you. One thing he taught me was how to bring my fast ball down. I used to come in high … and a high fast ball is a heap easier to hit than a low fast ball that hops in on a hitter. Now Bob is ... teaching me how to avoid getting off balance as I let the ball go. It’s because I don’t get my right leg in position quickly enough after I’ve let the ball go that I get hit around the legs and body so much with balls driven back at me. When I learn to keep my balance, I’ll field all those balls cleanly."9

After coaching from Shawkey and Pennock, and Miller Huggins’ patience and faith in Pipgras, he was asked to pitch a game in July 1927 for a sick “Dutch” Ruether against the Detroit Tigers. He responded by pitching a three-hitter. His time had arrived. Now a complete pitcher, he had a fastball with good control, and a curve, courtesy of future Hall-of-Famer Herb Pennock. Now he was the fifth starter for the 1927 club, and finished the season with a 10-3 record. In control all the way, he beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-2, with an impressive “seven hitter” in the second game of the World Series — which the Yankees swept in four games. Manager Miller Huggins was the first to congratulate him, “You pitched a wonderful game, and I’m proud of you.”10

He went on to a notable career and was one of the Yankees’ key pitchers from 1928-30. In 1928, he was the Yankees’ ace, with a 24-13 record and after that he never had a losing season until his last, when he was 0-1 with Boston. His 93-64 record in nine years with the Yankees established him as a key link in those years of Yankee domination. Mike Gazella, a Yankee substitute infielder said he heard Babe Ruth say that Pipgras “with his fast ball he couldn’t be beaten.”11 Since 1928, no right-handed Yankee pitcher has since won more games than Pipgras’ 24. After a relatively dismal 7-6, 1931 season, Pipgras roared back with a 16-9 record and he was a main factor in the Yankees’ winning that year's World Series.

Pipgras' 3-0 record in the World Series started with an unexpected substitution for Urban Shocker in Game Two of the 1927 Series, and he beat the Pirates 6-2, pitching a seven-hitter and throwing only three curveballs to a Pirates team expecting a lot more. In the 1928 Series, he confounded the Cardinals with curveballs in beating them and future Hall-of-Famer Grover Cleveland Alexander 9-3, on an impressive four-hitter. Finally, he beat the Cubs, 7-5, in the most memorable game of the 1932 Series --memorable because he had a 16-9 season in his final season as a Yankee, followed by pitching in the World Series game of Babe Ruth’s famous “called shot.” Pipgras says he clearly saw it. George said, “Oh, just as it was yesterday. He (the Babe) took two strikes, then he pointed to the right field and that’s where he hit the ball.”12

As impressive as his World Series victories were, the game which stood out most strongly in his later recollections was a 5-0 shutout over the Athletics in September 1928:

“I guess that game was the big thrill of my career, even greater than the one of our World’s Series games because if I had not won it, there might not have been a World’s Series for the Yankees that year,” Pipgras related. “We had a lead of 13 1/2 games in early July, 1928, but by the time we met the Athletics in mid-September, we were trailing by half a spin, and I couldn’t steal or beg a winning game. I had pitched 45 consecutive innings without a run being scored for me.

“Anyway we started the series with a double-header at the Stadium before a crowd that was estimated at 85,000. I don’t think the Stadium ever was so packed. Huggins pitched me in the first game and Jack Quinn was my opponent. It was close up to the eighth, when Bob Meusel broke it up with a home run. I won 5 to 0. After that game, we all felt it was the turning point. We took the series, three games out of four, and after that never were headed.”13

After the 1932 season, the Yankees traded Pipgras and infielder Billy Werber to the Red Sox. Although he recorded a respectable 11-10 record in 1933, he broke his arm in a freak accident while pitching against Detroit, accelerating a premature end to his baseball career. Pipgras finished with an anemic 0-0 record in two games in 1934 followed by a 0-1 record in five games in 1935. Forced to retire from baseball, he wanted to stay involved with the game he loved. His former boss, Tom Yawkey of Boston, invited him to join him, Eddie Collins, and a few others for a weekend of duck hunting at South Island Plantation near Georgetown, South Carolina. Yawkey suggested umpiring and arranged for Pipgras to umpire in the old NY-PA League (now known as the Eastern League), a job he held from 1936-38.

American League President Will Harridge, who had helped Pipgras get his initial umpiring job in the NY-PA League, had kept tabs on him and was so satisfied with his progress that he appointed him to the American League regular staff in 1939. Including training games, he umpired in 192 contests in 1939. He umpired until 1945, including officiating All-Star games and World Series and earning a reputation as one of the game’s best umpires. “Yes, I like umpiring,” reflected Pipgras. “It is pleasant work. Perhaps you don’t get the thrill out of umpiring a game in which there have been no kicks as you do over pitching a low-hit shut-out, but you’re still in baseball, and in quite an important department of the game.”14 He had the distinction of both having played and umpiring in World Series games. He finished his baseball career supervising umpires from 1946-49 and working as a scout for the Boston Red Sox.

Pipgras had been attracted to Florida in 1939 because of his hunting and fishing interests; and his dislike of rigorous Minnesota winters, led to his purchase of a home in St. Petersburg. He had come to love fishing trips on the Gulf of Mexico and duck hunting in Georgia, so he permanently relocated to Inverness, Florida in 1944. After retirement, his health declined limiting his sports to television watching of football and baseball games, especially the All-Star and World Series games. Diagnosed with cancer in 1983, and then a collapsed lung, he was hospitalized on October 4, 1986, and died October 19 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Gainesville. His second wife, Mattie Mae Cooper, had taken care of him under a doctor’s supervision the last few years. His remains are located in Memorial Park Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

“I loved the game,” said the Danish Viking. “I’d rather throw that ball than eat.”15 He is a member of the New York Yankees Alumni Association and the Iowa Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Sources

For this biography, the author used a number of sources, especially those found in the subject's file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library.

Gallagher, Mark and LeConte, Walter. The Yankees Encyclopedia, 4th Edition. (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, Inc., 2000), 177-178.

Gerlach, Larry R. “George Pipgras,” The Men in Blue: Conversations with Umpires (New York: Viking Press, 1980), 75-92. Reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press in 1994.

Honig, Donald. Baseball American: The Heroes of the Game and the Times of Their Glory (New York: Galahad Books, 1993), 162, 190.

Honig, Donald, “George Pipgras,” Baseball. When the Grass Was Real (New York: Coward, McCann, Geoghegan, 1975), 126-133.

Trachtenberg, Leo, “The Hard-Throwing Viking.” Yankees Magazine XXII (August 2001): 70-89.

baseball-almanac.com

baseballindex.org

baseball-reference.com

retrosheet.org

 

Notes

1 Donald Honig, Baseball American: The Heroes of the Game and the Times of Their Glory (New York: Galahad Books, 1993), 161.

2 Honig, Baseball American, 162.

3 Honig, Baseball American, 162.

4 "Pipgras Best Pitcher in American-Goslin,” newspaper source unknown, from the George Pipgras player file at the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

5 "Pipgras Now: Red Sox Box Ace, Farmer Boy, Only 17 When He Entered the Army,” unidentified clipping in Pipgras's Hall of Fame player file.

6 "George Pipgras Makes Progress,” unidentified clipping in Pipgras's Hall of Fame player file.

7 "Pipgras Cost Minor Club 60 Cents,” unidentified clipping in Pipgras's Hall of Fame player file.

8 Leo Trachtenberg, “The Hard Throwing Viking,” Yankees Magazine XXII (August 2001): 22.

9 "George Pipgras Makes Progress.”

10 Trachtenberg, “The Hard Throwing Viking,” 22.

11 Sam Murphy (“The Old Scout”), “Sees Pipgras Is Star in 1928: Gazelle Tells How He Regained Confidence When He Beat Pirates,” New York Sun (1928), otherwise unidentified clipping in Pipgras's Hall of Fame player file.

12 Trachtenberg, “The Hard Throwing Viking,” 23.

13 “Friends He Made as Hurler in Majors Aided Pipgras to Return to American League on Strike-Calling Staff,” Frederick G. Lieb, otherwise unidentified clipping in Pipgras's Hall of Fame player file.

14 “Friends He Made as Hurler in Majors Aided Pipgras to Return to American League …”

15 Trachtenberg, “Hard Throwing Viking,” 25.