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George Pipgras: Two Half-Careers

By Gabriel Schechter , February 16, 2017
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George Pipgras was in the rotation for the legendary 1927 New York Yankees and went undefeated in three World Series starts. In part 4 of his series, Gabriel Schechter recounts Pipgras's playing career as well as his Major League umpiring career, which lasted from 1938 to 1945, including a number of World Series games.

Original artwork by Joey Enos.

“I am as proud of my record as an umpire,” George Pipgras told historian Larry Gerlach, “as my achievements as a player. . . . I am very proud to have been an umpire.” That’s a forthright and remarkable declaration from a man who played on the legendary 1927 New York Yankees and went undefeated in three World Series starts.

Born in Iowa 11 days before the end of the 1800s, George William Pipgras was one of six children, three of whom pitched professionally. Younger brothers Fred and Ed had lengthy minor league careers; Fred won 25 games in the minors one year, and Ed appeared in five games with the 1932 Brooklyn Dodgers. George was just 17 when he enlisted in the Army, spending 18 months with the 60th Engineers in combat in Europe. By 1933, he was the last World War I veteran still playing in the Majors.

A 6-foot, 2-inch, 185-pound right-hander, Pipgras could always throw hard but battled wildness for a long time. He squandered one early opportunity by walking 15 batters in just five innings. In 1922, after posting a 19–9 record in the minors, he was traded by the Red Sox to the Yankees that winter. He spent the next two seasons languishing on the bench, pitching a combined 48 2/3 innings, walking 43 batters, and winning one game.

Yankees Manager Miller Huggins was skeptical, but Bob Shawkey mentored Pipgras and wouldn’t let Huggins give up on him. In 1925, Pipgras was sent back to the minors for serious seasoning. Starting and relieving at Atlanta of the Southern Association, he logged 279 innings in 52 games, winning 19. The next year, he moved up to St. Paul of the American Association and became even more of a workhorse. In 312 innings, he walked a manageable 113 batters, won 22 games, and got a ticket back to New York.

Used sparingly early in 1927, Pipgras didn’t record his first win until June 29. He became the Yankees’ fifth starter, behind Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Urban Shocker, and Dutch Ruether. In 21 starts, he went 10–3, including a three-hit shutout against the Tigers for his final win. Shawkey helped him overcome his mental block against throwing strikes when he was hit hard, and Huggins’ suggestion that he pivot more on his delivery improved his control.

Nobody expected him to surge past the big four starters, but circumstance worked in his favor. Pennock, scheduled to start Game 2, was pitching batting practice before Game 1 when a line drive nailed him in the leg. “Late in the first game,” Pipgras recalled, “Miller Huggins asked me if I could pitch tomorrow. I told him, ‘Sure,’ so he said, ‘Okay, get a good night’s sleep.’”

Pipgras spent the night worrying about the Pittsburgh lineup he’d be facing at Forbes Field and was still nervous when leadoff batter Lloyd Waner tripled and scored. But by the time the Pirates scored again, it was the eighth inning and the Yankees led, 6–1. “I was real fast that day,” Pipgras said. “I don’t think I threw but about three or four curveballs the whole game.” More importantly, he walked only one batter, completing a seven-hit, 6–2 victory that put the Yankees halfway to the sweep they polished off back at Yankee Stadium.

With the 1927 New York Yankees, considered by many to be the best team of all time, Pipgras posted a 10–3 record and earned his first World Series win.

The 1928 season was a banner year for George Pipgras from start to finish. He led the American League with 38 starts and 300 2/3 innings, and his 24–13 record tied Lefty Grove for the most wins. Herb Pennock had helped him perfect a curveball to complement his speed, and he posted a career-best 3.38 ERA. He also saved his best pitching for when the Yankees needed it the most.

The Yankees enjoyed smooth sailing through the first half of 1928, building on the momentum of their World Series sweep. With Pipgras and his 14–2 record leading the way, the Yankees expanded their league lead to 13½ games. But the bubble burst late in the summer, and the Philadelphia Athletics mounted a serious challenge. When the A’s traveled to Yankee Stadium on September 9, they led the Yankees by a half-game. The teams began a four-game series with a doubleheader that day before a rabid crowd of more than 85,000.

Pipgras, now 22–11, faced Jack Quinn (1–5) in the opener. “I guess that game was the big thrill of my career,” Pipgras told Fred Lieb in 1940, “even greater than 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.” He met the challenge with his fourth shutout of 1928, a slick nine-hitter with seven strikeouts and just two walks. Quinn matched him until the sixth inning, but the Yankees won, 5–0.

The Yankees took the next two games from the A’s, won 14 of their final 20 games, and faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. This time, it was no surprise when Pipgras started Game 2 after Waite Hoyt won the opener at Yankee Stadium. Pipgras faced Grover Alexander, the hero of the Cardinals’ 1926 Series victory over the Yankees. Alexander got thumped for eight early runs, and Pipgras coasted to a four-hit, 9–3 win. He didn’t get another chance in 1928 as the Yankees went to St. Louis and polished off their second straight sweep.

By 1929, Pipgras was the ace of the staff, leading the Yankees with 33 starts and 18 wins. He pitched his greatest game at Yankee Stadium on May 18, nearly no-hitting the Red Sox. The only blemish was a controversial play in the second inning. Doug Taitt lined a ball that Pipgras got his glove on, recovered, and threw to first, apparently ahead of the runner. Umpire Harry Geisel called Taitt safe, stood his ground against loud protests, and it held up as the only hit Pipgras allowed.

Though Pipgras won 56 games from 1929 to 1932, it took until 1932 to return to the World Series. This time he got the start in Game 3 at Wrigley Field, the game made famous by Babe Ruth’s “Called Shot” (Pipgras insisted that Ruth did call it). The beneficiary of two home runs each by Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Pipgras pitched into the ninth inning before Pennock came in to record the final three outs.

Of his three World Series game wins—each in a series sweep by the Yankees—Pipgras said “That’s a record that will stand for a while.”

For the third time in three chances, Pipgras had won a World Series start convincingly. And for the third time, he had contributed to a Yankees sweep. Nobody else has matched that feat.

Four starts into 1933, including a three-hitter at Boston, Pipgras was sold to the Red Sox, one of new owner Tom Yawkey’s first purchases. Three months later, pitching at Detroit, he felt his elbow pop. Despite operations for bone chips, he couldn’t shed the numbness in three fingers when he threw a ball. Except for a handful of appearances, his pitching career was over. He finished with a 102–73 record in 276 games, plus 3–0 in the World Series.

Tom Yawkey, who had befriended Pipgras, suggested umpiring as a way to remain in the game he loved. Pipgras started over in the Class A minor leagues as an umpire. The pay was paltry and conditions hazardous. One night, fans put a pile of newspapers under his car and set it on fire. But he persevered, and in August 1938, he made it back to the American League at age 38. He seemed primed for a long second career, but it was over eight years later, truncated by unexpected health issues as his playing career had been.

“My experience as a player helped me most in dealing with the crowds and the big games,” Pipgras told Gerlach. “I was used to the major league crowds and the big stadiums, so I never had any worries about going behind the plate. I didn’t get butterflies umpiring the World Series because I played in four Series.”

Mentored by veteran umps Tommy Connolly and Bill Summers, Pipgras got his first plum assignment in the 1940 All-Star Game at Sportsman’s Park. He worked second base for the first half of the game and first base for the rest, as five National League hurlers combined to stifle the American League, 4–0.

Sportsman’s Park was the site of his other prime assignment, the 1944 World Series between the Cardinals and Browns. He worked the plate in Game 4 and got a close view of Stan Musial’s two-run home run in the top of the first inning, which was all the support Harry Brecheen needed to polish off a complete-game, 5–1 victory.

“Yes, I like umpiring. 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.”

~George Pipgras

“I liked the plate better than the bases,” Pipgras said. “Most guys didn’t, but I would rather work the plate anytime. I don’t know if being a pitcher had anything to do with it. It just seemed easier than the bases. I really liked those 1–0 or 2–1 games. They are the easiest to work because you had two good pitchers out there.”

Another Pipgras declaration seems to contradict his preference for low-scoring games and acknowledges that calling balls and strikes is arbitrary and subjective. He said, “I was a hitter’s umpire. Tommy Connolly used to say that Bill Dinneen and I were the only two former pitchers who were hitter’s umpires. Eddie Rommel was not a hitter’s umpire, but I was. I had a small strike zone. I made them come in pretty good with that ball. I was death on the high strike and I made them come up to the knees on the low pitch.”

After the 1945 season, Pipgras suffered from kidney stones that required surgery. Doctors warned him that it might end his career. He didn’t believe them, but they were right. Pipgras worked 11 games in April 1946 but couldn’t continue. His umpiring career consisted of 1,147 regular-season games.

“When I left umpiring, I missed the people, the crowds,” Pipgras told Gerlach. “I loved it on the ball field, the excitement. I did not miss the lonesomeness. I’ll tell you. That was bad. Sometimes you’d go to dinner or a show with your partners, but sometimes you’d work with guys who would go their own way. That’s when the nights were long. It was lonesome being away from home all the time. . . . I went to a lot of movies to kill time. I was voted the champion lobby sitter. I just sat in the lobby and watched the people go by.”

Pipgras spent the next three years as a supervisor of umpires for the minor leagues, focusing on the leagues around his adopted home state of Florida. The most prominent umpire Pipgras recommended to the Major Leagues was another former pitcher, Lon Warneke.

For another decade, he served as a scout for the Red Sox, what he called “a terrible job.” He traveled and traveled and rarely saw a player worth seeing. “I only signed one player, a left-handed pitcher who could throw the ball pretty good. He was seventeen years old and kind of temperamental. He quit. I quit, too, and took up playing golf.”

That took Pipgras back to Florida, where he was an avid hunter and fisherman, for the last quarter-century of his life. He died in 1986 at age 86.

 

 

 

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