Alex Smith and the Legend of Wally Pipp

Recently, the biggest story in Bay Area sports has been the San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback controversy, as Colin Kaepernick, at least for now, seems to have replaced longtime starter Alex Smith. Although Kaepernick was originally placed in the position due to a concussion Smith suffered against the Rams, his outstanding performance has raised doubts as to whether Smith will get his job back once he has completely recovered. Alex Smith’s dilemma has evoked the inevitable comparison to the saga of Wally Pipp, who, according to legend, lost his job as the New York Yankees starting first-baseman in 1925 when he asked for a day off due to a headache. Those familiar with the story know what happened next. Pipp’s replacement, Lou Gehrig, proved to be Pipp’s superior, and began a streak of playing in 2130 straight games, while Pipp never started again for the Yankees.

So, how much of a parallel is there between Smith’s situation and Pipp’s? One big difference is that Smith was felled by a legitimate injury, while, according to the legend, Pipp’s removal from the Yankee lineup was voluntary, although not intended to be permanent. It was June 2, 1925 when Wally Pipp supposedly approached Yankee manager Miller Huggins, and, citing dizzy-spells, requested a day of rest. Huggins granted Pipp’s request, and gave Lou Gehrig his first start of the season at first-base. Gehrig collected three hits that day, and remained the Yankees’ first-baseman for the next 14 years. In losing his job, Wally Pipp became the poster boy for individuals outshone by their replacements, and the key character in what is now a cautionary tale describing what can happen to those placing themselves in that position. A Wally Pipp-like situation can happen anywhere: business, politics, entertainment and other sports besides baseball. But instead of asking if Alex Smith’s present plight matches that of Wally Pipp, the real question should be how much truth is there in the Pipp story? As with many sports legends, much of the Pipp tale is a myth.

In June of 1925, the New York Yankees were struggling through what would eventually be the teams’ only losing season between 1919 and 1964. Babe Ruth had been stricken ill during spring training, and his slow recovery seemed to affect the entire ballclub. Going into the June 2 game with the Washington Senators, the Yanks had lost five games in a row, and manager Miller Huggins felt he needed to shake things up. Wally Pipp, the regular first-baseman, was marred in an 11 for his last 68 slump, so Huggins benched him in favor of backup Lou Gehrig, who had only 24 at bats going into the Tuesday afternoon Yankee Stadium contest. Gehrig responded with three hits, as New York defeated Washington 8-5, thanks largely to a pair of homers by Bob Meusel. None of the newspapers of the day mentioned anything about Pipp having a headache, although one should consider that no one in June of 1925 knew that Gehrig entering the Yankee starting lineup would prove to be a historic event. But if it was Pipp’s decision to sit-out the June 2nd game, what would explain his absence over the following day, or the fact that he only appeared in 20 more games in 1925, managing only one hit in 14 at bats? It seems obvious that it was Huggins who made the switch, which turned out to be the right one…Gehrig become one of the best hitting first-baseman in MBL history, while Pipp was traded to Cincinnati after the 1925 season, and finished out his career with the Reds. Since it appears the Pipp/headache is false, how and when did the story start?

On July 2, 1925, one month after losing his starting position, Wally Pipp was struck by a pitch while taking batting practice, resulting in a serious concussion. Years later, as Gehrig’s consecutive game streak reached record numbers, some sportswriters, investigating the origin of the streak, began to confuse Pipp’s benching and batting practice mishap as occurring the same day. Pipp himself, either suffering from poor memory or large ego, began suggesting his spot in the lineup was lost due to injury rather than giving way to a better man. Of course, the idea that Pipp chose to sit-out the game that launched Lou Gehrig’s career did give the event a sense of irony, which is probably why Hollywood went with that version of the story, when Lou Gehrig’s life story made it to the screen in 1942, one year after Gehrig’s death. In “Pride of the Yankees,” which featured Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, the Wally Pipp/headache scenario was reenacted by actors George McDonald (Pipp) and Ernie Adams (Miller Huggins), thus cementing the legend forever. As someone once said, when legend becomes fact, print the legend.

We don’t know how the Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick saga will turn out. I’ll go out on a limb right now and predict that Kaepernick will not start at quarterback every game for 14 straight years, and Alex Smith will not quietly fade away. But whatever ends up happening, we should all reflect on the real lesson that Wally Pipp’s story teaches us…none of us are irreplaceable, and sadly, after we’re gone, life will surely go on without us.