BY DEB SEYMOUR
Wally Pipp, who famously lost his job to Lou Gehrig due to a slumping lineup, has become a popular baseball metaphor for getting replaced temporarily – and then, all of a sudden, not so temporarily.
The funny thing is, Pipp was no slouch at first base. He played a large role in the Yankees’ 1921 and 1922 pennant wins, and in their 1923 championship. He was coming off a career year in 1924 when he’d hit .295 with nine home runs, 114 RBI, and an AL-leading 19 triples.
Years later, Pipp recalled being beaned in the head with a pitch during batting practice, and asking Yankee manager Miller Huggins if he could sit out that fateful day’s game due to the headache inflicted by the hit by pitch.
Turns out, though, that beaning only actually occurred a month later; and it led to a concussion and two weeks in a hospital. Instead, it was a lineup that wasn’t performing that caused Gehrig to take Pipp’s place on June 2, 1925 – and the Iron Horse never looked back. Huggins sat six of his regulars that day; and Pipp just happened to be one of them.
Gehrig, meanwhile, had actually pinch hit for Yankee shortstop Pee Wee Wanninger the day before (June 1) – and that was, in fact, the game that launched his famous 2130-game, 15 years of consecutive games played, career.
And so Gehrig was called into action again on June 2. And the rest is history, except for the little known fact that Gehrig had actually been called up for several games in both 1923 and 1924 – prior to that famous lineup change in 1925 that led to one of the most prolific careers ever played with the Yankees, lasting until Gehrig could literally play no more.
Several other players over the past century have notoriously been “Wally Pipped,” their replacements becoming fixtures for the teams for whom they play(ed), rather unexpectedly.
Derek Jeter becoming the Yankee shortstop in the mid-1990’s was a sort of Wally Pipp situation. He’d already, as had Gehrig, had plate appearances in 1995 before he became a regular on the roster and in the lineup.
In 1996, Tony Fernandez was intended to be the Yankee shortstop, but then he got injured; and George Steinbrenner was all set to make a trade with the Seattle Mariners for Felix Fermin to start at shortstop, and remain on the bench or be waived (or some other alternative) when Fernandez returned.
Most notably, the trade would have sent Mariano Rivera to the Mariners for Fermin. Yankee history might therefore have been forever changed in multiple ways, had that trade actually occurred!
But general manager Gene Michael and assistant general manager Brian Cashman convinced Steinbrenner to start Jeter that year at Yankee shortstop. And Jeter and Joe Torre (new Yankee manager that year), immediately clicked. Needless to say, the position never became Tony Fernandez’s again. Fernandez got Pipped, and that’s all there was to it.
Former first baseman Wally Pipp, of the New York Yankees, poses for a portrait fielding a ball while sitting on a chair at firstbase prior to Old Timer's Day festivities and a MLB doubleheader on August 30, 1953 between the Chicago White Sox and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx New York. (Photo by: Olen Collection/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
In fact, the “being Pipped” metaphor has even found its way into other sports, with Carson Wentz replacing an injured Nick Foles as the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback during their 2018 chase for a Super Bowl, and Wentz going on to win the title.
But we now turn to the 2023 Yankees, who had a dilemma coming out of spring training with multiple infielders, each in a different professional circumstance with the Yankees; and one critical outfielder injury that throws yet another monkey wrench into an already complicated roster situation.
Officially, the Yankees started spring training this year with five infielders besides Anthony Rizzo, who will be the starting first baseman, on their 40-man roster. Competing for the remaining three infield positions, according to the spring training 40-man, were Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, DJ LeMahieu, Oswald Peraza, and Gleyber Torres.
But that was not strictly speaking the case, for myriad reasons.
DJ LeMahieu can, and has, play(ed) any infield position besides shortstop. He is, if you will, a (super) utility infieIder. Isiah Kiner-Falefa actually came up as a third baseman, even though he played almost exclusively shortstop for the Yankees last season. Josh Donaldson is a third baseman by trade, but can and has play(ed) first base. Gleyber Torres came up in the Chicago Cubs organization playing shortstop, was moved to second base by the Yankees, and then was utilized again at shortstop in 2021.
Oswald Peraza is a highly ranked shortstop in the Yankee organization, but can probably play second base pretty adeptly. And it gets even more complicated, because also on the 40-man roster, but as an outfielder, is Oswaldo Cabrera, who is technically a shortstop; but since being brought up by the Yankees last season, has played a utility role including a lot of outfield repetitions.
New York Yankees (L-R) Gerald Williams, Darryl Strawberry, Tony Fernandez and Derek Jeter upset in dugout after losing game and series vs Seattle Mariners at Kingdome. Game 5. Seattle, WA 10/8/1995 (Photo by Richard Mackson /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
And we’re not done yet. Because Anthony Volpe, the most highly ranked prospect in the entire Yankee farm system, was told he could compete for shortstop in spring training and played extremely regularly – and unexpectedly well; and is a shortstop by trade but was given repetitions at second and third base, as well.
The clinching headline, however, is despite that seeming infield mess, amid much fanfare, Volpe won the shortstop job – despite the various infielders with major league experience at the position who actually began the spring on the 40-man roster.
Volpe flat outplayed them. And the Yankees are giving him a shot. Anthony Volpe has made it so all the players in front of him who can play short got Pipped.
Move over three other guys; the Yankees’ best long-term hope at the position has effectively “Derek Jetered” you out of your role at that important spot. You just became “Tony Fernandezed,” if you will.
Now, given current general management, that seems very un-Yankee-like. But someone pushed that button, and we can only speculate that players like Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo may have held some sway in the final decision making.
With an already overcrowded infield to begin the season, this decision pretty much forced the Yankees to either cut bait with Kiner-Falefa or Donaldson, or send Peraza down to AAA. Fortunately or unfortunately for Oswald Peraza, he became the “victim” in this case; at least for now. One can only hope he has the inner fortitude to play at a level that will garner him a major league role in the near future.
Gleyber Torres #25, Oswald Peraza #91 and Anthony Volpe #77 of the New York Yankees during Spring Training at George M. Steinbrenner Field on February 21, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images)
But wait – there’s more. We haven’t forgotten about the critical outfielder injury with which the Yankees will begin the season, mentioned at the top of this discussion.
Harrison Bader, traded by the St. Louis Cardinals to the Yankees last season for Jordan Montgomery, was the anticipated starting centerfielder for 2023; but Bader suffered an oblique injury at training camp. As a result, all manner of scenarios have been played out in the outfield by the Yankees during spring training, including playing Isiah Kiner-Falefa in the outfield. You know, like a super utility player. (But hold on just a second – didn’t we already say Oswaldo Cabrera has that role?)
Giancarlo Stanton has publicly stated he believes he plays better when he’s playing the outfield as well as hitting; and not just sitting on the bench between plate appearances as a designated hitter. And the stats actually back that up.
Aaron Judge can play any outfield position; now even including left field – given his reps out there in spring training. This was his idea, and no one ever doubted him.
Aaron Hicks remains the starting left fielder, however.
This all means unless your daily outfield alignment is Hicks, Judge, and Stanton till Bader returns, which really limits your options at DH, someone else is going to get opportunities in the outfield. Perhaps Estevan Florial makes the Opening Day roster and gets some playing time. My bet is mostly on Cabrera and secondarily on Kiner-Falefa, though, even if Florial makes the early season roster. At least Cabrera and Kiner-Falefa have both shown they can hit in the majors.
Here’s the clincher, though, regarding the Yankee outfield – which makes it very different from the Yankee infield: No one is Pipping Harrison Bader once he returns. Centerfield is owned by Bader this year, barring a future injury over the course of the long season.
It’s all fun and games in spring training; but once the season starts on Thursday, the stakes become high and each win and loss counts. Every team decision needs to be the best one that can be made. And if any player is going to get Pipped by another player, their replacement had better be ready for the job.