- May 11, 1907
- 6' 1"
- 180 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 6-14-1932 with DET
Although the 1940’s were not a particularly outstanding decade in Pittsburgh Pirate history, the team did have the National League’s biggest winner for the decade in Truett “Rip” Sewell. But instead of being remembered for years of pitching effectiveness, today’s fans remember Sewell for his blooper ball, a pitch with an uncanny arch which became an effective part of his repertoire and which became part of the Ted Williams’ legend.
Sewell had a five game trial in 1932 with Detroit, but didn’t return to the majors until 1938 as a 31 year old rookie. His return to the Tigers was damaged by a fight with Tiger star Hank Greenberg in spring training 1934 over what Sewell later called an unfortunate misunderstanding which first led to insults about family background, then to fisticuffs. Manager Pie Traynor didn’t use Sewell much in 1938, but with the pitching in shambles in 1939, he began to turn more often to the righthander and, using conventional pitches such as a fastball and curve, Sewell pitched in a team high 52 games, going 10-9 with a 4.08 ERA. Still without the pitch for which he would remain famous well after his death, Sewell went 16-5 with a 2.80 ERA under Frankie Frisch in 1940. Although he slipped to 14 wins and a league leading 17 losses in 1941, Sewell was still seen as an effective pitcher and the team was counting on him for 1942.
Then came an off-season hunting accident. The pitcher was accidentally shot by another hunter. Among other wounds, Sewell’s big toe on his right foot was mutilated by the gunshot. He had to learn to walk again by holding his big toe up in the air. He did so that winter and went to spring training and adjusted his motion to favor the injured toe. He was said to appear to be walking strait towards the batter as he pitched. Because of this, Sewell, 35 that year, was able to get unusual backspin on the ball which gave rise to the blooper, a pitch he threw with the same basic follow through, but arched upward to heights of 25 feet or more, then dropped quickly, more often than not in the strike zone. First fooling around with the pitch in the bullpen, catcher Al Lopez encouraged him to try it in a game. He did so effectively in an exhibition against his old Tigers, confounding and embarrassing Dick Wakefield, who struck out.
Amid the laughter which followed, Sewell was asked what he called the pitch. Outfielder Maurice Van Robays answered for him, “An eephus pitch, because eephus ain’t nothin’ and that’s what that pitch is.” The pitch had little speed, but it proved to be a big something for Sewell. It first bounded out of the pitcher’s hand in a regular season game against the Cubs. Dom Dellesandro was the unlucky batter. Sewell dared to use it with the bases loaded and the count 3-2 in the ninth inning of a 1-0 game with the Pirates in front. Dellesandro struck out. The Cubs protested. Surely, the pitch was illegal and the matter was taken before Bill Klem, supervisor of the umpires. Klem ruled it was a legal pitch and Sewell returned to being a winning pitcher, going 17-15 in ’42, then leading the NL with 21 wins and 25 complete games in ’43. Sewell also posted the best ERA of his career in 1943 at 2.54. The artistic pitcher repeated his victory total in 1944 as his wounds had made him ineligible for the war and his pitch assortment (Sewell used the blooper only a few times each game) baffled the wartime replacements. In 1945, Sewell finished at 11-9, but his ERA rose to 4.07. Sewell got off to a good start in 1946 and was selected to the All-Star Team for the third time in three contests as no game was played in 1945. To that point, no batter had ever hit a homerun off the eephus pitch. Ted Williams, never one to back away from a challenge, asked Rip if he would consider throwing the delivery in such a big game. Sewell chuckled that he would and if he would toss one to Williams if he got the chance.
The American League had an 8-0 lead in the eighth inning when Sewell entered the game. As fate would have it, Williams was still in the contest and came to bat. The two nonverbally toyed with each other and Sewell threw the blooper on the first pitch. Williams fouled it off. Williams shook his head, which Sewell interpreted as meaning, “OK, give me your real stuff.” Sewell threw another blooper, though and Williams took it for a ball. Enjoying the game of cat and mouse, the pitcher decided to sneak a fastball by Williams, and he let it go for a strike. Ted’s reaction indicated he had not appreciated the surprise and he prepared for the next pitch. Sewell delivered, the ball first ascending, then descending with increased speed, but Williams was ready. He stepped forward and launched the ball out of the park for a homerun.
1946 was also the year Rip was involved in a near player’s revolt against management. The Pirates, playing in perhaps the strongest union based city in the country, were approached by Boston attorney Robert Murphy about forming a trade guild. He appeared to have gained strong backing from the players, but Sewell argued against the organization, stating the players had been treated fairly by management. Sewell was rewarded with a gold watch from the Commissioner’s office for his loyalty.
By 1947, Sewell was 40-years-old and the regular players had not only returned from war service, but had had a year to retool their skills. First Billy Herman, then Billy Meyer, began to pick their spots for their aging pitcher. Sewell responded with 6-4, 13-3 and 6-1 records for a combined 25-8 mark over his last three seasons to bring his lifetime record to 143-97, all of his decisions coming as a Pirate. His 143 victories ties Ray Kremer for seventh place on the all-time Pirate list and he is the last Bucco hurler to have two consecutive 20 win seasons.
Health problems arose for Sewell later in life and after retiring to Florida had both legs amputated. When Pittsburgh fans heard of his plight, he was inundated with cards and letters despite having been out of the game for thirty years. He battled back, however, to play golf using artificial limbs. He continued to enjoy hearing from fans until his death in 1989.
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- Rip Sewell