Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Ol' Eephus

Hey, GW's ol' bud and reader Mike Broz has been hot for a post on Rip Sewell and the famous eephus pitch that he baffled batters with during the forties. After a little digging, we discovered that aside from throwing the blooper, Sewell was a pretty interesting character in his own rite. Here's his tale:

Born in Decatur, Alabama, on May 11, 1907, Truett Banks Sewell attended Vandy in the 1930 where he played football. He flunked out, and went to work for Dupont, where he played baseball for the company team. The righty pitched pretty well against the semi-pro hitters, and caught the eye of baseball bird dogs.

He signed with the Nashville Vols, who then sold his contract to the Detroit Tigers for $10,000. He pitched one year, 1932, for the Tigers, appearing mostly in relief.

Sewell was shipped back to the minors the day after Jimmie Foxx dumped one of his pitches over the fence. His 12.66 ERA might have had a little something to do with the demotion, too.

In 1934, he got a second chance with the Tigers, getting an invite to spring training with the team. Sewell blew that chance when he got into a fight with Hank Greenberg.

According to Sewell, Greenberg made a comment about Sewell's southern background, and Sewell responded with a crack about Greenberg's Jewish ancestory. The playground spat was eventually broken up by the police.

The next day, Sewell was called in by manager Mickey Cochrane, who told him: "...we've got thirty pitchers and only one first baseman. What do you think I'm going to do?" Sewell spent the season playing for the Toledo Mud Hens.

Greenberg, however, gave a different account of the affair in his autobiography. He said Sewell kept mouthing off, even after Greenberg asked to be left alone. Greenberg described the fight as follows: "As we got off the bus, I grabbed Sewell and started pummeling him. He couldn't fight, so he grabbed me around the knees..."

Other reports agree with Greenberg, as least so far as the results of the scrap were concerned. Rip might have been a heckuva pitcher, but he was apparently more of a lover than street fightin' man.

Sewell and Greenberg later became teammates on the 1947 Pirates. Greenberg hit a double to help Sewell get his first win of the season, and, according to Sewell, the two buried the hatchet and become friends. At least they shared the sandbox peacefully in Greenberg's only season at Forbes Field.

In 1937, the Pittsburgh Pirates bought Sewell's contract from the minor league Buffalo Bisons. After some time in the bushes, he worked his way into the Pirates' starting rotation in 1940, and went 16-5 in 33 games with a 2.80 ERA.

In 1941, Sewell's record fell to 14-17, and his ERA rose to 3.72, but a mishap in the woods would change his future dramatically.

In December 1941, Sewell was injured in a hunting accident when he was shot with two loads of buckshot, costing him his right toe. He had to alter his pitching motion and delivery because he couldn't turn and push off of his right foot any longer. One result was the old eephus.

He threw the ball by holding onto the seam and flipping it off three fingers to get backspin, lobbing the ball some 25' in the air. (wikiHow even has a page that tells you how to throw one.) The first time Sewell threw the blooper in a game was in an exhibition game against his old homies, Detroit, in 1943.

Sewell remembered the pitch, thrown against Tiger OF Dick Wakefield: "He started to swing, he stopped, he started again, he stopped, and then he swung and missed it by a mile. I thought everybody was going to fall off the bench, they were laughing so hard." Wakefield caught the jeers and Sewell got the cheers. The pitch would be a crowd-pleaser throughout his career.

Pittsburgh outfielder Maurice Van Robays allegedly baptized Sewell's blooper as the "eephus pitch," when he blurted, "Eephus (in the baseball lingo of the times) ain't nothin' and that's what that ball is." A more likely story is that Rip called it an ephus ball after an old nonsensical crap-shooting phrase, ephus-iphus-ophus.

There were a slew of other nicknames for the eephus. The better known monikers were the Dew Drop, the Bloop Curve, and the Bugs Bunny curve, based on a Looney Tune cartoon where the batters swung three times at a pitch before the ball reached the plate.

No matter what they called it, it was effective. If a batter caught a piece of it, he usually he popped it up to the second-baseman.

Pitchers that have thrown the eephus include: Casey Fossum (the Fossum Flip), Steve Hamilton (the Folly Floater), Dave LaRoche (La Lob); Bill Lee, (the Space Ball, or the Leephus); Pascual Perez (the Pascual Pitch); Dave Stieb (the Dead Fish), Bobo Newsom, Bob Tewksbury, Liván Hernández, Orlando Hernández, Randy Johnson, Mark Buehrle, and Tim Wakefield.

Using the blooper pitch, Sewell became one of the better pitchers in baseball. He won 17 games in 1942 and followed with 21-win seasons in both 1943 and 1944.

His best season was 1943, when he led the major leagues with 21 wins and 23 complete games with a record of 21-9 and a career-low 2.54 ERA. Sewell was selected to the first of four consecutive NL All Star teams and finished sixth in the 1943 MVP voting.

He finished in the NL's top ten in wins, innings pitched, complete games, and games started from 1941-44.

Sewell's most famous blooper pitch came in the 1946 All Star game, when he went against Ted Williams. He explained "Before the game Ted (Williams) said to me, 'Hey Rip, you wouldn't throw that damn crazy pitch in a game like this.' (Rip replied) 'Sure, I'm gonna throw it to you, so look out.'"

Sewell wasn't expected to pitch because of an elbow injury, but with the American League leading by 9-0, the National League's manager, Charlie Grimm, asked the right-hander to warm up "and throw that blooper pitch and see if you can wake up this crowd."

There were two runners on and Williams shook his head in a "don't do it" pantomime, with Sewell nodding back to warn, "Yes, I am." Sewell worked the count to two balls and one strike with two bloopers and a fastball. Williams then hit what Sewell described as a "Sunday Super Dooper Blooper" into the right-field bullpen.

As Williams rounded the bases, Sewell followed him, yelling, "The only reason you hit it was because I told you it was coming." Williams laughed, the fans ate the moment up, and Sewell received a standing O when he walked off the mound.

Years later, Williams admitted that he had been cheating towards the pitcher’s mound as he hit the ball, and photos do show that he was in front of the batter’s box when he made contact, which is in violation of baseball rules. But why let the rules get in the way of a great show?

He had other tricks up his sleeve, too. Umpire Jocko Conlan once found a hidden resin bag stuck in his back pocket, though its purpose is unclear, since the bag was legal, even if its location wasn't.

Sewell helped himself, too. He was a decent fielder, and set NL records for pitchers with 12 chances and 11 assists in a game in 1941, when he also equaled a ML record with three assists in one inning. And with the threat of the eephus always looming, his fastball gained an extra foot on the batters. It's probably no coincidence, either, that his best years came during the watered-down World War seasons.

Sewell, who never made more than $21,500 per year, still was an up-front critic of the players' guild being organized after WWII by Robert Murphy, who based his organizing efforts in what he hoped would be the union-friendly town of Pittsburgh.

Rip's stance aborted a planned strike for union recognition during 1946. Sewell believed a deal was a deal, and if you signed a contract, you should live up to it, even if everything was stacked in the owners' favor back in the day. And as a good ol' boy, he probably was suspicious of unions by upbringing and nature.

Rip led Pirate players against the union, and was the ringleader in busting it. He was quoted as saying that he was "glad the owners had finally told these ungrateful players where to get off. First they wanted the hamburg, then filet mignon, eventually the cow and the entire pasture" after the union drive went down the drain.

But he wasn't against improving the players' lot or just an owners' toady, and was a key player in the formation of baseball's pension fund. On a train ride to Boston for the 1946 All-Star Game, he and Marty Marion, the St. Louis shortstop, came up with the formula to use receipts from All-Star Games to help retired players.

As for Murphy, well, his efforts eventually led to a minimum wage and uniform contract for the players. He did manage to put some fear of the Lord in the owners, if not Rip Sewell.

Sewell pitched 12 seasons for the Pirates from 1938-1949 and finished with a career record of 143-97 and 3.48 ERA in over 2,100 innings of work in the show.

He remained active in his twilight years, despite declining health. Sewell was an avid golfer even after both legs were amputated below the knees in 1972 because of circulation problems stemming from his 1941 hunting accident. He died of kidney failure and pneumonia in 1989 at the age of 82 in Plant City, Florida, where he had retired.

Three of Rip's cousins also played Major League Baseball - Luke Sewell, Joe Sewell, and Tommy Sewell.

(If you want to read up on Sewell and some of the other old timers, GW found a ton of tales in Don Honig's book "Baseball When the Grass Was Real," published in 1975. For Rip's life and times, read Elson Smith's "Blooper Man: The Rip Sewell Story" released in 1981.)

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