May 11, 1907|
|Died: September 3, 1989
Plant City, Florida
|June 14, 1932, for the Detroit Tigers|
|Last MLB appearance|
|September 18, 1949, for the Pittsburgh Pirates|
|Earned run average||3.48|
|Career highlights and awards|
Truett Banks "Rip" Sewell (May 11, 1907 – September 3, 1989) was a right-handed starting pitcher in Major League Baseball who played 13 years in the major leagues with the Detroit Tigers (1932) and Pittsburgh Pirates (1938–1949). Sewell was selected four times to the National League All Star team (1943–1946) and is credited with inventing the "Eephus pitch."
Born in Decatur, Alabama, Sewell attended Vanderbilt University in the 1930–1931 school year, where he played college football on scholarship for coach Dan McGugin. However, Sewell only played on the freshman team and left because of the academic requirements. After leaving school, he went to work for Dupont in Tennessee, and started playing semipro baseball.
He signed with the Nashville Vols, who then sold his contract to the Detroit Tigers for $10,000. He played only one season (1932) with the Tigers, appearing mostly in relief. Sewell later recalled that he was shipped to the minor leagues in Toronto the day after Jimmie Foxx hit one of Sewell's best pitches over the left field wall. (Donald Honig, "Baseball When the Grass Was Real" (1975), p. 250) (Though Sewell DID allow a home run to Foxx in his first appearance on June 14, he was not sent down after that game. He pitched four more times, the last a game in which he gave up a home run to Smead Jolley in Boston.) Sewell pitched only 10-2/3 innings for the 1932 Tigers, giving up 15 earned runs for a 12.66 ERA.
The fight with Greenberg
In 1934, he got a second chance with the Tigers, attending spring training with the team. However, he got into a fight with Hank Greenberg in Lakeland, Florida. According to Sewell, Greenberg made a comment about Sewell's southern heritage, and Sewell responded with a comment about Greenberg's Jewish heritage. The fight was eventually broken up by the police, and the next day, Sewell was called in by manager Mickey Cochrane, who told him: "Rip, don't think I feel any less about you for it; in fact, I think more of you. But we've got thirty pitchers and only one first baseman. What do you think I'm going to do?" (Donald Honig, Baseball When the Grass Was Real (1975), p. 253) Sewell spent the 1934 season playing for the Toledo Mud Hens.
Sewell and Greenberg later became teammates on the 1947 Pirates. Greenberg hit a double to help Sewell get his first win of the 1947 season, and, according to Sewell, the two went on to become friends.
Greenberg, however, gave a different account of the fight in his autobiography. According to Greenberg, 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. . . . I was embarrassed for him." (Hank Greenberg, "Hank Greenberg: The Story of My Life", p. 52)
Tigers pitcher Elden Auker also wrote about the Sewell-Greenberg fight in his autobiography. Auker's account is consistent with Greenberg's. According to Auker, Greenberg "slapped Sewell across the face and pretty near busted his skin open." (Elden Auker, "Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms", p. 102)
In 1937, the Pittsburgh Pirates bought Sewell's contract from the minor league Buffalo Bisons. In 1940, Sewell worked his way into the Pirates' starting rotation and went 16–5 in 33 games with a 2.80 ERA. His .762 winning percentage was third best in the NL, and he finished #25 in the 1940 NL MVP voting.
In 1941, Sewell's record fell to 14–17, and his ERA rose to 3.72.
The blooper pitch
In December 1941, Sewell was injured in a hunting accident, as he was shot with two loads of buckshot. The injury permanently damaged the big toe that Sewell pitched off, and he was required to re-engineer his pitching motion and delivery. The re-engineered pitching motion is what gave rise to Sewell's famous "blooper pitch."
Sewell threw the blooper pitch by holding onto the seam and flipping it off three fingers to get backspin. Sewell's blooper reached an arc of 25 feet. The first time Sewell threw the blooper in a game was in an exhibition match against the Detroit Tigers. Sewell described the reaction of the Detroit batter, 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." (Donald Honig, "Baseball When the Grass Was Real" (1975), p. 254)
Sewell's best years (1942–1944)
Using the blooper pitch, Sewell became one of the best 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. His record was 21–9 (.700 winning percentage) with a career-low 2.54 ERA (4th in the NL). He was selected to the first of four consecutive National League All Star teams and finished #6 in the 1943 National League MVP voting.
Williams' home run in the 1946 All Star game
Sewell's most famous blooper pitch came in the 1946 All Star game against Ted Williams. Sewell warned Williams before the game he was going to throw him the blooper. With the American League ahead 8–0, Williams came to bat, and Sewell nodded, indicating the blooper was coming. Williams fouled off the first blooper. Sewell nodded again, and threw another blooper and then another. With the count 1–2, Williams hit the blooper for a home run—the only home run ever hit off Sewell's blooper pitch. As Williams rounded the bases, Sewell followed him, saying, "the only reason you hit it was because I told you it was coming." Williams laughed, the fans loved it, and Sewell received a standing ovation when he walked off the mound. (Donald Honig, "Baseball When the Grass Was Real" (1975), p. 257).
Years later, Williams admitted that he had been running towards the pitcher's mound as he hit the ball, and photographs reveal that he was in front of the batter's box when he made contact—a violation of baseball rules.
Critic of the players' union
Sewell was a critic of the American Baseball Guild, the players' union that attempted to organize after World War II. In June 1946, he led Pirate players against the union, and was reported as saying that he was "glad the owners had finally told these ungrateful players where to get off. First they wanted the hamburger, then filet mignon, eventually the cow and the entire pasture."
Sewell died in Plant City, Florida, at the age of 82.