Eephus – The Arc of Triumph

If the pitcher Rip Sewell is remembered at all these days, it’s for two things – a noted 1934 fistfight with Hank Greenberg, and the 1940s invention of the bloop pitch, which has appeared since from time to time in various guises, under various names.

Sewell was a right-handed pitcher whose career took place almost entirely in the National League from 1932 to 1949.  He was a Southern country boy born May 11, 1907 in Decatur, Alabama and like the bloop pitch he invented, his career had an unusual and slow trajectory. His major-league debut came with the Detroit Tigers in 1932 when he was already 25, fairly late. He only pitched about 10 innings in relief that year and, if his bloated 12.66 ERA wasn’t enough to earn him a ticket back to the minors, then Jimmie “The Beast” Foxx sealed the deal by belting one off Sewell that nearly left the actual ballpark. Sewell was sent down to the  AAA Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and bounced around that league for years, making it back to the majors with the Pirates in 1938, when he was 31. Again he didn’t pitch much that year – 38 innings of relief, with only slightly better results (0-1, 4.23 ERA).

For a ballplayer trying to establish a toehold in the majors, Pittsburgh was a good place to be back in those days: the Pirates were pretty awful then and just desperate for pitching. From 1939 on, Sewell got himself together, became a starting pitcher and began to win some games – he was 10-9 in 1939, then 16-5 in 1940. By 1943, he was one of the best pitchers in the league, winning 21 games that year and again in 1944. He hung around, pitching well through the end of 1949, when he retired at 42. There haven’t been many pitchers who had such a late and inauspicious start, followed by a long stay in the minors, who then found success in their early-to-mid thirties and managed to pitch so well to such a late age. Usually such pitchers have trick or junk pitches, such as the knuckleball – guys like the Niekro brothers and Tim Wakefield have had similar careers, but without the six-year minor league stay. Rip wasn’t a knuckleballer, not quite, but the bloop was similar. First though, the tussle with Greenberg.

It happened during spring training in 1934. Rip was given a second chance by the Tigers, who invited him to camp, and Greenberg was poised to become a great slugging star with Detroit. There are various versions, but all agree that the ruckus started on a bus, with the two exchanging words. Greenberg said something to insult Sewell’s Southern heritage, Rip returned the favour with Hank’s Jewish ancestry, but teammates managed to get between them on the bus. As soon as they got off though, Greenberg took a swing at Sewell, and the fur flew. I’ve read accounts that it went on a while, with the police breaking it up, but in his autobiography Greenberg says it was over pretty fast, with Sewell hugging Hank’s ankles, being smaller and not really a fighter. Hank also denies any of the above insults, but Sewell has said he called Greenberg “a hebe son-of-a-bitch”, which would have done it. Anyway, it’s been mentioned a lot over the years, probably because it was between teammates, and Greenberg was involved.

Mickey Cochrane was the catcher/manager of the Tigers then, and a very tough cookie. He told Sewell – “Rip, I don’t think any less of you for fighting Greenberg, in fact I think more of you for it. But, I’ve got one first baseman and 30 pitchers. What do you think I’m gonna do?” So, back to the minors he went. In one of those strange circles of irony, Greenberg ended his career with the Pirates, and by that time Sewell was an established, All-Star pitcher. Hank hit a double to drive in the winning runs in Sewell’s first victory of the ’47 season, and the two went on to become good friends.

As for the bloop pitch, necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case the mother was a severe hunting accident in December, 1941. Sewell took two rounds of buckshot, one of which permanently damaged the big toe on the foot he pitched off. He was forced by this to remake his delivery, and had been fooling around with the bloop delivery for his own amusement. He decided to make the pitch part of his repertoire, and went to work on controlling it. It was thrown with three fingernails gripping the seams, similar to a knuckleball. He rocked back, but instead of following through toward home plate, he delivered the ball straight up in a high, slow arc.

I’m sure catching the pitch was a barrel of laughs – kind of like a knuckler, but with a crazy vertical plane added. Calling balls and strikes on it was also a challenge, but often academic – more often than not, hitters swung at it, eyes like saucers, and missed. If they did make contact, it was often a weak roller to the infield, or a lazy fly ball. Later versions of the pitch have been called the “Bugs Bunny” ball among other things, after the cartoon where Bugs delivers a pitch so tantalizingly slow that the big dumb slugger swings at it three times and strikes out all at once. Sewell learned to control the pitch to the point where it usually caught part of the plate, and it made his other pitches more effective, without straining the toe. It turned his career around.

The Pirates’ back-up outfielder Maurice Van Robays dubbed the pitch the “eephus” ball. When asked to explain, he said “An eephus ain’t nothin’, and that’s what that pitch is, a nothin’ pitch.” Wikipedia speculates that the name may be derived from the Hebrew word “eefus” which means “nothing.” It may have been a nothing pitch, but it was almost impossible to hit, and allowed Sewell to win a lot of games, and throw a lot of innings. I have no idea if Robays knew Hebrew, or was even Jewish for that matter. I do know Maurice Van Robays is a pretty unlikely name for a ballplayer – sounds more like a Dutch master, or a preening Broadway choreographer.

I first heard of Sewell and his pitch in a chapter about him in “Baseball When the Grass was Real”, by Donald Honig. It’s an oral history of baseball between 1925 and 1945 and one of the best baseball books I read early on. I was under the impression that the “eephus” was thrown for laughs as a novelty pitch, but it was a regular, essential part of Sewell’s arsenal, and it saved his career after the injury. He’d found a “delivery in his flaw” as reliever Dan Quisenberry would say of himself, forty or so years later.

The “eephus” had its most famous moment in the 1946 All-Star Game. Sewell was making his fourth straight appearance, and before the game Ted Williams approached him, asking, “Rip, you wouldn’t throw a bush pitch like that in an important game like this, would ya?” Sewell, who was the playful and cagey type, replied, “Well Teddy, you never can tell, you never can tell.” The game turned out to be a dreary, boring laugher, with the A.L. leading 8-0 after a few innings. Williams came to bat late in the game with Sewell pitching. There are conflicting versions of what happened next. Some have Williams asking Sewell to throw the pitch, others have Sewell gesturing to Ted that it was coming, with Ted trying to shake him off, imploring him not to throw the bloop. Either way, Sewell threw it, with Williams swinging and missing two, and another being called a ball. On the 1-2 count, Sewell yelled in “Here comes another one, Teddy” and delivered the slowly arcing ball. Ted swung – and, impossibly, blasted it right into the seats.

The crowd, which had been practically asleep, went crazy. As Williams rounded first, Sewell ran toward him, yelling, “You son-of-a-gun, you only hit that ’cause I told you it was coming!” Ted was laughing helplessly and galloped joyously around the bases like a kid on a stick-horse, later saying it was one of the biggest kicks he ever had in baseball. It was the first and only home run ever hit off the “eephus”, and as it turns out, it shouldn’t have counted. Williams later ‘fessed up that he’d taken several strides toward the mound in trying to hit “the goddamn thing” and photos bear this out. He should have been called out for being out of the batter’s box, but as the Gershwins once asked in a song title – who cares? Sewell and Williams had enlivened a yawner with an unforgettable and electric moment.

Apart from the pitch itself, the remarkable thing about Rip Sewell was that he didn’t win his first game until he was 32, then proceeded to win 142 more, going 143 – 97 in his career, with a 3.48 ERA. Pitching against diluted talent during the war certainly helped, but he also pitched well after it. Remember too, he did all of this with a severe injury to overcome, while pitching for a bad team. There’s always been a prejudice in baseball against such slow, trick pitches. Junk-ballers are looked down upon as somehow being less “manly” or worthy of respect than big flame-throwers. My feeling about this is – oh yeah? If you’re such a big man, here’s the pitch – try and hit it. Whifff. Right, I thought not.

I’ve always found it fascinating how certain people like Sewell have been able to overcome adversity and injury, turning their unique handicaps into strengths. Pitcher Peter Centennial “Three Finger” Brown is probably the most famous example. Brown’s other nickname was “Miner”, leading many to believe his right hand was injured in a mining accident. It actually happened on a farm – as a kid he stuck his hand in a feed chopper, and it took off most of his first finger. The resulting deformity imparted a wicked spin to all his pitches, and gave him the greatest curveball of his time. He won 239 games, and once beat Christy Mathewson head-to-head nine straight times from 1903 – 09. One-armed pitcher Jim Abbott is another, more recent example.

There are certainly parallels in the world of jazz, such as guitarist Django Reinhardt, and pianists Carl Perkins and Horace Parlan. Reinhardt had his hands severely damaged in a fire, but forged a powerful, utterly unique style of guitar-playing using only two fingers on his left hand. Perkins (not the “Blue Suede Shoes” guy) had his left arm and hand damaged by polio. He played the piano with his left arm parallel to the keyboard, his elbow playing bass notes, and his left hand voicing chords in a strange twisted position. His right hand was a marvel – as powerful, expressive and articulate as a horn. He’s a great favourite of mine (and we happen to share the same birthday), he’s one of the swingingest and bluesiest jazz pianists ever. Parlan faced a similar situation, but in his case the polio limited his right hand to the use of just two fingers. He created a unique, very interactive and textured rhythmic style, with his left hand ranging all over the piano to support the limited right one. The one time I was lucky enough to play with him, I had to stop watching his hands because I was getting dizzy. A great accompanist and a unique, soulful soloist.

Hats off to Rip Sewell and these others who had the guts and imagination to overcome their harsh adversities by finding their own way of doing things, against all odds. As Shakespeare once wrote, “All Sewell that end Sewell.”

© 2012 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

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