Coincidences are rife in the language. Consider Wally Pipp and the pip.
A Globe article last Saturday noted that Jian Ghomeshi, when he became host of CBC Radio’s Q, took over the morning slot that Shelagh Rogers had expected to remain hers. “In baseball terms,” Brad Wheeler wrote, “Rogers had been Wally Pipped.”
Not being steeped in baseball lore, I consulted the reference books. New York Yankee Wally Pipp was replaced as first baseman in 1925 by Lou Gehrig, best known now for his subsequent streak of 2,130 consecutive games played and for having his name attached to ALS, the disease that forced him into retirement. Pipp had been a mentor to Gehrig, which made the replacement bittersweet.
The story was that Pipp had left the field complaining of a headache, that Gehrig was sent in to handle first base, and that Gehrig played so well that Pipp couldn’t reclaim his position. I watched the first part of the 1942 film The Pride of the Yankees, starring Gary Cooper as Gehrig, and sure enough, there was Pipp leaving the field and complaining that he was seeing double because he had been beaned by a ball days earlier. Gehrig was sent onto the field.
Unfortunately for the legend, which suggests it’s career suicide to take time off from work, the myth-busting site www.snopes.com persuasively discredits the story. It was a month after his replacement that Pipp received that serious head injury. At the time Gehrig was sent to first base, the newspapers made it clear Pipp and others had been replaced because the Yankee manager wanted to refresh the lineup.
Either way, Pipp was out, Gehrig was in, and the notion of being Wally Pipped took hold.
The coincidence is that there is another expression for someone who has a position snatched from him: pipped at the post. The Calgary Herald used it on June 22: “On the subject of irises, garden writer Christopher Lloyd pronounced they ‘are incomparably lovely, only pipped at the post by orchids, maybe.’”
The first recorded use of pipped at (or on ) the post occurred a year before Pipp was Wally Pipped. “Bad luck his getting pipped on the post like that,” P.G. Wodehouse wrote in his novel Ukridge. The image is of horse racing, of being denied victory by a horse that gallops past right at the finish line .
But pipping existed long before that. As early as 1880, it referred to the blackballing of candidates from gentlemen’s clubs in London. Club members could approve of a nominee by anonymously dropping a white ball into a bag or urn, or disapprove by inserting a black ball. One source suggests the practice had its origins in ancient Greece, where the black ball was the pit of an olive – or pip, a word more commonly associated with the seeds inside apples and oranges.
That sense, by the way, was behind the phrase “squeeze them until the pips squeak,” first used by Sir Eric Geddes in a 1918 speech about the reparations Germany should make after the First World War. “The Germans … are going to pay every penny,” he said. “They are going to be squeezed as a lemon is squeezed … until the pips squeak.” (We all know how well that turned out, if you ignore the Second World War and all.)
Being pipped predates even the London clubs. The Oxford English Dictionary records an 1838 reference to being pipped at a card game. Nobody knows for sure how the expression originated, but since at least 1604 a pip had been a dot or symbol on a die or playing card.
Wally Pipp had to play the cards he was dealt. He left the Yankees soon after Gehrig took his spot. In The Pride of the Yankees, he didn’t get even a mention in the credits. Think of Wally Pipped as walloped.