By Glen Sparks
On Dec. 7, 1941, on that very day in history, Rip Sewell’s right foot looked like a bloody mess.
Sewell, a decent pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, had gone deer hunting in Ocala, Fla., with a friend. The friend accidentally piled a load of shot into Sewell’s legs. His right foot fared the worst. Doctors took out as many of the pellets as they could and told Sewell to look into some other line of work. He could never drive off that foot.
Sewell, born in his date in 1907, didn’t give up. Instead, he invented the eephus pitch, a type of blooper ball. Well, it wasn’t like he was going into the Army. The draft board looked at Sewell’s feet and labeled him 4F, or “not acceptable for military service.”
The 34-year-old right-hander from Decatur, Ala., had to think fast. Not about basic training, but about spring training. How could he protect his damaged foot? What would happen to his fastball and curveball? How the heck would Truett Banks “Rip” Sewell, former baseball player and football player at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., get anyone out?
Sewell was nothing if not determined. The Detroit Tigers had cut him loose in 1932, a 25-year-old rookie with an outrageous 12.66 ERA in just 10.2 innings of work. If there ever was a time for a guy to look into some other career options, that was it.
But, he didn’t quit. He did the small-town, minor-league bus tour thing for years. He made it back to the majors in 1938, a 31-year-old playing in his sophomore season in the bigs, with the Pirates. The following year, Sewell played in his first full season with Pittsburgh. In ’41, Sewell went 14-17 with a 3.72 ERA (98 ERA+), not so hot. But, he had compiled a 16-5 mark in 1940, with a 2.80 ERA (136 ERA+), much better. Yes, Rip Sewell could find a way.
Sewell unveiled his new pitch in a spring training game against the Detroit Tigers, just a few months after his foot had just about exploded. He held the ball with three fingers, threw it at about 50 mph and made it go 25 feet into the air before diving into the hitting zone, or, preferably, just plopping into the catcher’s mitt. Sewell didn’t throw the Eephus on every pitch, but he threw it often enough.
Oh, the batters hated the Eephus. Some batters reached out and caught it—like, “What the heck is this thing.” Supposedly, some guys spit tobacco juice at it, this eephus pitch.
Sewell didn’t care. He went 17-15 in 1942 with a 3.41 ERA (99 ERA+). Then, he really got the pitch going. He put together his career year in 1943, leading the National League in wins (21) and complete games (25). Sewell lost just nine times and finished with a nifty ERA of 2.54 (137 ERA+).
The following year, Sewell did almost as well. He went 21-12 with a 3.18 ERA (117 ERA+). In both seasons, he made the N.L. All-Star team.
In 1946, Sewell, again an All-Star, squared off against the great Ted Williams at Boston’s Fenway Park. “You’re not going to throw that blankety-blank blooper pitch, are you?” Williams asked. I just might, Sewell said. And, he did. And, Williams swung and missed. And, he threw it again. And, Williams fouled it off.
“Here it comes again,” Sewell said.
This time, Williams belted the ball into the bullpen. Sewell supposedly chuckled as Teddy Ballgame rounded the bases. Yeah, you hit it good. You knew it was coming.
Rip Sewell retired after the 1949 season. He went 143-97 in his eephus-tossing career. He won 30 major-league games before the hunting accident, 113 after. Sewell died in 1989 at the age of 82.
By the way, Sewell’s teammate, the elegantly titled Maurice Van Robays, came up with the name “eephus” pitch. His logic was simple: “Eephus ain’t nothing,” Van Robays said, “and that’s what that ball is.”
Oh, but in the right hand of Rip Sewell, the eephus pitch was certainly something.