Racially motivated fight kept this pitcher out of the big leagues for years

Helmar Big League Chew R319 featuring Hank Greenberg in his batting stance.

When Hank Greenberg sliced a double down the left field line to score the winning run on opening day in Wrigley Field, he did more than christen the 1947 season. He did more than make his Pirates winners over the Cubs in the lid-lifter of the year. The big fella also gave pitcher Rip Sewell the victory.

Greenberg and Sewell were teammates, but this was the first time the two had been on the field for a major league game as teammates. After the victory, a 1-0 shutout by Sewell, Hank and his pitcher were in an understandable mood of celebration. Sewell hugged Hank and thanked him for the winning blow. But given their past, it was surprising that the hug wasn’t more like a headlock.

14 years before the win at Wrigley, Sewell was a hopeful prospect of the Detroit Tigers when he found himself in a scuffle that may have cost him several years in the major leagues.

The Tigers invited dozens of extra pitchers to spring camp in 1933 in Lakeland, anxious to fill out their pitching staff. Manager Del Baker felt his team was blending together with a chance to finally challenge the Yankees. But the Tigers had so many pitchers in camp that Baker had a hard time telling them apart. Many of the pitchers didn’t have numbers on their backs, and to the Detroit manager, one young righty looked like another young righty and one southpaw looked like all the rest.

Baker knew Sewell, at least a little bit. The previous year, in the middle of the 1932 season, Detroit had brought Sewell in for a brief audition. He appeared in five games, but did little to make a great first impression.

When he first came to the attention of big league scouts, Sewell was a hard-throwing right-hander from rural Alabama. He came from baseball royalty: the cousin of Joe Sewell and Luke Sewell, brothers who starred in the 1920s and made the Sewell name familiar to baseball fans. But Sewell’s fastball went a little too straight, straight enough that seasoned batters could swat it all over the outfield. In 1933 he arrived in Lakeland determined to hone his breaking pitches.

Hank Greenberg was a prized 22-year old first baseman, plucked from Yankee territory by the Tigers. The 1933 season would be his first opportunity to show the American League that he was the heir apparent to Lou Gehrig.

Pitcher Truett “Rip” Sewell in 1932 with the Detroit Tigers, one year before his infamous fight with Hank Greenberg.

Truett “Rip” Sewell and Henry Benjamin Greenberg couldn’t have been more dissimilar. Sewell was a Baptist from the south, keen on peach cobbler and throwing rocks at tin cans. Greenberg was a tall Romanian Orthodox Jew from The Bronx. He briefly studied at New York University and was in a fraternity. Sewell attended a military academy in Nashville.

As different as they were, Rip and Hammerin’ Hank were destined to cross paths (and fists) that spring. The story has been passed along over the years, a sort of legend in Lakeland in Detroit Tigers spring training lore. But it’s difficult to know exactly how it started.

According to Sewell, Greenberg said something snide about Alabama. The two men proceeded to tussle and punches were exchanged before teammates separated the two young men.

Greenberg’s account differs, predictably. In his autobiography years later, he recounted the incident. According to Hank, Sewell made an anti-Semitic remark and he responded by demanding an apology. The two men exchanged insults, and the heated conversation quickly escalated to physical. Greenberg pushed the smaller Sewell to his knees and pummeled the pitcher with swats to his head and shoulders. “The poor fellow could only grab my legs and hold on,” Greenberg said later in an interview. “I felt sorry for him.”

After the fight, which was reported in numerous newspapers, Sewell emerged with his ego and head bruised. It got worse.

The following morning, Baker corralled Sewell into his office. “Look Rip,” the Tigers manager said, “I have thirty pitchers in camp but only one first baseman. So, you know you have to go.”

Sewell was signed by Seattle and pitched in the Pacific Coast League in 1933. He struggled to a 6-17 record, his contract sold to Toledo the following season. Thus started an odyssey that took Rip from the west coast to Toledo, and south to Louisville, before coming back north to Buffalo. The years passed, but Sewell didn’t get a chance with a big league team. It didn’t help that his fastball disappeared, forcing him to tinker with off-speed pitches. Eventually he unveiled an unusual looping, slow, high-arching breaking ball he called “the eephus pitch.” In 1938, five years after his fight with big Hank, the Pirates signed Sewell. He spent the next 12 years in their rotation, twice winning 20 games. He made the All-Star Game three times.

Most of you know what happened to Greenberg. He won the AL MVP Award in his third full season, and in 1938, the year Sewell finally got his chance to pitch in the majors, “The Hebrew Hammer” smacked 58 home runs, challenging Babe Ruth’s record. Greenberg won a second MVP award, and four home run titles for Detroit. He became the first star player to enlist for duty in World War II, missed nearly five years while in the Army Air Force, and returned in 1945 to lead Detroit to a World Series title.

Ironically, the origins of Sewell’s famed eephus pitch may have come from a Jewish source. The Hebrew word אפס‎ (pronounced EF-ess), means “nothing,” and according to Pirates manager Frank Frisch, that’s what the pitch was “nothing.”

Rip won six games in 1947, two of them coming on game-winning hits by Greenberg. The two men reportedly mended their relationship and put the famous fight behind them. In 1948, a year after Greenberg retired to take a front office job, the 41-year old Sewell went 13-3, relying on painstakingly slow pitches. He finished a year later with 143 wins in a Pirates uniform, which still ranks in the top ten among Pittsburgh hurlers, even though Sewell didn’t win his first game in the majors until he was 32 years old. Most likely because he picked a fight with a big Jewish kid from New York.

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