Truett “Rip” Sewell (1907-1989) was an Alabama-born pitcher in the major leagues whose best years were during World War II. Although best known for his blooper ball—a high-arcing trick pitch—Sewell’s most notable action in the sport was his opposition to efforts by the American Baseball Guild to organize the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1946, which prevented a genuine attempt to unionize major league players.
Truett “Rip” Sewell Sewell was born May 11, 1907, in Decatur, Morgan County, to Charles Taylor Sewell and Minnie Frazer Sewell, one of six children. Charles Sewell worked variously as a farmer, nurseryman, streetcar conductor, Louisville and Nashville Railroad employee, and travelling salesman. Because of a speech impediment caused by a growth in the top of his mouth, school was an ordeal for Truett Sewell, and he spent much of his time skipping school and playing at local ball fields. As a young teenager, his frequent truancy eventually caused him to be expelled. Sewell’s athletic skills, however, led to a scholarship at the Alabama Military Institute in Anniston, Calhoun County, where he excelled in the classroom and on the athletic field, playing multiple sports. Graduating with the rank of cadet major, Sewell was awarded a football scholarship at Vanderbilt University in 1929.
Sewell dropped out after a year and was hired by E. I. DuPont De Nemours and Company, a synthetic textile manufacturer based in Old Hickory, Tennessee, to work in the engineering department and to play on the company baseball team. In 1931, Sewell was signed as a pitcher with the Nashville Vols of the Class A Southern League. After playing in six games, Sewell was optioned to the Raleigh Capitals in North Carolina of the Class B Piedmont League, where he had a 17-6 record. In August 1931, the Detroit Tigers purchased his contract from Nashville. Also in 1931, Sewell married Jeanette Kinne, who died in 1934 after complications following the birth of their daughter. Sewell appeared in five games with the Tigers early in the 1932 season but was soon sent back to the minors, first with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the International League and then down to Class A Beaumont Exporters in the Texas League. A fight with teammate Hank Greenberg during spring training prevented Sewell from rejoining the Tigers in 1933. Still owned by Detroit, he pitched in the minor leagues for the next five years. He had a 6-17 record with the Seattle Indians in the Class AA Pacific Coast League in 1933; a 14-12 record with the Toledo Mudhens in the Class AA American Association in 1934; a 6-20 record with the Louisville Colonels in 1935; and a 10-10 record in 1936 and a 16-12 record in 1937 with the Buffalo Bisons in the Class AA International League. During the 1937 season, he was a major factor in Buffalo winning the league pennant. In 1936, Sewell married Margaret Abbot, with whom he would have two boys.
In 1938, Sewell’s contract was purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates. At Margaret Sewell’s suggestion, Buffalo sportswriter Jimmy Dunn nicknamed Truett “Rip” in a story about his final spring training game with the Bisons, and the nickname stuck. In his first game with Pittsburgh, Sewell played on a team that included future Hall-of-Fame players Lloyd and Paul Waner and Joseph F. “Arky” Vaughan. That season would mark the only time that the Pirates were in contention for the National League title with Sewell on the roster; they would finish two games behind league champions the Chicago Cubs. Though he pitched in only 17 games during his first season with the Pirates, Sewell would become the mainstay of Pittsburgh’s pitching staff for most of the next ten seasons (1938-1949). Known for his ability to defeat the Cubs, his best pitch was his slider. It became even more effective after a hunting accident in 1941. During that winter, a fellow hunter mistakenly fired on Sewell with a shotgun, severely damaging his right foot and wounding him in more than 60 places in his lower body. Afraid that he would lose his roster spot, Sewell reported to spring training in Florida, despite his injuries and intense pain. Unable to pivot on his right foot because of the wounds, forced Sewell shifted to an overhand delivery and made his slider even more effective. He finished the 1942 season with a 17-15 record and 3.41 earned run average. Classified as unfit for duty during World War II because of his injuries, Sewell was named National League pitcher of the year in 1943 after compiling a 20-9 record with a 2.54 earned run average. In 1944, he was 21-12 with a 3.18 earned run average.
After the war, baseball was beset by labor problems caused by a surplus of returning players, low salaries, and baseball’s reserve clause—a contractual stipulation that prevented players from becoming free agents unless their current team released them. Former National Labor Relations Board official Robert Murphy formed the American Baseball Guild and attempted to unionize the Pittsburgh Pirates. He chose the team because Pittsburgh was known as a pro-union city. On June 7, 1946, when the Pirates were scheduled to play the Dodgers, the Pittsburgh players took a strike vote. Sewell’s opposition to the union was well known to Murphy, although he agreed with some of the Guild’s goals, and the organizer had excluded Sewell from the talks with the team. But after Murphy departed the clubhouse and before a vote was taken, several players asked Sewell to address the team.
Announcing that Murphy initially had told the team that there would be no need for a strike, he told them that “it is my night to pitch, and I am going out to pitch.” Sewell’s words persuaded enough teammates to defeat the action, which required a two-thirds majority to pass; baseball players thus would not be unionized until 1965, when labor leader Marvin Miller negotiated the first agreement with owners as head of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Fifteen minutes before game time, Sewell led the team out of the dugout to the cheers of those in attendance. Ultimately, Murphy’s attempt to organize the Pirates helped lead to several reforms, including pay for spring training, uniform contracts, a minimum salary, player representation, and a player pension plan. For his refusal to strike, Commissioner Albert B. Chandler rewarded Sewell with a watch that read, “For Outstanding Service to Baseball Beyond the Ordinary Call of Duty.” In spite of his stand against unionization, Sewell favored a player’s pension plan, and on the train ride to the 1946 All-Star game, Sewell and St. Louis Cardinal shortstop Marty Marion discussed a formula to use All-Star game receipts to support a plana concept that eventually became part of the basis for funding player’s pensions.
On the field, Sewell was best known for his blooper ball, a slow pitch thrown with a 30-foot arc designed to cross the plate at the end of its descent. The pitch was also a direct result of Sewell’s 1941 delivery alteration. Pirates teammate Maurice Van Robays nicknamed it the “eephus pitch” (also spelled “ephus”) because an eephus “ain’t nothing and that is what that ball is, it ain’t nothing.” Employed by Sewell with some regularity, the pitch often confounded hitters. No one hit the pitch for a home run until the 1946 All-Star Game, when Boston outfielder Ted Williams hit one into the right-field stands at Boston’s Fenway Park.
Rip Sewell finished his major league career with Pittsburgh in 1949, having compiled a 143-97 record with a 3.48 earned run average. Of the 390 games he pitched, 137 were complete games. He continued in baseball as manager of the Charleston (South Carolina) Rebels in the Class A South Atlantic League in 1950, then with the Class AA New Orleans Pelicans in 1951, and finally with the Lakeland Pilots in the Class D Florida State League in 1954. After the end of his baseball career, Sewell established a business selling batteries, cleaners, chemicals, and oils and eventually worked for a Tampa, Florida, automotive retailer. An avid golfer, Sewell remained active in the game in spite of having both legs amputated in 1972 as a result of poor circulation stemming from his hunting accident. In 1973, he was voted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and in 1976 to the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. He died on September 4, 1989, in Plant City, Florida, and was buried in the city’s Oaklawn Cemetery.
Falls, Joe. “Remembering Rip Sewell and the ‘Ephus Ball.'” Baseball Digest 34 (July 1975): 73-76.
Marshall, William. Interview with Truett “Rip” Sewell on April 23, 1980, in Plant City, Florida, Chandler Oral History Project, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington, Kentucky.
Marshall, William. Baseball’s Pivotal Era, 1945-1951. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999.
Smith, Elson. The Blooper Man: The Rip Sewell Story. Bellevue, Penn.: J. Pohl Associates, 1981.