Henry “Cotton” Pippen‘s claim to baseball fame involves three strikeouts of Ted Williams and a bit of fate regarding Paul “Daffy” Dean. But he never would have contributed to the Anniston Rams’ 1948 playoff run had he not retired from the game to run a restaurant in Oakland.
Stories abound about Pippen, a multi-sport prep and college star who also excelled at track, polo and bronco riding. “He could have been a professional cowboy,” the Oakland Tribune wrote in 1972. His “athletic exploits, amateur and pro, would have made him a living legend in Texas had he stayed in Texas.” He became a four-sport letterman at Texas School of Mines (now Texas-El Paso). Before joining the Navy he pitched with little distinction for three Major League teams: the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Athletics and the Detroit Tigers. He worked as a superintendent of a California duck-hunting club in his later years. In 1954 he escaped a four-alarm fire at a restaurant where he was tending bar.
His few months spent at Anniston’s Johnston Field were neither remarkable nor forgettable, though his seven wins as a midseason acquisition did bolster the Rams’ rotation and aid their rare playoff bid. But the only reason he was available for the Rams was because of his career choices following the preceding season.
By 1947 Pippen was entering his mid-thirties, far removed from any realistic opportunity to join a Major League roster. Since he last threw a pitch in the big leagues Pippen had played seven seasons for the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, joined the Navy during World War II and pitched for a Navy team in San Diego. Father time was creeping up with his right arm.
Earlier that year Pippen, along with two other men, bought a cafe in Oakland, with the tall Texan planning to work in the kitchen in the offseason. By June he knew it was time to move on, so he retired after 15 years in organized baseball. The game didn’t release him, though; baseball is hard to quit. And in January he applied for reinstatement with the Pacific Coast League, the only circuit in which he’d pitched since the end of the war.
Clearly he didn’t plan on spending that summer in Anniston, Alabama, and the Class B Southeastern League. Since 1936 he’d never played below Class AA. But his comeback was an utter failure until he latched on with the Rams.
His return began in Portland, where he pitched only five innings in three appearances before being released. Sacramento signed him on a Saturday in early May, pitched him on Sunday and released him on Monday. (In his only appearance he allowed nine hits and seven runs, two earned, in two innings. His ERA: 9.00.) “The former Solon and Oakland chucker has apparently lost most of his stuff,” The Sacramento Bee wrote. Chattanooga signed him in late May and gave him nine innings of work in six appearances. He went 0-2 before being released by his third team in three months.
Which made him perfect for the Anniston Rams.
Seventeen-game winner Woody Rich led the Rams’ rotation, which also included two others who posted double-digit win totals (Hugh Sooter and Fred Baczewski). Pippen, added to the roster in mid-June, would give manager Charlie Barron a veteran fourth starter who could also throw in relief. His Ram debut was wobbly — a 5-1 road loss at Pensacola. But his home debut gave Anniston the boost it needed when he scattered 10 hits in a 1-0 shutout of second-place Jackson, the team directly ahead of the Rams in the SEL.
Pippen, then 37, went 7-5 in Anniston’s lower classification and made a single relief appearance in the Rams’ first-round playoff series against Montgomery. Barron didn’t give him a start. Anniston lost the series in seven games.
And that was it, until it wasn’t. Again.
Pippen scouted a bit for the Washington Senators but didn’t play in 1949 or 1950. In 1951 he managed (and pitched for) Reno in the Class D Far West League. He spent the spring and early summer of the following year playing for the Moose Jaw Maples of the Saskatchewan League in Canada. The Maples released him in June.
Finally, he was through with baseball.
“Cotton Pippen, the old (Sacramento) Solon pitcher, is a mixologist in Oakland. He says he has no plans for a baseball comeback,” the Sacramento Bee wrote in October 1953.
All told Pippen played 17 seasons of professional baseball, winning 201 games. Long before he arrived in Anniston, his MLB debut came in 1936 when Dean abruptly retired in midseason, causing the Cardinals to summon Pippen from Sacramento. Playing alongside Pepper Martin, Joe Medwick, Leo Durocher and Johnny Mize, Pippen gave up 14 hits and five earned runs in a 8-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Losing to Philadelphia in his first start does not necessarily mean that Pippen will not help the Cardinals,” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote. “The Phils scored five runs off him — and many a pitcher has won a game when the enemy scored more runs than that. His control was remarkable (the four bases on balls he issued were all intentional) and he mixed his pitching nicely. It happens that he didn’t fool the batters always … His teammates didn’t seem to be disappointed in him even though he failed to win, for it looks as though he has possibilities.”
It didn’t happen that way, though. His first stint in the Major Leagues would last only 21 innings.
Talent kept providing him opportunities, however. When he faced a young Williams in the future Hall of Famer’s PCL debut with San Diego, Pippen struck him out three times. After leaving the Cardinals he won 16, 15 and 17 games for the Solons in 1936-38. On notice were the Philadelphia Athletics, who took him in the Rule 5 draft and installed him in their rotation in 1939. He went 4-11 before the A’s placed him on waivers; signed by the Tigers, Pippen made three appearances for Detroit that fall and four more in 1940.
Pippen threw his final MLB pitches in a May 21 loss to Boston. His outing was unimpressive: five hits and five earned runs in three innings. He faced a familiar face, Williams, who refused to strike out against Pippen for a fourth time in his career. Instead, Williams drew a walk.
Pippen played another decade of minor-league ball, with his brief stop in Anniston, before retiring for good and returning to Oakland, where he tended bar and worked at a duck-hunting camp. In 1980, suffering from colon cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, he told the Sacramento newspaper that he was nonetheless optimistic. “I’ll be going home (from the hospital) Saturday,” he said. “They said I have a light case.”
He died in 1981 at the age of 69. He’s buried in Olivehurst, California.