Truett “Rip” Sewell was born on May 11,1907 in Decatur,Alabama. He came from a family with plenty of baseball tradition. His cousin is Hall of Fame infielder Joe Sewell. Joe also had two brothers who played in the majors,Tommy, who played for the 1927 Cubs and Luke, who played twenty seasons in the American League. Rip pitched at Vanderbilt University before making his pro debut in 1931 for the Raleigh Capitals of the Piedmont League. He went 17-6 in 28 games, pitching a total of 172 innings. He also pitched briefly for Nashville of the Southern Association that year but allowed 18 runs in 16 innings of work.
In June of 1932, Sewell made it to the majors with the Detroit Tigers. He would have a rough month stay, which led to a long layoff between major league appearances. From 1933 until 1937, Rip pitched for four different minor league teams in three different leagues. He was a workhorse pitcher during those years but he didn’t quite have good results. Sewell had a 6-17 5.90 record in 1933, then his ERA went over 6.00 the following year when he pitched 218 innings for Toledo of the American Association. Despite that high ERA, he was still able to have a winning record at 14-12, something other pitchers on that staff couldn’t claim with better ERA’s.
Things were even worse for Sewell in 1935 when he pitched for Louisville of the American Association. It was a high offense league but that still didn’t explain his 8.12 ERA in 194 innings. His record that year actually proved how bad he pitched, as he finished 6-20 with a near 2.00 WHIP. At age 29, pitching in the more pitcher-friendly International League, Sewell began to turn things around. He went 10-10 4.55 in 1936, then improved to 16-12 3.31 in 31 starts the next year, leading to his ticket back to the majors.On September 10, 1937, the Pirates got Sewell from Buffalo for three players and cash. He didn’t pitch for them in 1937, but was there on Opening Day in 1938 and he didn’t leave until after the 1949 season.
In 1938, Rip was used exclusively out of the bullpen the entire season. In 17 appearances, he pitched a total of 38.1 innings with a 4.23 ERA. In all but two of his appearances the Pirates lost the game and he was mainly being used in the mop-up role. His role with the Pirates changed just a few games into the 1939 season. He made his first start at the end of April, then after one more relief appearance, Rip made eleven starts in a row. He won six of his first eight starts during that stretch, throwing five complete games and one shutout. Sewell made those eight starts from May 1-June 1 and seemed to lose steam from overwork. He then fared poorly in the last three outings and was moved back to the bullpen. He finished with a 10-9 4.08 record and made a total of 52 appearances, pitching 176.1 innings.
His 1940 season was good enough to get him MVP votes, as he finished 25th in the voting. Sewell had a 16-5 record, the second best winning percentage(.724) in the NL and the fourth highest win total. His 2.80 ERA was the best on the team and third best in the league. Sewell was the only pitcher on the Pirates to win more than ten games that season, as the club finished 78-76 in fourth place.
In 1941, Sewell led the team in innings pitched with 249 and tied Max Butcher in games started with thirty-two. His ERA was 3.72 which sounds good but it actually ranked him fifth among the six pitchers on the Pirates who threw at least 100 innings. That accounted for his 14-17 record for a team that went 81-73. On August 24th, Rip pitched 11.2 innings in a 4-3 loss to the Braves. It was his third complete game in an eight day span and it was the second of three times that year that he pitched a complete game and took the loss in extra innings.
Just days after signing his contract for the 1942 season, Sewell was wounded in both legs during a hunting accident. The hunting injury turned into a blessing in disguise for his baseball career, first in made him ineligible for military service and secondly, he had to change his delivery, which led to a new pitch that made him famous, the Eephus pitch. Sewell threw a slow ball with a high arc(20-25 feet) that took forever to get to the plate and was nearly impossible to get good wood on, leaving batters flailing at the pitch most of the time.
Despite the injury, he was ready to go on Opening Day and he started the year off with two complete game wins, but things went south quick. By the end of May, he had an ERA of 5.18 and he had lost four start decisions. By the end of the season, he would lower his ERA nearly two runs and finish with a 17-15 record for a Pirates team that finished 15 games under the .500 mark. No one else on the team won more than eight games and he threw nearly 100 more innings than the next highest total.
The Pirates were much better in 1943 and Rip pitched great through the beginning of August, compiling a 17-3 record. He finished the year off 4-6 but still led the league with 21 wins and 25 complete games. He finished fourth in the league with a 2.54 ERA, made his first all-star appearance and finished sixth in the NL MVP voting. He was again, easily the best pitcher on the team. No one else won more than eleven games or came close to his inning total.
In 1944, the Pirates finished second in the NL, winning 90 games and Sewell led the way with his 21 wins. He made his second straight all-star appearance and pitched a career high of 286 innings. From 1941-44, Sewell pitched at least 248 innings in every season and he threw a total of 85 complete games over that span. He won a total of 89 games over a five year span, from 1940-44.
During the 1945 home opener, Sewell beat the Cubs 5-4 for his 100th career win. He began to slow down during this season, especially in the second half. On July 19th, he shutout the Giants for his 11th win. He would make six more starts and pitch four times in relief without winning another game. Rip still pitched 188 innings, third highest total on the team, but his 4.07 ERA was the highest since his second season in Pittsburgh.
Rip made his third all-star appearance in 1946, serving up one of the most famous homers in the AS game’s history. With the score out of hand late, he faced Ted Williams and threw him three Eephus pitches. The first was a foul ball, the second was called a ball and the third one, Williams belted for a homer. It was the first and only homer off of Sewell’s Eephus pitch, although it comes with the huge disclaimer that Williams knew it was coming and Sewell usually threw the pitch only a handful of times per game, not three times to the same batter.
Sewell finished up 1946 with an 8-12 record and went nearly two full months without a win from July until September. In 1947, his inning total was down to 121 IP and he made just twelve starts. He was still an effective pitcher, posting a 3.57 ERA with a 6-4 record. His inning total was nearly the same the next year(121.2) but he made more starts and less relief appearances. He finished with 13-3 record during that 1948 season, which was both a career best and league leading .813 winning percentage. The amazing thing about that 1948 season was the fact that Sewell thought he was finished as a pitcher after the 1947 season so he decided to become a coach. He came to Spring Training and decided he still had something left in the tank, then ended up leading the NL in winning percentage.
Rip actually had two years left in him after that 1947 season. He wasn’t used much in 1949, pitching a total of 76 innings, mostly in relief, but he still finished with a 3.91 ERA and a 6-1 record. He finally did retire after that season, taking a minor league managing job for the Pirates. He would manage for two years and even got into two games in 1950 before retiring from baseball.
Among Pirates pitchers in franchise history, Sewell ranks tied for seventh with Ray Kremer with 143 wins. He is also seventh in innings pitched with 2108.2, tenth in starts(243) and complete games(137), while throwing twenty shutouts. During the decade of the 1940’s, no National League pitcher won more games than Sewell, who had 133 victories during that span. Rip is the last pitcher in team history to win twenty games twice.
He went from a 29 year old pitcher in the minors, with no major league wins and coming off a season in which he posted an 8.12 ERA, to a 143 game winner and one of the best pitchers in Pittsburgh Pirates team history.