Jimmy Ripple: Export's major leaguer
By Bob Cupp
Friday, January 27, 2006
Baseball was the most popular sport in Westmoreland County coal patch towns during the early part of the 20th century. Each town had its own team, with players' pay often subsidized by the mining companies.
And Export shares in that long, rich baseball tradition.
John Lindsay, a Westmoreland Coal Co. employee from Export who eventually became president of the First National Bank of Export, was subsidized to play shortstop. It was said that Lindsay used to cut a hole in the center of his glove to enable him to catch the ball better. As a result, the palm of his hand was calloused from taking the impact instead of the leather.
Elvin P. Hilty was a legendary Export pitcher. Known as "Count" Hilty, he played from the time he was 18 until he was 39.
When offered a contract by the New York Giants, Hilty declined it, saying, "I can make more money working as a plumber for the railroad and pitching semi-pro ball than I can in the big leagues." Professional baseball players earned considerably less in those days.
James A. "Jimmy" Ripple was the first major league baseball player from Export. An outfielder who threw right-handed and batted left-handed, he began his professional baseball career in 1929 with Jeannette of the Middle Atlantic League. He hit .336 that year, setting an all-time league record with 24 triples.
Ripple played six seasons (1930-1935) with the Montreal Royals in the International League before the New York Giants finally gave him his first major league opportunity in 1936. He batted over .300 with Montreal, knocking in more than 100 runs in each of his final two years.
Born in Delmont in 1909, Ripple married Export resident Helen Berlin and moved there soon after he started playing for Montreal. The people of Export quickly adopted him as one of their own, and his name was always associated with Export.
In 1935, Ripple batted .333 as Frank Shaughnessy's Montreal team won its first International League pennant since 1898. His contract was then sold to Bill Terry's New York Giants for a reported $20,000, which was a large amount of money in that era.
Ripple was extremely popular with Montreal fans. When his contract was sold to the Giants, they passed the hat for him and collected $1,900. In a Montreal Star article on former Montreal athletes, sportswriter Al Parsley wrote that "few players made a more indelible impression than Jimmy Ripple on Montreal fans." Parsley added that "Ripple exemplified dash and color as an outfielder, with circus and somersaulting catches commonplace. He was taken into the hearts of the fans."
Ripple batted .305 in 1936 during his first season with New York. Aided by the strength of his bat, the Giants were able to come from fifth place that year to win the National League pennant race. The Giants were the National League champs the first two years Ripple was in the majors. He hit a fifth-inning home run in the third game of the 1936 World Series, but the New York Yankees won the game 2-1. The Yankees beat the Giants in the 1936 Series in six games and again in the 1937 Series in five games.
In 1937, Ripple led the Giants in hitting with a .317 batting average. After a successful road trip that September, the New York Journal credited Ripple with lifting another pennant above the Polo Grounds. "Jimmy alone didn't win it, for it was a nine-man job every day, but he symbolizes all the qualities that are the Giants' strength and resources. His physical contributions, at the plate and in the field, were tremendous, but, over and beyond that, he expressed the fire and controlled fury that devastated the enemy country."
Just as the Export semi-pro players who preceded him, Ripple was a hard-nosed baseball player; he didn't wear a batting helmet. The New York Daily News promoted the use of helmets after a 1938 "beaning" incident involving Ripple. "In the sixth inning, Jimmy Ripple had to fall away from a fast ball coming directly at his head. He hit the dirt but got up and walloped a homer into the upper tier of the right field stands.
"In the eighth inning, however, Ripple wasn't so lucky. A pitch delivered by Buck Morrow caught him squarely on the right side of the head, just above the ear. He dropped as if poleaxed. His teammates carried the luckless Ripple off the field," but the team physician declared his injury would not prevent "Rip" from accompanying the team west on their upcoming road trip.
Ripple was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939 and to the Cincinnati Reds in 1940. Cincinnati won the National League pennant that year and went on to defeat Detroit in the World Series with a six-RBI contribution from Ripple. He hit a homer in the second game of the series, won by the Reds 5-3.
Ripple stayed with Cincinnati for part of the 1941 season, then was sent to Rochester.
He was with Rochester in 1942, Toronto in 1943, and finally returned to the majors with the Philadelphia Athletics later in 1943. A pulled tendon in his left leg ended his major league career. In 1944, his last in professional baseball, Ripple played in the minors for Louisville, Seattle and San Francisco.
With a lifetime average of .321 in the International League, Ripple was honored with induction in the league's hall of fame. Ripple batted .317 in 1937 with the Giants and .330 in 28 games with the Dodgers in 1940. During part of the 1941 season with Rochester, he hit .378 in 52 games. Ripple had 21 home runs for Montreal in 1932 and 10 for the Giants in 1938.
In "The Giants of the Polo Grounds," a comprehensive history of the New York Giants baseball team, author Noel Hynd described many of the classic moments during the period when the Giants won 15 pennants from 1900 until their infamous move to San Francisco in 1957. One of the book's stories describes a confrontation between Jimmy Ripple and Dizzy Dean when the Giants were playing against the St. Louis Cardinals.
"Dean exercised his temper by throwing at New York Giants' baseball caps while the Giant hitters still had their heads in them. After several Giants had dropped like flies in the batter's box, and after the home plate umpire took a boys-will-be-boys attitude toward the events, crusty Giants' Center Fielder Jimmy Ripple took matters into his own hands.
"After being dropped, but not hit, by a pitch himself, he looked into the New York dugout as if to give his team a cue. 'All right, you hillbilly,' he shouted at Dean, 'the next one is going down the first base line. Let's see if you have the guts to cover.'
"The next pitch was bunted down the first base line. Dean covered. But the ball was bunted too hard and went out toward second base, where Cardinals shortstop Jimmy Brown fielded it. Dean, who no longer belonged in the play, kept coming toward first, dead set on not being intimidated by Ripple. As if to see how much fun he could have with the play, Brown held the ball for an extra second, allowing Dean, the ball, first baseman Johnny Mize, and Ripple to all arrive at the same moment.
"Crash. Dean and Ripple, forgetting all about the play, plowed into each other simultaneously. Fists were flying before the players hit the ground. The Giants bench emptied, as did the Cardinal bench. As a side event, catchers Gus Mancuso and Mickey Owen squared off in their own private heavyweight match.
"Eventually, umpires called in the St. Louis police to separate the players. Incredibly, Dean and Ripple were allowed to stay in the game, but Mancuso and Owen were booted. The next day Mancuso and Owen were fined by league President Frick, who, moving in his usual mysterious ways, declined to fine Dean and Ripple for instigating the brawl."
Export native Wanda Berlin Halavan remembers her Uncle Jim Ripple as "a man's man."
"He was an avid hunter. Everyone liked him; he was one nice guy," Halavan said. "Whenever it would snow, he'd always load shovels and ashes in his car and drive around Export helping people who had gotten their cars stuck."
Halavan recalls visiting her Aunt Helen and Uncle Jim in 1939 at their Riverside Drive apartment in New York.
"They lived in New York during the season, but always returned to their Export home during the off-season. Aunt Helen took me to the Polo Grounds to watch Uncle Jim play ball," Halavan said.
"When Uncle Jim played for the Giants, every time he hit a home run, he got a free case of individual-size Wheaties. The family ate a lot of Wheaties! When the Giants played in Pittsburgh, some of the New York players, like Carl Hubbell, Harry Danning and Mel Ott, would come to the house for dinner after the game."
Baseball wasn't Ripple's only athletic pursuit. His bowling average was 180 and he played golf in the 80s. He was a member at Hannastown Country Club, where he shot a hole-in-one.
After his retirement from baseball, Jimmy Ripple operated the 12th Street Hotel in Jeannette for seven years. He was back in Jeannette where his baseball career began. For many years, a painting of Ripple and several other local professional sports celebrities was displayed behind the bar at Jeannette's Sportsmen's Inn, demonstrating the popularity of this local sports hero.
Jimmy Ripple lived in Export until his death after a lengthy illness in 1959 at the age of 49. During his major league career, in nearly 2,000 times at bat and more than 550 games, Ripple struck out only 89 times. He compiled a .282 lifetime major league average, hitting .320 in three World Series with the Giants and Reds. In 1983, he was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.