Obituary: Ray Rippelmeyer (1933-2022)

RIP to Ray Rippelmeyer, whose 11-year pitching career included time spent with the Washington Senators in 1963. He also spent much of the 1970s as the pitching coach of the Philadelphia Phillies. Rippelmeyer died on September 9 in Waterloo, Ill. He was 89 years old.

Raymond Roy Rippelmeyer was born in Valmeyer, Ill., on July 9, 1933. His parents were farmers who lived off Route 1 just outside the city. His father, Raymond, was a successful hog producer and also grew corn. Ray Jr. (also known as “Bud” or “Rip”) first made a name for himself as a leading scorer on the Walmeyer High School basketball team. He also played baseball there and became a letterman at both sports when he moved on to Southern Illinois University in 1951. Standing 6’3″, Rippelmeyer was best known at SIU as a basketball player and was named the team’s most valuable player in 1953 after scoring an average of 15.3 points per game. However, he was also a talented pitcher who excelled as either a starter or reliever. On August 1, 1953, he informed the school that he had signed a professional contract with the Milwaukee Braves, thereby terminating his college eligibility. He said in a letter to basketball coach Lynn Holder that the decision was, “the hardest I ever had to make in my life,” but that the Milwaukee scouts had convinced him that he was a good major-league prospect. Dewey Griggs was the scout who signed him to the contract, worth less than the $5,000 that would have made him a “bonus baby.” Rippelmeyer also transferred to Southeast Missouri State University to continue his college education. He was also eligible to play college basketball there, unlike SIU.

Source: Southern Illinoisan, March 3, 1953.

Rippelmeyer started his professional career in 1954. The Milwaukee Braves had, at the time, a slew of young and talented pitchers, including Gene Conley, Bob Buhl and Johnny Antonelli, and their minor-league teams were all successful already. “But the scout who signed me said the Braves have been going in for quality rather than quantity. They have been signing only the players whom they think have big league potential right away,” he told the Southern Illinoisan in January of ’54. He was tried out at Toledo, which was the Braves’ highest-level minor-league team, but he was said to be too wild. So he did the bulk of his pitching in Evansville of the Class-B Three-I League. There, he won 16 games with a league-leading 2.91 ERA, completing 16 of his 26 starts and throwing 3 shutouts. He was still rather wild — 95 walks in 204 innings. However, he also struck out 104 hitters. He finished the season with 13 straight complete game wins and didn’t take a loss until a relief appearance in the playoffs. The winning run of that game scored on an infield hit. When the season ended, Rippelmeyer went home to Waterloo to marry his college sweetheart, Glenda Faye Jones.

Rippelmeyer played for the Atlanta Crackers in 1955 and had a more pedestrian season, with a 9-11 record and 4.35 ERA. The team’s pitching staff underperformed as a whole, and he put the blame on manager George McQuinn for mishandling his pitchers. Rippelmeyer missed the entire 1956 season due to military commitments, though he did pitch for the Fort Carson (Colo.) Mountaineers in the All-Army World Series tournament. He returned to the pro ranks in May of 1957 with the Triple-A Wichita Braves as a reliever. For the next two years, he shuttled between Braves minor-league teams — Wichita to Atlanta and back again and then to Louisville and back to Atlanta and so on — and won 15 games in 1958 and 14 in ’59. He made a bit of Southern Association history in 1958 when he threw the first shutout in the history of City Park Stadium, the notoriously tiny home of the New Orleans Pelicans. He accomplished the feat on May 25, 1958, and he almost did it again before the Pels’ Frank Leja hit a 3-run homer to right that was estimated to have traveled all of 330 feet. With all the success, Rippelmeyer never stayed with one team for very long and never got a serious look at a promotion to the majors.

The Seattle Raniers, the Pacific Coast League affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, did Rippelmeyer a favor by picking him in the minor-league draft on November 30, 1959. The move didn’t get him to the majors, but it at least allowed him to stay with one team for the entire 1960 season. The 26-year-old Rippelmeyer won 16 games with a 2.71 ERA for Seattle, and he tallied 98 strikeouts in 229 innings against just 57 walks. He was named to the PCL All-Star team and was, along with Tacoma’s Juan Marichal, one of the top hurlers in the league. Cincinnati changed its Triple-A franchise to Indianapolis in 1961, and Rippelmeyer won 13 games there. That winter, Rippelmeyer was drafted once again, this time by the Washington Senators in the Rule V draft.

Rippelmeyer made an unexpected major-league debut in the first inning of the Senators game against Cleveland on April 14. Starter Claude Osteen was knocked from the game after retiring one batter, and the rookie came into the game with runners on second and third with the Senators already down 4-0. The first batter he faced, Jerry Kindall, singled to score both runs, but then Rippelmeyer fanned pitcher Gary Bell and got Tito Francona on a ground ball to third base to escape the inning. Washington never recovered from the deficit and lost 6-3, but Rippelmeyer threw 5-2/3 innings of scoreless ball. After that outing, though, other teams scored off him in each of his next five appearances. The long ball was particularly problematic. Rippelmeyer gave up two home runs in his second outing against Detroit and surrendered 7 home runs in his 39-1/3 innings pitched.

Washington won its first 2 games and then went on a 13-game losing streak, sandwiched around wins by pitcher Pete Burnside. That streaked knocked the team into the cellar, where they spent the rest of the season. Rippelmeyer was asked to eat innings, and he frequently threw 2 or more per appearance. His one major-league win came on June 1, when he worked the final 2 innings of a 12-inning game against the Twins. He didn’t allow a hit and picked up the win after Washington’s Chuck Hinton homered off losing pitcher Jim Donohue.

Rippelmeyer’s final major-league appearance was his only start, on July 1 against the Twins. He was tagged for 4 runs in 3-2/3 innings, including homers by Lenny Green and Bernie Allen. The loss left him with a 1-2 record and a 5.49 ERA. Two weeks later, he was optioned back to the Reds Triple-A affiliate, which was the San Diego Padres of the PCL. In 39-1/3 innings, he struck out 17 and walked 17 and had a WHIP of 1.627. When reminiscing about his career later in life, Rippelmeyer admitted that he had a sore shoulder and tried to pitch through the pain while he was in the majors.

With limited at-bats, Rippelmeyer enjoyed some tremendous success as a hitter. He had 3 hits in 6 at-bats, including a double and home run. His best day at the plate came on May 3 against Boston. He homered off starter Bill Monbouquette in the bottom of the third inning and then singled off him in the fifth. He scored all the way from first base on a Jim King single and then had to take the mound in the top of the sixth. The first batter, Frank Malzone, doubled, and then with two outs, Rippelmeyer walked Chuck Schilling intentionally and Monbouquette unintentionally. Pete Runnels then singled in 2 runs. Prior to his sprint around the bases, Rippelmeyer had been cruising through the game, with 3-1/3 scoreless innings.

Rippelmeyer finished off the 1962 season in San Diego and then spent the next three seasons there as well. Not only was he one of the team’s best pitchers for a time, but the Illinois farmboy was a four-time cow-milking champion at an annual event the Padres held during Dairy Week. Rippelmeyer led PCL starters in 1963 with a .846 winning percentage (he won 11 games and lost twice) and a 2.61 ERA. He won 14 games in 1964 but struggled terribly in 1965. During the offseason, he had smashed the tip of his right middle finger while loading a tractor back at home, and he wasn’t the same player after the injury. The 31-year-old pitcher spent most of the time working out of the bullpen and had a 7.96 ERA when he retired to take the job of manager for the Aberdeen Pheasants of the Northern League. Both the Reds and the Orioles shared a working agreement with the team. The Pheasants’ season opened on June 27, and the team finished with a 27-39 record under the new manager. Only one player, pitcher Paul Gilliford, ever reached the majors.

Rippelmeyer ended his 11-year minor-league career with a 114-83 record. As a hitter, he batted .212 and had 10 home runs, including 5 alone in 1959. Following the end of Aberdeen’s season, he returned to San Diego of the PCL to work as a coach in 1966. He also managed for three games when Padres manager Frank Lucchesi was suspended after a run-in with an umpire. He kicked some dirt, but at least the fiery manager didn’t climb a light tower. Rippelmeyer spent his summers in baseball and his winters back in the Midwest as a basketball official. He and his brother, Rob, also operated an 800-acre farm in Valmeyer, raising corn, wheat, soybeans and 1,600 head of hogs.

The Phillies hired Rippelmeyer as a minor-league pitching instructor in 1968. He was promoted to the parent club when Lucchesi was named manager of the Phillies in 1970. He added Rippelmeyer to his staff as pitching coach. He kept to a pretty simple philosophy. When asked about what he stressed when working with a young pitcher, Rippelmeyer said, “Concentration, then control. The curve ball can be polished up last… If a boy can get by on a good fast ball and a curve, I won’t recommend another pitch. Let him be.”

The Phillies were pretty terrible under Lucchesi, and the poor pitching could hardly be blamed on Rippelmeyer. He’d taught them everything he knew, but it just wasn’t enough. “There were times this season when I said, ‘Skip, I’m out of ideas,'” he said. Aside from starter Rick Wise and stopper Joe Hoerner, the team had few dependable arms. The pitching coach ended up outlasting the manager, as Lucchesi was dismissed in the middle of 1972. General manager Paul Owens ran the team for the rest of the season, with the idea of choosing a new full-time manager in 1973. Owens, who hadn’t been in uniform in decades, gave complete control of the pitching staff to his coach for the rest of the year. Rippelmeyer was interested in the manager’s job but understood the risks that came with it. “As a pitching coach I could be around for 10 years. I might be a manager for a year and then be out. Period,” he said.

Owens hired Danny Ozark as the new Phillies manager, and Rippelmeyer retained his role as pitching coach. By then, things were starting to turn around. Steve Carlton, acquired from St. Louis for Wise, turned into an ace in 1972 with a league-leading 27 wins and 1.97 ERA. One of the keys to Carlton’s success was his slider, a pitch he hadn’t used very often until Rippelmeyer insisted that he add it to his arsenal. The pitcher lost 20 games the following year and had a couple of good, but not great, seasons after that. Rippelmeyer theorized that Carlton had to transition from the power pitcher he used to be into a finesse pitcher. “Steve’s curve ball is his bread and butter pitch. He doesn’t have a great fastball… It doesn’t have that life to it. But when his curve is there, then the fast ball is a great pitch because there’s no way a hitter can look for either pitch,” the coach said in 1974. “And when he came up with a super slider two years ago he was damn near unhittable because there’s no way he could be beat when he had all three of them going.”

Carlton regained his ace form in 1974 and credited Ripplemeyer with helping him correct some mechanical issues. The Phillies also began adding complementary pieces to the pitching staff like Dick Ruthven, Larry Christenson, Gene Garber and Tug McGraw. The team finished in second place in 1975 after a close pennant race with Pittsburgh. The pitching coach and manager didn’t always see eye to eye on pitching decisions, and at one point in 1975, Ozark took over the role himself and made Rippelmeyer a first base coach. They patched their differences right before the team when on a sustained run of success for the first time in the franchise’s long history. The Phillies won the AL East from 1976 through 1978, though the team was not able to get past the NL Championship Series and reach the World Series. They finally won the NL pennant and the World Series in 1980, but by then, both Ozark and Rippelmeyer were gone. Ozark was fired in 1979 when the Phillies stumbled, and Rippelmeyer decided to retire from coaching after 1978 to focus on his farming operation in Illinois.

Rippelmeyer occasionally gave baseball clinics in southern Illinois and was involved with the Valmeyer Youth Sports Association and numerous local business and civic organizations. While the Phillies made overtures to get him to return to his role as pitching coach, he stayed in Valmeyer as the co-owner of Rippelmeyer Farms Inc. He was only pulled back into baseball when his old friend Lucchesi managed the Nashville Sounds in 1988 and ’89. Rippelmeyer agreed to serve as his pitching coach and stayed on the job through 1990. He then served as the roving pitching coach and assistant director of player development for the Cincinnati Reds in 1991 before working as a minor-league pitching coach for several other teams throughout the 1990s. He also served as an advisor to baseball operations for the New York Mets. He retired from baseball — again — after the 2008 season.

Rippelmeyer is survived by his four children, Tara, Tamara, Lorri and Brad. All four were good athletes, and Brad Rippelmeyer spent six years in the Braves’ organization, from 1991-96. After he stepped away from the Phillies, Ray Rippelmeyer was asked about his coaching career, and he was proud of what he had done.

“The best coaches are usually short on talent, and because of that they’re forced to study every phase of the game, to develop the things — the little things — that would help them to win,” he said. “When I started [with the Phillies] we had noting. We were trying to compete with players of less than major-league caliber. But we turned it all around. We didn’t have a world of talent. But we got all we could out of every one of them. And I feel like I had a big part in that.”

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2 thoughts on “Obituary: Ray Rippelmeyer (1933-2022)

  1. Sam-thank you for sharing this. While I have heard many of these stories from Dad, I am not sure most people have and I appreciate you doing the research. One note-our home town is Valmeyer, IL.

    Liked by 1 person

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