Remembering Lipman Pike
by Richard Michelson
The Answer is Lipman Pike.
The category is Jewish baseball stars. Which of these is the correct Jeopardy! question?
- Which player hit 6 home runs in a single game?
- Which player has the 2nd highest batter-to league home run percentage? A record that lasted 48 years and was bested only by Babe Ruth?
- Which player is widely acknowledged as the first “professional” in the history of baseball, setting the stage for the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (NA) in 1871 and the evolution of the game into a professional sport?
- Which player led baseball’s first professional league in home runs for the first three years of its existence?
- Who was the first Jewish manager?
- Which Jewish superstar is NOT in the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Yes, all of these questions are correct. Though you are forgiven if you thought the answer to question #2 was Hank Greenberg, who has the third highest Homer to League ratio (two Jews and the Babe in the top three spots). And you are excused if you are asking, who is Lipman Pike, and why haven’t I heard of him? Most people, even baseball fans, haven’t.
It’s not as if Pike didn’t capture headlines during his lifetime. Known for his power, his good looks and his bushy mustache, Pike was not only a slugger (nicknamed “The Iron Batter”), but he was also one of the fastest base runners of his day, and quite a showman. In 1873 he challenged a racehorse named Clarence to a hundred-yard sprint, and the hundreds of fans who paid 25 cents each watched Pike win by a nose, and collect the $250 purse ($5,000 in today’s money). Pike’s funeral, on October 10th, 1893, was one of the largest public events of his day, attended by teammates, fans, politicians and much of Brooklyn’s Jewish community.
Lipman Pike never hid his Jewish background, and he was proud of his heritage. His parents emigrated from Holland in the first half of the 19th century, during a time when a small but growing wave of Jews were leaving Europe to come to America. While some came for political and religious reasons, most were hoping for greater economic opportunities. America was mostly welcoming, as it was becoming urbanized, and wanted immigrants who could read (which most Jews could), and who had experience as peddlers and merchants (which were two of the few occupations available to Jews in Europe). Organized anti-Semitism was not yet a major concern, as the number of Irish and German immigrants was much larger than the number of Jewish immigrants, and almost half of Brooklyn’s population was foreign-born. Emanuel Pike, Lip’s father, encouraged his sons to assimilate by becoming involved in the new national pastime, while still retaining pride in their Jewish identity. (Lip’s older brother Boaz also played Base, as the game was known at the time, and he too reached “the majors.”)
Baseball’s creation myth, starring Civil War hero Abner Doubleday, was created in the early 1900s and, unsurprisingly, as in most American stories, money and commerce were involved. General Doubleday, most likely, never even played the game. Baseball was never mentioned in any of Doubleday’s extensive writings, nor was he mentioned in any baseball histories of his own time. Doubleday was publicized by Albert Spaulding, the sporting goods magnate, as a way to Americanize the game, build national pride and sell his equipment. Children, of course, were hitting, pitching and catching balls well before the official game of baseball was developed. As early as 1575 BCE, a wall relief on the banks of the Nile at the shrine of Hathor in Hatshepsut’s Temple showed the pharaoh, Thothmes III, holding an olive-wood branch, ready to strike with his right hand. In his left hand, he holds a ball, which he appears ready to throw. The inscription reads: “Striking the ball for Hathor who is foremost in Thebes.”
But in 1845, the year Lipman Pike was born, a committee from the New York Knickerbockers Base Ball Club drew up a set of rules which helped change a playground game into a sport played by adults. Other clubs soon formed their own teams, and in 1858, the year of Lip’s bar mitzvah, the National Association of Base Ball Players was formed. The league had 16 clubs, eight of which were from Brooklyn, six from across the river in Manhattan, and two from upstate. Seven days after Lip celebrated “becoming a man” he was invited to join the local junior club and play in his first official “amateur” match. Base was a game of “amateurs,” which meant that all the players had other jobs, and they played ball for fun when they were not working, or in Lip’s case, studying schoolwork. By necessity, therefore, players played for clubs near their homes.
During the Civil War, many of the Brooklyn boys played Base in the army camps and the game began to spread throughout the country. But as Base Ball became America’s most popular pastime and spectators began to pay to watch a “match,” “captains”—hoping to both give their team an advantage, and draw more “cranks” (fans)—began to secretly pay some of the better players even though it was against the rules. There’s no way of knowing which player was the first to be paid in this manner, but in 1866, when he turned 21 years old, Lip accepted $20 to move from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to join the Athletics. Someone tipped off the local newspaper, and Lip was ordered to appear before the governing committee of the National Association of Base Ball Players to answer the charge.
The matter was dropped, most likely because other players were being paid as well, and other clubs were also guilty. But Pike, as the “outsider,” was the easy target and he became publicly known (often negatively) as the first “professional” baseball player, more interested in money than in the “gentleman’s sport.” He would be suspected of “disloyalty” throughout his career, though he regularly answered the charge with his bat, helping his team win. He holds the career NA home run and extra-base records. Still, his Philadelphia teammates voted him off the roster so Lip moved to the New Jersey Irvingtons until Boss Tweed, New York’s Commissioner of Public Works, invited him to play for the New York Mutuals, closer to home. Pike was put on the government payroll, though he wasn’t expected to show up at the office.
Within two years the rules were officially changed and clubs were allowed to accept payment. As the game grew in popularity and more ball fields began to charge spectators, players insisted on their share of the proceeds, and this eventually led to the formation of the first all-professional league in 1871. Pike was the home run champ that year for the Troy Haymakers, and he also captained the team, becoming the first Jewish manager, before being let go. The following two years he led the league in home runs while playing for the Baltimore Canaries. Plagued by gambling and disorganization, the National Association dissolved after the 1875 season, only to be replaced by the National League. Pike continued to be one of the league’s most feared hitters, and he again captured the home run crown for the Cincinnati Reds in 1877, giving his four titles within seven years. By 1878, however, he was past his prime and one of the oldest players on the field. He bounced around over the next five years and played so poorly at the beginning of the 1881 season—not a single extra base hit in the first five games—that he was blacklisted by the league, although he was reinstated in 1883. He returned to haberdashery, which had been his father’s business, until he was called up again, at age 42, by the New York Metropolitans of the newly formed American Association. Pike was now the oldest player in baseball and he lasted one match before retiring for good, but he stayed connected to the game by umpiring part-time, thus becoming the first Jewish umpire.
When Pike died in 1893, his funeral was a major Brooklyn event. According to his obituary in The Brooklyn Eagle, “Many wealthy Hebrews and men high in political and old time baseball circles attended the funeral services of the late Lipman E. Pike.” Besides the many records he held, he was also, as the Sporting News reported, “always gentlemanly on and off the field.” Yet over the years, Lipman Pike has slowly been forgotten, forced out of the public imagination as the game grew in popularity. Had there been a Baseball Hall of Fame at the turn of the last century, Lipman Pike would have been an overwhelming choice. In fact, he did receive one vote in 1936, when the inaugural class of five was chosen: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.
Even Jewish sports enthusiasts have mostly forgotten Pike, who was the Greenberg or Koufax of his day, instilling pride in his community. Perhaps, in the early to mid-20th century, as anti-Semitism increased, Jews were embarrassed of the accusation that Pike “followed the money,” and that his loyalty to the home team was often suspect. And of course, baseball history began to be written by those like Spaulding and his successors who saw no advantage to championing a Jew as one of its seminal figures, and its first superstar.
Based on career statistics alone, Pike deserves to be in the Hall Fame. His statistics are even more impressive if you factor in the prejudices of his day that he had to overcome. But beyond mere numbers, as the first professional player, and as the first Jewish player, manager and umpire, Pike was a pioneer, and baseball’s Hall of Fame has a place for pioneers. Pike was the first American Jew to gain national fame as a sports icon setting the stage for later generations of Jews to make their mark.
Every time a Jewish kid picks up a bat, he is following in Pike’s footsteps. Pike’s legacy deserves to be rescued from obscurity and given its due. There are currently two Jewish players in the Cooperstown Hall of Fame. The question is, who will be the third?
Richard Michelson is the author of 20 children’s books, including Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, a National Jewish Book Award Finalist. His book As Good As Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom, was awarded the prestigious Sydney Taylor Award Gold Medal from the Association of Jewish Libraries, and A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet was awarded the Silver Medal. His book of adult poetry, More Money than God, will be published in 2015. A petition to get Lipman Pike voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame can be found here.