As summer inevitably gives way to autumn, baseball fans are gearing up for
post-season play, when the league’s top teams battle each other for the World
Series title, just as they have done for over a century. As a game rich in
history, tradition and ritual, it is not surprising that there has been an
ongoing love affair between Jews and the sport, one that only intensifies at
this time of year amid the drama of the playoffs.
But even as the
attention of enthusiasts is turned towards the action on the field, it is worth
recalling the legendary exploits of a Jewish baseball hero of the past, one
whose 120th yahrzeit (anniversary of his death) falls on October 10 and whose
exploits have yet to receive the recognition they deserve.
It was an
unusually hot day in Philadelphia on July 16, 1866, when Brooklyn-born Lipman
Pike suited up in his Philadelphia Athletics uniform as the team prepared to
face off against its hometown rivals, the Philadelphia Alerts.
year had passed since the end of America’s bloody Civil War, and as the country
healed its wounds, it looked for ways to regain its lost sense of wonder and
innocence. Baseball provided that, and its popularity began to take off,
propelling it towards becoming the national pastime.
At the time,
American Jewry numbered an estimated 150,000 people, out of a total population
of some 31 million. The overwhelming majority of American Jews were recent
arrivals: Just a decade earlier, there had been only 50,000 Jews living in the
United States. Most of the immigrants were German Jews looking for greater
opportunity and freedom, but anti-Semitism often stood in the way of their quest
for social acceptance among the American mainstream.
Pike was no stranger
to Jew-hatred, which he had contended with both on and off the field.
on that sultry Philadelphia afternoon, he would proceed to strike a crushing
blow, not only for the record books, but also against the canard that Jews
lacked athletic prowess.
With six swings of his bat, Pike entered
baseball history. He did something that had never been done before or since,
blasting six home runs in one game, including five in a row, to lead his team to
a lopsided victory.
Since 1876 is considered to be the start of what we
know today as professional baseball, Pike’s accomplishment a decade earlier does
not appear in the official record books.
Nonetheless, the story of his
prowess long ago entered baseball lore, and it is one of those rare achievements
that will almost certainly never be matched. Indeed, in case you were wondering,
the modern record for most home runs in a single game stands at four.
THE grand sweep of history, a Jewish guy hitting six homers in Philly back in
the 19th century may not seem all that worthy of mention. After all, the Jewish
people have produced some of humanity’s greatest scientists, philosophers and
So does it really matter that a member of the tribe excelled
at baseball almost 150 years ago? The answer is: yes, it most certainly
Pike was perhaps the first American Jew to gain national fame as a
sports icon, setting the stage for later generations of Jews to make their
He braved anti-Semitism, along with the skepticism of his parents
and peers, and went on to irrevocably change America’s favorite game. And for
that alone, it is worth paying tribute to this pioneer, the first “Hammerin’
Hebrew” to circle the bases with authority.
Lipman Emanuel Pike was born
on May 25, 1845, to Dutch Jewish parents who had moved to Brooklyn. He
reportedly began playing baseball shortly after his bar mitzva, and as he
entered adulthood, his love for the game did not abate.
Pike came to be
known as “the Iron Batter,” and Bill Jenkinson – a leading historian of the game
– has described him as “baseball’s first great power hitter” and “clearly the
king of baseball’s early sluggers.”
FOR THREE years in a row, from 1871
to 1873, Pike led the National Association (the precursor of today’s National
League) in home runs. Although primarily an outfielder, Pike played every
position and also managed a number of teams throughout his career.
1866, it came to light that Pike was receiving $20 a week to play ball, making
him among the first professional ballplayers.
No comprehensive statistics
exist for his exploits between 1866 and 1870, but according to the Baseball
Biography Project, Pike appeared in a total of 425 games between 1871 and 1881,
batting an impressive .321 with a slugging average of .463.
to power, Pike was blessed with unusual speed, so much so that he would
supplement his income by competing in races. His most famous match-up came on
August 16, 1873, in Baltimore, when Pike decided to take on a horse named
Clarence in a 100-yard dash.
Pike completed the race in precisely 10
seconds, leaving the horse in the proverbial dust and taking home $250 – quite a
tidy sum in those days.
His last appearance on the baseball diamond came
with the New york Metropolitans on July 28, 1887, when he patrolled center field
and batted sixth at the grand old age of 42.
Upon retirement, he ran a
haberdashery shop in Brooklyn, following in his father’s footsteps.
having been born to play, Pike didn’t last long off the field. In 1893, he died
of heart disease, at the age of 48. Funeral services were held at Temple Israel
in Brooklyn, and Pike was interred in the nearby Salem Fields
Several months later, in an October 1893 tribute, the Sporting
News described him as “one of the few sons of Israel who ever drifted to the
business of ball playing.”
In the intervening century, of course, all
that has changed, as Jews such as slugger Hank Greenberg and pitcher Sandy
Koufax – and more recently outfielder Shawn Green – have made baseball
Even in the Holy Land, a growing number of “sons of Israel” are
taking to the ballfield, thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Israel
Association of Baseball. And last year, Israel participated for the first time
in the 16-team Qualifying Round for the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
aside from baseball history buffs, Pike’s story has been largely unknown. It is
only recently that he has begun to get the widespread recognition he so rightly
TWO YEARS ago, author Richard Michelson wrote a delightful
32-page picture book for kids titled Lipman Pike: America’s First Home-Run King.
And New york City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission voted to designate a new
historic district in northwestern Brooklyn that includes the home at 123
Vanderbilt Avenue where Pike grew up.
Nonetheless, there is one
historical injustice that has not been corrected: Pike has yet to be admitted to
Baseball’s Hall of Fame.
In light of his prominence and contributions to
the game, it is time for this to change.
By any measure, Lipman Pike’s
name deserves to be among those immortalized at baseball’s national shrine in
Cooperstown, New york. His absence is an insult to generations of Jews who love
It is a glaring omission that warrants rectification, and it is
time for the electors who choose entrants to the Hall of Fame to do the right
thing and vote Pike in.
Michelson has launched a petition drive to get
Lipman Pike into the Hall of Fame, and it has quickly garnered more than 100
signatures from a variety of baseball authors, historians and enthusiasts. Take
a moment and go to
add your name to this important initiative.
Remember: every time a Jewish
kid picks up a bat and takes a swing at a ball, he is following in Pike’s
footsteps. As a trailblazer and baseball’s first Jewish star, and a man of
upright virtue, Lipman Pike’s legacy deserves to be rescued from obscurity and
given its due.The writer is the founder and chairman of Shavei
Israel/Israel Returns, a Jerusalem-based organization that searches for and
assists the Lost Tribes of Israel and other “hidden Jews” seeking to return to
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