Time to honor America’s first Jewish home-run king

By
July 20, 2011 23:11

Fundamentally Freund: As an icon of Jewish athleticism,‘The Iron Batter’ deserves a spot in Baseball’s Hall of Fame.




Lipman Pike

Lipman Pike311. (photo credit:Courtesy)

This month marks the 145th anniversary of one of the greatest feats ever performed by a Jewish athlete.

With six swings of his bat, a young man from Brooklyn named Lipman Pike entered baseball history, doing something that had never been done before or since.

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As the story goes, on July 16, 1866, Pike was playing for the Philadelphia Athletics, who faced off against the Philadelphia Alerts.

It was an unusually hot day, but that didn’t stop Pike from single-handedly 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, Pikes’ accomplishment a decade previously does not appear in the official record books.

Nonetheless, the story of Pikes’ prowess long ago entered baseball lore, and 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.

In the grand sweep of history, a Jewish guy hitting six homers in Philly shortly after the end of America’s Civil War may not seem all that worthy of mention. After all, the Jewish people have produced some of humanity’s greatest scientists, philosophers and theologians. 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 does. 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 mark.

He braved anti-Semitism, along with the skepticism of his parents and peers, and went on to irrevocably change America’s national pastime. 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 mitzvah, 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, he 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.

In 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.

In addition to power, Pike was also 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.

But 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 Cemetery.

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, that has all changed, as Jews such as slugger Hank Greenberg and pitcher Sandy Koufax, and more recently outfielder Shawn Green, have made baseball history. Even here, in the Holy Land, a growing number of “sons of Israel” are taking to the ball field, thanks to the dedicated efforts of the Israel Association of Baseball. Just recently, Israel was invited to participate in a new 16-team Qualifying Round for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, which showcases the best players from around the globe.

BUT 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 richly deserves.

Earlier this year, author Richard Michelson wrote a delightful 32-page picture book for kids entitled, Lipman Pike: America’s First Home-Run King. And on July 12, 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 yet to be 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.

This October, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s (BBWAA) Historical Overview Committee will prepare a ballot of candidates who played between 1871 and 1946 to be considered for election to the hall next year.

By any measure, Lipman Pike’s name deserves to be on that list. His absence from baseball’s pantheon of heroes is an insult to generations of Jews who love the game. It is a glaring omission that warrants rectification, and I hope the electors of the BBWAA will see fit to do so.

Every time a Jewish kid picks up a bat and takes a swing at a ball, he is following in Pike’s footsteps. As baseball’s first Jewish star, and as a man of upright virtue, his legacy deserves to be rescued from obscurity and given its due.

The writer serves as Chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), a Jerusalem-based organization that assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.


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