Saturday, August 21, 2010

46. Lipman Pike: Somebody's Gotta Be First

Somebody has always got to be the first to do something, but not many people get that distinction multiple times. Lipman Pike is one of those people.

First of all, "Lipman" is his real name. I have no idea where that name derives from, but when Pike was born in New York City in 1845, his parents were Dutch Jews who owned a haberdashery so perhaps one of those things had something to do with the name. Whatever the origins, "Lip" as he was inevitably nicknamed, became a graceful athlete by his teens and he and his brothers took up the new sport of base-ball then popular with the young middle-class merchants in the city. As Pike's talents on the diamond became known, he switched from team to team continuously upgrading to better clubs. By the time he reached age 21 Lipman had travelled to Philadelphia where he joined the baseball team called the "Athletics". Pike was the prototype of a powerhitter and his early accomplishments at the plate includes a 6 home run game. The final score ended up being 67-25 so it remains a mystery how anyone noticed but 6 homers in 1 game is impressive none-the-less.

It was during this 1866 season that a horrific scandal enveloped the Philadelphia ballclub. Pike and two other teammates were discovered to be paid $20 a week to play ball for the Athletics. The sport was at that time a wholly gentlemanly amateur affair and to play for more than just glory, comradeship and exercise was just unthinkable. A hearing was set up by the National Association of Base Ball Players, the committee that oversaw the sport at the time. Apparently the controversy quickly subsided because no one showed up on the date the hearing was to be held and the whole matter dropped. Everyone knew some of the better players had been accepting cash secretly for years, it was just that Pike and his 2 teammates did it in the open. So with Pike accepting the money he became the first paid professional baseball player. With this distinction comes another first for Lipman Pike. Not only was he the first pro ballplayer, he was also the first Jewish ballplayer as well. This was not just an idle distinction, Pike was a true superstar of his time, almost 70 years before Hank Greenberg became the first modern Jewish baseball hero.

Philadelphia released Pike a year later because he was from New York and considered an outsider or foreigner by the Athletics, who I guess had conveniently forgotten this information the whole year he was on their payroll. Didn't matter much to Lip as he was a star and he played for the powerful Irvington, New Jersey team before being lured to the New York Mutuals. The next year, 1870, he crossed the East River and played for the Brooklyn Atlantics, the club that has the distinction of ending the Cincinnati Reds 89-game winning streak. Pike batted a tremendous .610.

In 1871 the National Association was formed, becoming the first professional baseball league. Pike of course became a player in this league and he signed with the Troy Haymakers. He batted a nice .377, good for 6th best in the league. It was with Troy that Pike grabbed another first when he led the National Association with 4 homers. Pike was now the first ever home run champion in baseball history. Pike continued to move around from team to team, Baltimore Canaries, Hartford Dark Blues, St. Louis Browns, Cincinnati Reds... his talents were always welcome at any location. He continued to hit for high averages including .574 with Hartford in 1874. But besides his hitting prowess, Pike was also a fast runner and often was a leader in steals at the season's end. So fast was Pike that he would challenge anyone to beat him for a cash prize. Seldom did he lose. In a famous 1873 incident he even raced a horse in a 100 yard dash, actually beating the challenger who happened to be a professional trotter.

By 1881 Pike was playing in the minors, having played the game for almost 20 years. Halfway through the 1881 season he was brought back to the big leagues when the National League Worchester Ruby Legs (I ain't making that up) needed a centerfielder. He played terribly and after a series of questionable lapse in the field, Pike was accused of throwing games. Unfortunately at the time this was a common occurrence and at the seasons end Pike and 8 other players were banned for life, effectively ending his career.

So Lipman Pike, first professional baseball player, first Jewish ballplayer, first home run champ, returned to New York City and opened up a haberdashery, dying at the age of 48 from heart disease. His funeral was a big event for the time, well attended by the baseball community who came to honor one of the first superstars of the game.

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