Posted on 7 October 2013
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.
Barely a 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.
But 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.
IN 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 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 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
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.
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 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, all
that has changed, as Jews such as slugger
Hank Greenberg and pitcher Sandy
Koufax – and more recently outfielder
Shawn Green – have made baseball history.
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.
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 rightly deserves.
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 the game.
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 www.change.org/petitions/induct-lipman-
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 Zion.