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The Hall of Fame Case for Lip Pike

The superstar—a proud Jew known as the ‘Iron Batter’—slugged his way into the record books of pre-integration era baseball. But the powers that be won’t even put him on the Cooperstown ballot.

Richard Michelson
October 01, 2015
Zachary Pullen (from Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King--Sleeping Bear Press).
Caricature of Lip PikeZachary Pullen (from Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King--Sleeping Bear Press).
Zachary Pullen (from Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King--Sleeping Bear Press).
Caricature of Lip PikeZachary Pullen (from Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King--Sleeping Bear Press).

Had there been a Baseball Hall of Fame at the turn of the 20th century, Lipman Emanuel “Lip” Pike would have been an overwhelming choice. The Jewish superstar, who died in 1893, led the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players (the forerunner to the present-day National League) in home runs the first three years of professional ball. Pike once hit six home runs in a single game; in 1872 for the Baltimore Canaries, Pike hit 17.2 percent of all homers in the league, a number not bested until 1920 when Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees broke Pike’s record (20.07 percent).

When the Baseball Hall of Fame was founded in 1936, Pike was on the ballot and received only one vote. The five players who were inducted into that inaugural Hall of Fame class were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. These ballplayers, especially the first three, are household names, but Pike has been slowly forgotten, forced out of the public imagination as the game grew in popularity. His legacy remains in relative obscurity—and there is no plaque for him in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 2012, the Hall of Fame inaugurated a 3-year cycle to consider “Pre-Integration Era” players, managers, umpires and executives; those whose greatest contributions to the game were realized prior to 1947. At that time, a ten-name ballot was devised by 11 members of the Historical Overview Committee of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Three new members were inducted: Deacon White, a NAPBBP catcher who competed against Pike; Hank O’Day, an umpire; and Jacob Ruppert, an executive who purchased the New York Yankees in 1915. Pike wasn’t even nominated.

This year the committee is again devising a 10-name ballot, the results of which will be announced October 5, five days before the 122nd anniversary of Pike’s death. If Pike makes the ballot, a Hall of Fame-appointed 16-member Pre-Integration Era Committee will then vote “yay” or “nay” regarding Pike’s induction. Twelve votes (75%) are needed for approval.

Lip Pike, Wikipedia
Lip Pike, Wikipedia

I believe that Pike, considered to be the first professional Jewish ballplayer, should be inducted. So I’ve created a petition, co-sponsored by 18 prominent Jewish baseball historians, urging the committee to honor him. And the statistics should speak for themselves. In addition to the aforementioned feats, Pike, known as the “Iron Batter”, finished in the top ten in slugging percentage and doubles in seven consecutive seasons, and in triples and total bases six times. And he accomplished all this in only eight full seasons.

Even Jewish sports enthusiasts have mostly forgotten Pike, who was the Hank Greenberg or Sandy Koufax of his day. Perhaps in the early to mid-20th century, as anti-Semitism increased, Jews were embarrassed by the accusation that Pike “followed the money.” In 1866, when he turned 21 years old, Pike accepted $20/week “under the table” to move from the Brooklyn Atlantics to the Philadelphia Athletics. Someone tipped off the local newspaper, and Pike was ordered to appear before the governing committee of the National Association of Base Ball Players. The matter was dropped, most likely because other players were being paid as well, but Pike, as the “Jewish outsider”, was tarred with being more interested in money than in the “gentleman’s sport.” Within two years the rules were officially changed and players were allowed to accept payment, leading to the formation of the first all-professional league, the NAPBBP, 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. He would be suspected of “disloyalty” to the home team throughout his career.

Pike was proud of his heritage and he was loved and celebrated by Brooklyn’s Jewish community in turn. There was an outpouring of grief after his death of heart disease on October 10, 1893 at the age of 48, and his funeral was a major event. According to his obituary in The Brooklyn Eagle, “Many wealthy Hebrews and men high in political and old time baseball circles” attended the services. The Sporting News noted that “Lip” Pike…one of the few sons of Israel who ever drifted to the business of ball playing… [He] was a handsome fellow…who has been called out by Umpire Death. [Pike] was one of the greatest sluggers who ever batted.”

Based on career statistics alone, Pike deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. 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 baseball player, and the first Jewish player, manager and umpire—Pike was a pioneer, and baseball’s Hall of Fame is the 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—Greenberg and Koufax among them—to make their mark.

Richard Michelson is the author of Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King. He is a three-time finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and he has received a Sydney Taylor Gold and Silver Medal from the Association of Jewish Librarians. His books have been listed among the Ten Best of the Year by The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and The New Yorker. In April 2015, his latest poetry collection, More Money than God, was excerpted in Tablet.