May 25, 1845, is the birthdate of Lipman Pike, the first known professional baseball player (which also makes him the first known Jewish pro player). In a career that stretched from 1866 to 1887, “Lip” Pike earned a reputation as an effective hitter, a fast and graceful runner (who once beat a horse in 100-yard dash) and as a player who was “always gentlemanly on and off the field” as one obituary eulogized him.
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Lipman Emanuel Pike was born in New York to Emanuel Pike and the former Jane Lyons. His father was an immigrant from the Netherlands, where he was born in 1820, and his mother a New York native. Lipman, Boaz and Israel were the three males who survived to adulthood, and all three are believed to have played baseball in the game’s early days as a professional sport.
Lipman is believed to have begun playing baseball shortly after his bar mitzvah, in 1858. By 1866 he was playing for the Philadelphia Athletics, when a report appeared in a local newspaper that he (and possibly two others) was receiving $20 a week for his efforts. The National Association of Base Ball Players, the amateur game’s organizing league, summoned him to a hearing on the charges. Neither Pike nor any of the league’s officials showed up for the hearing, and he continued to play. In a July 16 game that same year, Pike was recorded as hitting six home runs, leading the Athletics to a 67-25 victory over the city’s Alert club.
At the end of the same season, the Athletics decided to expel “nonnative” players – those not from Philadelphia – and Pike returned to the New York area, playing, in succession, for the Irvingtons of New Jersey, the New York Mutuals (owned in part by the notorious Mayor William M. “Boss” Tweed), and the Brooklyn Atlantics.
By 1871, the first all-pro baseball league – the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players – was established. It was succeeded in 1876 by the National League. Between 1871 and 1875, Pike played for four teams, part of that time serving as manager as well as player. He played in 160 games, and had a .321 batting average.
Pike was so fast that when it was announced he would run a 100-yard race against a trotting horse – on August 16, 1873, at Baltimore’s Newington Park – 400 people bought tickets to watch the event. Pike defeated Clarence, the horse, and won himself a $250 purse.
Over his career, Pike played for 14 different teams in the rapidly changing game. In August 1881, he joined the Worcester Ruby Legs. He participated in only five games before a September 3 contest against Boston, in which Pike made three errors in the ninth inning. The team immediately suspected him of throwing the game, and suspended him, a verdict upheld by the National League, whose owners voted to suspend him for a year. There’s no evidence that Pike deliberately lost the game, nor has it been suggested that anti-Semitism played a role in his treatment.
Although Pike came back to play a single game, in 1887, with the New York Metropolitans, his career was basically over, and he went to join his father in the latter’s successful Brooklyn haberdashery. From then until the end of his life, he continued to play amateur ball, and he also worked as an umpire for several seasons.
Pike died of heart disease in Brooklyn, on October 10, 1893. He was 48.
In lamenting his passing, the Sporting News noted that before being “called out by Umpire Death,” Pike had been “one of the few sons of Israel who ever drifted to the business of ball playing. He was a handsome fellow when he was here, and the way he used to hit that ball was responsible for many a scene of enthusiasm…”