The Stars in Their Courses

Lip Pike

Baseball has a long history. Forget Abner Doubleday and its alleged origins. What’s happened since is fascinating enough. Way back in the middle part of the 19th Century there were some really quality players. One of those was Lip Pike.

Lipman Emanuel Pike was born in New York City 25 May 1845. The family moved to Brooklyn where the father was a haberdasher (as was Harry Truman, although much later). The Pike’s were Dutch Jews and Lip Pike underwent his Bar Mitzvah in 1858. A week later he played his first recorded game. He was a good player from the beginning, hitting well, fielding OK (for the era), and considered exceptionally fast on the bases.

He did well in New York, but rose to prominence in Philadelphia as a member of the Athletic (today we would pluralize it and to keep it from looking goofy, I will do so with the Athletics and other teams of the era). Pike the was the star of the most important team in the city and was instrumental in the Athletics rising to the top. On 16 July he was credited with six home runs (five in a row) in a Atheltics thrashing of the Alerts 67-25. That sounds like an outrageous score today, but 40 or so runs by the winning team wasn’t uncommon in 1866, especially if the team was a top rung group.

There was one problem with Pike, however. The league was an amateur one and Pike was being paid to play. He was receiving $20 a week and wasn’t particuarly hiding the fact. The local press got wind of it, printed the information, and thus forced the league’s hand. It led to the Pike Case (which I detailed over a year ago), one of the nails in the coffin of amateur baseball. Pike was ordered to appear before a committee of the National Association of Base Ball Players (the league the Athletics were in). Unfortunately, the league was in a bigger bind than Pike. If he was thrown out of the league, then the Athletics threatened to leave also, thus costing the Association its foothold in Philadelphia. And Pike wasn’t going to be hurt either. He was too good and someone else was going to pick him up and pay him. When the day of the case came, neither Pike, the Athletics, nor the Association showed up and the matter was quietly dropped. Pike and the Athletics had gotten away with it and now other players could be paid openly for their skills and amateurism was in deep trouble. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the Red Stockings set up shop 3 years later. And Pike? Well, the team decided to dump him and the only other player on the team not from Philly when the season ended. Apparently it had nothing to do with the case.

By 1869 Pike was back in Brooklyn playing for the Atlantics, the Yankees of their day. The team played 48 games, a lot for the era. Pike hit .610, slugged .883, led the Association in home runs, and the Atlantic went 40-6 with 2 ties. The Atlantics played their home games at the Capitoline Grounds. Deep in right field there was a round brick outhouse. Tradition dictated that a player hitting a home run over the outhouse got a bottle of champaigne. Pike is the only man recorded to have hit two over the outhouse in one game (nothing about whether he got a second bottle of champaigne or not).  One paper was so enthusiastic, and remembering Pike was Jewish, quoted Judges (chapter 5) “‘The stars in their courses’ have never seen such a  display.” For all that they got to play the Red Stockings at the end of the season and lost. They got even the next season when the Atlantics stopped the Red Stockings win streak.

In 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. It lasted through 1875 and was the first all professional league and in some corners considered the first Major League. Pike joined the team in Troy, New York as captain (manager) and second baseman. He hit well, was a lousy manager, and Troy finished back in the pack. Pike managed to lead the league in home runs, was second in slugging, third in total bases, sixth in batting average, and fourth in RBIs.

In 1872 he went to Baltimore where he played two seasons (until the team went bankrupt and folded), leading the league in home runs both years and RBIs the first. His home run total in 1872 (7) was 17% of the total home runs hit in the league that season. In 1874 he was in Hartford where he won the slugging title, finished third in hitting, and second in OBP. He finished his time with the Association in 1875 by playing at St. Louis.

The National League arrived on the scene in 1876 and Pike played through 1878, winning one more home run title (1877). In 1879 and 1880 he was in the minors. He got back to the NL in 1881, did terribly, and retired. He went into the haberdashery business like his dad, did reasonably well, but still loved the game. In 1887 at age 42 he got into one game for the New York team of the American Association. In four trips to the plate he got no hits. He died of heart disease in Brooklyn 10 October 1893. When the initial Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee met in 1936, Pike received one vote, not bad for a guy who played before most of the committee was born. In 1985 he was elected to the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Israel.

How good was Pike? As with all players of the era it’s tough to say. First it was simply a different game. The pitching distance was different, the pitching motion was different, a batter could call for a high or low pitch, the batters box was essentially a line that a hitter had to straddle (no standing deep in the box for these guys), many fields had no fences so a ball that got by a fielder could roll forever resulting in things that today wouldn’t be home runs. Second, any statistical information prior to 1871 is too rudimentary to determine how good a player compiled them. Pike was 26 when the Association is formed so there simply aren’t reliable stats for the period when he’s 18 to 25. Afterward, though, he’s pretty good. For his career in the Association he averages .333, slugs .498, with an OBP of .346 for an OPS of .845 and an OPS+ of 161. His overall totals (NA and NL combined) are .322 batting average, .468 slugging, .339 OBP for an OPS of .808 and an OPS+ of 157. But all that is in 425 games; never playing more than 70 in a season. He ends his career with 927 total bases, 21 home runs, 332 RBIs, 434 runs, and 638 hits. So as with a lot of players of the era his percentages are much better than his raw totals. In an era of terrible fielding (for a lot of reasons, some of which had little to do with a player’s actual ability) he’s below average.

Pike is to me a good solid player, maybe a great one for his era. He’s certainly important as he is a milestone on the road to professional baseball. But evaluating him along modern lines is next to impossible no matter who many people have come up with forumlae that claim to do so. Let me leave it at that.

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3 Responses to “The Stars in Their Courses”

  1. The Baseball Idiot Says:

    It would seem to me that with the advances in sabermetrics, they could go back and look at all of those players again and have another round of voting. The could even create a 19th century Hall of Fame for those who don’t like the history of the game.

    I just feel it’s wrong to exclude great players just becasue we can’t properly evaluate them compared to today’s game.

    The other leagues recognize the ABA and the AFL, even though the game wasn’t played exactly the same.

  2. verdun2 Says:

    Someone commented a couple of months ago (maybe it was you, I don’t recall) that there should be a “Pioneer’s Wing” to the Hall. Not a bad idea.
    v

  3. Glen Russell Slater Says:

    Nice piece, V.

    Pike didn’t make the Baseball Hall of Fame, but he is in the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

    Glen

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