Posts Tagged ‘Lip Pike’

Lip Pike Medal

November 15, 2016

The American Israel Numismatic Association has just introduced a medal (part of a yearly series) commemoration Lipman “Lip” Pike, an early Jewish ballplayer who made his name in the 1860s and 1870s. Here’s a picture of what it looks like:

Pike Medal

Pike Medal

You can write the AINA at P.O. Box 20255 in Fountain Hills, AZ 85269 for one. It costs $5.00 for one or is free if you join the AINA (which costs $25.00 annually). Passed along here for your information.


The Road to Professionalism

August 25, 2016
Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie's Illustrated

Jim Creighton (center top) from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated

Today we think of baseball at the highest level as a game between professionals who get paid to play the game. It wasn’t always that way. Initially baseball was a game of children and of amateur clubs. It morphed into the professional game we know in a rather short period of time; the period between 1845 and 1860. The following is a musing, admittedly incomplete, on how we got from amateur to professional in 15 years. It is certainly not a quest to find the first professional nor is it a definitive look at early professionalism.

Let me set some parameters and definitions first. In 1845 the famous “Knickerbocker Rules” were published by the club. Without reference to whether they were the first written rules or not, they give us a beginning date. There is no evidence that anyone in 1845 was a professional baseball player. Games were between clubs of amateurs or played on sand lots by kids but no one was receiving money to play (at least as far was anyone can tell).

By 1860 both Jim Creighton and George Flanly were receiving a stipend from their team (in 1860 that would be the Excelsior in Brooklyn). Both men moved from the Niagaras (Buffalo) to play in New York and money changed hands. Frequently they, especially Creighton, are known as “The First Professional.” OK, maybe, but at least it gives us an ending date for our quest. In 1845 we can reasonably say “there are no professionals.” By 1860 we can say “there are professionals.”

Now we need to determine what makes a “professional”? The answer is usually “they’re getting paid to play.” And that’s true as far as it goes. But a common practice in the era was the use of government entities to pay players to work for the city while making sure the player had ample time to practice and play baseball. Both Brooklyn and New York City (they were separate towns in 1860) were particularly known for doing this. There’s a scene in the movie Field of Dreams in which a young “Moonlight” Graham (played by Frank Whaley) talks about towns in the Midwest finding you a job so you can play for the town team on the weekends. In 1860 they were doing the same thing. So is this the mark of a professional or are we talking about something that is at most quasi-professional? You can make up your own mind on the issue, but I feel it is indeed professionalism because there is no evidence that men like Flanly, John Galvin, or Sydney Churchill Smith would hold a city job if they weren’t baseball players.

So why do we go from amateur clubs to professionalism? There are a number of reasons, most of which you can probably guess. The game was growing, getting more popular. There were more teams and more competition. The drive to win, to be the best surely was part of what happened. If you were good enough to be sought by multiple teams, certainly one of them was going to offer you an incentive like a job or cash. So they took it, either the job or cash or both. The formation of leagues that competed for dominance made it more important to the clubs that they concentrate the greatest level of talent in order to win. Money is quite an incentive to join a particular team that wants to win. If you add to that the civic pride factor then handing jobs to ball players by local government agencies adds to the mix.

The above should be pretty obvious to most of you, but, and this is the part of this post I want to stress, let me note a couple of post 1860 events also contribute to the wide growth and acceptance of professionalism; a couple of things you may not have considered. First is the institution of the enclosed ballpark. The Union Grounds of 1862 is generally recognized as the first fully enclosed baseball park. It was home of the Eckfords and is now gone, lost under buildings, highways, and an assortment of other things. But by enclosing the park the team could control the attendance and that meant that they could begin charging admission (no more cheapskates standing just outside the field boundaries watching for free). And quite bluntly if the owners of the park were making money, the players had to ask “why aren’t we getting a cut?”

Secondly, in 1866 the Athletic in Philadelphia had one of the greatest players of the era, Lip Pike, playing for them. They were paying him ($20 a week) and he was quite open about it. When a newspaper published this information things blew up. The league (The National Association of Base Ball Players) demanded a meeting at one of the more prominent Philadelphia hotels to decide what to do about Pike and the Athletic. Of course there were two problems with this approach. First Pike was too good to be kept away from the game. Someone was going to pick him up, and probably pay him a little more circumspectly (like maybe a sham job in the City Works Department). Second, if they punished the Athletic, they faced the prospect of losing their primary team in Philadelphia. The upshot was that neither the league nor the Athletic nor Pike showed up at the appointed hotel at the appointed time and the matter was allowed to drop. That opened the door to professionalism en masse. Knowing it wasn’t going to cost neither the team nor the player if a professional entered the game, payments flew from one player to another. At this point, the Cincinnati Red Stockings were close to inevitable.

So that’s a short  musing on professionalism. It was, probably, impossible to stop its development and for those of us who are fans of the game at its highest level, that’s a good thing.

And now I’d like you to take a close look at the picture above. It shows Jim Creighton in the center of the top (he’s shrouded because he had died). But if you blow up the picture (which you can) you can take a look at some of the “Glory of Their Times” players of the 1860s. It gives you a chance to see what the Aarons, Mantles, Ruths, and Gibsons of their day looked like. Enjoy.



The Best Team Prior to Professionalism

April 11, 2016
The 1865 Atlantic

The 1865 Atlantic

Professionalism was probably more common in baseball quicker than we’d like to believe. In the 1860s Jim Creighton was being paid under the table. He’s frequently called the “first professional” but there’s no evidence he was actually first. Lip Pike was also being paid under the table, but Pike was more open about taking the money (leading to a famous case that could have destroyed the first league had not common sense intervened). But it was still an era when many of the players were indeed amateurs. It was the period of the National Association of Base Ball Players (to be differentiated from the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players that existed from 1871-75). It’s a sport we would recognize as baseball (sorta) and it was dominated by one team, the Atlantic (of Brooklyn). They won several Association titles (they weren’t pennants yet). For my money the best of the team prior to the 1869 Red Stockings and avowedly professional teams was the 1865 version of the Atlantic, the team in the picture above (you can click on it to see it larger). Although I’ll have to admit I don’t have the statistical evidence (the traditional way baseball arguments are solved) to prove they were better than the 1866 version, they still get my vote.

The 1865 Atlantic went 45-0 with a tie. Now you can argue it’s not a lot of games, but it was a fairly standard amount for the era. They scored a lot of runs. While 30 runs in a game was not uncommon in the age, they did it with disturbing frequency. They hit well up and down the lineup and fielded well, again for the era. There aren’t a lot of stats available, but from the box scores I can find and the articles I read, it is evident that they were just head and shoulders above the competition.

All that leads to the very obvious question, “just who were these guys?” That’s what I’m setting out to discover. If you recall, a few months ago I took the picture of the 1860 Excelsiors and looked up what I could find on the nine players on the team. It took a long time and so will this. So don’t expect the next five or six articles to be about the 1865 Atlantic. Some of them (three in particular) are easy to find because they went on to make a mark in the world (especially the baseball world) while others are, at this point, total unknowns (again, three). Hopefully I’ll be able to find out as much as I did about the Excelsiors, which in a couple of cases was admittedly almost nothing. If you go to an article from 13 December 2010 titled “‘Start’-ing at First” you’ll find my look at first baseman Joe Start (in the above picture he’s the man on the right end of the middle row), the player who had the best post-Atlantic baseball career. So one down.

And so far, and I’ve only begun, they aren’t nearly as colorful a group as the Excelsiors (no one seems to have ended up in prison or manufactured baseballs), although as a rule they went further in baseball (but it’s also five years later). But hopefully, they’ll still be interesting.

“The Father of Professional Baseball”

April 24, 2013
Aaron B. Champion

Aaron B. Champion

There are a bunch of debates over who is the father of baseball. Most of you know the Abner Doubleday myth. Some of you know about Henry Chadwick and his efforts; others know of Alexander Cartwright, Duncan Curry and the rest of the Knickerbockers. You might decide you pick one over the other and I wouldn’t argue with you about which you picked (except maybe Doubleday). But the creation of a solely, openly acknowledged professional team goes back to a specific man, Aaron B. Champion of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Aaron B. Champion was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1842. His family was wealthy enough for him to attend Antioch College from 1856 to 1860. He studied law (law schools were a thing of the future in 1860s Ohio) being admitted to the bar in 1864. He moved to Cincinnati and opened a law office. He was immediately successful. he also was interested in baseball. He joined the ownership of the Cincinnati Red Stockings, becoming second president of the club. the Red Stockings were good, but shared city prominence with the Buckeyes. Champion, looking to build a winner, hit upon an idea that would revolutionize the game. He hired 10 men and paid them to play baseball.

Let’s stop a second and go over a couple of things. Champion did not invent professional baseball, so to call him “the father of professional baseball”, as one article I read did(it’s where I got the title for this little commentary), is technically incorrect. Ballplayers were being paid at least as far back as Jim Creighton in 1860 and probably prior to that. There were generally two ways of doing this. One was to pay the guy under the table and hope no one found out (Lip Pike was paid this way in the late 1860s). The other was for some company to hire a guy, pay him a salary for a particular job, then make sure he spent most of his time working for the local ball team (Harry Wright made money this way). What Champion did was to jettison the under the table aspect of salaries, dump the fiction that the town’s star player was really just a clerk at the bank, and openly pay the entire team. It made for a fully, and acknowledged, professional team. His reasoning seems to have been that if you openly paid players, you could get the very best to come play for you because you could offer top dollar.

It worked. With Champion as owner and Harry Wright taking care of the baseball duties (managing, making hotel arrangements, etc), the team flourished. With George Wright the highest paid player ($1400) and utility sub Dick Hurley the lowest paid ($600), the team proceeded to run off the only undefeated season in professional baseball history. They began playing local and regional teams, went East later in the season, and dominated the best teams in New York, Philadelphia, and the other Eastern cities. Finally they moved West to take on the best teams in California. They were 57-0 when their season ended. Their undefeated streak finally came to an end at 81 games.

Things went south in 1871. Two cliques developed on the Red Stockings, causing the team to split. The Wrights, Cal McVey, and first baseman Charlie Gould left for Boston. The others joined the Washington Olympics in the fledgling National Association of Base Ball Players.

Champion, seeing the team falling apart, and noting declining revenues, resigned as chairman and went back to his law firm. He dabbled in politics, serving as a delegate to the 1876 Democratic Convention. It nominated Samuel Tilden, who lost one of the more famous  American Presidential elections (try finding info on “The Compromise of 1876” or sometimes it’s dated 1877). Champion became a leading Cincinnati “booster” and died in 1895 while on a visit to Great Britain. He was buried in London.

The Mystery Man

March 22, 2013
Charley Jones

Charley Jones

It’s a given that 19th Century ball players are obscure. Most of them are merely names on long lists of stats or on old roster sheets. But even for 19th Century ball players, Charley Jones is inordinately obscure. I’ll go so far as to admit that prior to December of last year, I’d never heard of him.

Charles Wesley Jones was born in North Carolina in 1852 as Benjamin Wesley Rippey. He is so obscure I can’t find out when or why the name change occurred. It may or may not have anything to do with his baseball career. He seems to have been the first Major Leaguer from North Carolina. He arrived in the National Association in its final year (1875), getting into 12 games with the Keokuk Westerns and a single game with Hartford. He managed to hit .255 without a walk and with only 13 hits. Six of the hits (two doubles and four triples) were for extra bases. That got people’s attention and when the National Association folded, Jones had no trouble finding a job.

He ended up with Cincinnati in the fledgling National League where he hit .286 with four homers (second in the NL). It was the last time he hit under .300 until his banishment (wait just a minute, please). He spent 1877 and 1878 with Cincinnati (with two games for Chicago). In 1879 he went to Boston (the Braves, not the Red Sox) where he set the single season record for home runs with nine. In 1880 he became the all-time Major League leader in home runs with 23, besting Lip Pike by two.  Along the way he’d led the NL in home runs, runs scored, walks, and RBIs once each. In 1880 he became the first Major Leaguer to hit two home runs in one inning. Then the bottom fell out.

During the last road trip of the season, Jones refused to play. He claimed he hadn’t been paid. As with most teams of the era, pay checks were issued by Boston at the end of each home stand, not at the first of the month. This kept teams from having to lug around large amounts of cash if the end of a month occurred during a road trip. Jones claimed he was paid per month and wanted his monthly salary. The team suspended him for failure to play, and withheld the next check. Jones sued and won in court. He got his money, but Boston suspended him again and this time blacklisted him. Unable to play in the National League, he spent 1881 and 1882 playing in both the minors and an outlaw league.

In 1882 the American Association was formed. They initially agreed to honor NL contracts and blacklists. By 1883 that changed and one of the new league’s first acts was to allow Jones to sign with Cincinnati. He was 31 and still good. He won an RBI and OBP title with Cincy, had his career high in home runs with 10, and had 200 or more total bases twice. In 1884 he hit three triples in a game (the third man to do so). Despite losing the two seasons to a blacklist, he held the all-time home run title through the 1884 campaign, giving up the honor in mid-1885.

His career was faltering by 1887. He began the season in Cincy, but was traded mid-season to the New York Metropolitans. He hit three final home runs and for the first time his OPS+ dropped under 100 (all the way to 88). He had one last Major League season, playing six games for the Kansas City Cowboys, then was through. He umped a little in the 1890 Player’s League and in 1891 in the last year of the American Association. His baseball career over, he dropped totally out of sight.

For his career, his triple slash numbers are .298/.345/.444/.789 with an OPS+ of 150 in 894 games. He had 1114 hits resulting in 172 doubles, 102 triples, 56 home runs, and 1658 total bases. For his career he scored 733 runs and had 552 RBIs. He was a decent enough outfielder finishing first in fielding percentage, range factor, and put outs a few times.

By the time the Hall of Fame was formed, he was totally forgotten. As late as the 2007 Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball he is listed simply as “deceased.” No one seemed to know what happened to him. He was truly a mystery man. As I said earlier,  I have to admit that I’d never heard of him before the 2012 Veteran’s Committee elected Deacon White to the Hall of Fame. That forced me to find a new candidate for my “best 19th Century player not in the Hall of Fame.” In doing research for that project, I ran across Jones. By then he’d gotten a death date.

 In 2011 a researcher found information on Jones’ last days. He died in New York 6 June 1911 and was buried in Queens (his grave is mentioned on the “Find a Grave” website). There wasn’t much else, but at last baseball fans finally knew what happened to one of the early National League’s premier sluggers.

Harry Stovey

March 20, 2013
Harry Stovey

Harry Stovey

If you’re clever, you’ve discovered a pattern in my last few posts. I’m looking at the guys who held the all-time home run title before Babe Ruth. According to Baseball Reference, there were six of them: Lip Pike, Charley Jones, Jim O’Rouke, Harry Stovey, Dan Brouthers, and Roger Connor. If you don’t count the National Association as a Major League (which MLB doesn’t, but Baseball Reference obviously does), the list changes to  add in people like George Hall. I’m sticking with the Baseball Reference list. I’ve done posts on Pike and O’Rouke previously and just added Brouthers and Connor. So today is Stovey’s turn.

He was born Harry Stowe in Philadelphia in 1856. By 1877 he was playing for the Defiance of Philadelphia and the Athletics. His mother didn’t like him playing ball, so he changed his name to Stovey to decieve her (don’t know how well it worked). By 1878 he was playing for the New Bedford Clam-Eaters (God, don’t you love old time team names?). He stayed through 1879 picking up a reputation as a good player and also picking up a wife.

In 1880 he was signed by the Worcester Ruby Legs (another great team name). He stayed with the team until it folding in 1882, winning both a home run and triples title in his rookie campaign. In 1883 he transfered, along with much of the Worcester roster to Philadelphia. With the Athletics he became a premier American Association player. He led the league in runs scored four times; in home runs three times; in triples twice; and in RBIs, stolen bases, doubles, total bases, and slugging once each. In 1883 the A’s won the American Association pennant with Stovey as their best player. The 19th Century version of the World Series didn’t begin until the next year.

In 1890 he joined most of the leading players of the day by jumping to the Player’s League. He proceeded to win the league’s only stolen base title with a career high 97. He had one final great year in 1891 leading the National Leagie in triples, home runs, total bases slugging, and in strikeouts with a career high 69. His team, the Boston Beaneaters (another great 19th Century team name), won the NL pennant that season. He hung on through 1893 playing for Boston, Baltimore, and Brooklyn.

Retired from the Major Leagues, he played and managed a little in the minors, then joined the New Bedford police force in 1895, rising to captain in 1915. He retired from the force in 1923 and died in 1937.

For his career he had 1771 hits and scored 1492 runs in 1486 games split between first base and the outfield (about two to one ratio in favor of the outfield). He had 347 doubles, 174 triples, 122 home runs, and 2832 total bases. His triple slash numbers are .289/.361/.461/.822 with an OPS+ of 144. He was considered an average fielder in his day. His teams won two pennants in his 14 year career.

There’s never been much of a push for Stovey to be enshrined in Cooperstown, and perhaps there shouldn’t be. He has the problem (as does a player like Pete Browning) of having played a long time ago for the American Association, which is generally considered the weaker of the two leagues. But he deserves to be remembered because between 1885 through 1894 (with a two year exception when Brouthers took the title) he was the most prolific home run hitter in Major League history.

Big League, Small Town

January 29, 2013
Troy, New York

Troy, New York

Did you ever notice how Major League teams gravitate toward big cities? There simply are no teams in middle-sized towns. Those towns are reserved for the farm teams. That wasn’t always so. Way back in the beginning of professional baseball, medium-sized cities also played Major League baseball. For instance, there was Troy, New York.

Troy was founded in the early 1700s, grew up during the 1830s and by 1860 was a prosperous industrial town just north of Albany. By 1860 it had a population of 39,000 (56,700 by 1880) and was becoming a hotbed for baseball.

In 1860 the Union club was established. It played at a high enough level that it soon gained the attention of the powerful teams that played in Brooklyn, New York City, and Philadelphia. They played games against the teams from the larger cities and held their own through most of the 1860s. By 1869 they were part of the National Association of Base Ball Players. They participated in 21 championship games going 12-8-1, good enough for fifth place (The Atlantic of Brooklyn won the pennant). In 1870, they were 11-13-1, again good for fifth place in a fifteen team league.

In 1871 the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was formed. Troy was one of the teams joining the first fully professional league. They managed a coup when they picked up perennial all-star Lip Pike to both play and manage the team. Pike led the National Association in home runs, extra base hits, and finished second in a number of other categories. Unfortunately for Troy, he wasn’t much of a manager and the Haymakers, as they were now called, finished 13-15, eight games out of first and good enough for sixth in the nine team league. The next season the Haymakers finished fifth (of 11 teams) with a 15-10 record. Pike, their best player was gone, and despite a winning record, the team wasn’t making money. At the end of the season the team folded.

Troy was without a Major League team until 1879 when a new team was formed. The National League had replaced the National Association and was looking to expand. It chose Troy for one of the teams. It might strike us odd today that Troy was getting a team while both New York and Philadelphia were shut out of the NL. It was personal. William Hulbert, founder of the NL, was angry at both cities for failing to complete a western swing in the inaugural NL season of 1876. He vowed never to allow either city back in “his” league. When expansion time came, Troy was close to New York City so it became a chosen team.

The new team was called the Trojans (although some news accounts still refered to them as the Haymakers). It played its home games at the Putnam Grounds, then moved to Haymakers Grounds in 1880. It remained there until making a final move to the Troy Ball Club Grounds (which was in Watervliet, not Troy) in 1882.

They finished dead last in 1879, going 19-56. They did, however, produce one good player. Future Hall of Fame first baseman Dan Brouthers made his Major League debut for the Trojans that season. He hit .274 with four home runs.

The 1880 season was better for Troy. They finished fourth at 41-42. Much of the increase in wins can be attributed to the rookie campaigns of Roger Connor, Buck Ewing, Mickey Welch, and Tim Keefe, all Hall of Fame players. In 1881, they were back to fifth and had lost Brouthers to Buffalo. The 1882 season saw the team continue to plunge, this time finished next to last.  Despite the record, the team drew moderately well.

But it wasn’t enough. By 1883, William Hulbert was dead, the American Association was flourishing and the National League needed teams in New York and Philadelphia in order to compete. The team in Worcester, Massachusetts (which finished last in 1882) was dropped. A new team was established in Philadelphia. Now only New York needed a team. Troy was closest, it was also falling in the standings, but it had a number of good players. The NL decided to drop Troy and set up a new team in New York. A number of Troy players, including Connor, Ewing, Keefe, and Welch, ended up with the new team (now the San Francisco Giants) and Troy was done as a Major League town.

The town continued to provide good quality Minor League teams and players. There is still a team around today. But the experiment of Troy as a Major League city was over.  

Buttercup Dickerson while a member of the Troy Trojans

Buttercup Dickerson while a member of the Troy Trojans

The Original Big Mac

September 21, 2011

Cal McVey

Most fans know about the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. It’s claimed they were the first all professional team, which may or may not be true (the records are pretty scant on some of the teams of the era). They were a pretty typical team for the era. You had ten players and most guys were asked to play multiple positions. For the Red Stockings the most famous are Harry Wright (who played center and managed) and his brother George (who played shortstop and did some work at second). Both are in the Hall of Fame: Harry as a manager, George as a player. But easily the most versatile was Cal McVey, who was probably never really called “Big Mac”.

McVey was born in 1849 in Iowa. That alone makes him fairly unusual for the era. Most of the better players were from the East Coast (Cap Anson was another exception) but there was a growing contingent of Midwestern players that was making their mark in the newly formed National Association of Base Ball Players. McVey, by now relocated to Indianapolis, was one of them. By 1868 he had spent time with both the Actives and the Westerns (local teams that were NABBP members) as a pitcher and a better than average hitter. He was 18 during the bulk of the 1868 season. He came to the attention of Harry Wright who watched him pitch in a losing effort to the current Cincinnati team (not the Red Stockings). When the Red Stockings were formed the next year, Wright brought him on as the right fielder at a salary of $500 to $700 dollars (the sources vary).

McVey was recognized immediately as one of the Stockings’ finest players. He fielded well for the day (no gloves yet), could pitch a little, and hit well enough to frequently take the cleanup spot. The Red Stockings went 65-0 and showed just exactly how good an all professional team could be. The next season they were 24-0 before they lost to the Atlantic (and Lip Pike, the subject of the post on 14 September). The streak broken, the team began losing fans (and five other games) and folded at the end of the 1870 season.

McVey joined the Wrights as the cornerstones of the new Boston franchise of the newly formed National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. They finished second in 1871 on a disputed claim about how many games were considered “championship contests” and thus counted for pennant purposes. McVey was terrific in the five years of the National Association, all but 1873 with Boston. In 1871 he led the league in hits (with 66), In 1874 he led the league in runs, hits, RBIs, and total bases. In 1875 he had a career year leading the league in doubles, RBIs, total bases, slugging, and OPS. His OPS+ was 195. When the NA folded after the 1875 season, McVey held the record for RBIs with 277. During his tenure in the NA McVey played catcher, right field, and first base for most of his games, but saw time at second, third, short, and pitched three games (going 1-0). It was common for players to slide from position to position, but few could play three well. 

With the founding of the National League in 1876, McVey joined the team in Chicago (now the Cubs) and helped lead them to the first National League pennant. He hit .347 and was easily one of the ten best players in the league. He put together the first 30 game hit streak in the NL that season (1 June through 8 August) and set the record for hits (12) in consecutive games.  He stayed in Chicago in 1877, then moved to Cincinnati for his final two seasons. He retired after the 1879 season. He was thirty. The reserve rule was adopted after the ’79 season and speculation is that McVey wanted nothing to do with it and left the Majors.

McVey moved to California, did a lot of local baseball work in the San Francisco area (Pacific Coast League), both playing for and managing local Minor League clubs through the 1880s. The numbers here get pretty obscure, so it’s tough to tell how good he was in California. In other words, it’s difficult to assess how quickly his skills eroded. After retirement he worked as a night watchman at a lumber yard, which considering he how well wielded baseball “lumber” is kind of appropriate. He died in 1926.

Because of the way McVey’s career breaks out, he has three sets of numbers: his National Association numbers, his National League numbers, and his combined numbers. Because Major League Baseball does not consider the Association a Major League, McVey’s “official” numbers only include his NL stats. I’m going to give you all three here. McVey plays nine years (5 in the NA, four in the NL). He plays 530 games (265 in each league–bet that took some doing), had 869 hits (476 NA, 393 NL), 1123 total bases (635 NA, 488 NL), 133 doubles (81 NA, 52 NL), and 449 RBIs (277 NA, 172 NL). He hit .346 (.362 NA, .328 NL), slugged .447 (483 NA, 407 NL), with an OBP of 354 (366 NA, 340 NL) for an OPS of .800 (849 NA, 747 NL) and an OPS+ of 152 (162 NA, 141 NL). As a fielder he wasn’t  bad for the era. There are some better, but a lot are much worse. As a pitcher he made a heck of a hitter. He wents 9-12 (1-0 in the NA) with 16 walks and 37 strikeouts (1 of each in the NA),, and gave up 75 earned runs (6 in NA) in 176 innings (11 in the NA).

For my money, McVey is either the best or second best player on the Red Stockings. George Wright is his only competition. McVey is also younger by two years than Wright. In the Association they’re pretty much a wash, but by the time the NL is formed, McVey is much better.

Because he plays the same number of games in both leagues over approximately the same number of years (5 to 4) one can compare McVey in the two leagues. He’s clearly better in the Association than in the League. That may reflect his aging (although he’s only 30 when he retires) or it may reflect that the NL was a tougher league than the NA. It would take more time to research this than I’m willing to devote, so I’ll leave it to someone else to figure out which is true and just how much better one league was than the other.

Is McVey a Hall of Famer? Well, there’s the little issue of the 10 year rule that keeps him out no matter what you think of his stats. And if you recall that MLB doesn’t recognize the Association as a Major League, then he only has four years in the Majors. But I also think that the Hall should consider waiving the ten-year rule in the case of players who spent significant time in the National Association and time in the pre-Association leagues. Other than that he still faces the two problems players of his era face: the number of games in a season and the nature of the rules differences between the era and the modern game. So I don’t think he’ll ever make it, but I would be willing to vote for him. Having said that, he wouldn’t be my first choice among 19th Century players for enshrinement in Cooperstown (Deacon White would be).

The Stars in Their Courses

September 14, 2011

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.

Over the Outhouse, By the Pagoda, Around the Tree, and Watch for the Cow Chip

January 18, 2011
 Take a look at a modern baseball stadium. It’s almost awe-inspiring in its size and grandeur. Now take a look at 1860s ball parks. They’re called “parks” for a reason. They look much more like a large green open, or at least semi-open, space where someone stuck down a diamond and yelled “Play Ball.” They have, like many modern stadia, a lot of quirks. Here’s some of my favorite 1850-1870 oddities.
Capitoline Grounds

Capitoline Grounds 1866

 Apparently when the field (home of the Atlantic) was first laid out by Reuben Decker and Hamilton Weed in 1864, there was a round brick outhouse in deep right field (it does not appear in the picture above and I was unable to find a picture of it either on-line or in a book). A player hitting the ball over the outhouse on the fly received a bottle of champagne of his efforts. Now this leads to several questions, and, yes, you know I’m going to ask them. I am going to refrain, however, from any gags involving the phrase “stacked like a brick…”. I wonder if it was cheap or expensive champagne. How big was the bottle? Did the player have to share it with the rest of the team (and even the opponents) or could he take it home? Who paid for it, the player’s team, the opposing team, or the opposing pitcher?  Did you get something extra for doing your Babe Ruth impression and calling your shot? What happened if you hit the roof on the fly, did you get a bottle of wine?  If you hit the front on a bounce, did you get a bottle  of beer? How about he front door? Was that a bottle of scotch? And of  course the most important questions are how many holes in the outhouse and was it co-ed? Don’t you want to know the answer to all these questions? And before anyone asks, the only player I find reference to hitting two over the outhouse on the same day is Lip Pike. I don’t know if he got two bottles or not.

Union Grounds

The Union Grounds, built by William Cammeyer in 1862, held a number of teams, the most famous being the Eckfords, named for shipbuilder Henry Eckford. Having a lot of money, Eckford built the oddity at the Union Grounds. If you look at the far left of the picture above you’ll see a round multi-story building (no it isn’t the Capitoline outhouse moved across town). This building was known in its own era as the “pagoda.” It was built by Eckford as a sort of early “Skybox” luxury suite. It seems Eckford would watch games from the pagoda with some of his friends and colleagues. He was known to conduct business from it, and was not averse to the company of young women in the pagoda during games. Refreshments were available in the pagoda, including alcoholic beverages (type unspecified). Also the grounds were fenced. This allowed the Eckfords to control the crowd, and, of course, charge fans for watching the game. It seems to be the first at least partially enclosed field and thus very significant in paving the road toward professionalism. With more money available to clubs, it wasn’t unreasonable for players to start asking for a cut.

Elysian FieldsElysian Fields 1866

 The Elysian Fields are primarily famous as the home of the “”first baseball game.” But they were used for most of the 1850-1870 period by the Knickerbockers and other teams. The picture above is from 1866, so it doesn’t show one of the great quirks of the park. About ten feet to the left of a right-handed batter there was a big tree. I’ve seen a picture of it in a book, but can’t find a copy on-line. It looks huge and I wouldn’t be surprised if the limbs didn’t hang down over home on occasion. It was instrumental in the Knickerbockers’ view of the foul ball. It got them to change the rule so that a foul didn’t count against the batter if it hit the tree and the fielder had no chance to catch the ball in flight. It seems to have been a very early version of the current rule on foul balls. By 1860 the tree was gone, but the rule hung on.

 Excelsior Grounds

The Excelsior Grounds were set up in the late 1850s. By the 1860s they were being overshadowed by the Captioline and the Union Grounds. But for a few years they were the home of some of the best baseball in the area. Being so early, they were a multi-purpose facility. The hosted baseball games, but in the off-season and during the weeks when the Excelsiors weren’t playing the land was  leased for cattle grazing. There’s even a story about one woman stabbing another over grazing rights (and you thought that only happened in old John Wayne Westerns, didn’t you?) At least it had the advantage of keeping the grass short, but I’m not sure what happened if the ball landed on a cow chip.

There were a lot of other parks in the era, some more famous than others. Even Lowry’s Green Cathedrals doesn’t list them all. These four get my vote for some of the quirkiest things in or about early ballparks.


Excelsior Grounds 1860