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 sluggers."
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-pike-into-the-baseball-hall-of-fame and 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.