When Lipman Pike suited up for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1866, he was a fresh-faced base ball (two words back then) player loaded with potential -- blessed with abundant speed, fielding prowess, and slugging ability that belied his small stature.
And in 1866, the Athletics, like all of base ball at the time, were widely accepted as an amateur venture, an aggregation of congenial men playing a "gentleman's game."
But reality soon set in, hard. It was revealed by local newspaper magnate Col. Thomas Fitzgerald, who earlier that season had been mysteriously dismissed as the team's president, that Pike and two other Athletics players were receiving a nominal fee on the down low to compete. In the case of Pike, a 5-foot-8 158-pounder, he netted $20 a week.
With that revelation, Pike became one of the first openly professional base ball players in history, an event that today might seem innocuous, with modern players receiving nine-figure contracts.
And the fact that Pike was outed as a professional in many ways dwarfs the other "firsts" that Pike embodied. He was also the sport's first great power hitter -- he once, for example, slugged six home runs in one game.
"He did lead the National Association, the first pro league, in home runs in each of its first three years," says John Thorn, Major League Baseball's official historian. "And he did once hit six home runs a game and hit some homers that were of prodigious length, according to contemporary accounts."
However, just as often, it was Pike's speed -- he once beat a horse in a sprint competition for some extra cash -- that earned him acclaim, says Burton A. Boxerman, coauthor of Jews and Baseball, Vols. 1 and 2.
"He was known for his speed," Boxerman says. "I'd say that by today's standards, considering his physical attributes, he would be more valued for his speed than his power."
But topping all that, at least in terms of sociocultural impact, is that Lip Pike was the first Jewish baseball superstar.
Decades before Hank Greenberg was crushing the ball in Detroit, Pike was blazing trails for a people who, in May, celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month and who, over the centuries, have experienced their fair share of bigotry.
However, Pike remains overlooked by baseball history. Despite his accomplishments, he failed to make this year's cut with the Baseball Hall of Fame's Overlooked 19th Century Legends Committee's nominations for Hall induction.
That omission, Thorn says, is typical for players from baseball's first few decades, with other legends of yore such as Al Reach or D.L. Adams also receiving short shrift.
Pike played in Philadelphia for only one year, jumping from his hometown Brooklyn Atlantics after the 1865 season and helping the Athletics to national base ball supremacy in 1866.
However, his uncloaking as a professional seems to have been largely ignored by the contemporary press. That's possibly because it was common knowledge in hardball circles that payment of players was widespread and thinly veiled, with Pike merely becoming one of the first known professionals by chance, with the possibly revenge-motivated actions of Fitzgerald, the spurned team president.
Did Fitzgerald expose the tacit professionalism of the sport, and thereby arguably paving the way for open, accepted payment of pro players, out of spite and vengeance, or was the timing of the revelation simply coincidence? That question could be the subject of a healthy debate among historians for many years to come.
However, it seems that at the time, the news of Pike's professionalism blew over without much fanfare, except for a group of unnamed but disgruntled players who published a brief letter to the editor in the Philadelphia newspaper Public Ledger and Daily Transcript venting their frustration by thanking Fitzgerald:
Dear Sir -- We hereby tender you our earnest thanks for your noble stand against the "Hired Men," who are bringing our National Game to contempt.
The letter was signed, "Many Players."
But overall, the scandal came and went, it seems, without too much hoopla or, specifically, anti-Semitism aimed at Pike. However, what eventually did get Pike the hook in Philadelphia was the fact that he was an outsider and a non-Philly native.
Pike took his dismissal in stride, moving on to a lengthy base ball career filled with sub-orbital home runs not only in his hometown for the Atlantics and the New York Mutuals but also in cities such as Baltimore, Hartford, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Providence.
Along the way, Pike led a fascinating off-field life as well -- employment by Boss Tweed's infamous Tammany Hall, inclusion on a league blacklist possibly triggered by his support for player unionization, and oft-maligned stints as an umpire and a team captain – and died suddenly of heart disease in his Brooklyn home at 48.
Reflecting through hazy history, it's difficult to assess Pike's long-term impact on America's pastime and all those involved in it. Boxerman says Pike did experience some anti-Semitism and bigotry, and Thorn agrees -- to a point. Thorn says that while Pike undoubtedly was subjected to prejudice, the hostility he bore must be compared to that suffered by African-Americans.
"19th-century America was not forgiving of difference," Thorn says. "But I am not aware of instances of overt prejudice, as were plentiful for the early black players in integrated settings."
In the end, it might be true that Pike was the national pastime's first Jewish star, but perhaps his impact can't be limited to that. Says Thorn: "Pike's enduring role is as a player, not as a pioneer in the game's development."