Richard Michelson has written several award winning Jewish children’s books including “A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet” and “As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom.” Now with spring training in full swing and baseball season right around the corner, Michelson has written a book about the first Jewish baseball star – “Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King,” illustrated by Zachary Pullen.
Michelson’s books have been listed among the year’s best by the New York Times, Publisher’s Weekly, and the Jewish Book Council.
He lives in Amherst, Mass., and owns R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton.
He recently spoke to the Ledger about his new book.
First and foremost…are you a big baseball fan?
A: I am sorry to have to publicly admit that I was never a big fan. I love biking and racquet sports, but I played Little League badly for one season and I never had any interest in being an armchair spectator. My knowledge began and ended with the famous game Sandy Koufax declined to pitch. That said, I finished this project with a renewed respect for how sports have shaped the history of our country, and yes, I can say it, a growing love for the game. I don’t expect my wife to find me hunkered down in front of the TV, but I still can’t wait for the season to begin.
How did you learn about Lipman Pike?
A: A few years ago, I was working on my children’s book “A is for Abraham: A Jewish Family Alphabet.” My task was to narrow down all of Jewish knowledge into 26 letters. Takes a bit of chutzpah, you say? Agreed. So I decided to choose 26 general themes where I could discuss basic Jewish categories. For instance D is for King David, and under this letter I was able to write about the Biblical King, but also the Jewish traditions of poetry– since David is traditionally considered to have authored the Psalms. At one point K was for Koufax (K ended up as Klezmer), and I intended to discuss Jewish sports heroes. In the research process I came across the name Lipman Pike. I asked many of my sports-crazy friends, and no one had heard of him. How could this be?
What was it about him that made you want to share his story?
A: He was the first “professional” ball player—the first player, that is, accused by the League, when it was still supposedly all amateur—of illegally accepting payment. Turns out, of course, that many players were taking money “under the table.” Lip, however, was the one charged, so he became known as “the first player “paid to play.” He went on to be professional baseball’s first home run king, and he remained proud of his Jewish roots. How could I not want to share his story?
Was he a good player?
A: In the first season of professional ball he tied for the home run crown (with, I might mention, another Jew, Levi Meyerle). The next year he led the league. Okay, it was only six homers, but still the entire league had only 35 – a player-to-league percentage that wouldn’t be bested till 1920 by Babe Ruth. The last time a player’s percentage of homeruns was in double digits was in 1938 when Hank Greenberg hit 58 homeruns while the entire American League hit a total of 564.
Lip went on to a stellar career, and I would like to reclaim him as baseball’s first superstar.
How did you research his story? Was it hard to find information about him?
A: There isn’t much published information, so I read the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle for any mention of Lip, as well as to give myself a feeling for the times. I also read a number of books about the early days of baseball, such as “Long Before the Dodgers.” A number of experts in the world of 19th century baseball, as well as Jewish life at the time, were more than generous in their advice—and I was pleased to be able to thank them in the book’s acknowledgements.
The story takes place at the birth of the game of baseball…was it interesting to learn more about the history of the game?
A: It was very interesting. There were no enclosed parks—so we have to remember that homers would all be considered inside-the-park home runs in today’s lingo. That helps put Lip’s six big ones in a different light. And in some respects, the game resembled today’s competitive softball. Since catcher’s mitts didn’t exist (and fielders who wore handball-like fingerless gloves were looked down upon as not tough enough) the pitchers pitched underhand. Other rules were also evolving. At one time most games were timed, so whoever was ahead after an hour or two was declared the winner.
Did Lipman Pike deal with anti-Semitism as a player?
A: Anti-Semitism was not a major factor is keeping Lip from playing. Lip had no problem finding employment with any of the 8 professional teams he played for– even to the extent of being named manager (“captain” was the word used at the time, when the manager also played for the team) of the Troy Haymakers in the first season of professional ball in 1871 –making him the first Jewish manager. He was not the only Jewish player in the league at the time, which was, by necessity, made up of many children of recent immigrants (half of Brooklyn’s population was foreign born during Lip’s playing days). However, it is also true that he did find resentment from some teammates, and the ethnic groups tended to band together. It does not seem to be purely coincidental that in a time when it was common knowledge that many players were being paid “under the table” that Lip was the one publicly charged and brought before the governing body of the National Association of Baseball Players for breaking the rules.
Did he leave any lasting effect on the game of baseball?
A: Well maybe we can blame him for the high salaries? After all he made $20 a week to play for the Troy Haymakers ($350 in today’s money). After Lip was accused of accepting money, the league changed the rules, and professional players were allowed to compete along with amateurs. This soon led to an All-Professional Baseball League. Even Lip’s mother couldn’t believe it. “Who ever heard of anyone being paid to chase a ball?” she asked, shaking her head in disbelief.