Baseball’s first professional player

In 1936, the first ballots for the newly-created Baseball Hall of Fame were mailed out for voters to consider. As with modern Hall of Fame balloting, there were two ways to be elected: the Baseball Writers Association of America (or BBWAA) was allowed to vote for contemporary players from the 20th century, while the Veteran’s Committee was allowed to vote for 19th century players. The writers chose five players that year, while the veteran’s committee chose none.

Of the players on the Veteran’s committee ballots (and there were sixty in all), twenty-three got a single vote. None of those twenty-three were inducted in 1936, but in the years since, five of those twenty-three have been enshrined in Cooperstown. What this says to me is that the lack of initial support does not close the door to enshrinement. Sometimes a good case just needs to be made on a player’s behalf.

I bring this up because I recently participated in an exercise put together by Graham Womack at Baseball: Past and Present. He has what is now an annual listing of the 50 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Of course, he and I–and all of the others who participated–aren’t actual Hall of Fame voters, but we all love the game enough to consider which players the Hall of Fame voters may have missed. Or to think about it another way, it’s like playing fantasy baseball with retired players.

When the results of the voting were announced, I wanted to see what the collective wisdom of 86 baseball fans could come up with. Ron Santo was on the list, but during the process of the voting he was selected by the actual Veteran’s Committee, and rightly so.  But of the 50 players that were identified in the voting I participated in, only a handful of them played before 1950, and only two played before 1900. So Don Mattingly and Albert Belle made the list, because the voters can remember when those players actually played the game, but players who died before the voters were born received scant recognition, or none at all.

This isn’t surprising, really. If somebody was to ask me the best World Series ever played, I would list 2011 at the top of the list, followed by 1991 and then by 1975. Notice how those three series all fell within my lifetime, and during the period that I actually followed baseball. Does that mean that none of the World Series played before I was born (and there were dozens of them) was among the best ever? I wouldn’t make that claim at all. It’s just that I didn’t see them happen, and I probably wouldn’t consider any of them to be better than the ones that I have seen.

If I went back and looked at all of the games and all of the series that have been played since the first World Series was played in 1903, I’m sure that I could find a few to rival–and probably even surpass– anything that I have seen. But human nature tends to narrow “history” down to “what I have experienced in my lifetime.” So making a case for a ballplayer who played 100 years before I was even born will be a tall order. But I’m willing to give it a shot.

I’ve been to Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame once in my life, in the summer of 1999. The Sosa and McGwire home run chase had taken place the season before, and many of those two player’s uniforms, equipment, and so forth were on display. As it turns out, that might be the closest either of them comes to being in Cooperstown, but I digress.

Baseball is a statistics-driven game, and always will be. However, this can only take a person so far in evaluating a player, especially one who played a century and a half ago. There are other intangibles that can–and should–come into play when evaluating the impact a player has had on the game. For example, a player named Candy Cummings was enshrined in Cooperstown in 1939, after receiving no votes at all on the 1936 Veterans’ Committee ballot, because he is credited with inventing the curveball. Imagine what baseball would be like without the curveball. It would certainly be a different game from the one that I know and love.

So there is precedent for a player to be elected to the Hall of Fame for something other than the stats they amassed on the field. I believe that Curt Flood should–and hopefully one day will–be similarly enshrined, since he challenged the Reserve clause that kept players in indentured servitude to the same team for nearly a century. Flood lost his challenge, and his playing career as well, but he has since been vindicated, because players can now offer their services to the highest bidder. Every professional player today owes a debt of gratitude to Curt Flood.

So, too, does every professional ballplayer owe a debt to Lipman Pike. This is because, in the earliest days of organized baseball, professionalism was officially banned from the game. The National Association of Baseball Players, which was founded in 1857, was dedicated to amateurism. However, if you want the best, you should expect to pay for it, and baseball talent is no different from anything else in this regard.

In 1866, The Athletic Club of Philadelphia was considered to be one of the very best baseball teams. They were also thought to be paying players as much as $20 for their services. The actual number would be significantly higher if adjusted into today’s dollars, but the idea here isn’t about how much they were getting paid. It’s that they were getting paid in the first place.

Baseball was already on its way to becoming more than something that men of leisure did in their free time. It was a business, the way we know it today and have always known it to be. But the business of paying players for their services didn’t sit so well with the guardians of the game. So they began investigating the Athletics, and singled out three players (one of them being Pike) as examples of how the Philadelphia team was violating the amateur nature of the game.

It’s unclear whether the target of this investigation was the Athletic club or the players themselves. But Lipman Pike, as a star player in those days, would have been a prime example if the NABBP was determined to make their point about amateurism. His career as a player hung in the balance, and he must have felt that he dodged a bullet, once the Association decided to drop its investigation of him.

The issue of professionalism continued to strike at the heart of what baseball was becoming, but once Pike was allowed to carry on as he was, it amounted to a tacit admission that baseball players would indeed be paid for their services. Pike probably wasn’t the first player who was paid for his services, but he was the first to be allowed to do so openly. For that reason, in my mind at least, he can rightfully be considered as baseball’s first professional player.

In 1866, the NABBP was reorganized as the National Association of Professional Baseball Players, and the minor change in wording (simply adding the word “professional” to the existing name) is quite telling. It also began the first recorded league in baseball history. If you want to put your finger down on a point in history where the game became a fully professional endeavor, this is the moment. And Lipman Pike (along with the other two Athletic players, whose names aren’t readily available in the internet research I have done for this piece) had more to do with this than any other player.

When you visit to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, you won’t find any amateur players enshrined there. The only way to make it there, as a player, is to make it to the major leagues and perform at the highest level. There are displays and exhibits about the game of baseball itself outside of the professional realm, as well there should be. Baseball is much more than the events that transpire on the field at Wrigley Field and the other major league ballparks. But once you accept the fact that Joe DiMaggio, and Kirby Puckett, and Honus Wagner, and all of the others in the Hall of Fame were paid for their services like any other professional should be, you must also recognize that somebody had to once make that possible.

Baseball began as a game, and has evolved into one of the best-known industries in America. And there needs to be some way of explaining the linkage between the two. Lipman Pike was a fine player in his own right, but I’m making the case here for him as the “missing link” between baseball as a game, and baseball as a business. For that reason, above any statistical analysis that could be presented here, I am stating here that Lipman Pike should be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

4 thoughts on “Baseball’s first professional player

  1. Great post, Rob, thanks for writing it. A couple of things:

    1.) I know a couple people I could email to find the names of those two Athletics players. I’ll send something out.

    2.) There’s an inflation calculator I sometimes use online. Twenty dollars in 1866 would be worth $294.14 in 2010. Not a huge sum, but getting paid anything to play ball in those days was probably cool (I feel that way about writing, incidentally.)

    Thanks again and talk to you later.

    1. Thanks for reading. I read the Pike bio you cited and several other pieces as well.

      I made the conscious decision to keep Pike’s Jewishness out of the piece I wrote, because I don’t think it’s relevant to the player that he was. Was he targeted for investigation because of his faith? It could be, but I don’t know that for certain. Was he later blacklisted–ostensibly for throwing games–for the same reason? Again, I don’t know. And I don’t think it matters terribly much in the end.

      His baseball feats on the diamond are impressive, but they’re more anecdotal than anything else. When you’re talking about the era where “base ball” was either two separate words–or sometimes a single, hyphenated word (i.e., “base-ball”)–you’re not going to be able to do the kind of statistical analysis that you would for a 20th or 21st century player. And I don’t think getting into the sabermetric stuff for someone who played that long ago serves a purpose, anyway.

      I’m more interested in how did we get to where we are with baseball today, and who helped us to reach this point? The summertime Cape Cod League in Massachusetts helps me to think about this point. College kids get invited to play in a wood bat league in the summer, and the games are free for anyone who wants to come out and watch (although they do pass the hat to help defray expenses). It’s an amateur league, and every last one of the guys who play in these games dreams of being a professional one day.

      But baseball wasn’t created as a professional’s game. The ones who played it at first meant to keep the riff-raff out of “their” game. But Pike and the others who crashed the game–so to speak–brought a talent level to the game that you’ll never find in the Cape Cod league, or a college game, or anyplace else where amateurs play ball. We expect to see the best talent on the field, and that’s where the professionals come in.

      It doesn’t matter how many times Pike led the league in home runs, when just about every team in the league at the time is a faded memory now. But it does matter that he–and some others whose names we don’t know about anymore–paved the way for baseball to become more than just a diversion for the upper crust.

      I would draw the analogy of putting the Wright Brothers into the aviator’s hall of fame, if there is such a thing. Their plane probably wasn’t much by today’s standards, but I wouldn’t have all of the jets flying over my house today without them. And applying WAR and OPS (or even stolen bases and home runs) to Lipman Pike is about the same thing, in my view. I’m just one guy with an opinion, is all.

      And again, thanks for reading. I’m pleased to make a case to those who would care to consider it.

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