SABR

Leo Fishel

This article was written by Jane Jacobs.

Leo Fishel, one of the first Jewish major-league pitchers, was born on December 13, 1877, to Leopold and Theresa Fishel. Leo was the youngest of eight, with four older sisters and three older brothers. Both Leopold and Theresa are described in different sources as having been born in Austria or Germany. What is certain is that, having settled in Babylon, New York, the family quickly rose to prominence. Leopold had established himself as the proprietor of a country store, acquiring the former Sumpawams House, which was subsequently known as the Fishel Building and remained in the Fishel family until the 1970s. According to Reminiscences of Babylon, "Mr. Fishel ... has, by his unswerving integrity and devotion to public, as well as private interests, won the esteem of all who know him, and stands foremost in the ranks of our best citizens." He was later president of the Babylon Electric Light Company and a director of the Babylon National Bank.

The Fishel family also rose to prominence in the local athletic scene. Harry Fishel, Leo',s older brother, is described in a newspaper clipping, probably from 1888, as "among the best juvenile base ball players on Long Island." Gustav Fishel, Leo's cousin, was also active as a semipro player. It's not clear when Leo himself debuted on the semipro scene. He reportedly pitched for the Hempstead team at the age of 17, possibly in the summer of 1894. In the fall of 1894 Leo entered the freshman class of Columbia University and by the spring had secured the pitcher's spot on the Columbia University baseball team roster. In August of 1895 he recorded 12 strikeouts pitching for Babylon in their victory over Islip.

By the summer of 1896 he had accepted an offer to pitch for the Richfields in Richfield Springs, a watering place for New York's upper middle class, near Utica. Richfield Springs played other upstate New York state teams such as Cooperstown and Corning. The former boasted a young "Happy Jack" Chesbro.

In the fall, Leo returned to Columbia and again pitched for Columbia in the spring. He did not return to Richfield Springs despite considerable urging. William Blauvelt wrote on June 3, 1897, to say "My dear fellow you ought to give us a second season; this I take it, is Base Ball ethics; or ought to be. You must not desert us. Let me know if you have really and finally determined not to come." Blauvelt wrote again on the 8th to express his disappointment that Leo would instead be pitching for New Jersey's Oritani Field Club: "My dear Fishel, Yours received. Too bad; but if you can't, you can't. Am afraid we are going to miss you the coming season; and if Cooperstown should down us, you had better take to the woods, for a delegation of incensed Richfield rooters will be after you with evil intentions." The Oritani played at a field in Hackensack and, according to their letterhead, had achieved notable victories in 1896 against Princeton Consolidated, Yale Consolidated, Manhattan College, Lafayette College, the Cuban X Giants, the Genuine Cuban Giants, Princeton University Englewood Field Club, Camden A.C., Asylum B.B., Orange A.C. and Riverton A.C. Richfield continued to make offers throughout the summer including one to pay $25 per week.

Bidding for Leo's services for the 1898 season began on November 19, 1897, with a letter from Jake Wells of the Richmond Virginia Club in the Atlantic League, asking for Fishel's "lowest terms" and continued in January of the following year with a letter from the Oritani Field club. It appears that he agreed to return to the Oritani although he continued to receive per diem offers throughout the season. Some of these were directed to Babylon, suggesting that he may have spent part of the summer in Long Island, not New Jersey. Fishel also withdrew from Columbia College in 1898 to enter the law school. He continued to play for the Columbia team.

Fishel's one major league appearance was on May 3, 1899. He pitched a complete game for the Giants against the Phillies allowing a lackluster six runs, but batting .250.

Other major league clubs showed an interest in signing Fishel. He had earlier received an offer to try out with Louisville. In 1899 it was followed with a more definite offer to sign. He also kept a letter from Frank G. Selee that implied Boston's intent to pursue him. One newspaper reported that his family disapproved of his making a career of baseball. In the end Fishel turned them all down in favor of a career in law, with its higher earning potential and promise of a much longer professional career.

In any case, Fishel returned to Richfield Springs for the summer of 1899 but also made appearances for the West New York Field Club under the name Foster. Why Fishel adopted this subterfuge is unknown, and his identity does not seem to have been any great secret, since at least one newspaper refers to "nom de pitch" Foster. He again returned to Columbia Law School for the 1899-1900 term and graduated in the spring of 1900 with an A.B. in law. He was admitted to the bar that same year and was selected to coach the Columbia team in 1901.

In March, Fishel received a letter from C.W. Bedell, a Freeport druggist urging him to pitch for the Freeport team. He returned to Long Island, leased offices in the Wallace Building on Railroad Avenue in Freeport and hung out his shingle. The 1901 season a big year for Freeport. In addition to signing Fishel, they added his former teammate, Tom Moorehead, and procured new uniforms of "snuff gray with maroon trimmings and stockings." Fishel was captain of the 1902 team, but he missed at least one appearance on the mound in July of 1903 to elope with Mary Blossom Searle. The couple had long been acquainted, but Mary's father, Charles, reportedly disapproved of romance on the grounds that his daughter was too young. The marriage produced one daughter, but ended in divorce.

In 1905 Fishel coached the Freeport High School baseball team to a rare championship. Among the student athletes was a young shortstop named George Morton Levy, who would become Fishel's law partner in the late 1920s.

Fishel's second marriage was to Laura Duerstein, and in 1917 his only son, Leo Fishel Jr. was born. Leo Fishel Sr. continued to practice law with increasing distinction into the 1950s. His law firm later moved to Mineola and added additional attorneys, becoming Edwards, Levy, Fishel and George. He served as counsel to the Town Board of Hempstead and headed the Freeport Sewer Commission.

Fishel was clearly proud of his pitching and kept newspaper clippings detailing his games. These were later pasted into a scrapbook along with letters he received from various team officers requesting his pitching services. The scrapbook offers a fascinating glimpse of the 1890s semipro baseball scene. Regrettably the newspaper articles lack dates or any other attribution. Equally unfortunate is that Fishel's replies to the many offers he received from locales as far flung as Vermont and Virginia are not recorded. As with most semi-professional players it is difficult to assess his baseball career or his true potential as a major leaguer. Clearly he was in great demand and commanded substantial fees for his pitching. In August 1898 he was offered $20.00 plus expenses to pitch for White Plains against rival Tarrytown, a truly fantastic sum for a day's work in that era. (Fishel's suite for his law office was leased for only $7.00 per month.) Semipro teams played regularly in exhibition games against major league teams, African-American teams and college teams. Fishel recorded some brilliant victories and undistinguished losses in these contests. He must have cut an impressive figure at 6 feet tall and 175 pounds. Fishel pitched right-handed. He had a good "speedball" with a deadly drop. Jack Warner and Fred Jacklitsch are reported to have agreed that there was no pitcher in the league with a more powerful whip.

Although Fishel was Jewish, he does not seem to have been particularly religious. He often pitched on Saturdays, and his descendants were raised as Protestants.

Even after Leo Fishel's death on May 19, 1960, the Fishel family continues to be prominent. Leo Fishel Jr. attended St. Lawrence University, graduating in 1938, and then went to Columbia Medical School, graduating in 1942. He served with the 88th Infantry Division in North Africa and Italy. After the war he practiced in the South Shore of Long Island until he retired in 1987. He was president of the Nassau Medical Society and was instrumental in establishing its medical library. He sat on the board of directors of South Nassau Community Hospital from the 1960's until 1990. He also served on the State Board of Professional Conduct from the late 1970's to the late 1980's. Dr. Fishel died in 2003, but some of his children still live on Long Island.

Acknowledgment

Thanks to the Fishel family, especially Fred Fishel, for their generous assistance with this biography.

Sources

Leo Fishel Scrapbook. [Freeport, New York]

New York Times. "Weds Despite Her Father" July 14, 1904, p. 2.

Brooklyn Eagle. "Freeport out of the League" April 12, 1901, p. 9.

Field, Benjamin P. Reminiscences of Babylon. Babylon, New York: Babylon Publishing Co.1911.

Long Island Daily Press. Obituary. May 19, 1940.

Emma W. Seaman Scrapbook, [Babylon, New York: 1947], p. [6]

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