Nathan "Nate" Berkenstock (1831 – February 23, 1900) was the earliest-born professional baseball player, a year older than the next-"oldest" player, Lew Carl, who was born in 1832 and played in one game for the Baltimore Canaries in 1874. Berkenstock played in just one pro league game: the game that decided the first professional baseball championship in the United States, in 1871. He was Jewish.[1]

Early baseball career

Exactly when Berkenstock first took up the game of baseball is unknown; the National Association of Base Ball Players, the first organized amateur league, was not founded until 1857, when he was 26. According to Marshall D. Wright's book The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870, Berkenstock debuted with the Athletic Club of Philadelphia (the original team of this name, and not related to the American League team that now plays in Oakland) in 1863, when he was 32.

Statistics were very sketchy in the early days of baseball; the only numbers available today are Games Played, Runs Scored and "Hands Lost" (a player was charged with a Hand Lost every time he made an out at bat or on the basepaths). Stats like hits, walks, total bases and runs batted in were still years away from being compiled. Generally speaking, a good player would score more runs than have Hands Lost.

Berkenstock played four years with Athletic, from 1863-66:

Year Positions Games Runs Hands Lost
1863 1B-OF 9 19 25
1864 1B 8 28 20
1865 1B 15 59 38
1866 1B (reserve) 13 66 48
Totals 45 172 131

Athletic was among the top teams in the nation in the 1860s, winning an (unofficial) national championship in 1867, the year after Berkenstock retired.

Berkenstock comes back

On October 30, 1871, the Athletics met the Chicago White Stockings at the Union Grounds in Brooklyn, to decide the 1871 championship. In the first season of America's first professional league, the National Association, the title was decided not by winning percentage but simply wins; going into the final game, the Athletics had 20 victories (as did the Boston Red Stockings) while Chicago had 19; the "Championship Committee" decreed before the contest that the winner would take the pennant.

The fact that the White Stockings were playing at all was significant: the Great Chicago Fire had earlier that month wiped out their ballpark and all their equipment, forcing them to play their remaining games on the road, wearing makeshift and borrowed uniforms. The Athletics also had problems: center fielder Count Sensenderfer had injured his knee, so they called on Berkenstock—by now a 40-year-old out of the game for five years—to play right field, while right fielder George Bechtel moved to center. Philadelphia won the game, and the championship, by a 4-1 count. Berkenstock failed to get a hit in four trips to the plate (striking out three times), but recorded three putouts in the field, including the final out of the game.

Little else is known of Berkenstock's life; a SABR report indicates he served in the American Civil War, enlisting in 1862 and mustering out after two weeks. He died in Philadelphia on February 23, 1900.

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Preceded by
Harry Wright
Oldest recognized verified living baseball player
October 30, 1871 – February 23, 1900
Succeeded by
Dickey Pearce