Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. His “Baseball Insider” column appears the second week of each month in The Jewish Press. Cohen, who is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, may be reached in his dugout at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hope everyone enjoyed this year’s All-Star Game, which was played on Tuesday this week, after this column was prepared.
Shawn Green was the last Jewish player to appear in the starting lineup at an All-Star Game. Green, then an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had one hit in three at-bats in the 2002 All-Star Game in Milwaukee. It was in Milwaukee some seven weeks earlier, on May 23, 2002, that Green had his real dream game, hitting four home runs, a double and a single for a major league record 19 total bases.
(Green doesn’t have all-star stats this year but is having a pretty good season for the Mets.)
A different shade of Green, Rabbi Simcha Green, was the spiritual leader of a shul in Portland, Maine, around that time Kevin Youkilis played there as a member of the Sea Dogs, a Red Sox minor league club. Rabbi Green led a delegation to meet Youkilis and told manager Ron Johnson that the synagogue was a 10-minute walk from the ballpark. “I want you to drop in there on occasion,” the manager advised his young Jewish player. Kevin scored by answering, “Fine, I will.”
Before the next day’s davening rolled around, Youkilis left for a promotion to triple-A Pawtucket, one step away from the big leagues. Rabbi Green credits the blessings of the delegation of shul congregants for Youkilis’s quick trip upward. While Youkilis made it to Boston and is having an all-star year, he failed to receive enough votes to be named to the starting lineup and didn’t make it as a reserve, either.
Rabbi Green, however, became a free agent and went from one end of the country to the other; he is now the spiritual manager of the Young Israel of Santa Barbara in sunny California.
Second baseman Charles “Buddy” Myer of the Washington Senators was the very first Jewish player to become an all-star. Myer made the all-star team in 1935, two years after the first ever All-Star Game was played. Tigers star Charlie Gehringer, however, played all nine innings at second base. In 1937 Myer became an all-star again but sat and watched as Gehringer, again, was stationed at second for the whole game.
Hank Greenberg made it for the first time in ’37 but also rode the bench as Lou Gehrig played first base. So the two Jewish all-stars never showed up in the American League box score. Meyer never got another all-star nod, but Greenberg did in 1939. Hank played the entire game, going one-for-three as the National League downed the A.L. before nearly 63,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, not far from Greenberg’s boyhood Bronx home.
By the way, next year’s All-Star Game will be held in Yankee Stadium, the last year of the storied stadium’s existence. The new version now rising behind the left field bleachers is scheduled to open in 2009. The present Yankee Stadium, which opened in 1923, hosted All-Star Games in 1939, 1960 and 1977.
I covered the latter, but the one in Philadelphia the year before was much more memorable for me. Philly got the nod because it was America’s Bicentennial year and the evening before Tuesday’s game found Independence Mall roped off for food and festivities for baseball’s stars, officials and media.
It was a very memorable Monday. I flew to Philadelphia that morning with the American League’s announced starting pitcher, Mark Fidrych — tagged “The Bird” because the tall, lanky, curly-haired youngster looked like Sesame Street’s Big Bird.
Only 21 and in the Detroit starting rotation for two months, The Bird was a national sensation, winning nine of his first 11 starts and compiling a low ERA of 1.79. The colorful Fidrych patted the dirt on the mound before each inning, talked to the ball, congratulated infielders on good fielding plays and quickly endeared himself to Tigers fans.
America had only recently discovered The Bird. The ABC Monday Night Baseball crew of Al Michaels and Bob Prince had come to Detroit on June 28 to cover the game between the Tigers and the Yankees. Fidrych, who sported a 7-1 record at the time, was going against lefty Ken Holtzman, who was 5-5. The quick-working Bird dispatched the Yanks, 5-to-1, in a game that took just an hour and 51 minutes.
The Tiger Stadium crowd of over 48,000 wouldn’t stop cheering and The Bird shook hands with everyone he could reach as he made his way to the dugout. After several curtain calls, The Bird was ready to be interviewed. Baseball had its newest phenomenon. The national press vied for his attention but Tigers skipper Ralph Houk and the team’s upper management couldn’t and wouldn’t grant most requests.
Two weeks later, at the all-star festivities in Philadelphia, the national media all wanted a crack at The Bird, and many pleaded with me to get them to him.
A bunch of reporters had seen us arrive together (we shared a ride from the airport) and register at the all-star headquarters hotel, the Bellevue Stratford in downtown Philadelphia. As the reporters moved toward Fidrych, I whispered that we should switch rooms so he could get some sleep. “Thanks,” he said, “but I’ll just take the phone off the hook.” With those words of wisdom, he sprinted to the stairwell.
After unloading my gear – including gefilte fish cans and salami – in my room, I headed to the media buses for a shuttle to Veterans Stadium to watch the player workouts and, hopefully, to get a couple of interviews.
The Bird was already in uniform in the clubhouse. I told him he should stay in fair territory on the field. “Because,” I said, “once you’re in foul territory the media will be all over you. Especially the ones from National League cities. Remember, you have a press conference tomorrow morning at the hotel, so they’ll get a crack at you then.”
The Bird shook those curly locks and made his way onto the field where he heeded my advice. Outside the dugout, a photographer from Philadelphia who did some work for the publication I headed, introduced me to a slim, distinguished-looking older man. “This is James Michener,” the photographer said. I offered my hand, and as we shook, Michener said he subscribed to my monthly.
The famous author of umpteen best-sellers asked me about The Bird and told me how lucky he felt that he’d been granted media credentials. Michener had a soft spot for Philadelphia because he was raised and went to college in Pennsylvania.
The photographer asked if we’d like to see Connie Mack Stadium, home of the old legendary Philadelphia Athletics until they moved to Kansas City in 1954. The Phillies played there before moving to Veterans Stadium in 1971. We jumped at the chance, as the old ballpark was in the process of being demolished. It was also a chance to spend more time with Michener, who was 69 at the time.
A short time after arriving home, I received a letter from Michener telling me about his old friend, former Postmaster James Farley, who expressed a desire to write a column for my publication.
Tall and thin and always wearing a flat-topped straw hat in the summer, Farley was the longest-running season-ticket holder at Yankee Stadium. The former head of the Democratic Party, he almost bought the Yankees prior to World War II. A close confidant of FDR, Farley, who had been urged by some to run for president, witnessed history as few had.
Flying and driving with The Bird, spending time with and getting a letter from James Michener, roaming Independence Mall with baseball people, all teamed to make the time spent around the 1976 All-Star Game in Philadelphia the most memorable ever for me.
* * * * *
Score one for Avi Rosalimsky. The 13 year old went with the Senter family to Shea Stadium to see a Mets-Phillies game. An 11th inning Phillies homer broke a tie and almost the hand of a fan.
The ball bounced off the man’s hand and headed downward. Avi, whose uniform was topped off by a yarmulke and tzitsis, scampered toward the ball, found it and handed it to the surprised fan, who hadn’t bothered to chase it.
Avi was hoping the fan would give it back to him, but the man didn’t. Perhaps he was too surprised by what the boy did. While Avi didn’t go home with the home-run ball, many went home with a memory of a great young member of the Orthodox Jewish team.