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Greenberg To Green To…Braun?

        The 1947 baseball season was Jackie Robinson’s first and Hank Greenberg’s last. It also marked the debut of another Jewish slugger, Al Rosen. Three years later, at the age of 26, Rosen became the regular third baseman of the Cleveland Indians and batted .287 with a league-leading 37 home runs.

 

         The following season, Rosen dipped to .265 with 24 homers but bettered it in 1952, batting .302 with 28 home runs. In 1953, Rosen nearly won the Triple Crown. His 43 home runs and 145 RBIs led the American League, but his .336 average was one point lower than Mickey Vernon’s league-high .337.

 

         Rosen had a pretty good year in ’54 (.300 average, 24 homers, 102 RBIs) at the age of 30, but his skills eroded rapidly. His .244 average and 21 home runs in l955 was followed by final season stats of .267 and 15 homers.

 

         Rosen could have played another season or two, but Hank Greenberg, by that time the general manager of the Indians, had a trade worked out sending Rosen to the Boston Red Sox. Rosen refused to go as his wife had some health issues and he made a name for himself as a stockbroker in Cleveland during the off-season.

 

         Rosen’s career stats – batting average of .285 with 192 home runs – were fairly impressive, but hardly Hall of Fame material. Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg hit .313 over 13 seasons and his 331 home runs averaged about six homers more a year than Rosen.

 

         Shawn Green, who’ll be 35 in November, has a career batting average a couple points lower than Rosen’s and probably will overtake Greenberg’s career home run total early next season, making him the all-time Jewish home run leader. But when Green does pass Greenberg, it will have taken him some 2,000 more at-bats than the 5,193 it took Greenberg to reach his 331 home runs.

 

         A Jewish slugger on the rise is rookie Ryan Braun. The 23-year-old Milwaukee third baseman made his major league debut the last week of May and is on pace to end the season with great big league numbers, with a plus .300 average and almost 30 home runs.

 

         Braun played for Triple-A Nashville before his call-up and tore up the minor league’s highest level with a .354 average and 10 home runs. So he’s the real deal – and much faster than either Greenberg or Rosen, so he’s always a threat to steal a base. The 6-foot-2-inch right-handed batter from southern California could be to hitting what Sandy Koufax was to pitching.

 

         Braun’s already been dubbed “The Hebrew Hammer” and he says he’s cool with that. His big test, as far as most of us are concerned, will come on Friday night and Saturday, September 21 and 22. That’s Yom Kippur, and the Brewers are scheduled to be playing in Atlanta with both clubs figuring to be in the pennant race.

 

         Will Braun play? Will he suit up and just watch from the dugout? Will he stay away from the ballpark? Kevin Youkilis was in uniform last Yom Kippur and watched his Red Sox teammates from the dugout. Because he didn’t play, one of the papers called Youkilis an observant Jew. I call him a Jew who observed the game from the dugout.

 

* * * * *

 

         Coaches have been dodging bullets for decades without tragedy. Every season has its share of injuries (usually not serious) and near-misses, especially in pre-game batting practice with so many players on the field.

 

         During games, coaches station themselves according to their own scouting reports. When Gary Sheffield bats, third base coaches move some ten feet backward because the Tigers right-handed slugger hits many wicked line drives and grounders outside the foul line.

 

         For decades, Dodgers play-by-play man Vin Scully has been trumpeting the use of batting helmets for third- and first-base coaches. Third-base coaches should use a lefty batters helmet and first-base coaches a righty helmet. “That way,” Scully says, “the flap will protect the part of the face closest to the batter.”

 

         Would Mike Coolbaugh still be alive and coaching first base in the minors if he had worn a helmet? As you recall, last month a line drive foul hit Coolbaugh in the back of the neck, just below the left ear. A ruptured artery resulting in blood loss to the brain caused his death. A runner on first base may have diverted some of Coolbaugh’s attention until it was too late.

 

         Only 35, Coolbaugh had two little kids and a pregnant wife. He was a wonderful guy, a great father and husband. He wasn’t a great player and had been released by nine teams on several levels. He was good enough, however, to play a short time in the majors as an infielder. Being a former infielder and 35 meant he was younger and more agile than big league coaches. Still, he couldn’t dodge the ball.

 

         Baseball is the toughest of all sports to excel in (usually one must succeed on several minor-league levels before making it to the big leagues, and superstars from other sports, such as Michael Jordan, have tried baseball and discovered they weren’t even good minor leaguers), but what most casual observers don’t realize is just how dangerous baseball is.

 

         Former Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey told me there’s no such thing as a batting slump. “Most players,” Garvey said, “go through times when they’re scared of the ball.”

 

         Yankees manager Joe Torre’s experience while playing for the Atlanta Braves some 40 years ago may explain it best. Torre missed almost a month after being hit in the left side of the face. He returned to the lineup and couldn’t hit well because he feared being hit again. As his average fell, Torre psyched himself up and his fear of embarrassment became greater than his fear of the ball.

 

         I was twice hit by balls during batting practice. A liner off the bat of George Brett found my toe while I was well in foul territory near the Kansas City dugout. Luckily, my shoe absorbed most of the blow.

 

         I could have used a batting helmet the other time. I was interviewing Reggie Jackson, and the Yankees star decided we’d sit in the on-deck circle to the third-base side of home plate. Yankees coach Yogi Berra was hitting fungoes to right field, tossing a ball up and hitting it when it came down.

 

         A Yankees outfielder was catching Yogi’s offerings and tossing them back on a bounce or two. Berra would stop the ball with his bat and the ball would roll a few feet before stopping. One ball popped off Yogi’s bat about 40 feet southeast and caught me on the left cheek. Hospital x-rays revealed a broken cheekbone. Even though the ball didn’t come off the bat as fast as pitchers throw it, it made a lasting impression.


 

         If you’re a baseball insider, you quickly learn respect for the ball and the talent it takes to play baseball.

 

         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 irdav@sbcglobal.net.

About the Author: The author of 10 books, Irwin Cohen headed a national baseball publication for five years and interviewed the legendary Hank Greenberg. He went on to work for a major league team and became the first Orthodox Jew to earn a World Series ring. He can be reached in his Detroit area dugout at irdav@sbcglobal.net.


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