As many Jewish baseball fans know, four players were tagged by the media as Jews (Alex Bregman, Max Fried, Joc Pederson and Garrett Stubbs) in the 2021 World Series won by the Atlanta Braves over the Houston Astros. Some have just one Jewish parent and are far removed from any observance of Judaism, and are willing to play on Yom Kippur. Like most non-orthodox Jews, their Jewish life ended at their bar mitzvah – assuming they observed it at all.
Stubbs was the backup to the backup catcher and had no at-bats while Bregman, Fried and Pederson made Jewish history by figuring in the same play in Game Two of the World Series. Houston third baseman Alex Bregman hit a Max Fried pitch to right field, which was caught by Joc Pederson. Something to remember for Jewish fans. But now let’s also take the time to remember the Jewish players who died in 2021. Some, up in age as I am, will remember following them during their playing days.
Hyman (Hy) Cohen was born in 1931 to European immigrant parents. The Yankees outbid the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, who also wanted to sign the big six-foot-four pitcher hoping to attract more Jewish fans. After a couple of years in the Yankees organization, Cohen was obtained by the Cubs who hoped to give him a big league shot in 1952. However, the Korean War was raging and Cohen was drafted to wear a military uniform.
Hy Cohen finally made his big league debut on April 17, 1955, and had his last major league appearance on June 2. In between, he pitched in seven games without recording a victory or loss. He was tagged for 28 hits in 17 innings with an ERA of 7.94, and the right-hander earned a ticket back to the minor leagues. Twenty-two days later Sandy Koufax made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
After dreidling around the minors, Cohen finished college and earned a master’s degree in education and began a career as a teacher in the Los Angeles public school system, and also coached high school baseball in Southern California. He was married for 66 years and celebrated his 90th birthday before Covid claimed him less than a week later.
Norm Sherry died from natural causes at 89 at a long-term care facility in San Juan Capistrano, California. Along with his brother Larry, they starred at Fairfax High in Los Angeles and were teammates with the Los Angeles Dodgers. They were a Jewish battery as Norm was the catcher and Larry the pitcher. Norm also caught Sandy Koufax and tried to give him some pitching advice. Stubborn Sandy finally listened to his catcher’s advice and became a different pitcher.
The transition came during an exhibition game in 1961. Koufax started the game by loading the bases as most of his pitches were wild. Sherry went to the mound and told Koufax to ease up on the ball, don’t force the pitch by throwing so hard, relax the grip on the ball and aim for spots. Sandy had heard similar advice before, but this time he listened to his catcher, struck out the next three batters, and didn’t allow a hit the rest of the way. Sherry shocked Koufax by telling him he was actually throwing harder by not trying. From that day on the 25-year-old left-hander was reborn as a pitcher.
After a five-year playing career and with a .215 career batting average, mostly with the Dodgers and a short stint with the Mets, Norm Sherry began coaching and managing and was hired as a major league manager with the California Angels in 1976. He was fired a year later and went back to coaching.
Richie Scheinblum had an eight-year big league career spanning 1965 to 1974 with six different teams (Cleveland, Washington, Kansas City, Cincinnati, California Angels and St. Louis), and compiled a career average of .263 with 13 home runs. His best season – and the only one in which he played in over 100 games – was in 1972 when he hit eight homers and batted .300 for Kansas City, becoming the only Jewish switch-hitter to hit .300 or better for an entire season.
On July 20, 1969, U.S. astronauts walked on the moon, and Scheinblum ran around the bases excitedly after hitting his first big league home run. We spent some time together one afternoon in the early 70s by walking around downtown Detroit and talking baseball. Richie was in a slump at the time and reasoned, “A slump is like a cold. No matter what you do it’s going to last about two weeks.”
After his release as a big league player, Scheinblum played in Japan for Hiroshima in 1975. He was the first Jew to play professionally in Japan and the first player to hit a home run in one game from both sides of the plate. The switch-hitter would also play the following year in Japan. Then it was on to California where he operated a wholesale jewelry business and eventually moved to Palm Harbor, Florida, where he worked as a salesman. Richie Scheinblum was 78 when he died in Florida early in the 2021 baseball season.