The Phillies' first Jewish manager | Frank's Place

Heritage is about all the only two Jewish managers in Phillies history have in common.

Gabe Kapler, hired last week to replace Pete Mackanin, is a fitness-obsessed Californian whose workout-sculpted body seems to have been created by a comic-book artist. He’s just 42 years old, is fascinated by analytics, and is, by all accounts, extremely cerebral.

Andy Cohen, meanwhile, was 55, graying, and a paunchy 5-foot-8 when he got the job in 1960. A former infielder for John McGraw, he was a seat-of-the-pants, old-school, baseball lifer.

Soon, no doubt very early in Kapler’s career, there will be one more thing to set them apart.

His team will lose a game.

Cohen, with a managerial winning percentage of 1.000, is the only one of Kapler’s 53 predecessors without a single defeat on his resume.

The fact that he managed just one game diminishes the accomplishment, of course, but it doesn’t make the story of Andy Cohen any less interesting.

While his  career spanned 40 years, as a player and manager in college and organized baseball, it’s two days —  32 years apart — that make Cohen a unique figure in the game’s history.

The son of a cigar-store owner, he was born in Baltimore and raised in El Paso, Texas. At Alabama, where he had won a baseball scholarship, he became the first Jewish captain of any team there.

From 1926 through 1929, Cohen played for John McGraw’s New York Giants, a franchise then looking to counter the enormous popularity of Babe Ruth, who played for the Yankees just across the Harlem River. A Jewish star, they thought, would ignite the team’s sizable Jewish fan base.

They found Cohen in Texas. In the minors, it took the infielder time to adjust to constant anti-Semitic taunts. He once charged into the stands after a fan who called him a “Christ killer.”

A role player during his first year and a half in New York, Cohen got his opportunity when McGraw traded second-baseman Rogers Hornsby before the 1928 season.

The Sporting News, always attuned to non-white incursions into baseball, noted, he had “all the natural characteristics of his race, thick dark hair, dark skin and keen mentality.”

Sportswriters fixated on the physical traits they believed identified him as Jewish, his “hook nose”, “black, beady eyes,” thick eyebrows.”

Opening day 1928 at the Polo Grounds, Cohen delivered. He had three hits, drove in two runs, and scored two in a 5-2 victory over the Braves.

When it ended, thousands of spectators rushed the field, and Cohen, as if the groom at a Jewish wedding, was triumphantly hoisted onto their shoulders. McGraw called it the “greatest ovation given any player in all my life.”

Jewish New Yorkers continued to buy tickets. So popular was he that concessionaire J.P. Stevens instructed his vendors to hawk ice-cream cones as “ice-cream Cohens.”

Synagogues and civic associations wanted Cohen to speak. The New York-based Jewish Daily Forward began running Giants box scores on its front page. The team had to hire a secretary to handle his fan mail.

Cohen had a solid year in ‘28, hitting .274 with 24 doubles and nine home runs, as the Giants finished second, two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals.

That autumn he remained a hot commodity. Cohen and Irish catcher Frank “Shanty” Hogan were hired as an $1,800-a-week comedy act, telling corny ethnic jokes and talking baseball in theaters around the country.

“We almost singlehandedly killed vaudeville,” Cohen would say.

Some of the attention, though, would be cringe-worthy today. An anonymous poet wrote a “Casey at the Bat” parody that several New York newspapers published. Called “Cohen at the Bat,” here’s a typical excerpt:

But Jackson smacked a single over Eddie Farrell’s pate

And from the stands and bleachers the cry of “Oy. Oy.” rose

For up came Andy Cohen half-a-foot behind his nose.

Though there would also be hate mail and catcalls, Cohen’s brief big-league experience would later be seen as something positive.

“His achievement in the quintessential American sport helped diminish stereotypes,” Peter Levine wrote in Ellis Island to Ebbetts Field: Sports and the American Jewish Experience.

Although Cohen’s production and popularity tailed off just slightly in 1929, McGraw demoted him.

“Any member of an American minority competing for position or place with members of the majority culture has to be better, not just competent or equal,” Levine wrote.

Cohen would play a few more seasons in the minors, enlist during World War II, and eventually manage in Denver and El Paso. He wouldn’t return to the major leagues until 1960, when general manager  John Quinn asked him to coach for Eddie Sawyer, whom the Phillies had rehired as their manager.

Philadelphia lost its season-opener, 9-4, at Cincinnati.  Following an off-day workout at Connie Mack Stadium the next afternoon, Quinn and Sawyer argued about personnel.  Sawyer quit, after just one game, famously telling reporters, “I’m 49 and I’d like to live to be 50.”

Sometime near 3 a.m. Thursday, April 14, Quinn telephoned Cohen.

“Gene Mauch will be our new manager,” the GM said, “can you manage the team until he gets here?”

Cohen’s Phils beat Milwaukee, 5-4, in 10 innings in that night’s home-opener. The interim manager got lucky with the one big move that confronted him.

With the Phils team trailing by a run in the seventh inning, Cohen was going to pinch-hit for pitcher Don Cardwell. But when the first hitter grounded out, he allowed the pitcher to bat. Cardwell hit a game-tying homer.

“Everyone in the stadium must have thought I knew what I was doing,” Cohen recalled 20 years later.

Cohen died at 84 in 1988. He was, friends said, never bitter about how the Giants used him as ethnic bait.

“It was a shabby trick,” the writer Paul Gallico said of the episode. “[Cohen had to] play the Jew in public as well as be a ballplayer.”