Commentary Magazine


Cohen at the Bat

Andy Cohen and his brother Syd together spent a total of seventy years in professional baseball, but were major leaguers for only seven years. Andy Cohen played in 32 games for the New York Giants in 1926, 120 in 1928, and 101 in 1929. He coached one year for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1960. Syd Cohen pitched 18 innings for the Washington Senators in 1934, 36 in 1936, and 55 in 1937. In a sport which, more than any other, revels in statistics, neither man counts significantly.

What distinguished them from other ballplayers of the 1920’s and before was that their surname was Cohen, and that they did not change it, as had seven previous Cohens, to such non-Jewish-sounding names as Kane, Bohne, Cooney, and Ewing.

The Cohen brothers were recruited as part of the widespread efforts of Connie Mack and others in the early decades of the 20th century to change baseball’s image from a game played by barroom drunkards to a sport played by a variety of respectable Americans. Both were also unabashedly recruited and publicized as Jewish players. Seeking Jewish fans to buy baseball tickets was an acknowledged reason why the management of the Pacific Coast League’s San Francisco Seals signed Syd Cohen in 1928: “To develop a Jewish ballplayer who will be a star.”

The Jewish identity of Andy Cohen was even more critical to the Giants’ front office. The Giants of the 1920’s had to compete at the box office with the New York Yankees—a team that, with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Earle Combs, Bob Meusel, Tony Lazzeri, Herb Pennock, and Waite Hoyt, has often been described as the greatest of all time. The construction in 1923 of Yankee Stadium, holding twice as many fans as the Polo Grounds, where the Giants played, was another factor in the competition for the New York sports dollar that was leaving the Giants a poor second.

New York’s enormous second-generation immigrant population, the Giants’ management believed, could help fill the Polo Grounds. For baseball, like other entertainment industries of the era, strove to capitalize on the eagerness of ethnic audiences to identify with one of their own and on the ethnic curiosity of other groups. In Cincinnati and St. Louis, for example, the managements of the Reds and the Cardinals advertised in German-language newspapers to entice the large German-speaking populations of those cities to the ballpark. By 1926, even the Yankees, with their successful cast of stars, were courting New York’s extensive Italian population by featuring one of the few major-league Italian baseball players in their second baseman, pointedly nicknamed “Poosh ‘Em Up Tony” Lazzeri.

“New York,” said the Giants’ manager, John McGraw, “has a tremendous number of fans of Jewish blood and we know that they would like to see a Jewish player on the Giants.” Encouraged by the boxing and box-office success of Benny Leonard, Kid Kaufman, and Jack Bernstein, the Giants in 1923 had recruited outfielder Moses Solomon who was dubbed the “Rabbi of Swat” but who failed with his bat to resemble Babe Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat.” Three years later, the Giants put their hopes for a star Jewish player on Andy Cohen.

Andy Cohen was born in 1904 and Syd Cohen in 1908. Their parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, who arrived in Baltimore in the 1890’s. Their father, a cigar maker, played semi-pro ball in Baltimore. When I interviewed the Cohen brothers in April 1982, Andy said that reading Horatio Alger books and later the example of Babe Ruth had inspired him to use his baseball talents. Ruth, who was the idol of most young ballplayers, had begun his career with the Baltimore Orioles of the American Association. As a child Ruth had been abandoned by his parents who placed him in a school for incorrigible boys. What Andy and Syd Cohen shared with Ruth besides Baltimore was an absent father: the elder Cohen remained in Baltimore when the family moved to arid El Paso for the mother’s respiratory problems. For a long time the family barely supported itself by selling, from its rented house, groceries bought on consignment.

The Cohen boys starred in several sports during high school and Syd was sufficiently talented to play in the so-called Outlaw League with some of the major-league players who had been banned from professional baseball as a result of the Black Sox scandal of 1919. Andy Cohen, after accepting a scholarship to the University of Alabama, pledged a Jewish fraternity, was elected the first Jewish captain of the Alabama baseball team, and played for one year for Waco of the Texas League before he joined the Giants. Syd matriculated at Southern Methodist University, transferred to Alabama, and starred in baseball and basketball before being signed to play for the San Francisco Seals.

It was in Philadelphia in 1926 that Andy Cohen played his first game in a Giants uniform, as a replacement for the injured star second baseman, Frankie Frisch, the “Fordham Flash.” Immediately, sportswriters gleefully headlined the rookie’s fielding: “From Cohen to Kelly” (first baseman George “Highpockets” Kelly—this nick-name had no ethnic meaning, it simply referred to the fact that Kelly habitually belted his pants high above the waist).

Cohen, appearing only briefly as a Giant in 1926, batted .257 and was then sent down for seasoning to the Buffalo Bisons of the International League. He had such a glorious year with Buffalo that Andy Cohen Day was declared in Bison Stadium and he was feted by a committee of Jewish organizations, including the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and the local chapter of his old Alabama fraternity.

For many reasons the New York Giants in 1928 needed Andy Cohen, who had batted .353 for Buffalo. McGraw, accustomed to winning, hadn’t captured a pennant since 1924 or a World Series since 1922. Still worse for the box office and for McGraw’s ambitions, the rival Yankees had run away with the 1927 American League pennant by 19 games, and Ruth had monopolized the headlines by hitting his record-breaking 60 home runs, while Gehrig had driven in a phenomenal 175 runs. Adding to the Giants’ troubles was the shocking and unpopular trade to the Boston Braves of Rogers Hornsby, who had batted .361 in 1927.

With the traditional optimism accompanying spring training, the New York Times judged the Giants to be pennant favorites because they had acquired “Lefty” O’Doul, Andy Cohen, and Frank Hogan. James Francis Hogan, dubbed “Shanty” Hogan in response to his Boston Irish roots, befriended Andy Cohen. Hogan, a long-ball hitter, was the only player in the starting lineup who had not batted over .300 in the previous year. (During the coming winter, the vaudeville team of Cohen and Hogan—in Boston, expediently called Hogan and Cohen—would gross $1,800 a week doing comedy routines which mixed ethnic and baseball humor.)

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On opening day, April 11, 1928, some 30,000 fans endured the wind and chilling weather at the Polo Grounds to see the Giants meet the Boston Braves. The excitement was heightened by the return to the Polo Grounds of second baseman Rogers Hornsby in a Braves uniform. The newspaper photographers repeatedly posed Hornsby shaking hands with his rookie replacement, Andy Cohen. By the end of the game, which the Giants won 5-2, Cohen had been involved in four of the five Giant runs, batting in two and scoring two. Hornsby sweetened the victory by grounding out to Cohen in his first and last times at bat.

Reaction to Andy’s feats was ecstatic. After the game, thousands of fans rushed onto the field. He was lifted high into the air, reported the New York Times, “perched on the shoulders of New York fandom. In fact, you might say with truth that Andy Cohen was sitting on top of the world.” Carried around the Polo Grounds, he struggled free when halfway to the centerfield clubhouse, only to find himself in the midst of a “solid mass of humanity that pushed, pulled, and grunted—but didn’t move.” Finally a Giants coach and some players formed a flying wedge to rescue him. As Andy mounted the clubhouse steps “panting and rumpled,” several thousand fans gave him a “conqueror’s ovation.” In the locker room, filled with reporters, the veteran manager McGraw said, “It was the greatest ovation I have ever seen given any player in all my life.”

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The newspapers, of course, trumpeted the new hero. Grantland Rice, the country’s premier sports-writer, commented: “It was Andy Cohen, the young Jewish baseball player from Alabama University, who stepped into Hornsby’s job at second for the Giants. . . . It was Andy Cohen, the Tuscaloosa Terror, who drove in two Giant runs, scored two more on his own hook, covered the infield side of the Polo Grounds, like a ballplaying centipede, to send the Giants spinning along to victory. . . .” The Times concluded: “Andy Cohen took New York by storm. He captured the hearts of 30,000 fans as only a Ruth or a Walter Johnson could grip them.”

The baseball poets also showed their appreciation:

There is music in the ghetto as
    the daylight peters out;
There is many a wild falsetto as
    the children laugh and shout,
And the saxophones are blowin’
    and the citizens are crowin’
As they think of Andy Cohen and
    his famous two-base clout.

Another poem was titled “Cohen at the Bat”:

The outlook wasn’t cheerful for
    the Giants yesterday,
They were trailing by a run with
    but four innings left to play.
When Lindstrom flied to Richbourg
    and Terry weakly popped,
It looked as though those Bostons
    had the game as good as copped.
But Jackson smacked a single
    over Eddie Farrell’s pate,
And Harper drew a pass because
    they feared him at the plate.
And from the stands and bleachers
    the cry of “Oy, Oy” rose,
And up came Andy Cohen half a
    foot behind his nose.
There was ease in Bob Smith’s
    manner and a smile on Hornsby’s
        face,
For they figured they had Andy
    in the tightest sort of place.
It was make or break for Andy,
    while the fans cried, “Oy, Oy,
        Oy.”
And it wasn’t any soft spot for a
    little Jewish boy.
And now the pitcher has the ball
    and now he lets it go.
And now the air is shattered by
    the force of Casey’s blow.
Well nothing like that happened,
    but what do you suppose?
Why, little Andy Cohen socked
    the ball upon the nose.
Then from the stands and bleachers
    the fans in triumph roared,
And Andy raced to second and
    the other runner scored.
Soon they took him home in
    triumph amidst the blare of
        auto honks.
There may be no joy in Mudville,
    but there’s plenty in the Bronx.

Cohen’s debut was judged so important that the Times did not limit its comments to the sports pages. “Hogans,” it noted in an editorial, “have always played good baseball; so have the Kellys and the Caseys, the Delahantys and the Bresnehans, so have the Wagners and the Zimmers. And the Lazzeris, the Lajoies, and the Chances have contributed stars for many years. But the Cohens . . .? None of their kinfolk has ornamented the professional diamond in New York.” The Times editorial concluded that when Cohen succeeds there is “much more than just a baseball game at stake.”

In his first three games, Cohen got eight hits—including a home run and a double with the bases loaded—and drove in seven runs. By May, he was even honored by Jewish Pittsburgh Pirates fans as the local Young Men’s Hebrew Association presented him with luggage. So many letters of admiration poured in that the Giants assigned a secretary to him. Cohen was housed in a hotel suite, reported the Sporting News, to allow him to meet “mobs of worshipers. Thousands of Jewish fans have waited a long time to see one of their race make good as a Giant regular.” In late June, Andy Cohen Day was celebrated at the Polo Grounds—featuring the presentation to him of 1,500 silver dollars by the Knights of Pythias. Will Rogers reported: “I am going out to see Andy Cohen. He’s bigger than Aimee Semple McPherson out home.”

Only sportswriter Paul Gallico protested:

It seems to me a sort of shabby trick to play on young Cohen to send him up onto the diamond to play the Jew in public as well as the ballplayer. Finesse and tact have been lacking in the entire handling of the affair. If Andy Cohen makes good—and it’s too early to say that he has done so—he will have surmounted more obstacles than any other big-league player ever faced. . . . Andy is forced to parade his religion and commercialize it whether he wants to or not. It seems to me a difficult position for a youngster breaking into the big leagues, or anything else. . . . Every time Andy comes to bat he feels he must make a hit, not only for John McGraw, his teammates, and the City of New York, but for the Jewish race as well, which is a large order.

It looks to me as though these days the baseball magnates are enslaving not only the bodies of their hired help but their souls as well.

_____________

 

Andy Cohen was a college-educated, country boy from Texas. But being Jewish—and looking Jewish, or being thought to look Jewish—was what seemed most important about him to the press. Recall the parody of “Casey at the Bat,” quoted earlier, which describes Cohen as being “half a foot behind his nose” and rhymes “Oy, Oy, Oy” with “little Jewish boy.” The Baseball Magazine, a national periodical, published a story about him in 1928 illustrated by drawings of Cohen and his admirers. His fans, dressed in hats and long coats and wearing long sideburns and beards, are depicted as saying, “Oy, oy, Endy.” Andy is portrayed as a college man dressed in “conservative clothes,” but the writer notes that Andy’s most prominent feature is his typical “Hebrew nose.” Cohen’s “black beady eyes” and “thick eyebrows” are also mentioned. The article does go on to suggest, however, that when more and more fans shout, “Oy, oy, Endy,” then baseball will be assured of Cohen’s success both on the field and at the box office.

A New York Evening World reporter, in an article called, “Still His Name and Nose Have Made Things Hard,” praised Cohen as fulfilling the desired image of the Jew as ballplayer: “He is exactly the correct mixture of modesty and self-assurance. There is nothing crawling about his nature. Nor is he the least bit boastful. Just states the facts without raising his voice and looks you in the eye.” Cohen told the reporter: “Say, if you’re going to draw my picture, . . . go easy on this hook, will you? The cartoonists down South jumped on this hook of mine. . . . Oh, what a lot of fun they got out of it! You’d have thought it was the most important thing about me. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t such a bad hook until it got broken a couple of times playing football and basketball. It had a much more graceful curve to it. Kind of shorten it up an inch or two, will you?”

But if his name and his looks made Cohen attractive to New York’s Jewish fans and others curious to see a Jew play baseball, it was also true that he neither sounded nor acted like the stereotyped Jew, and this made him attractive to people who believed that baseball truly was the national game because it exemplified America as a great melting pot of varied ethnic and religious groups. (Twenty years later, Jackie Robinson, the first black player to be brought to the major leagues, would also project the same combination of clear minority identity and freedom from negative minority stereo-types.)

Andy’s acceptable image as a Jewish ballplayer was not the same, of course, as achieving stardom on the field. “He isn’t a Frisch or Hornsby,” noted the Times. During his first full season as a Giant, he batted a respectable .274 with 9 home runs and 56 runs batted in. In 1929, he hit .294 but was not played regularly. In 1930, the Giants sent him down to the Newark Bears of the International League.

When Cohen failed, the New York sportswriter Dan Parker observed: “Andy made the mistake of thinking that three strikes were the symbol of his race instead of three [pawnbroker] balls.” McGraw strongly wanted Cohen to succeed, but after Cohen had a particularly bad day on the field, McGraw, at the race track, bet on a horse ridden by a Jewish jockey. When the horse lost, McGraw complained, “They can’t ride either.”

One chronicler of Jews in sports incorrectly suggested that Cohen was dropped from the Giants because he had “slowed down in the field alarmingly,” but added that it was not from lack of trying. He explained: “If the Jew has a single constitutional weakness in baseball, it is his feet. It has been noticed, over a long period of years, that Jews develop flat feet early in their careers and seem to slow up prematurely. Italians have the identical trouble.” This author reported, but did not endorse, the Lamarckian view put forth by an unidentified Jewish ballplayer who suggested that his people got that way centuries ago because they had had to trudge through the desert on their flight from Egypt.

_____________

 

By the time Andy Cohen’s brother Syd reached the major leagues in 1934, the intensity of the quest for a Jewish star had diminished. The Giants had enlisted Harry Danning and Phil Weintraub, but most dramatic was the ascension to stardom of Hank Greenberg. Raised in the Bronx, Greenberg, according to a Sporting News writer, “made good without going into the ready-to-wear line.” Greenberg, a towering six-foot-four-inches tall, was described as neither looking nor sounding Jewish. In fact, his face did look Jewish; he was not, however, the proverbial “little Jew.” Greenberg would lead the Detroit Tigers to a pennant in 1934, drive in 183 runs in 1937, hit 58 home runs in 1938, and eventually be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When Syd Cohen came to the Washington Senators in 1934, shortstop Buddy Myer was the team’s established Jewish star. Syd was seen by the press as the stereo-typically eccentric left-hander, but in contrast to Ring Lardner’s dumb southpaw, he was also portrayed as smart. Yet when he became a major leaguer there was very little interest in the fact that he was Jewish.

Indeed, among the ironies of his career is that in 1931, before he got to the majors, Syd Cohen played in Mexico for Nogales of the Arizona-Texas League under the name of Pablo Garcia. The majority of Nogales fans were Mexican. When the Anglo-American manager tried to release a Mexican left-handed pitcher who had failed to last three innings, the Mexican fans threatened a boycott. Bitterness grew because there was only one other Mexican player on the team, even though the Mexican governor of the province was one of the club’s owners. The headline in the Sporting News read: “Soldiers with Fixed Bayonets Patrol Field & Keep Order; Crowd Demands Mexican on Team.”

In response to this crisis, the Mexican was retained, but more ingenious was the use of Syd Cohen. His deep tan and fluent Spanish—he could “habla español like a bullfighter”—enabled him to pass as Pablo Garcia. Twenty years later, he would return to Mexico as Syd Cohen and manage the Juarez Indios. But many Mexicans still called him Pablo as he brought Juarez its first league championship.

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After leaving the majors, Andy and Syd Cohen went on to have successful minor-league careers. Andy Cohen was a star second baseman for seven years with the Minneapolis Millers and a winning manager of the Denver Bears. His brother was on twelve different teams in eight different leagues as player, coach, and manager; he also worked as an umpire. Syd Cohen is most proud of having struck out Lou Gehrig five of the seven times he faced him. He was also the last pitcher in the American League to strike out Babe Ruth and to serve him a home-run ball before the “Sultan of Swat” joined the Boston Braves of the National League for his final major-league season.

Today, Andy and Syd Cohen, respectively seventy-nine and seventy-five years old, remain baseball enthusiasts and wear University of Texas-El Paso baseball caps at home. They express little bitterness about their baseball careers; they still love the game. But they also believe that they were good enough to have played more years in the major leagues than they did, and were high enough in the minor leagues through much of their careers to have expected recall to the majors at any time. Perhaps they are correct—but many other minor leaguers have believed the same thing.

As for anti-Semitism, it was most pronounced for Syd Cohen during the years he played for the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. Andy Cohen too received his share of anti-Semitic epithets. As he told a reporter, “It does get to me sometimes. . . . I get mad, but it never pays to show it. I learned that a long time ago.” Yet despite such problems, there were always many players and fans who supported both Syd and Andy Cohen throughout their long baseball careers.

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