By Bill Simons
Andy Cohen was not the first Jewish major leaguer. That distinction belongs to Lip Pike, a good hitting outfielder who played in the maiden seasons of both the National Association (1871) and the National League (1876). Nor was Cohen the best Jewish baseball player. A couple of guys named Greenberg and Koufax compete for that designation. However, no ballplayer was ever marketed more aggressively for their Jewishness than Cohen. The hyperbole surrounding Cohen, the New York Giants’ Jewish second baseman, constitutes a quixotic episode in baseball’s ethnic past.
During the Jazz Age, baseball reached its pinnacle both as the national pastime and as an entertainment spectacle. Fueled by Babe Ruth’s outsized personality and bombastic home runs, the once lowly New York Yankees, formerly Polo Grounds tenants of the mighty New York Giants, became the toast of the town. Starting in 1923, the Yankees played before record grounds in the House that Ruth Built, Yankee Stadium. The Giants sought to regain their pride of place on the field and at the box office – and finding a Jewish gate attraction was part of that strategy.
John J. McGraw, the Giants’ legendary manager, conducted an indefatigable search for a good Jewish baseball player. With a financial interest in the Giants, McGraw reasoned that a Jewish star would lure New York’s large Jewish population to the Polo Grounds. Jews had already demonstrated their willingness to buy tickets to cheer on lightweight champion Benny Leonard and other Jewish boxers. Unlike boxing, however, which had produced several Jewish titlists and contenders by the mid-1920s, baseball had yet to feature a great Jewish player. About 1,750,000 Jews lived in the New York City of the mid-1920s, and a Jewish standard bearer had the potential to greatly augment a team’s attendance revenues. Jack Levy, Harry Rosenberg and Moses Solomon, “the Rabbi of Swat,” all received trials with the Giants before failing McGraw. For a time, however, it appeared that McGraw had found an authentic Jewish star in Andy Cohen.
Cohen grew up in El Paso, TX. Although the Jewish community in El Paso was small and well assimilated, the Cohen children attended a cheder (Jewish school) and Friday evening services. At El Paso High School, Andy excelled in baseball, football and basketball. He received a football scholarship to the University of Alabama, where he also played varsity basketball and baseball, and pledged a Jewish fraternity. At the conclusion of his junior year, Andy was elected captain of the next season’s baseball team, the first Jew ever elected to an athletic captaincy at Alabama, but Cohen left college that summer to play minor league baseball.
Primarily a second baseman, the 5’8”, 160-pound Cohen played for Waco of the Texas League in 1925 and part of 1926. McGraw gave him a 32-game trial with the Giants late in the 1926 season, but Cohen hit only .257 and returned to the minors the following year for seasoning. Andy had a great year for Buffalo of the strong International League in 1927, hitting .353 and knocking in 118 runs. McGraw now felt confident enough of Cohen’s talents to trade away his star second baseman, the cantankerous Rogers Hornsby, one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball.
New York’s Jewish community welcomed Cohen and most of his teammates were friendly, but he attracted the ire of Jew-baiters in 1928. One persistent writer sent unsigned letters for three months that addressed Cohen as “you stupid Hebe,” and Baseball Magazine described Cohen in stereotypical fashion: “Hebrew nose,” “black beady eyes” and “thick eyebrows.” A cartoon portrayed Cohen fans with beards, long coats and spouting Yiddish dialogue.
Overall, however, Cohen had a great time in 1928. The Giants won their opening game against Hornsby’s new team, the Boston Braves, 5-2 with Cohen accounting for four runs. At the end of the game, Jewish fans ran on to the field and paraded Cohen on their shoulders. Cohen got off to a strong start, hitting over .300 during the early part of the season. The young man from El Paso was the pride of New York Jewry.
With appellations such as “the young Semite” and “Moses,” sportswriters continually emphasized Cohen’s religion. Even The New York Times gave his ascension front-page coverage. The Jewish Daily Forward started to print Giants’ box scores on page one. A cartoon showed a Jewish mother imploring her son to eat his chicken soup with the assurance that the mixture was responsible for Andy Cohen’s success. Polo Grounds vendors sold ice cream Cohens, and some Jewish fans, new to baseball, asked for seats right behind second base, close to Andy. Sportswriter Paul Gallico raised a caveat: “Andy is forced to parade his religion and commercialize it whether he wants to or not.” Cohen, however, enjoyed the hoopla.
Cohen’s batting trailed off as the 1928 season progressed, but he finished the campaign with a solid .274 mark. In 1929, he hit .294 and continued to perform well in the field. Nevertheless, McGraw felt Cohen was slowing down, hampered by an old football injury, and sent the second baseman to Newark of the International League.
Andy’s major league career ended before his 25th birthday. McGraw planned to bring Cohen back to New York after Andy hit .317 for Newark in 1931, but the second baseman broke his ankle, and illness forced McGraw to retire from baseball the next year. Cohen never received another chance to play in the major leagues. Minor league playing and managing, interrupted by World War II service, occupied Cohen’s next three decades.
In 1960, after a 31-year absence, Cohen returned to the major leagues as a coach for the Philadelphia Phillies. When manager Eddie Sawyer resigned after losing the season opener, the Phillies hired Gene Mauch to replace him. Mauch, however, could not join the team in time for the second game so Andy Cohen took the reins. The Phillies beat the Braves 5-4 in 10 innings. Cohen resumed his coaching duties when Mauch arrived. Cohen would point out that no manager in baseball history ever topped his 1.000 winning percentage.
Bill Simons is a professor of history at SUNY Oneonta, whose course offerings include sport and ethnic history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.