Baseball is in full swing and when the sun goes down tonight, the Jewish High Holy days of Passover begin. Seems like the perfect time to share the latest Original Retro Brand interview with Dave Cohen, author of Matzoh Balls and Baseballs: Conversations with Jewish Former Major League Baseball Players.
Andy: You’ve been the radio voice of Georgia State University Athletics for the past 29 years (basketball, baseball, and now football). What inspired you to put down the microphone, and pick up the pen to write this book?
Dave: I actually stumbled across a book signing which featured former Houston Colt 45’s pitcher Larry Yellen. The book, “Cup of Coffee,” by Rob Trucks, features the stories of 18 former major league players who were in the majors for just a very short time. Mr. Yellen happened to be there, and after speaking briefly with him, a light bulb went off in my head; I was well aware of Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg, but how many other Jewish ballplayers had there been, and what kind of a legacy, if any, did they leave? Another former player, Ron Blomberg, also lives here in the Atlanta area and is best known as baseball’s first Designated Hitter. I’ve known Ron and I knew I could get a jump start on interviewing the former Jewish players by starting with these two. Ron had also released a book of his own called “Designated Hebrew.”
Andy: Yeah, I kind of wondered that myself! I also wonder if many of them experienced antisemitism similar to the way African Americans experienced racism once the color barrier in baseball was broken. Can you put some of that in perspective for us?
Dave: For the record, there have been between 150-200 Jewish major leaguers to play in the past 100 years. There were probably a good deal more, but many changed their names to sound more “gentile” to avoid discrimination, so we’ll really never know just how many there were (Many folks also aren’t aware that Jewish professional boxers and basketball players were a dominant force between 1920 – 1950).
Based on the 17 ballplayers I interviewed for this book, as well as everything else I uncovered through my research, there were definitely episodes of antisemitism experienced. However, it was not nearly as rampant and as harsh as what the African American players of the same period had to endure.
Andy: Is there any one specific story from your book that stands out as the most special to you?
Dave: I won’t say there is one specifically because there truly were many I enjoyed. Some of these guys had pretty decent careers; Steve Stone had a very respectable 10 years, and was a Cy Young Award winner with the Baltimore Orioles before moving on to a successful broadcasting career. Ken Holtzman was a 3-time World Series Champion who pitched 2 no-hitters with the Cubs, and had more wins than Sandy Koufax. Other guys who had the aforementioned “cup of coffee” in the bigs, or who had less distinguished careers were still witness to greatness. For example, Norm Miller (played 9 seasons) was a member of the Atlanta Braves the night Hank Aaron hit # 714. Aaron, whose locker was right next to Miller, gave Norm a pair of his cleats. Miller would return them to Hammerin’ Hank 20 years later.
Andy: Being that you’ve been in broadcasting yourself for almost 3 decades, did you find yourself inspired by Jewish broadcasters (I forgot to point out that yes, Dave is Jewish)?
Dave: Honestly, being Jewish really had nothing to do with what inspired me to get into broadcasting. A big part of it was listening to my cousin who had is own radio music show back near Boston where I grew up (In addition to being a die-hard Celtics, Bruins, & Red Sox fan, Dave is REALLY a fanatic for the musical group known as KISS). The combination of radio and sports just seemed like it would be a perfect fit. Lucky for me, it worked out. I did get a chance to meet Howard Cosell (Jewish!) when he was in town for a Monday Night Football game that coincided with his book signing (“I Never Played The Game”). I was working at WGST-AM here in Atlanta at the time and we had him on our sports talk show a few nights later. I was producing that show (which Joe Torre was hosting at the time after the Braves had let him go) and I called him at his house when it was time to have him on. I thought it was cool that he remembered meeting me at the book signing and he mentioned me on the air. I was thrilled! Cosell’s real name was William Howard Cohen (we’re not related)!
Andy: I knew Tony Curtis changed his name from Bernie Schwartz, but not Cosell! Last Question: You’re a fan of the Original Retro Brand gear – Why?
Dave: Original Retro Brand is about tradition and I respect that. Being a Boston guy, I appreciate our teams don’t change uni’s and logo’s. They stick to their tradition. Even though the Patriots switched logo’s, they still break out the old “Pat the Patriot” for a few games every year.
I guess when you’re Jewish, Tradition is very important! Thanks to Dave for his time, and I highly recommend this book for Jew & Gentile alike – it’s simply a great sports book you will love! In addition to the Amazon link at the beginning of this post, you can also find Dave’s book at Havenhurst Books.
If you’re a big fan of the Original Retro Brand, and want to be featured on “5 Questions with…” please forward a picture of yourself wearing Original Retro Brand gear, and a brief description of what you do for a living or what you do that you think people might find pretty interesting to firstname.lastname@example.org If we like what we see, you may be contacted for an interview. You don’t need to be an author/sportscaster like Dave to be featured, and we’ll even send you an Original Retro Brand T-Shirt if we decide to post your story!