A public collecting project for the National Museum of American Jewish History’s forthcoming baseball exhibition, opening Spring 2014.
The Yankee Front Office
By Marty Appel
I wrote a letter to the New York Yankees public relations director in 1967, looking for summer employment.
My credentials were modest – I was a knowledgeable baseball fan who was editor of my college newspaper. I had written sports while in high school for the suburban Rockland (NY) Journal-News. I assumed mine would be one of hundreds of similar letters and I would not hear back.
But I did! To my amazement, Bob Fishel, the team’s veteran PR man, needed someone to take on the chore of responding to Mickey Mantle’s fan mail. The unanswered mail, he knew, was not good public relations, and the team was hotly contesting with the upstart New York Mets to capture young fans.
I was invited to an interview with Bob, and sufficiently impressed him that I was up to the task of addressing envelopes and stuffing in a printed photo with facsimile signature of The Mick.
What I later learned was that mine was the only such letter he received, and that he was perhaps more delighted than I was to make the connection. And so like George Costanza years later, I could tell people that I was now going to work for the NEW YORK YANKEES! (The comparisons to the Costanza character continue to this day).
I well remember two reactions from friends and family. Among my friends, there was minimal enthusiasm. This was after all, the late 1960s, and America’s teens were preoccupied with more meaningful interests – the Vietnam War, civil rights struggles, assassinations, and a bitter presidential election. Baseball, alas, had become rather passé among young people. Many baby boomers had found football to be more exciting, more relevant, sexier, faster and better on television. These were in fact, baseball’s toughest days. Attendance was flat, marketing barely existed, the game’s elders clung to long dead heroes as icons instead of promoting the current players, and the great stars of the ‘50s were winding down their careers.
Older acquaintances, especially those who were Jewish, looked at my choice of employer with some skepticism.
“The Yankees?”, the would say – “Not a very Jewish organization.”
To tell the truth, I had never thought about that. I had never felt discriminated against when attending a game, and was barely aware of what religion the players were. It seemed they were happy to take my $2.50 for a reserved seat, sell me a scorecard and a hot dog, and dazzle me with those pinstripe white uniforms playing on that beautiful green field. Was there a Jewish player in the team’s history? I hadn’t really thought about it.
In fact, I had been a member of the Bobby Richardson Fan Club. Bobby was a rare Evangelical in the game, and he took advantage of his fan club mailing list to send periodic religious tracts extolling the teachings of Christ. Did I care? Not a bit. I’d toss aside the religious tract, renew my annual membership, and root my heart out for the little second baseman. I wore his number 1 in Little League. (We remain friends to this day).
Some older fans though, made a point of studying a team’s demographics over the years. The rival New York Giants, across the Harlem River, had periodically presented an Andy Cohen or a Sid Gordon as players of significance. They were considered the team that drew “the Broadway crowd,” and the Jewish impact on show business was mighty. Over in Brooklyn, the Dodgers had Cal Abrams and coach Jake Pitler, and a promising local pitcher named Sandy Koufax who joined the team in 1955. They were the team of the people in a very heavily-Jewish borough. And they were the team that integrated baseball with Jackie Robinson, and the impact of that aided the perception of them being the team where race, religion and creed mattered not.
The Yankees though, were the “Wall Street” team, whose games began at 3:30 for many years in order to accommodate brokers coming up from the financial district after the markets closed. The first Jewish Yankee was a pitcher named Phil Cooney in 1905, and no one seemed to know that he was Phil Cohen. (The Yankees were still the Highlanders). He didn’t last very long anyway, and then you had Jimmie Reese come along as a short-lived player who roomed with Babe Ruth (or with Babe’s suitcase, as he liked to say). Jimmie was Hymie Solomon, but again, few seemed to know that. (Decades later, Reese was a coach with the Angels, and Nolan Ryan named his son after him).
Sightings remained few. The organization was considered very blue blood, very corporate, very conservative, and in the days when ad agencies or brokerage houses would seldom hire Jews, the Yankees of Jacob Ruppert, Ed Barrow, Dan Topping, Del Webb, and Larry MacPhail seemed equally content to avoid such a move.
There was a game in 1933 when Yankees outfielder Ben Chapman fought with Washington’s Jewish infielder Buddy Myer, and it was said that anti-Semitic comments were hurled at Myer. To New York Jews, it was a significant moment, which did not do the Yankees proud. (Chapman later became the race-baiting manager of the Phillies, as portrayed in the Jackie Robinson biopic “42.”)
The 1939 hiring of a young broadcaster named Mel Allen could have been impactful in the Jewish community, had it been better known that he was in fact Melvin Allen Israel. But Mel never took off for a Jewish holiday, and most were unaware of his ethnicity. Indeed, Barrow may have been unaware of it when he hired him. Barrow would likely have been shocked to attend Mel’s 1996 funeral and find Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto seated at the service wearing yarmulkes.
But there was a strong Jewish presence among the newspapermen covering the team, which could not be ignored, especially in the days when the writers traveled with the club and were part of “the family.” The most respected scribe on the Yankees beat was Dan Daniel, born Dan Markowitz (or Markovitz), and his successors included Milton Gross, Leonard Schecter, Leonard Koppett, Leonard Cohen, Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobson, Maury Allen, Max Kase, Ben Epstein, Bert Gumpert, Milton and Arthur Richman, Dick Young, Joe Reichler, Hal Bock, Hy Goldberg, Harold Rosenthal, Larry Merchant, Bob Lipsyte, Vic Ziegel, Ira Berkow, Murray Chass and Moss Klein, plus the occasional presence of Roger Kahn, Dick Schaap and broadcaster Howard Cosell (nee Cohen). The city’s newspapers were not discriminatory when it came to putting men (although never women) on the coveted Yankee beat. And the Yankees needed to pay heed with their behavior.
Bob Fishel, hired as PR Director in 1954, didn’t change his name, but didn’t take off for the holidays either. George Weiss (who hired Fishel because he thought being Jewish would play well with the writers), may have been presumed Jewish by some, but he wasn’t. And so in fact, when I was hired in 1967, I was probably a Jewish employee in team history who could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
One might say that the more liberal thinking president of the team, Michael Burke (these were the days of CBS ownership), created an atmosphere more conducive to such a hiring, but just a couple of years later, he passed on hiring the very popular Marv Albert as a broadcaster and Marv confided to some that he felt the “Jewish” issue may have been a factor.
As for players, Ron Blomberg was the team’s top draft choice in 1967, and no secret was made of his ethnicity. The “great Jewish hope” never quite panned out, (his autobiography is called “Designated Hebrew”), but his presence on the roster spoke volumes about a new openness on the team. Indeed when George Steinbrenner bought the club in 1973 he brought in Gabe Paul as team president, and followed him with Cleveland legend Al Rosen. (His last hire as team president was Randy Levine). Gabe was adept at keeping his religion secret, but when he was hired as the first president of the Houston Colt 45s in 1961 and couldn’t join any Houston country clubs to woo season ticket subscribers and sponsors, he was gone.
In my long tenure in the Yankee front office and as TV producer (I succeeded Fishel in 1973 when he went to the American League), I must have had 500 meetings with Mr. Steinbrenner, and never once heard him utter an insensitive racial or religious remark.
But, his five-term manager, Billy Martin, was often perceived as harboring such views, and when pitcher Ken Holtzman was on the roster but bypassed for a logical start in the 1976 World Series, many felt it was “personal.” And then after Holtzman left in 1977, it was 36 more years before Kevin Youkilis came along as the next Jewish Yankee.
So while I never felt personally singled out or discriminated against in my years in and around the team, I came to be sensitive to the team’s somewhat checkered history on this front, and hope that my presence (a number of my many PR successors were Jewish), may have contributed in a small way to a more enlightened time in Yankee history, at least in terms of its front office operation.
Let me conclude with one redeeming story. After engaging in yet another fight with Boston catcher Birdie Tebbetts, Ben Chapman was suspended. Under the stands some days later, in a place where players could sneak in a smoke, Tebbetts ran into Lou Gehrig.
“Did you land a good punch?” said Gehrig to Tebbetts.
“Yes sir,” said the somewhat awestruck catcher.
“Would you fight him again?”
“Well,” said the Yankees captain, “if you ever do and you land two good punches, I’ll buy you the best suit you ever own.”
- Marty Appel’s 2001 Yankees memoir, “Now Pitching for the Yankees” is available as an eBook, and his history of the team, “Pinstripe Empire” is being issued in softcover in the spring of 2014.