Gabe Kapler Brings Jewish Identity to Phillies

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Move over Andy Cohen. The Phillies finally have another Jewish manager.

Gabe Kapler in his playing days. | Wikimedia Commons

News that 42-year-old Gabe Kapler, who hit .268 with 82 homers and 386 RBIs over his 12-year playing career, will assume the reins of the N.L. East cellar dwellers may come as a surprise to those unfamiliar with his resume.

Since the time that team President Andy MacPhail announced that Pete Mackanin would not be back, Dusty Wathan, who had managed many of the current Phils at Triple A Lehigh Valley, was considered the frontrunner.

But General Manager Matt Klentak instead chose Kapler, who’s spent the past three seasons as the Dodgers director of player development, helping produce some of the players that got L.A. to the 2017 World Series. Besides selecting a well-rounded baseball man, who’s known for his analytics skills, he picked someone with a solid Jewish background.

That makes Kapler the second Jewish manager in franchise history following Cohen, who’s gone down in baseball history, too. After all, he’s the only manager to retire undefeated.

In 1960, coming off a 64-90 season, Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer abruptly quit after his club dropped the season opener in Cincinnati, saying, “I’m 49 and I want to live to see 50.” The club chose a relative unknown named Gene Mauch to replace him, but needed someone to fill in until Mauch arrived.

That was Cohen, one of Sawyer’s coaches after an undistinguished two-plus seasons playing for the New York Giants in the late 1920s. He became manager for a day when the Phils knocked off the Milwaukee Braves 5-4 in 10 innings, then handed the reins to Mauch.

Cohen never managed again.

Kapler won’t match that percentage, but he’ll win a lot more games with a club that began showing signs of turning the corner late this season. The new manager can probably relate from that end.

For the first half of his career, he played entirely for losing clubs in Detroit, Texas and Colorado, finally being sold by the Rockies to the Red Sox in 2003. A year later, Boston won it all, with Kapler going just two for 10 in the post-season.

As in Boston — and in L.A. and Detroit — Kapler comes to a city with a sizable Jewish community. And he makes it clear he takes great pride in his Jewish identity.

On one calf he has a Star of David tattoo with the Hebrew inscription for “strong willed, strong minded.” On the other is the familiar Holocaust refrain “Never Again” surrounded by a flame and the dates of the Holocaust.

Over the years, first as a player and later an executive, Kapler has talked about his Jewish commitment.

“I am immensely proud of our people,” Kapler told the Los Angeles Times in February. “The way we have been persecuted, and our drive and our survival, is mind-boggling. I think that is part of the reason I continue to be so connected to the Holocaust, and why that has such a moving effect on me.”

In 2000, after joining the Texas Rangers, he went into greater detail.

“There are so few Jewish ballplayers, so you want to be a positive role model and provide an example that the Jewish community can be proud of,” the native Californian told the Dallas Morning News. “It’s just so important for those of us in this position to take pride in the fact that we are being watched and looked up to.”

“I’m a totally spiritual person. I have a relationship with God, but it’s my own relationship and the way I choose to practice my beliefs. At the same time, I don’t want to get away from the fact that I’m super, super proud of who I am. If I had to choose a religion, of course it would be Judaism. But I kind of look at Judaism as a race and a culture as much as anything.”

Having a Jewish manager figures to give the local Jewish community a boost.

“It means there will be an extra measure of pride for the Jewish community when the Phillies take the field,” said Rabbi Joshua Waxman of Or Hadash in Fort Washington, who is president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

“It’s obviously exciting, and we’re very proud of it,” added Steve Frishberg, president of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. “It sort of reinforces what the Jewish Hall is all about.”

This will be Kapler’s first managerial experience since 2007, when the Red Sox’s Class A affiliate Greenville (S.C.) Drive went 58-81, finishing seventh in the South Atlantic League. After that, he returned to the playing field, hitting .301 for the 2008 Milwaukee Brewers, followed by two seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, before calling it a career.

His only other on-the-field experience came three years later when he was named one of the coaches for Team Israel for the 2013 World Baseball Classic. But the Israelis were knocked out of the competition in the qualifying round.

Just more than a year later, the man once known as the “Hebrew Hammer,” who struggled over the decision to play in the 2004 World Series during Yom Kippur, was named the Dodgers’ director of player development.

In 2015, he became a finalist for their managerial job, losing out to former Red Sox teammate Dave Roberts. Two years later, though, Kapler’s patience has been rewarded. 

Somewhere Andy Cohen is smiling.

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