Opinion | Reflections on Firing Gabe Kapler, a Jewish Baseball Manager

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baseball in a mitt
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By Saul Golubcow

Just about two years ago, I wrote that in the Philadelphia Phillies’ hiring of Gabe Kapler, I had “experienced a Jewish American baseball fan’s happiness in having one of our own” become the manager of my beloved team. I had posited that “perhaps due to an insecurity of having been an ‘other’ experiencing anti-Semitism,” and with baseball as America’s game, “some of us may view success on the diamond as one (remaining) means of validating our full integration into our country.”

And now Kapler has been fired, so how do I feel? Just fine! As family and friends know, I have been a shrill “fire Kapler” voice for the last year because as much as I was thrilled that my team had a Jewish manager, his need to be replaced had nothing to do with his being a bad “Jewish” manager but rather in his misplaced coaching hires, rigid adherence to analytics, inept game management and lack of leadership skills. Kapler was a bad manager — period. I care for the well-being of my team more than the success of my Jewish manager.

Once Kapler was hired, I stowed away my euphoria and pretty much forgot about his being Jewish, focusing instead on spring-borne great expectations and then, grumpily, turning on Kapler’s errors beginning opening day. But if baseball is indeed America’s game, in reflection it exposes at its mirror edges glimpses of attitudes held about Jews by others, as it reflected darkly during Hank Greenberg’s era and more brightly during the Sandy Koufax years. So too with Kapler’s short tenure as the Phillies manager.

Kapler’s firing by the Phillies entailed not a jot of anti-Semitism. But, as I follow the Phillies closely, I access various sites that discuss the team. Many of them include reader comment areas, which have contained from the moment of Kapler’s hiring trope-laced references to his Jewishness that always left me uneasy. It’s possible that only certain personalities bother to comment, and I want to believe such postings are the scribblings of a few. Yet while some readers condemned the comments, many others engaged the writers in uncritical exchanges, so I am not sure.

At first, the Kapler Jewish references discussed how smart he is, a “brainiac” with a super mind who will counter the moves of other managers by throwing horned thunderbolts of analytics at them. I cringed as I read these spurious compliments much as I have always been uncomfortable hearing Archie Bunker-like Jewish endorsements of, “You know my family wanted the best so we looked for a Jewish doctor (lawyer).”

Very soon into Kapler’s first season as his mistakes mounted, previously characterized “Jewish” positives morphed into attacks on his stubbornness, aloofness and “know it all” manner. Usually, these historically stereotyped “Jewish” attributes were thrown out to float noxiously with no explicit ascription, but in a few instances they were tied directly to the Jewish persona.

Despite appearances to the contrary, physical features such as the placement of Kapler’s eyes, the shape of his nose (“beefcake big nose”) or the “insolence” in the set of his jaw were dragged in as corroborating indicators. Praise of Kapler’s reliance on analytics mutated into derisive attacks on his being the arrogant promulgator of a false science threatening the well-being of the Phillies, much as early Nazi Germany, to discredit Albert Einstein, denounced “Jewish physics.”

Just a week before Kapler’s termination, a commenter disclaimed in a classic anti-Semitic manner that he himself does not harbor such feelings when he insists “what matters to most Kapler haters is that there’s a positive, upbeat Hollywood Jew running the clubhouse and it’s driving them insane. They hated the man for what he is before he even stepped foot in Philadelphia. Sorry, but that’s just the truth, even though people won’t say it anywhere but on a bar stool or dinner table.”

I don’t sit on bar stools nor are my dinner conversations tinged with anti-Semitic allusions, so I can’t adequately gauge the accuracy of this disingenuous assertion. I am, however, very cognizant of historian Deborah Lipstadt’s likening of anti-Semitism to a herpes virus that lies dormant but always reemerges. Given the recent intensification of violence from the Pittsburgh and Poway shootings and assaults on Jews in the streets of New York to the vile and brazen expressions of anti-Semitic sentiments in the halls of Congress, we should always be vigilant as to where the virus’ latency may be present. Even examining the comments area of a sports site can be instructive.

But the new year 5780 is upon us, and though I’ll continue to keep a wary eye over my shoulder as Diaspora Jews throughout our history have been wont to do, I am looking forward to the 2020 baseball season, and my Phillies need a new skipper. I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be even more thrilling if my team hired a second Jewish manager? Wait, wasn’t Brad Ausmus also just fired by the Padres? I wonder if he might be available.

Saul Golubcow follows his beloved Phillies from Potomac, Maryland.

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