Talking with The doctor of foul balls

Name: Dr. Richard Cohen
Age: 77
City: San Francisco
Position: Ball Dude for the San Francisco Giants

J.: Where does your love of baseball come from?
Richard Cohen: I grew up in Brooklyn when it was the home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and that was a very special time to grow up. My friends and I would go to Ebbets Field, and line up afterward at the locker room to try to get autographs from Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella.

J.: When you moved to San Francisco for your medical practice in 1968, your loyalties shifted to the Giants, and then you started collecting memorabilia?
RC: I actually started a signed baseball collection because of Sandy Koufax. I was working as a consultant in oncology, and one day on my schedule I see the name Koufax — his father was ill. But the whole family came in to meet with me, and over the course of several visits, we got to talking, and [Sandy] very graciously presented me with a signed baseball for my son and some signed photos.
I was always struck by peoples’ reactions to [those items], how it takes everyone back to baseball memories from when they were kids. I’ve been collecting since then.

J.: And that collection led to your being selected as one of the people, mostly seniors, who catches (or attempts to, anyway) foul balls down the right- or left-field line?
RC: One day in 2002 — I’d been a season ticket holder for a while by then — I get a nondescript letter from the Giants’ community services offices, and I figure it’s just a donation request. Instead, it said, “We have heard of your special interest in baseball and would like to invite you to be a Ball Dude for a Dodgers-Giants game.”

J.: What was your first reaction?
RC: I had to be picked up off the floor. And then I called in my acceptance.

J.:Your wooden stool on field level by the bullpen is one of the best seats in the house. Has being a Ball Dude given you any new perspective on the game?
RC: I have a fuller appreciation of the athleticism. When you see someone throw a 95-mile-an-hour fastball from that close, or leap for a ball, or make a diving catch, when you hear the crack of the bat and you know it’s headed out of the park — it’s beautiful, and I feel so privileged I get to witness it. I consider it like poetry or ballet. 

J.: Your main duty is to catch or retrieve foul balls and find kids in stands to toss them to. Any stories?
RC: There was a very cute little kid once in the stands with his father, and when I threw him the ball, he just threw it back on the field. The umpire had to go get it. It was a very funny scene.
And one time I caught a ball and pointed to a child who was in the back of the stands — and if you’re [seated in front of them], you’re supposed to pass the ball back after I toss it. Well, this one guy caught it and tried to keep it, and all the fans around him got very upset until almost the whole section was chanting “Give the kid the ball!” And he did, very sheepishly.

J.: In your 10 years of doing this, with six to eight games a year, what are your highlights?
RC: I have two World Series rings. In 2010, I was at Game 1 of the series, and in 2012, I was at the game where they won the pennant. Those games are like nothing else: the hoopla, the fact that the whole nation is focused on you. I get teased a lot [ by the Giants’ radio and TV announcers], which is all in good fun. I get calls from all over from people saying they saw me.

J.: Last week you got the assignment for Jewish Heritage Night. Do you make a special effort to be at those games?
RC: Every year! I think they’re happy to have me … Having a Cohen on the field — it lends itself to the dynamic of Jewish Heritage Night. The players know me. You’re not allowed to talk to them first, but they all say, “Hi.” They call me Dr. C now.

J.: You’ve retired from your practice, but you’re still a professor of medicine at UCSF. Is being a Ball Dude a volunteer gig on the side, or do they pay you?
RC: Oh, they pay me. It’s $15 per game (laughs) — about enough to cover the cost of parking. I usually turn it back to the community fund. There are a few perks, though: You get the employee discount when you buy hot dogs.

“Talking with …” is a j. feature that focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.