by Len Lear
While watching the Phillies play the Atlanta Braves on TV last night, I could not help thinking about “Boulevard Bernie” Cohen who died exactly 20 years ago this month at the way-too-young age of 42.
If Bernie were still alive, he’d have been mesmerized in front of his TV set, scorebook in hand, making notes on the intricacies of every play as if they were skirmishes in a world war. If there were two games on different channels at the same time, he’d be watching two sets simultaneously and somehow managing to take copious notes on each one.
Those of us who grew up with Bernie in West Oak Lane in the 1950s were convinced he was the Einstein of Philly sports fans. He was the quintessential short, fat guy who idolized the tall, muscular, agile athletes and lived vicariously through their heroics. But with Bernie, being a fan was not a pastime; it was a religion. (He was nicknamed “Boulevard Bernie” because he grew up in a house right on Roosevelt Boulevard, and even as an adult he lived in another house on the Boulevard.)
Bernie did not date girls; he did not do homework; he did not go to movies or dances; he did not attend Hebrew School. He only watched ball games . . . and took notes. Lots and lots and lots of notes that we believed would someday reside in the Library of Congress.
Other people would merely write down who was responsible for each touchdown or field goal or home run in a ball game. But Boulevard Bernie could tell you each player’s home address, what he had for breakfast the day of a game, his favorite high school teacher and lunch meat, and when was the last time he “made out” with a girl (and “how far he went”). Bernie was nothing if not thorough.
And he was omnipresent. Which led to the suspicion that he was divine. After all, if you’d go to any Big 5 basketball game, you’d see Boulevard Bernie and his scorebook. Or any Phillies, Eagles or Warriors’ (now the 76ers) game. You’d see Bernie and his scorebook, which was just as indispensable an appendage as his right arm. You might be able to start a game without a ball, referees or the National Anthem, but not without Bernie keeping score.
And it wasn’t just the teams that made the sports pages, either. You could go see the West Oak Lane Red Devils, Mayfair Monarchs, Venango Bears, Washington Avenue Wings, St. Barnabas CYO or Amith AZA, and you could bet even money that Bernie would be there as well.
One day around 1958, I was playing ping pong in my basement with a buddy, Art Forstater, a basketball standout for Central High School and later Lebanon Valley College, and I commented, “If we have a real good game, I’ll bet you Boulevard Bernie shows up to keep score.”
Once in the Upsal Playground in East Mt. Airy, I asked Bernie, “Is it true that you were born at second base in Connie Mack Stadium (the Phillies’ former ballpark at 21st and Lehigh in North Philly)?”
“Of course not,” Bernie insisted with a grave expression. “I was born in the bullpen. My mother was the Jewish answer to Jim Konstanty (Phillies’ relief pitching star in 1950). But instead of the knuckle ball, she serves up hot chicken soup. It definitely puts a halt to any ninth-inning rally.”
As you can see, Bernie had a sense of humor in addition to being the unofficial scorekeeper of the entire Free World. While discussing a certain Jewish baseball player, Bernie once said, “After he found out he was circumcized, he sued his parents for ‘severance pay.’”
And when we asked him about a home run-hitting outfielder for the Phillies whom he had met, Bernie said, “He’s a really swell guy – with a head to match.”
In April of 1979, after not seeing Boulevard Bernie for many years, I received a call from him at the Philadelphia Journal, where I was a columnist. “I just applied for a job in the sports department at the Journal,” he said. “Would you put a good word for me in with the sports editor?”
Bernie added that he had had a “legal problem” but that it was “almost resolved.” Cohen said he had misappropriated $27,000 for his own use while working in a state unemployment office. He had pled guilty in a federal court and was expecting a probationary sentence since it was his first offense; he had cooperated with the authorities; he had offered to make full restitution and seemed genuinely contrite about the crime. (He claimed he had taken the money out of desperation to pay the staggering medical bills of a chronically ill relative.)
His legal problem notwithstanding, I was thrilled that Bernie wanted to work for the Journal because I figured his encyclopedic knowledge of local sports would be an invaluable addition to our struggling paper. While newspapers and TV stations were routinely hiring out-of-town sportswriters who never even heard of guys like Jimmy Bloodworth, Mike Goliat, Eddie Waitkus, Putsy Cabalerro and Buddy Blatnick (Phillies’ players of the early 1950s),
Boulevard Bernie knew more about them than the rest of us know about our own brothers and sisters.
In April of 1979, however, much to my shock (and Bernie’s), U.S. District Judge John Hannum KO’d Philly’s foremost scorekeeper with a five-year prison sentence. FIVE YEARS – for a guy with no previous record who for years spent countless hours helping dozens of ghetto kids corral college scholarships.
What made the stiff sentence particularly unfair was that at about the same time several prominent criminals whose crimes made Bernie’s pale in significance were walking out of courtrooms with nothing but a slap on the wrist.
For example, Joshua Eilberg went free after being convicted of using his exalted position as a U.S. congressman from Northeast Philadelphia as a license to steal. Today he is the “highly respected” director of a Jewish communal organization.
William Kooy, an armored car executive from Unionville, Chester County, was convicted of stealing $160,000 from his clients, Wanamaker’s and K-Mart. He spent it all on a high-living spree with his girlfriend, Susan Thorndike. Kooy’s “punishment” was a sentence of probation, which prosecutor Michael Mustokoff labeled a “travesty of justice.”
Gerald A. Fox was convicted of manslaughter for the seemingly unprovoked slaying of a stranger on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Montgomery County Judge Mason Avrigan let Fox flee the coop, however, on the grounds that poor Gerald was “insane” when he shot the man.
Boulevard Bernie’s obscene prison sentence, however, became a death sentence. We wrote letters to each other for several months, but the tone of his letters became increasingly despondent. After a little more than a year in a cage, Bernie suddenly died.
Prison officials said it was the result of a heart attack, but I truly believe Bernie was the only person ever to die from “insufficient Philly team watching,” not to mention an overdose of our criminal injustice system.
But wherever he is today, I have no doubt that Boulevard Bernie already knows who is going to win the NBA Championship and World Series this year.