RIP to pitcher Hy Cohen, who appeared in seven games for the Chicago Cubs in 1955 before becoming a champion high school baseball coach in Southern California. He died on February 4 at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif, from complications of COVID-19. He had celebrated his 90th birthday just six days prior to his death.
Hyman Cohen was born in Brooklyn on January 29, 1931. His parents, Joseph and Bessie Cohen, were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Cohen was a backfield threat on the Thomas Jefferson High School football team. However, the school didn’t have a baseball program, so he had to show off his pitching skills on the Brooklyn sandlots. Pitching for the East New York Royals of the Kiwanis League, Cohen threw back-to-back no-hitters in 1947.
“The boy has all the natural attributes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle columnist Jimmy Murphy wrote in 1948. “He has youth, height and weight in his favor as he is 17 years old, stands 6 feet 4 inches and tips the beam at 205. He owns a blazing fastball, a nice repertoire of curves, his control is good and furthermore he knows how to pace himself.”
The hometown Brooklyn Dodgers were interested, as were the nearby New York Giants, but the Yankees were the New York team that landed him, thanks to the persistence of scout Paul Kritchell. Cohen signed in 1948 and spent ’48 and ’49 with the La Grange Troupers of the Georgia-Alabama League. He won 7 games with the Troupers in 1948, albeit with an ERA of 5.50. He improved dramatically in 1949, with a 3.33 ERA and 12 complete games despite an 11-15 record.
Cohen was drafted out of the Yankees organization by the Cubs after the 1949 season. For the next two years, he proved to be an effective starter on a couple of different A-ball teams. He won 12 games for Grand Rapids in 1950 and then turned in a stellar season with the Des Moines Bruins in 1951. Cohen had a 16-10 record and a 2.86 ERA in 33 games. One of his best performances of the season was a 7-2/3 relief performance on July 31, as Des Moines and Pueblo battled to a 4-4 tie in 16 innings. He also fired a 3-hit shutout against Wichita and drove in one of the Bruins’ 2 runs with a squeeze bunt. “It’s fun crossing up the other guys,” he said of his batting heroics after the game.
Cohen was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952 pitched on military teams for the next two years. According to his obituary on Legacy.com, Cohen had a 32-6 record while pitching in the Army and had Don Newcombe, Sparky Anderson and Maury Wills as his teammates. When he returned to pro ball in 1954, he picked up pretty much right where he left off, winning 16 games for Des Moines with a sparkling 1.88 ERA. He allowed just 159 hits in 196 innings and walked 53 batters while fanning 100. In a 1-0 shutout of Pueblo on July 20, Cohen threw a mere 16 balls during the entire game, establishing a new record for control in the Western League.
Catcher El Tappe, when asked to critique the pitching staff, said, “Hy Cohen and Don Elston have major-league stuff. They’ll have to pin-point their pitches in the majors, however. And they just might be able to do that.”
Cohen had started the ’54 season with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League and was returned to Des Moines after a rough start. He was promoted back to the Angels for 1955, but there were some concerns among the Cubs’ brass that his fastball, while good, wasn’t as fast as they had hoped. Newcombe, his former Army teammate, came to Cohen’s defense.
“Maybe that’ll make him more effective. The hitters see a great big guy like that and they’ll figure he’ll try to throw it right past them. They’ll be expecting more than he’s got,” he said. “I think he’s fast enough, anyway. Lots of pitchers up here don’t throw any harder than Hy. And plenty of them don’t have a slider like his, or his control. He can thread that needle, can’t he?”
Cohen made a good impression on the Cubs in the 1955 training camp, and the team was hoping that he and fellow rookie Bob Thorpe could be strong additions to the pitching staff. He also was noticed by Bill Wolf of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, who noted that there had never been a star Jewish pitcher in the majors to that point. “One of the bright spots seems to be the impending future of a young pitcher who hails from Brooklyn, N.Y., and promises to be one of the best Jewish ballplayers we have seen in many years,” Wolf wrote about Cohen in April 1955. (Wolf wouldn’t have long to wait, as Sandy Koufax also debuted that season.)
The Cubs played the St. Louis Cardinals in a doubleheader on April 17 in St. Louis. The Cubs’ starter for the second game, Harry Perkowski, was knocked out of the game without ever recording an out, allowing 5 hits and a walk to the only 6 batters he faced. Cubs manager Stan Hack summoned Cohen in from the bullpen to make his debut. It was a rough one. By the time the inning had ended, the Cardinals had scored 10 runs, with the big blow off Cohen being a 2-run triple by Stan Musial. Cohen worked 7 innings in the game, allowing 7 runs on 13 hits, including an inside-the-park homer by Wally Moon.
With an ERA of 9.00, Cohen could only improve, and he turned things around with a strong 3 innings of relief against the Pirates in his next appearance, allowing no runs on a hit and a walk. His one start in the majors came in Philadelphia on May 1; he made it through 3 innings with 1 run allowed before the Phillies knocked him out of the game in the fourth inning. Jim Greengrass led off the inning with a solo homer, and Cohen gave up run-scoring extra-base hits to Bobby Morgan and Curt Simmons before he was lifted.
In 7 games, Cohen had no record and a 7.94 ERA. He allowed 28 hits in 17 innings, with 15 earned runs and 10 walks against 4 strikeouts. One of those strikeouts was Willie Mays, at least. The Cubs optioned Cohen back to the minor leagues for good, but he still had a couple of good seasons left in the minors. He won 16 games in 1956, pitching for Los Angeles, New Orleans and Tulsa. Cohen spent all of 1957 with the Memphis Chicks of the Southern Association and was a 15-game winner there, with a 2.72 ERA and a WHIP of 1.163. Cohen finished his minor-league career in 1958, pitching for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Vols. He retired with a 100-77 record in 9 minor-league seasons.
Cohen spent several seasons in Los Angeles, and it’s also where he met and married his wife of 66 years, Terry. The family relocated to Southern California after his retirement from baseball, and he got a degree in education at Cal State Los Angeles in 1961. After a couple of coaching jobs, Cohen became the head baseball coach at Birmingham High School in 1964. The team won City championship titles in 1966 and 1969. Cohen coached baseball, football and tennis into the 1980s. He stressed a positive approach, and even though he had some very talented players on his teams, he stressed the value of an education.
“I went to school after I was through with pro ball, and it takes a lot of doing to do that,” he said. “I tell these kids they should think of college before anything else.”
The City Championship has been held at Dodger Stadium every year since 1969, and Cohen was frequently asked about that inaugural contest. The championship game between Birmingham and Monroe was a 1-0 nail-biter, and Cohen was so superstitious that he refused to let the players leave the bench even to use the restroom. “I said, ‘Bruce, you’re not going to the bathroom. You stay right here. If you have to pee in your pants, pee in your pants because we’re winning,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2018.
Cohen was initially hesitant to bring up the team’s post-game celebration before relenting. “I don’t care, they’re not going to fire me. Twenty kids took out a cigar and put it in their mouth, and the bus driver nearly had a heart attack.”