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Andy and Syd Cohen: The Men Behind the Name
Article first published in Vol. 29, 2011.
By Alejandra Aiken, Paul Carrillo and Celina Delgado
View pdf version (Biography)
Many little boys have a dream as they play America’s game, baseball: the dream to one day play in the big leagues. The dream to one day hit a grand slam homerun to win the game or to strike out a famous hitter. These were not just dreams for brothers Andy and Syd Cohen: they were real events.
Image caption: Andy Cohen played for the New York Giants in 1926. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library, Special Collections Department)
Andy and Syd both spent most of their lives playing and coaching the game they loved. Andrew (Andy) Howard Cohen was born in Baltimore, MD, on Oct. 25, 1904. Sydney (Syd) Harry Cohen was born less than two years later on May 7, 1906. Their father, Manus, was a cigar maker and had a passion for baseball. According to Rabbi Steven J. Rubenstein in All Things Jewish in Baseball, Manus played semipro baseball before his career as a cigar maker. Andy was seven when he, his mom Lena, Syd and his sister Eva moved to El Paso because Lena suffered from respiratory problems.
The Cohen brothers started playing baseball for the local little league teams which gave them the knowledge needed to have successful baseball careers later. Johnny Ward, in an article for the El Paso Times on Jan. 31, 1938, said that Andy and Syd both played in sandlots in El Paso’s Boyland League during their youth.
Andy and Syd graduated from El Paso High School, Andy in 1922 and Syd in 1924. Andy excelled in baseball, basketball and football. In Andy’s junior year, he led the basketball team to the first state championship held in Texas, winning the award for outstanding sportsman of the tournament and being named to the all-state team as a forward. He played every position on the baseball team and halfback on the football team. Winning a scholarship to the University of Alabama, he was the first Jewish person to be made team captain of the baseball team there, according to his daughter, Marina Lee. He left the university his senior year in order to play professional baseball.
Syd played baseball and basketball in high school, being captain of the baseball team. After high school graduation, Syd attended Southern Methodist University and played baseball for one year. Then he joined his brother at the University of Alabama to play baseball there. Soon after, the Cohen brothers started to make history as Jewish players and were later recognized by the El Paso community for their involvement in sports.
Andy first played in the minor leagues in 1925 with the Waco Cubs in the Texas League. His skills, along with his last name, got the attention of New York Giants manager, John McGraw. There were many Jewish players, but they did not have the total package that McGraw was looking for when he went searching for the next baseball hero. Peter and Joachim Horvitz, authors of The Big Book of Jewish Baseball, wrote that McGraw “had a dream: to have a Jewish star on his team” and he would accept nothing less. To McGraw, having a Jewish star player meant that his team would now be able to attract the Jewish community to the ball park, thus increasing the revenue for the Giants. Given this, the Giants purchased Andy’s contract from the Waco Cubs in 1926 for $25,000, the same amount for which the entire Waco team had been purchased.
Andy had replaced Roger Hornsby, New York Giants’ hall of fame second baseman. Ironically, Andy’s first game as a Giant was against the Boston Braves, Hornsby’s new team. Thanks to Andy’s base hits, the Giants went on to beat the Braves. Peter and Joachim Horvitz wrote that a large group of Jewish fans carried Andy around the field after the win.
To Andy, keeping his Jewish last name meant much more than it meant to McGraw. According to Richard Vidmer in an article for The New York Times, Andy decided to keep his last name even after several of his friends suggested to him that he change it to a non- Jewish last name. He wanted to show the world that he was proud of his heritage, and he did not want to hurt his mother by playing under another name. In El Paso’s Greatest Sports Heroes I Have Known, Ray Sanchez maintained that Andy Cohen did for Jews in baseball what Jackie Robinson did for blacks in 1946, when he was signed by the Dodgers, breaking the color barrier in professional baseball.
Andy received well deserved attention from his team, the media and baseball fans, which not only earned him many gifts of appreciation, but also the chance to speak to local boys’ clubs, something he really enjoyed doing. After spending three years in the majors, Andy continued his career in the minor leagues for the next 40 years as a player, coach and manager. Thanks to Andy, it was easier for Syd and other Jewish players to obtain baseball contracts for their skills and for the potential income they could bring to the team.
Syd’s career went in a different direction from his brother’s. In 1931, he joined the Mexican-based Nogales Internationals in the Arizona-Texas League. The Horovitz book said that Mexican fans wanted more Mexican players on the team, and when the American coach tried to cut the only Mexican player because he was not very good, fans went wild and the military was called in to reestablish order. So when Syd was introduced as “Pablo Garcia,” a man with a dark complexion who spoke fluent Spanish, he was quickly accepted by the local fans as one of their own.
Image caption: Syd Cohen is shown in his San Francisco Seals uniform in 1928. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at El Paso Library, Special Collections Department)
Syd made his major league debut in September 1934 as a pitcher with the Washington Senators. Here he did something more noteworthy in his first two weeks as a Senator than most ball players do their entire careers. On Sept. 29, 1934, the iconic New York Yankee Babe Ruth hit his last American League homerun and in the same game was struck out for the last time, both by the pitching of none other than Syd Cohen. Another New York Yankee, Lou Gehrig, also had an extremely difficult time facing the left-handed Syd. In the seven times that Gehrig came to bat against Syd, he struck out five times.
Syd spent some 29 years working in professional baseball. When his days in the major leagues were over, Syd went on to play in the minor leagues and also managed teams in El Paso, Tucson, Juárez, Los Mochis and Monterrey. “Pablo Garcia” returned to Mexico as Syd Cohen where he coached the Juárez Indios to their first Arizona-Texas League pennant in 1950.
Andy served in the Army during World War II and married Barbara VanDuzer on April 21, 1945. He and his wife had three children: Marina Cohen Lee, Cathy Cohen Souers and Hank Cohen. Marina Lee works in advertising and media and is a writer in El Paso, Cathy Souers is a veterinarian assistant in California and Hank Cohen is CEO of Trifecta Entertainment & Media in Los Angeles. Andy also had three grandchildren.
According to Marina Lee, the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), known at that time as Texas Western College, added baseball in order to join the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). So in 1962, Andy became the head coach and Syd became the pitching coach for the newly formed team. They worked as volunteer coaches and received no pay for their time. The Miners did not have a field of their own, so they held their practices at Hugo Myer Park located in Central El Paso, and their games were played at Dudley Field. The players also wore old uniforms donated by El Paso’s professional team. The college president, Haskell Monroe, established a fund in the Cohens’ name to provide scholarships for talented baseball players.
The brothers coached the team for 16 years, happy to be involved with baseball and work with young athletes. However, in 1982, UTEP dropped the program due to heavy traveling and equipment expenses. Lee explained that from 1958 to their deaths in 1988, the “brothers worked with Little Leagues, school programs, bowling leagues, women’s basketball teams, the Sun Bowl, the Diablos, and the team when they were the Sun Kings.”
The Cohen brothers received numerous awards. According to their biographies on file at UTEP Special Collections, Andy was the first person to be elected to the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame in 1955. Syd received the same honor in 1962. In 1962, Andy accepted the Merit Award from El Paso High School for his great contribution to sports, and the City of El Paso presented him with the Conquistador Award. In 1985, Andy was also named to the Texas Basketball Players Hall of Fame. Syd also won several bowling championships in El Paso. The brothers belonged to numerous civic organizations and coached both basketball and baseball for children in the city. Andy and Syd Cohen were the first two players elected to the El Paso Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. Bob Ingram wrote in Baseball: From Browns to Diablos that the Cohen brothers are now considered “the most respected and revered names in El Paso baseball.”
With the death of Syd on April 9, 1988, followed by Andy’s death six months later, on Oct. 29, 1988, the El Paso baseball community and the city itself lost two of the greatest baseball players and gentlemen that have called El Paso home. Not many El Pasoans know about the history behind the naming of Cohen Stadium which was built for the El Paso Diablos. Marina Lee, Andy’s daughter, went as far as getting letters from Tommy Lasorda, who was manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers, to lobby city council to name the stadium after her father and uncle. Cohen Stadium is located in Northeast El Paso on the Diana Exit off Highway 54 just before Transmountain Road.
In her letter to City Council, Lee wrote: “It [Cohen] is a name that would bring pride and honor to the stadium, to El Paso and the sport and/or business of baseball. It will always be meaningful.” The meaning behind a name is not the number of friends left behind or the money generated or the number of sports jerseys sold at the end of the day. A name is the mark that one leaves in history and the memories that are left for others to enjoy once that person is gone. Andy and Syd Cohen were a definite example of this. In El Paso, the name Cohen means baseball and the long history of the sport in the city.
- "EP Baseball goes back to the 1890s" 1963 El Paso Times article