Happy Birthday, Alta Cohen!

Albert Alta Cohen was born on Christmas Day, 1908.  In the first half of the 1930s, Cohen was a smallish but quick outfielder who got a couple of major league opportunities with the Dodgers and Phillies, earning the nickname “Schoolboy.”  However, while with Toledo in 1935, the Mud Hens were desperate for a few live arms and Cohen pitched in, becoming a left-handed starter who nearly made it back to the majors pitching for the Dodgers.

Cohen’s major league debut became one of those The Sporting News anecdotes of the 1930s – he got his first hit in his first major league at bat, even though he batted out of order.

In the second game of the 1931 season, Wilbert Robinson’s Brooklyn Robins were getting pounded by the Boston Braves and Uncle Robby was not happy with the play of his outfielders.  Brooklyn made seven (!) errors that day, and Robby took it out on Babe Herman.  Herman responded to Robinson’s tirade with, “Well, if you don’t want me out there, why don’t you send in somebody else?”  So, Robby did just that.

The Robins rallied in the top of the fifth, so Robertson sent in Ike Boone to pinch hit for the pitcher – then sent Boone out to right field in the bottom of the fifth.  When Robby saw Boone out there, he had already forgotten his tiff with Herman and told Herman to get out to right field before he was removed from the game.  However, the umpires got wind of Boone and Herman’s discussion and ordered Herman to the bench.

Robby didn’t want Boone in right either – so he called for Alta Cohen, effectively making a double switch (Cohen replaces Boone who batted for the pitcher in the nine spot and stays to play right field, while the new pitcher, Cy Moore, takes over and bats in the three spot where Herman had batted).  However, in top of the sixth, Cohen mistakenly batted in Herman’s spot and got a single.  Nobody noticed Cohen’s error, though, and Cohen didn’t score – so it counted.  In the next inning, Cohen lined a second single and later came around to score on a Wally Gilbert hit.  He went two for three in the game.  What is not as easily noticed in the box score was that Cohen also threw out two base runners in his three innings in the field.

The next day, Cohen was optioned to Hartford where he would play on one of the better minor league teams of the period and help lead Hartford to the Eastern League crown and earn a berth on the All-Star team.

Cohen got a second, longer stint with the Dodgers in 1932 but didn’t stay with the club.  Eventually he was released and signed by the Phillies but failed to make that club after a couple of months pinch hitting and occasionally starting in center field during the 1933 season.

Cohen’s early minor league trek is listed in a response to a letter written to The Sporting News – and doesn’t jive with the data found on Baseball-Reference.com.  According to TSN, he was signed by Syracuse in 1927 and then moved to Houston, who then farmed Cohen to Rochester – though I don’t see that he ever played there.  Houston released him in April, 1928 and Cohen next signed with Evansville for the 1928 season.  He earned a job with Macon (GA), who then optioned him to Rocky Mount for the 1929 season.  Macon kept him in 1930, playing so well that the Brooklyn Dodgers gave him a tryout in spring training 1931.

The Dodgers retained his rights, but optioned him to Hartford where Cohen was an all-star in 1931 and was batting .412 in 1932 when the team (and league) folded.  Cohen was then sent to Jersey City for the rest of the 1932 season, but didn’t finish as strongly as he started, which led to his release.

After a brief run with the Phillies, Cohen spent a year with Durham of the Piedmont league before signing with Toledo in 1934.  In 1935, with the Mud Hens low on pitching, Cohen made six starts and five relief appearances, winning four of seven decisions.  In 1936, he became a member of the rotation and would go 29 – 19 over two seasons, earning two all-star game appearances as a pitcher and a trip to spring training with the Dodgers in 1938.

Cohen’s second shot at a major league job didn’t fare as well.  Joe Medwick remembered Cohen years later saying that he would have paid half of Cohen’s salary to have kept him in the league.  “When they sent him out they took 25 points off my batting average,” Medwick added with some measure of unnecessary meanness.

Cohen’s lawyer suggested that marital strife may have also contributed to Alta’s poor spring and equally poor season with Minneapolis in the American Association that year.  A blurb in TSN read “Mental disturbance caused by marital difficulty was responsible for the loss of a $5,000 pitching job with the Brooklyn Dodgers by Alta Cohen, the southpaw’s lawyer told the Chancery Court in Newark, N.J. last week.  Cohen was the defendant in a suit brought by his wife, Mrs. Dorothy Cohen, for separate maintenance pending divorce action.  Claiming he made only $1,500 for three months with Minneapolis… and that his mother had to pay for a recent appendicitis operation, Cohen was ordered to pay $5 per week toward the support of his wife and infant child…”

His career came to an end after 1940 – he couldn’t come to terms regarding a bonus clause when he signed with Jersey City – and was released in late May.  However, Cohen made a good decision, too – he started his own business, AltCo, and ran that for more than 40 years.  He was a member of the Board of Directors for the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, a member of the Green Brook Country Club, and was honored by Hebrew University for his charitable efforts on its behalf.

When Cohen died on March 11, 2003, at the age of 94, he was listed in his obituary as the oldest living Dodger alumni member – he wasn’t, Ray Berres and Al Lopez were older (maybe they hadn’t paid their Alumni dues).  He was certainly old – as some of you may know, in Yiddish Alta means “old”.

ONLINE Sources:

Alta Cohen’s Minor League Page on Baseball-Reference.com
Alta Cohen’s Wikipedia Page
Alta Cohen’s Obituary
Alta Cohen’s Page on Retrosheet.org

Newspaper Sources (many blurbs, but specific articles are mentioned below):

“Hen Pitching Scatters Seventh-Place Clouds”, TSN, 1/30/1936 Pg. 8.
“Grimes’ New Hurler ‘Once Dodger Hero'” TSN, 11/4/1937 Pg. 5.
TSN Note About Cohen Divorce – TSN, 2/9/39 Pg.9.
TSN Note About Cohen Release – TSN, 6/6/40 Pg. 7.

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