‘Mr. Baseball’ shares history and memories with fans

Photo by Sue Suchyta

Author, columnist and lecturer Irwin J. Cohen, also known as “Mr. Baseball,” shows two of his books, “Tiger Stadium – Comerica Park: History and Memories” and “Echoes of Detroit: A 300-Year History” June 22 after a lecture at Bacon Memorial District Library at 45 Vinewood in Wyandotte.

Sunday Times Newspapers

WYANDOTTE – When Irwin Cohen watched the Detroit Tigers play in Briggs Stadium as a child in the 1950s, little did he know he would one day be a part of the ballclub during a World Series winning year.

He was, but he never stepped up to the plate.

Instead he was a part of the Tigers front office team in 1984, the year the Tigers won the World Series four games to one against the San Diego Padres.

Cohen shared these memories and more with fellow Tiger fans June 22 at Wyandotte’s Bacon Memorial District Library, where he signed copies of two of his books, “Tiger Stadium – Comerica Park: History and Memories” and “Echoes of Detroit: A 300-Year History.”

The lifelong Detroiter said he became known as “Mr. Baseball” in February 1973 when then Detroit Free Press sportswriter Joe Falls published letters submitted anonymously by Cohen in his column.

At the time, Cohen worked for the Wayne County Treasurer’s office in Detroit’s City-County Building. During his lunch hours Cohen said he would go to the downtown library and read sports sections from out-of-town newspapers to acquire baseball information in a pre-Internet era.

Cohen said when he initially called Joe Falls and said that he would like to see more baseball in the Free Press during the off-season, he said Falls challenged him to send him some samples.

“So I did,” Cohen said. “I crossed out my name on the bottom of it and wrote ‘Mr. Baseball.’ So what happened is I would send him stuff and he didn’t know who I was. And he would put it in the Free Press in his Sunday column – ‘Mr. Baseball said this’ and ‘Mr. Baseball said that.’”

After a month Cohen said he went in and introduced himself. Falls had photographer Tony Spina take a photo of Cohen, and the next Sunday the photo ran in Falls’ column.

“Joe was that kind of guy,” Cohen said. “He was a loudmouth New Yorker – not like Ernie (Harwell); he didn’t have Ernie’s class but he had a very good heart. And a lot of people will tell you that he helped a lot of people along the way.”

In addition to submitting material to Falls as “Mr. Baseball” Cohen said he wrote several articles for national baseball publications.

However, he said they weren’t interested in his services full time, so he wrote for a local free weekly, “All Sports TV Log.”

“He (McLain) hired me at $15 a week and I gave him a baseball story every week,” Cohen said. “And he gave me a check for $75; too bad I cashed it – it’s worth more un-cashed, and he still owes me money.”

Cohen said he kept both his press credentials and his day job with Wayne County, and all of a sudden he got the bug to start a baseball paper.

He launched and edited “The Baseball Bulletin,” in Jan. 1975 out of his Royal Oak basement.
He said in the days before cable television the “sporting news was worth reading.”

“Ernie agreed to write for it,” Cohen said. “He was the first ‘name’ I ever had. He didn’t know anything about me; he’d just met me, and he agreed to be the front page writer, so that’s how it got credibility right away because Ernie was that kind of guy.”

He said he eventually had very famous writers and his venture lasted five years.

Trying to support the paper financially and creatively was taking a toll on him, though, Cohen said, and he didn’t have time to enjoy the games. He sold the paper in 1979, and for a while in the early 1980s continued to write a column for the new owner.

“How I got into the Tigers… was the biggest miracle yet,” Cohen said. “William Lucas… took over Wayne County as the County Executive, and times were bad like now.”

He said at the end of 1983 a cash-strapped Wayne County wanted to take people with 20 years of seniority off the payroll and put them on a pension system.

“But you had to be 55 years old and I was like 40 years old,” Cohen said.

However, he said that Lucas allowed anyone with 20 or more years of service to retire regardless of their age and get the same pension amount.

“So I said ‘this has got to be something from above,’” Cohen said. “I have to go check this out.”

At the same time a job opened up with the Tigers.

He said he started in the Tiger front office in early 1984 as the group sales coordinator with the understanding that he would do public relations work.

He worked with the Tigers until Aug. 25, 1992, when Mike Ilitch bought the team and terminated much of the staff.

Cohen, who shared personal stories about many players he interviewed, noted the loss of four well-liked Tiger icons in recent years: George Kell in 2009, and in 2010 Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, Harwell and George “Sparky” Anderson.

Cohen produced “Echoes of Tiger Stadium,” a three-hour audio collection of Hall of Famer memories.

He co-authored “So You Love Tiger Stadium, too” with Falls and authored “Comiskey Park, Crosley Field” and “Tiger Stadium.”

Cohen said he would like to write a book about baseball players’ roles before and during World War II. One of the biggest changes he has seen in the industry is how much more difficult it is for sports writers to get to know professional athletes today.

“Writers don’t travel with the team anymore,” Cohen said. “The writers have to make their own reservations so a lot of them aren’t sent on the road…and they (the athletes) have minders… they have these shadows to make sure that people say the right things… we don’t really get to know the players like we used to.”