Cubaphile congressman traveling with Obama grew up in Miami, with a Cuban baseball hero

Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen, who lived in Miami as a youth, is in Cuba for President Barack Obama’s trip.
Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen, who lived in Miami as a youth, is in Cuba for President Barack Obama’s trip. AP

An honorary Miamian traveled Sunday with President Barack Obama to Cuba, though few in South Florida will have heard of him.

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His name is Steve Cohen. He’s a 66-year-old Democratic congressman from Memphis. He speaks with an unmistakably southern drawl.

Ask him to talk about Miami, and it’s hard to get him to stop.

He mentions Dade Demonstration, the defunct elementary school he attended before Ponce Middle and Gables High. He drops the one line he remembers from Spanish class: Mamá prepara la comida en la cocina — Mom prepares dinner in the kitchen — though he pronounces it cochina. He talks about the furor prompted by the scuttled Bay of Pigs invasion.

“That was an early memory for me, the whole idea of Cuba, and the thoughts of airplanes flying on or flying over, and the possibility of war,” Cohen said.

He may have spent formative years among Cuban exiles — he lived in Miami from 1961-64 and again from ’66-67 — but Cohen doesn’t share their hardline views. He wants to lift the U.S. trade embargo. He wants physicians from both countries to work together, especially on pediatrics (St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is in his district). And above all, he wants baseball. Much more baseball.

Because Cohen’s love affair with Cuba didn’t really begin in Miami. It began in 1955, when he was a 5-year-old struck with polio.

His parents, lifelong baseball fans, took young Steve, hobbled with crutches, to see Mom’s hometown Chicago White Sox at a Memphis exhibition game. Steve made his way near the field to plead for autographs.

That’s when a pitcher, Tom Poholsky, handed him a real Major League baseball. It wasn’t from him, Poholsky told him. It was from an outfielder who couldn’t give the boy the ball himself because this was Memphis, in 1955, and the outfielder was black. The first black White Sox, in fact.

His name: Minnie Miñoso. A native of Perico, Cuba.

That interaction began a friendship among Miñoso and the Cohens that lasted until Miñoso’s death last year, Cohen said. As a boy, Cohen said he was shocked to learn Miñoso couldn’t stay with his white teammates at Memphis’ posh Peabody Hotel — instead forced to bunk at the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. would later be assassinated.

“The whole time I’ve been in Congress, I’ve been trying to promote relations with Cuba, and a lot of it is because of Miñoso and Miami,” said Cohen, who was elected in 2007. “Why aren’t we having a relationship with Cuba? I mean, I grew up with Cubans, and my hero was Cuban. I always wanted Minnie to go back to Havana and go to a game there and be treated like a star.”

Cohen’s interest isn’t purely personal. He’s interested in expanding business for Memphis-area companies like AutoZone (those old Cuban cars!), Hilton (tourists!) and FedEx (packages!).

“The Cuban people love us. We should extend all in the way of help to the Cuban people, because through this effort and others, it will become more free and more democratic and more open,” he said. “It’s going to take time. It’s probably going to take a generation.”

Listening to Cohen serves as a reminder of what Miami outsiders, detached from the painful exile experience, think of when they think of Cuba. He name-drops the late salsero Pupy Campo and actor/musician Desi Arnaz. He dreams of the sort of Cuban meal unavailable to average Cubans. (“I’ve been saving all my carbs up for that meal,” Cohen said of Monday’s state dinner in Obama’s honor. “I’ve got to have some flan.”)

When the U.S. embassy opened in Havana last August, Cohen came along with Secretary of State John Kerry — and brought a Miñoso baseball cap with him.

“I tried to get it to Raúl Castro,” he said. “I don’t know if he got it or not.”

This time, he’s brought more hats, courtesy of Miñoso’s son Charlie, and baseball cards and pins with Miñoso’s No. 9, courtesy of the White Sox. Needless to say, the congressman most looks forward to Tuesday’s ballgame between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team.

“I learned from Miñoso about civil rights, and I learned from Miñoso about Cuba, and I learned from Miñoso to be nice to kids,” Cohen said.

Cohen helped Bret Rodriguez, a member of the Bacardi family on the board of the International Children’s Heart Foundation, bring a 3-year-old Cuban boy recently to Memphis for life-saving heart surgery at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital.

“If a Cuban baseball player can care about a white American kid,” Cohen said, “then certainly a white American can care about a Cuban kid.”

McClatchy White House correspondent Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

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