SABR

Claude Cooper

This article was written by Robert Peyton Wiggins.

In the spring of 1913, 20-year-old Claude Cooper was impressive in his audition with the National League champion New York Giants. Hailed as “another (Tris) Speaker” when he came out of the Texas League to play for John McGraw, Cooper possessed good speed afoot, had a strong throwing left arm, and was an outstanding fly chaser. However, he was inconsistent at bat, especially against major league caliber pitching, which would eventually cost him a long and prosperous major league career.

Claude William Cooper was born April 1, 1892, in Troup, Texas (Smith County), the second son of James T. Cooper and Carrie Bondrant Lacy. His older sibling was named Sidney and succeeding Claude were three more brothers, (James) Aubrey, Leon and Earl. Their father was a merchant, grocer, and hotel proprietor in North Texas.1

Due to his father’s variety of vocations, Claude spent his boyhood moving from town to town. Young Cooper was an outstanding baseball player at Wichita Falls High School and following his senior year he entered Texas Christian University. The lefty hitter gained a reputation for outstanding play with the University’s baseball team and following his first college season Claude played ball for a town team in Greenville, Texas.

Manager Walter Morris of the Fort Worth Texas League team had been impressed with Cooper’s play during practice games against Texas Christian. However, Cooper accepted a position in 1911 with the Bonham team from the Class D Texas-Oklahoma League.

Cooper would play for the Fort Worth Panthers in 1912, batting .267 in 142 games. Claude discovered in the newspaper that he had been acquired by the New York Giants and it was reported that Cooper did not even know who Manager John McGraw was. In February 1913 Claude joined the Giants for spring training in Marlin, Texas, and told reporters “If I go with the Giants I shall certainly will return to Fort Worth as soon as the season is over and re-enter the Texas Christian University.” 2

In Marlin, New York baseball writers as well as Texas newspapermen were interested in the college student turned professional ball player. Claude was queried about his background and his impression of Manager McGraw; “I am learning a great deal about playing baseball from Mr. McGraw’s instructions,” he politely replied. “If the manager considers me with enough favor to accept me as a member of the New York Nationals after the practice season, I shall do my utmost to be of value to the club.” 3

During the early practices McGraw was pleased with the energetic youngster’s performance around second base and commented that he would bear watching. If there was any doubt about Cooper the rookie, he sealed his position with the club in mid-March in a game between the Giants’ regulars and “cubs” (rookies). Claude banged out four singles, stole two bases, and hauled down seven fly ball outs.4

“During my entire career as manager of the Giants,” McGraw remarked to the press, “I have continually been looking for an outfielder of the Ty Cobb – Tris Speaker type, one of those gaunt, springy fellows, who do not have weaknesses. I mean a player who can field, run and steadily hit over the .300 mark. I have found that person in Claude Cooper.” 5

Claude opened the National League season on the Giants’ roster. He played his first major league game on April 14, 1913, when he went in as a pinch runner, scored on a sacrifice fly and finished the game in left field. However, the defending National League champion was a veteran team so Cooper got few opportunities during the 1913 season. He was most often used as a late inning replacement in the field or as a pinch-runner. At 5’9” and under 160 pounds, statistics suggest Claude would not hit with much power. Cooper batted .300 in part time duty, got into two games in the 1913 World Series as a pinch runner, stole a base, and went home with a full Series share.

Cooper would not return to the Giants in 1914 because of a new outlaw league that offered salaries well above those of the existing major leagues. The twenty-one-year-old reserve outfielder had only 27 regular season major league games under his belt when he signed with the new Federal League club in Brooklyn for $5,000 a season with one year’s wages in advance. When Cooper joined the Brooklyn Tip Tops, The New York Times predicted “With Cooper and George Anderson, a rookie out of the New York State League, Brooklyn would have two of the fastest players in the League.” 6

Though he failed to live up to expectations at the bat in 1914, Cooper did not disappoint in the field. In the first game of the season, he stunned the Pittsburgh crowd with a sensational catch in center field to preserve the game for Brooklyn, which the Tip Tops won in the tenth inning, 1 to 0.

In a game against Chicago at Washington Park that May, The New York Times praised Cooper whose beautiful throw to the plate prevented a Chicago base runner from scoring from second on a single. “Cooper threw from deep left field just as Wickland was rounding third base and got the ball to Land in the air with a couple of inches to spare.” 7

The Brookfeds benched Claude late that June because he was batting only .198. Cooper consulted an oculist, after which he raised his overall batting average 53 points. The New York Times joked that Manager Bill Bradley was thinking seriously of employing an oculist to work exclusively with his team. 8

On Friday, July 31, Brooklyn was playing Indianapolis at Washington Park. With two out in the ninth inning and the game tied 0 to 0, Charlie Carr of the Hoosiers drove a long fly ball to center field. Cooper misjudged the ball, first running in then starting back without checking for the wall. In those days there was no warning track. The Times reported, “With an impact that could be heard all over the field, the Texan crashed into the center field bleachers and dropped as if he had been shot.” 9 Cooper was unconscious for several minutes and was carried to the clubhouse where he was examined by physicians. Excepting a gash six inches long on the side of his face, Claude escaped serious injury. The doctors speculated that Cooper might have sustained a fractured skull if the blow had been one inch higher. As was, he would miss several games. Cooper struggled for the remainder of 1914, but would come back healthy a year later.

Benny Kauff, the Federal League’s brightest star, was transferred to Brooklyn during the off-season and it appeared there would be no room for Cooper in the outfield. However, Claude would get plenty of work in1915 due to Kauff’s suspensions and the trade of Steve Evans that June. Cooper played in 153 games for Brooklyn, swatted 26 doubles, 12 triples and 2 home runs. His batting average was fifty-three points above his 1914 mark.

Once the Federal League closed up shop for good in December 1915, major league clubs engaged in a bidding war to acquire the defunct circuit’s best players. On April 22, 1916, the Philadelphia National League Club announced that Claude Cooper would play for the Phillies. Due to the National League’s 21 player limit, Cooper was not added to the roster until catcher Bill Killefer went on the disabled list on May 1. However, the Phillies stood pat with the line-up that won the National League pennant a year earlier and Claude was regulated to the bench. Cooper only got into one game, as the left fielder, until center fielder Dode Paskert came up with a sore arm during a series in Pittsburgh. Inserted in the line-up on May 20 Claude made the best of his chance with three singles and was hit by a pitch in the finale of the series with the Pirates.

Cooper would become a regular in the outfield after the Phillies rolled into Chicago a day later. Especially notable was Claude’s hitting in Grover Cleveland Alexander’s 5 to 3 win over the Cubs on May 22. He hit a two run single in the sixth inning and another run scored in the seventh on Claude’s double. Sporting Life praised his efforts: “The game was won by Claude Cooper… (He) hit the ball at a terrific clip and has proven himself a fast and clever base runner. His addition to the team has strengthened the Phils considerably and he is likely to hit a number of drives over the short right field fence and into the bleachers in this city.” 10

Lee Magee, Claude’s old manager in Brooklyn, bragged that Cooper had no weakness as an outfielder. “He is a wonderful fielder, a hard hitter, a jack rabbit on the bases, while he has a throwing arm of steel.” 11

The rhetoric turned out to be fantasy. Over his next ten games Cooper managed only three hits in twenty-eight official at bats and found himself back on the Phillies’ bench. Used sparingly, mostly as a late inning replacement, Claude batted only .192 for the National League season. He had stolen 31 bases for the Brookfeds a year earlier, but swiped only one bag for the Phillies over two seasons.

In 1917 Cooper’s performance was even worse than the previous season, making only three hits in 29 at bats. In late June the Phillies optioned Claude to the Louisville American Association team where he was marginally better than against National League pitching, batting .216 with only one extra base hit in 28 games for the Colonels.12

Despite his two bad years, there were still clubs interested in a twenty-six-year-old player with the speed and talent of Claude Cooper. During the off season, the Phillies offered the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League a choice of two out of five designated players in exchange for pitcher Bradley Hogg. One of the two selected by Manager Wade Killefer was Cooper. Claude promptly held out for more money than the Angles offered. Despite a rumor that Cooper had struck oil in Texas, he eventually settled with the Angels management and reported to the Los Angles club on April 2, 1918.

That summer Cooper received his draft notice for service in the war against Germany. He decided to leave the club before June 25 to enlist in the Army at Fort Worth.13 The Pacific Coast League would suspend operations on July 14 because the war had taken so many of its players. Less than a month after Claude’s enlistment, his younger brother Aubrey was killed in France on July 19, 1918.

Claude was discharged from the Army on January 12, 1919, and rejoined the Angels for a second season. The rusty outfielder was woeful at bat for the first few weeks. He heated up in the batter’s box in mid-May and raised his batting average thirty-six points to .220 by the end of the month.

Manager Killefer left Cooper at home when the Angels boarded their train for a road trip on June 2. In the works was a deal was with the Oakland PCL club, and on June 4, 1919, the Angels sold Cooper to the Oaks who needed a replacement for injured outfielder Hack Miller. Upon his arrival in Oakland, Claude was immediately installed as the Oaks’ center fielder. Cooper was a sensation in Oakland for circus catches reminiscent his days in Brooklyn, while raising his overall batting average to .315 for the Coast League season.

Cooper held out in the spring of 1920 for “one of the biggest salaries ever paid a minor league player” so said Oakland Manager Del Howard. The stalemate lasted until the Oaks received Claude’s telegram accepting the club’s terms on April 28. Claude would go on to have his most successful years as a professional baseball player with the Oakland Oaks.

Prior to 1921 the rap against Cooper was his struggle against left-handed pitching but now proved he could hit slants thrown from either side. Between 1919 and 1923 he would bat over .300 three times with a high of .328 in 1921 and a low of .296 in 1920. Cooper would play at least 149 games in each of those five seasons.

Cooper continued his fearless drive in chasing down fly balls. The July 14, 1921, edition of the Oakland Tribune noted: “He often drags down long flies that would go for triples and doubles for normal center fielders. Yesterday Claude crashed headlong into the left center bleacher fence in getting ‘Bush’ Tobin’s long drive.” 14

One of his most memorable catches came a week later in Salt Lake City. “Cooper, judging the ball perfectly, ran around the concrete base of the flagpole just in front of the home clubhouse, leaped into the air and caught the ball with one hand. It was a catch such as is made perhaps once in ten years.” 15

Claude missed ten days of the Coast League pennant chase in July 1921 to return to Fort Worth for the arrival and internment of his brother Aubrey who was killed in the War. Despite the circumstances, the Oakland press did not appreciate the player’s abandonment of the team during a pennant race.

During the off season, there was talk about a deal to send Cooper to the Chicago Cubs because at that time the Pacific Coast League was not subject to the major league draft. Once again Cooper and the Oaks owner could not agree on the player’s salary until Claude arrived at spring training in Hot Springs a little over two weeks late.

In 1922 Cooper had his career high in home runs with 13, the most dramatic of which came at Oakland Coast League Park on May 14 with the bases loaded. The Portland outfielder raced back into deep left center field, but Claude’s line drive was out of reach. The ball traveled almost to the clubhouse for a grand slam inside the park home run.16

His aggressiveness in the field finally caught up with Cooper on August 9, 1922, when Claude attempted a circus catch of a fly ball and suffered a broken hand. He did not play again until his appearance as a pinch-hitter on September 28 at Portland. Despite missing several P.C.L. games due to the injury, Claude finished second in the league with 48 stolen bases.17

Claude was married on October 26, 1922, but in less than two months his wife Margaret would file suit for divorce. She claimed that her husband came home intoxicated, threatened to kill her, and his abuse led to their separation on December 2.18

Margaret Cooper obtained an interlocutory divorce decree in Superior Court from her baseball player husband on December 21, 1922, but they reconciled in May 1923 after Cooper promised to cease the excessive drinking and treat her with kindness.19 The couple’s marital problems would be played out in the city’s press over the next four years.

Though Claude batted .319 for the Oaks in 1923 his play was inconsistent. Early in the year Cooper began to misjudge fly balls, erred on grounders and had trouble making solid contact at the plate. Since Claude seemed to be in good physical condition the excuse became his old eyesight issue until he consulted an oculist.20

That May Oakland sports reporter Eddie Murphy revealed that Claude told Manager Howard that he “could not cut the mustard because he was sick.” Added Murphy, “It was evident something was wrong with him as he could not make the long running catches which he is noted for.” 21

Cooper had his usual salary dispute prior to the 1924 season. He even threatened to quit baseball with a supposed plan to go into the business of running a poultry farm with his parents who would move from Texas to Oakland. However, Claude agreed on a salary and signed a new contract at the end of February. Cooper would report to spring training camp on schedule for the first time since joining the Oaks.

In the seventh inning of a game in Seattle on May 30, 1924, Cooper singled and stole second. In sliding into the bag, he sustained a fractured ankle. The outfielder would be absent from the baseball field until August. He played in only 48 games for the Oaks that season, many of them in September as a pinch hitter, and finished with his lowest batting average in his nine years with the Pacific Coast League.

The Coopers’ personal life again hit the newspapers in January 1925. Mrs. Cooper claimed she returned from shopping to their chicken ranch in Eden Township and found her husband intoxicated. She testified that he became violent, cursed her, and threatened to “cave in her face.” There would be no reconciliation this time.

Court documents concerning Mrs. Cooper’s request for a monthly alimony of $100 also reveal Claude’s assets. She told the court her husband earned $650 a month as a baseball player for six months in the year, $75 a week from their chicken ranch, a home in Oakland, stock valued at $3000, and cash in banks in Oakland and Texas.22

Nor would things go well for Claude on the baseball field, as he had another disappointing season for the Oaks in 1925, batting .261. The Oakland club felt Cooper was no longer the outstanding outfielder of two years earlier and gave him an outright release in February 1926, citing Cooper’s illness, trouble with his eyes, and unstated personal problems.23

Claude wintered in Texas and even worked out with the Fort Worth Texas League team the following spring.24 He was still in Forth Worth, when, in June 1926 Margaret Cooper sought a final decree of divorce.

A free agent since his release by the Oaks, Claude escaped the scandal in Oakland when he was hired to manage the Ogden club in the first year of existence for the Utah-Idaho League.25 The “Gunners” were a woeful team that Cooper inherited from Manager Ray Bates, winners of only 13 of their 36 games to that point in 1926.

In his first game as player manager of the Gunners, Claude Cooper took the mound against the team from Pocatello. The surprise pitcher not only pitched a four-hit shutout with six strikeouts, he made two of this team’s hits.26 Though his future work was not as good as his debut, Cooper pitched 78 innings and finished the season with record of six victories and three losses. Over all he made 34 hits in 91 at bats for a .374 batting average.27

Cooper managed to have one last hurrah in the P.C.L. In January 1927, Claude told Sacramento owner Lewis Moreing that he was unable to get into playing shape the previous two seasons, but felt the warmer weather in Sacramento would allow him to play up to his former form.28 Cooper got off to a flying start with the Sacramento Senators, hitting over .300 for the first six weeks of the season. However, his batting average slid to.281 before he was released by the Senators on August 9.29 That November, it became obvious his days in the Coast League were over when Claude was released by the Chevrolet Motors Winter League team in Oakland.30

Cooper bounced around the bush leagues for two more years before the thirty-eight-year old decided he was washed up and retired from the game. The 1930 Federal Census noted that Claude W. Cooper was a lodger in an Oakland boarding house; marital status “divorced”; profession “baseball player.”

Cooper remarried in 1935 to thirty nine year old Maude Williams.31 Their daughter named Margaret Ann was born on December 10, 1935, but the baby died the next day.

Cooper’s 1942 draft registration for World War II indicate Maude and Claude were residing on Valley Street in Oakland and he was employed by a Cigar Bar. The 1943 Oakland City Directory noted that he worked in the shipyards.32 Claude and Maude Cooper would divorce in January 1967.

Cooper remained in the Oakland area the remainder of his life except for his final six months when he moved to Plainview, Texas, to be close to relatives that resided there. Claude Cooper died at age eighty-one on January 21, 1974, while a patient in Plainview Hospital. Cooper’s obituary only named his surviving family members as his three brothers, although family sources indicate he had two surviving children from a previous marriage.33 Claude is buried in Plainview Cemetery.

 

Photo Credits

Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

 

Notes

1. 1900, 1910 U.S. Federal Census.

2. “Texan with Giants,” Galveston Daily News, March 9, 1913, p. 5.

3. Ibid.

4. “McGraw Tries Out Cubs,” The New York Times, February 21, 1913, p. 11.

5. Sporting Life, March 21, 1914, p. 8.

6. The Federal League of Base Ball Clubs; Robert Peyton Wiggins, McFarland, 2009, p. 112.

7. The New York Times, May 25, 1914.

8. The New York Times, July 12, 1914, p. S2.

9. The Federal League…, op cit p. 112.

10. Sporting Life, May, 20, 1916, p. 5.

11. Sporting Life, May, 27, 1916, p. 7

12. “1917 Louisville Colonels”; http://www.baseball reference.com/minors/team.

13. “Angels will Lose Cooper Next Week, Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1918, p. 16.

14. “Oaks Celebrate, Oakland Tribune, July 14, 1921, p. 14.

15. Salt Lake Tribune, July 22, 1921, p. 9.

16. Oakland Tribune, May 15, 1922.

17. Oakland Tribune, December 22, 1922, Sports, p. 1.

18. “Woman wedded October 26, Sues Mate,” Oakland Tribune, December 26, 1922, p. 3.

19. “Drinking Laid to Oak Player in Spouse’s Suit,” Oakland Tribune, January 28, 1925.

20. “Cooper’s Eyesight is Cause of His Troubles,” Oakland Tribune, May 24, 1923, p. 22.

21. “Cooper Should Have Banner Year,” Oakland Tribune, April 12, 1924, p. 12.

22. “Drinking Laid to Oak Player in Spouse’s Suit,” Oakland Tribune, January 28, 1925.

23. “Cooper Released,” Oakland Tribune, February 24, 1926, p. 14.

24. San Antonio Express, March 19, 1926, p. 19.

25. “Claude Cooper Will Manage Ogden Club,” Oakland Tribune, June 23, 1926, p. 18.

26. “Cooper Twirls Fine Ball for Ogdenites,” Ogden Standard Examiner, June 24, 1926, p. 7.

27. “1926 Ogden Gunners,” Baseball Reference.com/minors/team.

28. “Claude Cooper Is Signed by Sacramento Club,” Oakland Tribune, January 18, 1927, p. 27.

29. “Claude Cooper Released…” Oakland Tribune, August 9, 1927.

30. Oakland Tribune, November 11, 1927.

31. “California Divorce Index: 1966-1984,” page 5-141; Ancestry.com.

32. 1943 Polk’s Oakland, California; City Directory: Santa Cruz, California, directory, 1959 and 1960.

33. “Claude Cooper,” Ancestry.com.; “Rites Held for Former Major Leaguer,” Amarillo Globe-Times, January 22, 1974, p. 22.

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