Colorful Dick Cooley crossed paths in his lifetime with personalities as diverse as saloon-smasher Carrie Nation and Broadway star George M. Cohan. For 13 years in the big leagues (1893-1905), Cooley also held his own with the greatest baseball players of his day. In 1,317 games in the majors, he batted .294.
Duff Gordon Cooley was born on March 29, 1873, on the family farm in Leavenworth County, Kansas, near the small town of Potter.1 His father, James Cooley, moved the family to Kansas from Kentucky and was elected to serve as a Representative in the Kansas Legislature in 1868 and 1872.2 After his father died in 1876, Cooley’s mother, Cassandana3, moved Duff and his two older sisters, Sarah and Florence, to Topeka’s east side. There Cooley grew up organizing kids’ baseball teams. He was known as “Dick” from an early age and as “Sir Richard” during the later part of his major-league career.
As an adult, Cooley stood 5-feet-11 and weighed about 160 pounds. He batted from the left side and threw right-handed. By 1893, he was playing semipro ball with the Topeka Reds. Later that year, while playing for the St. Joseph (Missouri) Saints, he was seen and signed to a contract by former pitcher Frank Pears, who was working as a field agent for the St. Louis Browns of the National League.4
On July 27, Cooley, only 20 years old, made his major-league debut in right field for the Browns in a 6-3 loss to the Cleveland Spiders. Cooley got his first base hit, a single, in the game.5 He appeared in 29 games for St. Louis that season, hitting .346. He showed very good speed, with eight stolen bases; an ability to play anywhere in the field (though he was primarily an outfielder); a sharp batting eye, and deft bunting. Cooley topped off his year on September 30, playing as the Browns’ catcher, with a six-hit game against the league champion Boston Beaneaters. Cooley’s hits included a triple, a double, and four singles. He also stole a base as the Browns cruised to a 16-4 victory, ending the year in 10th place in the 12-team National League. Although many other big-leaguers have netted six hits in a game, Cooley remains the youngest to accomplish this feat.6
The next year, the Browns used Cooley as a utilityman, playing him in the outfield and infield. When his fielding at third base became too sloppy, he was suspended for three weeks by team owner Chris von der Ahe. Cooley used the time off to join the St. Joseph team in the Western Association until he was reinstated by the Browns.7 Cooley continued to hit, finishing the year at .296 with seven stolen bases in 54 games.
1895 was Cooley’s best year with the Browns. He shed the tag of being a utility player and earned a permanent position in left field as he led the team with a .342 average, 20 triples, 194 hits, and 108 runs scored. A.H. Spink, editor of The Sporting News, observed, “Dick is a fixture in St. Louis and everybody likes him. The fact of the matter is, he is the only man the Browns has [sic] who can hit the ball at all.”8 The Sporting News called Cooley “one of the best all-around and most valuable players in the National League” and noted his expertise, as a left-handed batter, of “bunting toward third base and beating the ball out.”9 The Browns overall, though, were not a very good team. They finished the year next to last, in 11th place.
The next year, Cooley – after receiving a hefty pay raise – was expected to lead the team. He started slowly but was hitting .307 in June when he came down with an illness reported to be either typhoid fever10 or malaria.11 He missed three weeks while sick. Again, the Browns were mired in the second division of the league. Von der Ahe chose to reduce his expenses by trading Cooley to Philadelphia, receiving two bench players, Joe Sullivan and George “Tuck” Turner, in return.12 Cooley returned to health in Philadelphia and finished the year hitting .307 for the Phillies, the same average he had posted for the Browns.
Cooley opened the 1897 season in center field for the Phillies, batting at the top of the lineup in front of powerful Big Ed Delahanty, Nap Lajoie, and Sam Thompson. Cooley led the team with a career-high 31 stolen bases and hit a very healthy .329.
Notably, in July, the 24-year-old was named team captain.13 In Cooley’s time, this role entailed many of the duties later given to the team manager, such as choosing the starting pitcher, setting the lineup, calling on-field strategy, and arguing bad calls. The Phillies were a team featuring three future Hall of Famers in Lajoie, Delahanty, and Thompson; the next year, Elmer Flick would be added. Even so, it was young Cooley whose leadership was called on. Even as a youth, his abilities in this area stood out. It was written in the Topeka Daily Capital that he “seemed to be always at the head of some team of boys his age.”14
In 1898, with Flick in the outfield, the Phillies were expected to contend for the championship. However, the team struggled, playing .500 ball under manager George Stallings, who was fired in June and replaced with long-time Phillies executive Bill Shettsline. It was Cooley and Lajoie who went to the team owners and threatened a player strike unless Stallings was fired.15 In a public statement about the skipper’s overly intense approach, Cooley said, “We are fed up with the way Stallings has been riding us and decided we had enough of him and would regard him as our manager no longer. For weeks he’s been handling us like a lot of cattle. We may not be the best team in the league but we don’t intend to put up with Stallings’ tactics.”16 The Phillies owners, Al Reach and Colonel John I. Rogers, bowed to their wishes. The team responded with a brief winning streak yet still finished the year in sixth place.
In 1899, the Phillies brought in speedy outfielder Roy Thomas and shifted Cooley to first base, where he struggled. The Philadelphia Times wrote that “Cooley is utterly incompetent to play first base” and suggested that the Phillies should “play Cooley on the bench and make Delahanty captain.”17A few months later the Phillies indeed benched Cooley after signing Billy Goeckel to play first base.18 Cooley remained as captain, though, receiving high praise from most of the press. The Wilkes-Barre News stated:
“With one exception all the base ball writers of Philadelphia agree that Cooley, who was displaced by Goeckel, should be retained at least until the local club secures another equally capable field captain. Good field captains are scarce, and Cooley has demonstrated by the way he has handled the Phillies, who under him were the most harmonious team in the League, that he has few superiors.”19
From the bench, captain Cooley continued to encourage his teammates as they finished the year in third place.20
As the 1900 season opened, Cooley found himself to be an early casualty of the problems created for players by owners’ use of the reserve clause. Reach and Rogers did not want Cooley, but they were not going to release him and allow him to become a free agent. Cooley was tendered a contract for $1,200 – much less than his prior year’s base salary of $2,100. Cooley refused to sign, and ownership refused to release him or trade or sell his contract to another team. The stalemate continued into the first weeks of the season as Philadelphia Inquirer sports editor Frank L. Hough went to bat for Cooley. In a series of editorials, Hough decried management’s high-handed actions as “Un-American,”21 howled that Cooley was being treated as “human chattel,”22 “bound to the stake,”23 and being denied the right to work at his chosen craft.24
Hough’s daily editorials turned public sentiment in Cooley’s favor and against Reach and Rogers. Finally, on April 30, the Phillies sold his contract to Pittsburgh for $1,000. Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss offered Cooley a contract for $2,400, which he signed.25 In June, Cooley was named captain of the Pirates, but his tenure with the club was short-lived. In July, Dreyfuss abruptly ended Cooley’s captaincy. In August, with Cooley hitting only .201, Dreyfuss released him.26
Something was clearly wrong with Cooley and his baseball career was in jeopardy. His last two teams had chosen to remove him from the lineup and sit him down, and at age 27, there was a real question as to his future in major-league baseball. Cooley’s character had become an issue. He enjoyed drinking and staying out late at night – too much. His last contract with the Phillies even included a $300 good conduct bonus in an attempt to rein in his extracurricular activities. At one point, Phillies manager Bill Shettsline wanted to turn the club’s reins over to Cooley. When Shettsline was unable to accompany the team on a western road trip, he placed Cooley in charge of the team, saying, “Make a good record with the boys, Dick, and the chances are you’ll be their manager next year. I’m not stuck on the job and if you do all right, I’ll help you get the position.”27 Though there were no public reports of Cooley’s actions on the road trip, he had worn out his welcome in Philadelphia with both the fans and the team owners.
When Cooley was signed by the Pirates, it was written that he “was not in good condition last season for no other reason than that his habits were irregular. Last winter he went to Hot Springs and was much improved by his two months stay there. Cooley has always been a good striker and run-getter, but he was not a wonder at first for Philadelphia. Cooley’s value to Pittsburg will depend entirely on his habits. When he behaves himself he is a star, and there is evidence in the trip to Hot Springs that he has turned over a new leaf.”28
A story leaked out providing background as to why Barney Dreyfuss had fired Cooley as captain and released him shortly thereafter. The story was that one July night in Chicago, as midnight neared, Dreyfuss was asked “Where’s Dick Cooley?” The owner answered, “He’s in the restaurant at the Auditorium annex with two ladies and a batting average of .228!”29 Cooley’s late-night antics proved to be too much for Dreyfuss.
After his release from Pittsburgh, Cooley went home to Topeka, where he spent the offseason working as a bartender at the elegant Senate bar. Cooley vowed publicly that he would be back and play for a few more years. He was working at the saloon on February 5, 1901, when Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding prohibitionist, and her brigade of anti-alcohol ladies entered and smashed the Capital City’s “handsomest” saloon.30 Cooley reported “he had a hard time dodging broken mirrors and bottles.”31
With his major-league career on the rocks and his character an issue, Cooley accepted a contract to captain, manage, and play for the Syracuse club in the Eastern League in 1901. His good play earned him a midseason promotion to the Boston Beaneaters; on July 22, Cooley found himself again a major-leaguer. The St. Louis Globe-Democrat wrote, “Cooley’s return to the big league will be heralded with joy all over the big league circuit, as he has long been a prime favorite with patrons of baseball. ‘Dick,’ when in good shape and playing his best, is a first-class player and good enough for anybody’s team.”32
Cooley finished the year “playing magnificently in left field”33 for Boston while hitting well enough (.258 in 63 games) to merit a contract for the next year. His hometown newspaper noted, “This indicates that Cooley and John Barleycorn have not made up as has been reported.”34
It was in Boston that Cooley’s nickname of “Sir Richard” first appeared in print. Where the name came from is not clear. According to his entry in the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports, it was bestowed on him as a result of his aristocratic manner. Cooley might have given it to himself as he signed a telegram to his Boston manager, Al Buckenberger, as “Sir Richard Cooley.”35 The Boston newspapers soon picked up the moniker. On June 20, 1904, when Cooley became the first person in the history of the franchise to hit for the cycle,36 the Globe wrote, “The star performance of the day was contributed by Sir Richard Cooley of Topeka, Kan., and a finer display of stickwork has seldom been witnessed in Boston….The first time up a double; the second time up a triple; then, while getting himself together, he chopped off a single, and closed with a home run drive over the fence down Pie alley.”37
In Boston, Cooley found a new way to spend his offseason. He took the stage as the star in a vaudeville act, teaming with Harry Mayo and George “Nick” Parker as “The Dick Cooley Trio.” Cooley played ragtime piano and sang and performed a one-act comedietta written by his good friend, George M. Cohan, entitled “A Ninth Inning Finish at the Polo Grounds.”38 The climax of the performance had Cooley robbing “Turkey Mike” Donlin of a grand slam home run. The reviews were positive. For example, the Globe wrote:
“Dick Cooley, the clever outfielder of the Boston Nationals, had a host of friends on hand to see his first Boston stage attempt. He proved that he is as fine a variety actor as he is a ballplayer, and with the two clever people with him, made a hit in a bright musical comedietta.”39
Cooley toured the Northeast vaudeville circuit and ventured as far west as Cincinnati to further positive reviews.40
Cooley had enjoyed three solid years from 1902 through 1904 as the Beaneaters’ primary left fielder. Yet when the 1905 baseball season rolled around, despite his popularity, he found the front office unwilling to meet his contract demands. Boston released him on April 18 and he was picked up by the Detroit Tigers.41 Cooley took over center field, but found, at age 32, that he had lost a step or two in the field. His hitting fell off to .247 with only seven stolen bases, although his nine triples were tied for second on the team. Late in the season, Cooley injured his leg chasing down a fly ball when he tangled with the outfield fence. His last game with the Tigers was on August 26. Detroit installed 18-year-old Ty Cobb in center field and released “Sir Richard” on September 5. The final numbers for Cooley’s major-league career with five teams over 13 years: 1,579 hits (including 26 homers) and a .294 batting average, with 224 stolen bases.
Cooley wasn’t out of baseball long. He signed on for a postseason barnstorming tour with the Kansas City Blues. Also, within a month of his release from Detroit, he and Herman Crow purchased Topeka’s franchise in the Class C Western Association.42
In 1906 and 1908, Cooley managed and played for his Topeka White Sox, which the local newspapers referred to as the “Cooleycrowsox,” and led them to the league championship.43 In between, in 1907, he managed and played for the Louisville Colonels in the American Association. Louisville finished at .500, good for fifth in the eight-team league.44
In 1909, Cooley bought out his partner and, as sole owner, moved his Topeka team to the Class A Western League, where they met tougher competition and finished fourth out of eight teams.45 The next year, the “Cooleysox” finished last and Cooley spent the second half of the year disposing of players. Cooley subsequently sold the team, but he stayed in baseball by moving west and taking over the Salt Lake City Skyscrapers of the Union Association.46 He owned the team for two years, 1911 and 1912, selling it early in 1913 and acquiring the San Diego team in a newly created Class D Southern California league.47 The league didn’t last the season – it fell apart amid charges of financial irregularities.
Cooley returned to Topeka the following year and took over Dale Gear’s team, which was mired in last place in the Western League.48 The club improved modestly under Cooley’s leadership, but still finished seventh out of eight teams. On the last day of the season, Cooley inserted himself as a pinch-hitter against the Denver team and cracked a double. It was his last hit as a professional ballplayer.49
Cooley’s last two minor-league ventures ended poorly. In 1920, as manager and president of the Okmulgee (Oklahoma) team in the newly created Western Association, his team failed to play out the season and disbanded. At the end of the season, Okmulgee was expelled from the league, and Cooley was fined by the other owners in the league for failing to play out the schedule.50 In 1922, he managed the Topeka team in the Southwestern League. After the season, Cooley was fined by the league and banned from baseball by the National Board for financial mismanagement of the franchise.51
Duff Cooley was married in 1905 to Addie Louise Wilkinson, a schoolteacher who had some experience as an actress. For a few years, she and her husband took to the vaudeville stage as “The Cooleys – Dick and Dot.”52 Addie died in 1923.53 They had no children.
In his later years, Duff Cooley relocated to Dallas, Texas. He worked there as a salesman prior to his death at age 64 from chronic alcoholism, hypertension, and heat stroke on August 9, 1937. He was buried in Grove Hill Memorial Park Cemetery in Dallas. In 2015, Duff Gordon Cooley was inducted into the Shawnee County (Topeka) Baseball Hall of Fame.
Doug Wright, the author of this biography, died suddenly on July 27, 2023, shortly after submitting his draft for review. SABR honors his memory with this posthumous publication.
The story was reviewed by Darren Gibson and Rory Costello and checked for accuracy by SABR’s fact-checking team.
Eberle, Mark E., Kansas Baseball: 1858-1941 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017).
Leerhsen, Charles, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
Lieb, Frederick G. and Stan Baumgartner, The Philadelphia Phillies, rev. ed. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2009), originally published 1948.
Porter, David L., ed., Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: A-F (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000).
Richter, Francis C., Richter’s History and Records of Baseball (Philadelphia, PA: Francis C. Richter, 1914).
Ritter, Lawrence S., The Glory of Their Times (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2010), originally published 1966.
Transactions of the Kansas Historical Society, 1907-1908 (Topeka, KS: Kansas State Historical Society, 1907-1908).
Newspapers and Magazines
The Sporting News
National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, player file for Duff Gordon Cooley.
Sporting Life, June 20, 1904.
1 Leavenworth (Kansas) Times, February 16, 1911: 8.
2 “Biographies of Members of the Legislature of 1868.” Found in: Transactions of the Kansas Historical Society, 1907-1908, (Topeka, Kansas: Kansas State Historical Society), 1907-1908.
3 Her name is spelled many different ways in census and ancestral records and other public documents. This story uses the spelling of her name as used by the Probate Court of Leavenworth, County, Kansas in the issuance of Letters of Administration to her related to the probate of her husband’s estate on March 1, 1876.
4 “Played on Vacant Lots in Topeka,” Topeka (Kansas) Daily Capital, April 2, 1906: 5.
5 Baseball-reference.com gives Cooley’s debut as that date, and Sporting Life’s box score (August 5, 1893: 4) shows the hit without a mention of extra bases for “Cooney” (as his name was misspelled).
7 “Barnie’s Men Defeated,” St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 28, 1894: 6.
8 “Too Many Sick People,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 27, 1895: 5.
9 The Sporting News, November 9, 1895: 1.
10 “Baseball Gossip,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 6, 1896: 2.
11 Harrisburg (Pennsylvania.) Daily Independent, July 7, 1896: 5.
12 “Fooled,” Cincinnati Enquirer, June 29, 1896: 2.
13 “Captain Dick Cooley,” Topeka Daily Capital, July 13, 1897: 2.
14 “Played on Vacant Lots in Topeka,” Topeka Daily Capital, April 2, 1906: 5.
15 Frederick G. Lieb and Stan Baumgartner, The Philadelphia Phillies, revised edition, Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press (2009): 53.
16 Lieb and Baumgartner, The Philadelphia Phillies: 53.
17 “Between the Innings,” Philadelphia Times, June 4, 1899: 10.
18 “Goeckel’s National League Debut,” The Sunday Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), August 13, 1899: 3.
19 “Baseball Notes,” The Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) News, August 15, 1899: 1.
20 “Seems a Fair Man,” The Wilkes-Barre (Pennsylvania) Record, September 5, 1899: 3.
21 Frank L. Hough, ”Dick Cooley Held Up By Local Club Owners,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 25, 1900: 6.
22 Frank L. Hough, ”Dick Cooley Still A Human Chattel,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 1900: 4.
23 Frank L. Hough, ”Richard Cooley Still Bound to the Stake” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 29, 1900: 13.
24 Frank L. Hough, ”Cooley Still Denied the Right to Labor,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 27, 1900: 6.
25 “New Player for Pittsburgh,” Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 1, 1900: 6.
26 “Pittsburg Releases Dick Cooley,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 24, 1900: 6.
27 “Cooley’s Case,” Parsons (Kansas) Daily News, October 27, 1900: 2.
28 “Cooley for Pittsburg,” St. Louis Republic, May 1, 1900: 6.
29 “Stories of Manager Barney Dreyfuss,” Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), July 28, 1900: 7.
30 “Smashes Up the Senate,” Topeka Daily Capital, February 5, 1901: 1.
31 “Baseball Briefs,” Meriden (Connecticut) Daily Journal, February 7, 1901: 4.
32 St. Louis Globe-Democrat, July 20, 1901: 7.
33 Topeka Daily Capital, August 27, 1901: 2.
34 Topeka Daily Capital, September 21, 1901: 5.
35 Boston Globe, March 17, 1903: 5.
36 “This Week in Braves History,” Macon (Georgia) Telegraph, June 20, 1993: 13.
37 “New York and Cincinnati Win—Pirates Lose,” Boston Globe, June 21, 1904: 5.
38 “’Dick’ Cooley an Actor,” Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Telegraph, September 20, 1904: 7.
39 Boston Globe, December 27, 1904: 9.
40 Cincinnati Post, January 3, 1905: 6.
41 “Dick Cooley Will Join Tigers When They Report in Detroit,” Detroit Free Press, April 18, 1905: 10.
42 “Cooley to Buy Team This Week,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 26, 1905: 2.
43 “Topeka the Pennant Winners,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 23, 1906: 8.
44 “Cooley to Manage Louisville,” Lexington (Kentucky) Leader, April 6, 1907: 1.
45 “Cooley is Now Sole Owner of the White Sox,” Topeka Daily Capital, January 11, 1908: 8.
46 “Cooley Will Stay at Salt Lake,” The Missoulian (Missoula, Montana), March 22, 1911: 7.
47 “Class D League on the Way and the Local Fans Will Enjoy Daily Baseball,” San Bernardino County (California) Sun, March 2, 1913: 7.
48 “Cooley is Chosen,” Topeka State Journal, June 13, 1914: 1.
49 “Capper Cup Won by Bill Rapps,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 28, 1914: 2.
50 “Dick Cooley’s Team Out,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 23, 1920: 8.
51 “Topeka Will Keep Berth in Southwestern League,” Topeka Daily Capital, September 29, 1922: 12.
52 “Vaudeville Stage to See Cooley Again,” Topeka Daily Capital, January 30, 1910: 14.
53 “Deaths in Greater Kansas City,” Kansas City Times, June 21, 1923: 9.