This article was written by Eric Aron
Once described by Baseball Digest as the “Rodney Dangerfield of baseball,” Cecil Cooper was a great player who didn’t get the respect he deserved.1 An introverted Texan, Cecil Cooper remained in the shadows for much of his 17-year playing career. The left-handed first baseman spent his major-league years with Boston and Milwaukee from 1971 to 1987, appearing in two World Series. “Coooop!” – as his fans would cheer when he stepped up to the plate – was a lifetime .298 hitter, two-time Gold Glove Winner, and five-time All-Star.
Cecil Cooper was born on December 20, 1949, in Brenham, Texas, a city of 13,000 located 70 miles northwest of Houston. Raised in nearby Independence, Cooper was the youngest of 13 children – seven boys and six girls. Cooper’s mother, Ocie, died when he was just 10. His ball-playing father, Roy, worked with a nearby Department of Public Works. A left-hander who grew to 6-feet-2, Cecil was taught baseball by his brothers John, Sylvester, and Jessie. John and Sylvester later played with the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns.2 John was a pitcher while Sylvester was a catcher who, according to Cecil, once caught Satchel Paige. According to the 1980 Sports Illustrated story, Cecil’s father, Roy, also played in the Negro Leagues.
Cooper followed his brothers, playing ball for three years at the all-black Pickard High School, and transferring his senior year to the integrated Brenham High School. At Pickard High, he won two state championships under coach Henry Rogers. Intending to go to college after his graduation, Cecil was spotted by Boston Red Sox scout Dave Philley and was drafted by Boston in the sixth round of the 1968 amateur draft. He opted to take courses at Blinn Junior College and Prairie View A&M during the offseason. St. Louis took Cooper in the Rule 5 draft in November 1970, but returned Cooper to the Red Sox on April 5, 1971. He spent five seasons in the minor leagues (in Jamestown, Greenville, Danville, Winston-Salem, Louisville, and Pawtucket), hitting a combined .327 with 45 home runs and 298 RBIs.
Called up from Double-A Pawtucket after batting .343, Cooper made his major-league debut with the Red Sox on September 8, 1971, pinch-hitting for Roger Moret and grounding to second against Yankees pitcher Jack Aker. He got his first hit three days later, a pinch single off the Tigers’ Joe Coleman. He hit .310 in 42 at-bats that month.
It was thought that Cooper had a shot at the starting job in 1972, but just before the start of the season, the Red Sox acquired Danny Cater from the Yankees and sent Cooper to Triple-A Louisville. Another fine campaign in the minors produced a .315 average, thanks to a league-leading 162 hits, Cooper returned to Boston in September, but got just 17 at-bats during the tight pennant race that saw the Red Sox fall a half-game short.
Despite Cater’s shortcomings, Cooper again failed to stick with the Red Sox in 1973, as the team elected to move Carl Yastrzemski back to first base. Cecil was sent to Pawtucket, now the Triple-A affiliate, where he hit .293 with 15 home runs. This time he was recalled before the rosters expanded, first playing on August 24 and playing nearly full-time the rest of the season. In 30 games and 101 at-bats, Cooper hit .238 with his first three major-league home runs. His first round-tripper was struck on September 7 at Fenway Park off the Tigers’ Bob Miller.
In 1974 Cooper was the team’s Opening Day first baseman, hitting third in the lineup. New manager Darrell Johnson used a lot of lineups, trying to divide playing time at first base, left field, and designated hitter among Cooper, Yastrzemski, Cater, Tommy Harper, and Bernie Carbo. Cooper ended up playing 74 games at first and 41 more as the designated hitter, getting most of the starts when facing right-handed pitchers. He hit .275 in 414 at-bats.
Cooper did not have a good defensive reputation early in his career, which is why he spent a lot of time as a designated hitter. For 1975, the Red Sox had two rookie outfielders (Jim Rice and Fred Lynn), plus the comebacking Tony Conigliaro, who initially won the DH job. Cooper would have to beat out a lot of people in order to get a chance to play. At the end of May, he was the odd man out, getting just six hits in 24 at-bats. He persevered, and by late June he was platooning against right-handed pitchers. He ended up hitting .311 with 14 home runs in 305 at-bats.
One of the team’s hottest hitters in August and September, Cecil had a scary moment on September 7. In the second game of a doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers, he was hit in the face by future teammate Bill Travers. Cooper was carried off on a stretcher and was bleeding from his nose and mouth. The incident hampered his performance the rest of the season. With Jim Rice’s wrist injury requiring Carl Yastrzemski to play left field, Cooper had first base to himself for most of the postseason. He was 4-for-10 in the ALCS against Oakland but just 1-for-19 in the World Series against Cincinnati.
Playing in 123 games in 1976 while again splitting time between first base and designated hitter, Cooper hit .282 with 15 homers and 78 RBIs. After the season manager Don Zimmer told Cooper that he would become Boston’s regular first baseman. This was not to be the case, as on December 6, 1976, Cooper was traded to the Milwaukee Brewers for two former Red Sox, first baseman George Scott and outfielder Bernie Carbo.
The trade was not particularly popular in either Boston or Milwaukee. Brewers owner Bud Selig was told by other AL East clubs that if you “keep making trades like that you will be in last place forever.”3 In 1976 the Brewers finished last in the American League East with a record of 66-95. The extremely popular Scott had first played in a Red Sox uniform from 1966 to 1971 and had posted several good seasons for the Brewers. But neither Scott nor Carbo ever again had the kind of success they had achieved in earlier seasons. And Cecil Cooper would become a legend in Milwaukee.
Cooper was a clutch contact hitter who could hit for both average and power. He kept putting up such solidly consistent numbers year after year that it was easy to overlook his achievements. In his first year in Milwaukee, he hit .300; in his second year he hit .312; and in 1979 Cooper hit .308. He had a league-leading 44 doubles in 1979. Former Milwaukee player-coach Sal Bando once said of him, “Cecil Cooper can beat you with a home run or a flare to left or a bunt. And he can field his position. You have guys who can hit home runs and guys who can hit singles. But not many can do both. Cecil can.”4
Playing for a small-market team in the Midwest allowed Cooper to thrive, and in 1980 he did just that. He hit better than .300 in every month of the season finishing with a.352 average, 25 home runs, 219 hits, and an American League-leading 122 RBIs. His season was largely overlooked because Kansas Royals third baseman George Brett flirted with a .400 batting average, settling for .390. The unassuming Cooper said, “With Brett hitting close to .400 all year, I didn’t expect to get much publicity, and I didn’t have any trouble living with that.”5
Cooper was part of a record game in 1980. On April 12, in an 18-1 Brewers rout of the Red Sox, he and infielder/DH Don Money connected for two grand slams in the same inning. It was only the fourth time the feat had been accomplished in the major leagues. (There have been two since, most recently in 1999, when Fernando Tatis of the St. Cardinals hit two grand slams in one inning.) In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Brewers franchise was moving up in the standings, finishing with 93 wins in 1978 and 95 wins in 1979. In 1981, in a strike-shortened split season, the New York Yankees won the first half in the AL East while the Brewers finished first in the second half. This set the stage for a best-of-five divisional playoff between the two clubs, which the Yankees won in five games. Cooper hit .320 with 12 home runs in the abbreviated campaign.
In 1982 first baseman Cooper was at the heart of the one of the era’s great lineups, batting third behind Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, and in front of Ted Simmons, Gorman Thomas, and Charlie Moore. Cooper hit .313 with 32 home runs and 121 runs batted in. On October 3, 1982, in a game deciding the American League East championship, the Brewers defeated the Baltimore Orioles 10-2, closing out the season with a mark of 95-67. They eliminated the California Angels in five games in the American League Championship Series, becoming the first team to come back from a two-games-to-none deficit and win a best-of-five postseason series. In the decisive Game Five, Jim Gantner and Charlie Moore scored on Cooper’s seventh-inning bases-loaded single. In a gesture reminiscent of former teammate Carlton Fisk, who waved his arms to keep the ball fair in Game Six of the ’75 Series, Cooper motioned for the ball to get down. “I remember thinking, ‘Get down ball, get down.’ The crowd was so loud I couldn’t really hear myself saying anything, but I just wanted to keep waving so that ball would fall in there.”6 Overall he hit just 3-for-20 in the League Championship Series.
The 1982 World Series was called the Suds Series because it pitted the two of America’s largest beer-brewing cities against each other. The National League champion St. Louis Cardinals featured first baseman Keith Hernandez and future Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. Cooper homered in a losing effort in Game Three, and his 8-for-28 record was not enough, as his team lost in seven games.
Cooper’s teammate Robin Yount won the American League MVP award, and just as in 1980 when he lost to George Brett, Cooper finished fifth in the voting. Yount hit .331 with 29 home runs and 114 RBIs. “Maybe I’m the Lou Gehrig of my time … always in the shadows of someone else,” Cooper said. “He’s a pretty good role model, though.”7
While in Milwaukee, Cooper wrote a column for the Brewers’ magazine, What’s Brewing? He wrote about everything from his baseball experiences to how youngsters could get autographs from their favorite players. In 1983 Cooper won baseball’s coveted Roberto Clemente Award for his community service. Cooper worked with Athletes for Youth, a Milwaukee inner-city program, teaching children about baseball, and was honorary chairman of both the Kidney Foundation of Wisconsin and the 1982 Food for Families Project. Bud Selig said of Cooper, “I think Cecil does a lot more than any of us know. Cecil is shy. What he does, he prefers to do in anonymity.”8
Cooper played for the Brewers until 1987, and as he passed through the mid-30s his batting average and power numbers fell off, although he did make the AL All-Star squads in 1983 and 1985. Named as a reserve for both games, he did make appearances as a pinch-hitter in both Midsummer Classics. He retired from major-league baseball in 1987 but did play a month in the Senior Professional Baseball Association in 1989. Appearing in 16 games with the Winter Haven Super Sox, Cooper hit .407 with three home runs and 15 RBIs. During this time he also served as a player agent for CSMG International.
In 1996 he became farm director for the Brewers. In 2002 Cooper returned to the dugout as the Brewers bench coach. In 2005 and 2004 Cooper managed the Brewers’ Triple-A affiliate Indianapolis Indians. In 2005, he took advantage of an opportunity to return to his native Texas and served as the bench coach for Houston Astros manager Phil Garner.
On August 27, 2007, Cooper was named interim manager after Garner was fired, becoming the team’s first African-American skipper. On September 28 the interim tag was removed and Cooper was signed to a two-year contract as the Astros’ manager. In 2008 the Astros (86-75) finished in third place in the National League Central Division.
On September 21, 2009, though they had picked up Cooper’s option for 2010, the Astros fired him with 13 games left in the season and the club at 70-79. Fairly or unfairly, he was dismissed from a team had a high payroll and aging stars who weren’t performing to expectations. Overall, Cooper’s record as a manager was 171-170.
Through 2014, Cooper held the Brewers’ season record for hits (219 in 1980) and singles (157, also 1980), and was second in RBIs (126 in 1983). He was ranked fourth in Brewers career batting average (.302), third in hits (1,815) and doubles (345), and fourth in at-bats (6019) and games played (1490). He was second in RBIs with 994. His single-season average of .352 in 1980 was the team’s second best, just behind Paul Molitor’s .353 in 1987.
In his hometown of Brenham, a field was dedicated in Cooper’s honor and his number was retired at Brenham High School. In 2002 he was inducted into the Walk of Fame at the Brewers’ Miller Park. That same year he was inducted into the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
In 2014 Cooper was among 58 former Brewers who were inducted into the Wall of Honor outside Miller Park.
As of 2014 Cooper lived in Katy, Texas with his wife, Octavia. There are three daughters: Kelly (born in 1978), Brittany (1987), and Tori (1993).
A version of this biography appeared in “’75: The Red Sox Team That Saved Baseball” (Rounder Books, 2005; SABR, 2015), edited by Bill Nowlin and Cecilia Tan.
Thanks to Tom Skibosh, Jim Long, Howard Bryant, Cecil Cooper (June 2005), and the late Merle Harmon for their contributions.
Chass, Murray, “What Cecil Cooper Can Do,” New York Times, June 27, 1982.
Cotton, Anthony, “No Condolences, please,” Sports Illustrated, September 22, 1980. Although there is no record by SABR’s Negro Leagues Committee, this SI issue and Cooper himself in a June 2005 interview said that his brothers played for the Indianapolis Clowns.
Elderkin, Phil, “Brewer Who Chased Brett: Milwaukee’s Cecil Cooper Hits Anything,” Christian Science Monitor, October 7, 1980.
Fimrite, Ron, “I’m the Lou Gehrig of My Time,” Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1983.
Flaherty, Tom, “Cooper Earns Clemente Prize,” The Sporting News, February 28. 1983.
Gammons, Peter, “Cooper groggy, but in one piece,” Boston Globe, September 8, 1975.
Guiliotti, Joe, “Cecil Cooper: He Would Rather be No. 1!” Baseball Digest, June 1981.
Hoffmann, Gregg, Down in the Valley: The History of Milwaukee County Stadium (Milwaukee: The Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, 2000).
Leerhsen, Charles, “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” Newsweek, August 2, 1982.
1 Baseball Digest, June 1981.
2 Sports Illustrated, September 22, 1980.
3 Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1983.
4 New York Times, June 27, 1982.
5 Christian Science Monitor, October 1980.
6 Gregg Hoffmann, Down in the Valley: The History of Milwaukee County Stadium, 97.
7 Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1983.
8 The Sporting News, February 28. 1983.