This article was written by Joseph Lawler
This article was published in the 1984 Baseball Research Journal
The Twenties were still “Roaring,” Lindbergh was in Paris, Coolidge in Washington and Prohibition was the law of the land as Americans celebrated Decoration Day in 1927. It was the “Golden Age of Sport” and newspapers heralded the exploits of Grange, Dempsey, Tilden and Jones. In baseball the New York Yankees were hammering their way to another flag led by Babe Ruth, who already had 13 home runs to his credit.
Record crowds turned out in both major leagues for traditional holiday doubleheaders. In the National, the pennant-bound Pirates, riding an 11-game winning streak, hosted the second-place Chicago Cubs in a morning-afternoon pair which attracted a record 60,000 spectators to Forbes Field. In the opening contest the fans were treated to a bit of baseball history from an unexpected source. While both lineups were studded with future Hall of Famers, it was the Cubs’ Jimmy Cooney, a journeyman shortstop, who captured the day’s headlines by turning an unassisted triple play.
As he approached his ninetieth birthday, the former infielder recalled the events which earned him a permanent place in baseball’s book of records. The Pirates were leading, 5-4, in the fourth inning and had runners on first and second with no one out. “Our pitcher, Tony Kaufmann, was trying to pitch outside to Paul Waner, a pull hitter,” Cooney explained. “I was holding Lloyd Waner on second. He was very fast. Kaufmann got one a little too far in and Waner whacked it over his (Kaufmann’s) head. I took a run over and stabbed it one-handed and stepped on second. The guy on first (Clyde Barnhart) thought it was a hit over the pitcher’s head and came sliding into me.”
Jimmy’s quick action shut off the Pirates’ rally and paved the way for an eventual ten-inning, 7-6 Chicago victory.
“Joe McCarthy was our manager,” Jimmy added. “He came running out on the field to shake my hand.”
The play was the sixth of its kind performed in the major leagues up to that point. Incredibly, the seventh occurred the next day in Detroit, where the Tigers’ first baseman, Johnny Neun, duplicated the feat against the Indians. Forty-one years would pass before another unassisted triple play would be seen in the majors.
Although Cooney spent just seven years in the big leagues, most of them partial seasons, he was involved in a number of unusual plays. While playing for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1925, he was the second victim in an unassisted triple play by shortstop Glenn Wright of the Pirates. Jimmy thus holds the distinction of being the only man in major league history to be involved in two of these fielding gems.
A year earlier, in a game against the Phillies, the Cards were down by four runs when the Phils placed their first two batters on base to open the second inning. Bill Sherdel, known as “Wee Willie,” was summoned from the bullpen.
With the Cardinal infield drawn in anticipating a bunt, pinch-hitter Johnny Mokan popped Sherdel’s first offering to the right side. Jim Bottomley, the first baseman, grabbed the ball out of the air and whipped it down to second to Cooney, who relayed it back to Rogers Hornsby covering first to complete a triple killing.
“One ball pitched and three outs,” Jimmy remarked. “I don’t think that’s happened very often.” As for Sherdel, “he was as cocky as a little bantam rooster after that,” according to Jimmy.
To spend an afternoon with Jimmy Cooney is to drift back in time with the most experienced of guides. Scrapbooks bulging with photos and clippings serve as catalysts for a string of delightful reminiscences by the old shortstop, who turns a tale as skillfully as he once turned double plays.
A lifelong resident of Rhode Island, Jimmy was born on August 24, 1894 in Cranston, a manufacturing city next door to Providence. Around those parts the name Cooney long has been synonymous with baseball. His father, Jimmy Cooney, Sr., played professional ball for 13 years, including three seasons in the National League with Chicago and Washington during the 1890s. As the regular shortstop for Cap Anson’s club in 1890-91 the elder Cooney was the top fielder at his position for two consecutive seasons.
Jimmy’s younger brother, Johnny, pitched and later played the outfield for the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers for 20 years between 1921 and 1944. In keeping with family tradition, Johnny led National League flychasers in fielding in 1936 and 1941. In the latter year, at age 40, Johnny Cooney was runner up to Pete Reiser in the league batting race.
Two other brothers, Harry and Frank, were outstanding semi-pro players. Harry also put in four years with Portland and Worcester of the New England League. At one time an entire team of Cooneys, the four brothers along with several uncles and cousins, performed as a unit against local amateur teams.
An interesting footnote to Jimmy’s career is that both he and his father played shortstop for the major league Cubs and minor league Providence Grays a generation apart.
Jimmy, Sr., passed away at the age of 37, but his influence was felt by his four sons. “My father was the reason we all liked baseball. My brothers and I practiced in the street in front of our house. We broke a few windows, too,” Jimmy recalled with a laugh.
Jimmy’s baseball odyssey began as an 18-year-old in the summer of 1913 when he left the semi-pro ranks to sign with Worcester. His professional debut saw him hit an even .300 in 73 games. This performance was rewarded by his sale to the Boston Red Sox for 1914. The Cranston teenager made the jump from sandlot to the majors in less than five months.
However, a long apprenticeship in the minors, interrupted by military duty during World War I, was to be served before he gained a foothold in the Big Time.
After brief looks by the Red Sox in 1917 and the New York Giants two years later, Jimmy was picked up by the Cardinals in 1924 on the recommendation of their manager, Branch Rickey.
Coming off four outstanding seasons with Milwaukee (American Association), the well-seasoned Cooney responded by hitting .295 in 110 games and led N.L. shortstops in fielding with a mark of .969, then a record.
Although be performed capably for the Cards, he was benched in favor of Tommy Thevenow in 1925. The next year he went to the Cubs, where he teamed with second baseman Sparky Adams to lead the league in double plays. Once again he was the league’s top fielding shortstop and tied Travis Jackson for fewest errors, committing just 24 in 141 games.
Nevertheless, Jimmy faced competition for his job in 1927, this time from Chicago’s high-priced rookie Woody English. Less than a month after his unaided triple play in Pittsburgh, Jimmy was traded to the Phillies. The move from a contender to the cellar did not please the veteran, but he went about his work in typical fashion, capturing his third fielding crown in four years.
An off-season deal sent him back to Boston, where he joined kid brother Johnny with the Braves. The family reunion was shortlived, however. After 18 games Jimmy’s big league days ended with his sale to Buffalo in June, 1928.
At Buffalo Jimmy wore the hats of player, team captain and finally manager. A season of barnstorming along the western seaboard with a group of players knocked out of work by the depression put the cap on Jimmy’s two decades in professional baseball.
Returning to Rhode Island that fall with his wife and two sons, Jimmy went to work for a printing concern. He kept his hand in the game by managing the company team in industrial league play. He also put in 30 years as a reserve patrolman with the Cranston police force.
Having been close to baseball as both participant and spectator for more than 70 years, Jimmy offered some thoughts on the game. “I think it was tougher back then,” he said. “There were more fights. The pitchers would throw at you all the time. Of course, we had no helmets. You got used to it.” He spoke of one well-known hurler who “. . . threw the first ball at your head every time he pitched. It didn’t matter who you were, Hornsby or Cooney.”
One of his greatest thrills came during his short stay in the American League when he faced the immortal Walter Johnson. He recalled the advice offered by his colleagues that day. “Some of the older fellows on the bench told me to start swinging on my way up to the plate,” he related.
“That’s how fast he (Johnson) was! But I was lucky. I got a single off him and a double later.”
Because he played during baseball’s financial “Dark Ages,” his top major league salary was $5,500. “The player who got seven or eight thousand was a rich man. If you got $5,000, you were doing all right,” he said.
Jimmy was managing Buffalo when night baseball made its International League debut in the early 1930s. His best pitcher under the lights was Dave Danforth, a former big leaguer who practiced dentistry during the off-season. Jimmy revealed that Danforth’s strong hands enabled him to raise the seams on a new ball, thereby adding a devastating hop to his fastball. He baffled hitters at twilight, but according to his manager, “He couldn’t get anybody out in the daytime!”
Cooney spent the winter of 1924-1925 in Cuba playing for Marianao. Among his teammates on the island were fellow Americans Jess Petty, Freddie Fitzsimmons and Charlie Dressen and legendary black slugger Christobal Torrienti. Jimmy’s exciting brand of play earned him the nickname “Torpedo.” “I hit .390 down there,” he said. “Maybe I should have stayed there!”
Jimmy played for, with and against some of the greatest players in history. The stories generated by these characters would fill volumes: Hornsby reading a racing form during Rickey’s pre-game meetings; spring training with the Cubs on Catalina Island, where Charley Grimm entertained with his banjo; Joe McCarthy demonstrating the evils of drink to Hack Wilson with a worm and a glass of whiskey; Jimmy’s antics one day in Brooklyn when he continued around the bases after being forced at second, causing an uproar as the harried Dodgers chased him into the visitors’ dugout in an attempt to retire him again; keeping his thirsty Buffalo players in tow during trips to Montreal in Prohibition days.
Jimmy’s stay in the majors was short despite some impressive seasons in the minors. He set an American Association record for assists one season and tied another record with 22 consecutive errorless games. In 1923 he made 12 straight hits in one streak while leading the league with 60 steals.
A number of teams, among others the Dodgers, A’s and Reds, expressed interest in the fielding wizard, but the Milwaukee management demanded $40,000 for his services, a considerable sum for the time. The steep price attests to Jimmy’s worth but probably impeded his return to the majors. He was nearly 30 when he finally secured a regular job with St. Louis. From then on the calendar worked against him.
There is no hint of regret, however, for all the time and effort expended in pursuit of his vocation. “It was a lot easier than working in a mill, playing baseball out in the sunshine,” he said.
Jimmy’s life in and out of baseball has been full and rich. In recent years he has kept busy tending his home on Pettaquamscutt Lake in Saunderstown, R.I. Frequent visits and calls from children, grandchildren and great grand-children keep him smiling. The daily mail usually brings letters from fans around the country. While he no longer attends games in person, Jimmy follows the Red Sox and Boston Celtics closely on television.
He is remembered as one of eight men to make an unassisted triple play, but it should also be known that Jimmy Cooney was a versatile, dependable player highly respected by his peers for the grace with which he consistently made the difficult seem routine.
He made his mark with his glove, setting a season record that was the major league standard for a number of years. He still shares the National League record for double plays started by a shortstop in one game – four, accomplished in 1926. For one whose hitting was always suspect, he compiled a respectable .262 average for his 448 big league games.
The world has been turned upside-down since a teenager from Cranston, R.I., rode a trolley to his first professional baseball job, but the flavor of those distant times has remained alive and well within the memory of James Edward Cooney.