Lester Spurgeon Cook: Catcher, Trainer, PCL Legend

This article was written by James D. Smith III

This article was published in the The National Pastime (Volume 27, 2007)


When I first became interested in baseball as a little leaguer in 1960-61, my reading and TV ex­periences eventually led me to San Diego’s Westgate Park (opened two years earlier), home of the Pacific Coast League Padres. There I could see Gary Peters, Suitcase Simpson, and the locals in person. When a player got hurt, I watched a short, older man in baggy pants and glasses amble out onto the field, sometimes with his bag. Little did I know that he had played for over 20 years, been a trainer for 20 more, and was a walking archive of baseball knowledge and a Coast League icon. 

Lester Spurgeon Cook was born in York, Pennsylvania, on March 26, 1895, his father a German immigrant. By his mid-teens, Les was living in the Los Angeles area, where he played sandlot baseball and began working as a plumber’s apprentice. When opportunity knocked in 1913, he abandoned his dollar-a-day plumbing job to become a professional ballplayer.

While he had contacts with the Vernon (PCL) team, records show his pro debut was with Stockton of the old California League. As chronicled by John E. Spalding in his groundbreaking work, Always on Sunday, the league had organizational roots going back to 1886, but was in its last few years of operation. A lifelong catcher, Les appeared in fewer than 10 games for Stockton, as financial losses ended the circuit’s season in June. The following 1914 campaign, he played in 29 games as a reserve for San Jose. But in early 1915, the league folded after San Jose had played only six games, washed out by one of the wettest Northern California springs in history.

Cook’s professional career appeared over. The Coast League represented a much higher level of play, and his batting skills (.193 in 1914) were modest. However, as Spalding notes, Les played for 20 more seasons, and had the last appearance in Organized Baseball of any California League alum. To continue his career, the back­ stop moved to the Texas League.

Playing with San Antonio in 1916, “Cookie” caught in 97 games but batted a microscopic .138. Management liked his defensive skills, however, along with his attitude and ability to work with other players. The following season, in 88 games, he improved to .215 and (at 5′ 8″ and 150 pounds) was maturing physically. When play ended in Texas, he joined Vernon in the PCL for 11 late-season games. This wasn’t enough to secure further local employment, however (residence: 1156 E. Vernon Avenue, in LA), and he toiled in 1918 with St. Paul of the American Association, batting .164 in 20 games. The following year, he was invited back to Vernon, beginning his first full PCL season-and a Coast League involve­ment that would last for a half-century.

Moving from Vernon to Seattle to Sacramento in 1919, he had over 300 at-bats for the first time (batting .155). Cook also appeared on his first Zeenut baseball card. Most important, he made friends wherever he went. After Les’ passing in 1968, Lefty O’Doul remembered:

We’ve been pals for 51 years. I’ll never forget how we used to shoot rabbits from the train in the old days when we traveled from Salt Lake City to the West Coast. Cookie was good to the players, helpful to the managers and knew how to handle men. He was a grand person and had a sense of humor like no other trainer in the business.

Long before O’Doul had managed the PCL Padres to the 1954 championship, with Cook as his trainer, the wiry catcher’s “intangibles” gave him a value far beyond the box scores.

From 1920 to 1922, Cook remained with Sacramento and established a playing pattern: with the PCL schedule approaching 200 games, he annually gathered around 250 at-bats and batted about .2 I 0. In his 1923 season, shortened by injury, he managed a heady .333 mark in 27 plate appearances. But his impending transfer to Salt Lake City would bring much more significant developments.

The Salt Lake owner was Bill “Hardrock” Lane, a longtime miner turned club owner who loved both the game and business of baseball. Over the next 15 seasons, as Lane (who died in 1938) would move his franchise from Utah to Hollywood to San Diego, Cook remained a fixture in his organization. In 1924, at altitude, Les posted career highs: 131 games, 345 at-bats, 58 runs, 104 hits, 36 doubles, three home runs, and 57 RBIs while batting .301. The following season, the marks were more familiar: .244 in 105 games.

But once again his contribution went beyond the stats. PCL teammate, later Padres manager (and 1927 Yankee), Cedric Durst called him “one of the most loyal men I ever met in baseball. Les did so much for others.”

When Lane located the franchise in Hollywood, from the 1926-35 seasons, Cook, entering his 30s and closer to home, was realistic about his future. One of his nicknames, “Longball,” was laden with irony. His playing time was diminishing. For a decade he had been a student of the game, most especially of pitchers’ heads and arms. Other players were now soliciting his advice on conditioning or when facing injury. His activity as trainer, initially a sidelight, now was increasingly his vocation. Appearing in only six games in both 1931 and 1932, in 1933-35 he did not play, serving as trainer and, in a newer vein, traveling secretary. Then, in 1936, Bill Lane moved his team yet again, to find a new home in sleepy San Diego.

Witnessing this transition was veteran PCL infielder Eddie Leishman, who 25 years later served as the PCL Padres general manager and Cook’s boss:

I’ve never seen a person more devoted to baseball than Les. He was more than a trainer to the players, managers and club officials. He was an inspiration to all of us in baseball. While his job was to tend the sore arms and bruises of the players, he was also a friend and confidant to the rookie and veteran alike. He has been referred to as ‘Mr. San Diego Padre.’ Les was just that.”

One dimension of Cook’s role as friend involved serv­ing (with Vince DiMaggio, et al) as part of the ballplayer quartet that sang at infielder George Myatt’s home plate wedding in 1936. The shortstop’s best man was second baseman Bobby Doerr.

Doerr remains a unique witness to this era, as an original Padre and HOF member. In my January 2006 interview he recalled Cook’s mentorship.

I broke in with Hollywood in June of 1934, just a young kid, and roomed with Les for a while. He did the hotel paying, and I respected him while he held it all together. He had the cash, and carried a pistol, which he hid under his pillow. He was still a pretty good catcher, and we got along well despite the age difference. In ’36, with San Diego, he had a picture in the training room of the Rogue River (Oregon) area and said, “Why not come up with Blanche [married 1924, died 1978] and me and spend the winter?” As a youngster, fishing and hunting intrigued me, so I went. He’d been going there since 1918 or ’19. Once on site, he said there was a redheaded schoolteacher I might be interested in. I was kinda scared, but that’s how I met my wife, Monica. We were married in 1938, and made our home there. Les was an old pro. A spade was a spade. He was rugged and steady. And he was a good trainer — we never had a sore-armed pitcher.

A teenage teammate on those 1936 Padres was native San Diegan and HOFer Ted Williams, who also credited Cook’s positive influence.

Cookie was a pro. I thought so from the minute I joined the Padres. Les made a strong impression on me because I knew he came from the old school of baseball … he had played for a good Hollywood team which was crammed with outstanding players. I was young then … but I could see what a fine job he did with the older men, especially the pitchers. They were always going to him for rubdowns to make the old soup bones feel good.

After a  1937 championship year, Williams was off to Minneapolis, then Boston — but the friendship continued.

With his role as trainer and road secretary secure, “The Little Corporal” traveled the Coast League and, after each off-season in the outdoors, looked forward to the rigors of spring training — sharing his knowledge and love of baseball wherever he went. He enjoyed brief appearances in the lineup each season from 1936 to 1939, a total of 10 games, during which he tallied his last two hits in his final game on August 23, 1939. The best statistics available suggest a minor league career of 1,053 games, almost all of them as a catcher, with a .213 life­time average. While never a star, to those in the game he became a living legend.

There are stories galore. One involves Frank Kerr, an iron man catcher and WWII veteran, who later became a PCL umpire. In Bill Swank’s fine book, Echoes from lane Field, Kerr recalls one moment.

There was once this play at home. I blocked the plate and his spikes came right up my shin guard and cut me. … Les came out, looked at my knee, and said, ‘Oh my God!’ The kid who spiked me felt real bad. … Well, their manager called Les a quack, but he (Les) said I’d be playing in seven days. Les cleaned me out, put three clamps on it, put some black stuff on it and cleaned it every day. It was pretty bad. You could see the kneecap and it was three inches long, but Les was right. I was playing again in a week.

Another player in need of Cookie’s attention was former Negro Leagues star Luke Easter, a PCL power­house on his way to Cleveland. In 1949, he suffered a variety of ailments, most seriously in his knees. He had the right one drained weekly and with care continued in the lineup. Cook devised a new brace for the left one, which enabled him to play through midseason, when he underwent surgery. The previous season, native San Diegan John Ritchey had broken the color barrier in the Pacific Coast League by signing a contract with Padres owner Bill Starr. As he faced with dignity challenges both on and off the field, Johnny’s simple statement, “Les Cook was always good to me,” remains especially sig­nificant. Cook had earlier coached him at San Diego State, filling in for the regular faculty member during wartime, and the relationship of respect and affection was a blessing to each.

Over the years, as the PCL Padres had working agree­ments successively with the Indians, White Sox, Reds, and Phillies, generations of major league players sought out the grizzled trainer for help in spring training-and he did not disappoint. Longtime San Diego Union sports­ writer Johnny McDonald has commented on Cook’s special talents:

We can recall many visits by such major leaguers as Frank Robinson, Jim O’Toole, Vada Pinson and Jim Maloney at Cincinnati’s minor league complex a few years ago. They preferred his educated fingers on their sore muscles.

Al Hogan began by selling hot dogs at Lane Field in 1947, and eventually became concessions and advertis­ing manager for both minor and major league Padres teams through 1974. His was a unique, behind-the­ scenes perspective:

You’ll never know how much Les Cook did to run that club. He’d been with it since Salt Lake City so he knew how things were done under Bill Lane. He was just one helluva guy. He was also the road secretary. He’d get so pie-eyed [anecdotes suggest Early Times masked by Mennen], but let anybody touch that little bag with the money and he’d get sober right now. He was one of the finest men I ever met … He used to let kids into the ballpark and would say, “There’s lots of room.”

One of the kids he let into wooden Lane Field would later become a National League outfielder. Bob Skinner managed the PCL Padres in their final 1967 season at homey Westgate Park and begin their sole 1968 season at the 50,000-seat San Diego Stadium (aka Jack Murphy, then Qualcomm). In my November 2006 interview he looked back.

We’d knock and Les would come to the door. He’d say, “Wait a minute,” and when the coast was clear he’d let us into the bleachers. He had a big heart, that guy …When I was a PCL manager the last two seasons, he was past 70 and still trainer and traveling secretary. He had his office and training table in the clubhouse down the right- field line. He was well ahead of his time in his knowledge of mus­cles and massage anatomy. He was sought out. Les was a real gentleman. He took care of us all. Even at his age, there was still energy. How many hours did he put in that we never saw? He loved Eddie Leishman, the GM. Hey, he loved us all.

The San Diego Union and Evening Tribune (from which several reflections above are taken) faithfully detailed Les Cook’s July 1, 1968, death from a heart attack, while preparing for a PCL road trip to Indianapolis and Denver. As one elected to the San Diego Baseball Hall of Fame in 1966, his life was viewed with affection and respect.

With his Padres granted a National League expansion team for 1969, Les was anticipating a season in the major leagues. Yet in the eyes of his adopted city, and the baseball family, he had seemed a big leaguer forever. As former PCL Padres teammate, roommate, and coach Jimmie Reese observed: “He had more friends in the game than anyone I ever knew.”

JIM SMITH has been a SABR member since 1982, and has contributed to TNP, BRJ, and a variety of historical, religious, and sports publications. He teaches at Bethel Seminary San Diego, the University of San Diego, and serves as a pastor at College Avenue Baptist Church.

 

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Bill Weiss, Ray Nemec, and Bob Hoie for offer­ing materials on Les Cook’s statistics and career, to those providing illustrations, and to Bill Swank for suggestions after reading the first draft.

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