If Andy Cooper were playing baseball today, he'd be a superstar. Known for blazing left-hand pitches that dazzled fans and dizzied opponents, the Texas-born pitcher racked up impressive statistics during two decades of professional play. He was in the top ten in his league for career wins, shutouts, and strikeouts, and pitched for a career record 116 wins to 57 losses. In today's Major League Baseball, Cooper would have celebrity status, endorsement deals, and a very fat bank account. But Cooper played ball back when racial segregation was still the law, black children were not allowed to attend schools with white children, and public facilities were divided into "white" and "colored." America's favorite pastime was not immune to these divisions. Cooper, whose talents on the mound rate as legendary, played for the Negro Leagues. He pitched his last game a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier of professional baseball. The Negro Leagues received very little media coverage, and when Cooper died in 1941, he was nearly erased from baseball history. Then in the late 1980s, a baseball historian began to unearth and compile Negro League records. What he discovered about Cooper drew the interest of the Baseball Hall of Fame and, in 2006, the pitcher known as "Lefty" was enshrined in baseball's most esteemed institution.
Racked up Wins with Wide Range of Pitches
Andrew Lewis Cooper was born on April 24, 1898, in Waco, Texas, into a family with strong baseball inclinations. His brother Daltie Cooper also grew up to play baseball for the Negro Leagues. In 1920, Cooper began his baseball career as a pitcher for the Detroit Star, one of the charter members of the Negro National League. His first two years with the team were unimpressive with twice as many losses as wins. However, beginning with the 1922 season, Cooper bounced back. Playing in the long-defunct Mack Park on the city's east side, he racked up six consecutive winning seasons for a total of 72 wins and just 30 losses. The wins were more impressive considering the ballpark's construction. "In that era, hitting dominated and Detroit's ballpark was certainly tailored to the hitters," Negro League historian James Riley told the Web site of Major League Baseball.
Other pitchers may have faltered, but the six-foot-two, 220-pound Cooper, who earned the nickname "Lefty" for his left-handed throws, thrived in the offense-friendly environment. Pitching in up to four games per week, Cooper perfected his technique. He was known for mixing up his pitches, sometimes lightning fast, other times deceptively slow. He was a master at technically tricky pitches, applying just the right amount of control and spin to produce curveballs, screwballs, sliders, and changeups. His repertoire of pitches often left batters standing at home plate. In fact, in four of his seasons with Detroit, Cooper had an earned-run average (ERA) of less than three. That is, less than three batters per game who faced Cooper managed to hit the ball and make a run. Though baseball measurements have changed since the days of the Negro Leagues, Cooper's ERA still stands out.
In the Negro Leagues, games were normally played in a five-game series. "The team would play a Saturday game, a doubleheader Sunday, then Monday and Tuesday," Dick Clark, the baseball historian who rediscovered Cooper, told the Detroit Free Press. Cooper, who was also renowned for his stamina, normally started two of those five and then came in as relief pitcher for one or two more. As relief pitcher, he racked up the record for the most saves in a single season in Negro League history. A save is defined when a relief pitcher enters a game in which his team is leading by a small margin. If the pitcher maintains the lead until a win, he is credited with a save. Though save averages in modern professional baseball can top 50, Cooper's record of 29 was astonishing back in the 1920s.
Moved from Championships to Obscurity to Legend
Cooper's achievements in Detroit made him the Stars' all-time leader in every pitching category and prompted Clark to tell the Detroit Free Press, "In my estimation, [Cooper was] the greatest black pitcher ever to pitch for Detroit—that's for the Stars or the Tigers," referring to today's pennant-winning Detroit Tigers. Cooper's skills made him well-known in Detroit's black community which regularly packed Mack Park's 15,000 seats to see him pitch. His talent also drew the interest of the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the best teams in the Negro National League. They the left-handed whiz so badly that in 1927 they gave Detroit five players in exchange for Cooper. Their trade paid off. As soon as Cooper took the mound for the Monarchs, he started racking up wins. In 1929, he led the team to the Negro National League championships. The pennant capped off a season record of 62 wins, 17 losses, the best overall single-season record in Negro League history.
In 1930 a car wreck kept Cooper off the field for a year. By the time he returned, various factors including the Great Depression had caused the Negro National League to disband. By the mid-1930s, Cooper rejoined the Monarchs which had become an independent team, traveling across the Midwest to compete against other independents. Off-season Cooper played in Cuba, Latin American, Japan, and the Philippines. In 1937, the Monarchs became charter members of the newly formed Negro American League, and Cooper became the team manager. That same year, Cooper took the pitcher's mound once again, pitching 17 innings in the league's first ever championship series. The Monarchs won the pennant. Cooper coached the team to two more championship wins in 1937 and 1940 before falling seriously ill. By late 1940, he was back in Waco, Texas, under the care of his mother. The following year, on June 3rd, Cooper died of heart failure.
Cooper's only son, Andy Jr., was 11 years old at the time of his father's death. But for a summer spent traveling as a batboy with the Monarchs, he knew little of his father. As Cooper's other relatives began to pass away, so too did Cooper's memory. By the 1980s, his legacy was buried amid yellowing copies of the few old newspapers which once tracked Negro League statistics. Cooper was all but lost to history. Then stepped in Clark. Through countless hours of volunteer research, the baseball historian reconstructed the arc of Cooper's career and Lefty's astonishing baseball accomplishments. Over two decades later, the National Baseball Hall of Fame commissioned a Special Committee on the Negro Leagues. Relying on Clark's meticulous data, they chose Cooper and 16 other players out of a pool of 94 to join the 18 Negro Leaguers already inducted into the Hall of Fame. In front of some 11,000 attendees at the July 30, 2006, induction ceremony, Andy Cooper Jr. read the inscription on his father's plaque. Buck O'Neill, a 94-year-old veteran of the Negro Leagues and a first baseman with the Monarchs under Cooper, oversaw the ceremony as grand ambassador. Adding a human side to Cooper's statistical memory, O'Neill recalled in a conversation with Andy Jr. that Cooper was a father figure to the Monarchs players, treating them to dinners on the road and explaining the finer points of the game to them. "He was an outstanding human being," O'Neil told the Detroit Free Press. "And it felt so good when he finally made it." Baseball history, unsullied by modern media and celebrity players, has finally declared that Cooper was indeed a superstar after all.
At a Glance …
Born on April 24, 1898, in Waco, TX; died on June 3, 1941, in Waco, TX; children: Andy Cooper Jr.
Career: Negro Leagues baseball player: pitcher, Detroit Stars, 1920-27, 1930; pitcher, Kansas City Monarchs, 1928-29; pitcher-manager, Kansas City Monarchs, mid-1930s-40.
Awards: Negro National League, championship pennant, with the Kansas City Monarchs, 1929; Negro American League, championship pennant, with the Kansas City Monarchs, 1937, 1939, 1940.
Detroit Free Press, July 23, 2006; July 31, 2006.
Jet, March 20, 2006, p. 47.
"Andy Cooper," National Baseball Hall of Fame andMuseum,www.baseballhalloffame.org/hofers/detail.jsp?playerId=506629 (August 12, 2007).
"Andy Cooper Jr. Remembers Hall of Fame Father," National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum,http://188.8.131.52/hof_weekend/2006/cooper_andy.htm (August 12, 2007).
"Southpaw Piled Up the Victories," Major League Baseball, http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20060217&content_id=1313719&vkey=news_mlb&fext=.jsp&c_id=mlb (August 12, 2007).
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