“We Want Coop!” Brewers Legend Cecil Cooper Ended His Brewers Career on the Bench

May. 9, 2017
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Cooper in 1986, his last season as a regular.

It was an unremarkable July afternoon game between a pair of middling teams, the last AL game before the All-Star break. The Brewers, visiting the Oakland Coliseum, were sitting just under .500 – an unthinkable place just a few months earlier when they opened the season at 17-1 and were the toast of the baseball world. A three-run eighth inning gave the Brewers a 4-3 win over the A’s. First baseman Greg Brock led the Crew with a home run and an RBI single that put gave the Brewers the lead. Just before Brock’s big hit, DH Cecil Cooper – whom Brock had replaced as starting first baseman – drew a two-out walk to complete an 0-3 day at the plate. No one knew it at the time, but it was the last time Cooper would play professional baseball.

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The glory days of the Milwaukee Brewers might never have happened if not for a slender, soft-spoken Texan named Cecil Cooper. Acquired from Boston Red Sox in 1977 for an aging George Scott and part-timer Bernie Carbo (each of whom had the Brewers had gotten in previous trades with Boston), Cooper anchored first base in Milwaukee for the next decade. During that time, the Brewers recorded their first six winning seasons, won 90 or more games three times, and won the 1982 AL championship. Cooper batted .304 during that stretch, averaging 20 homers and 90 RBI per season. He was an all-star five times, a four-time finisher in the top-10 of MVP voting, and won three Silver Sluggers and two Gold Gloves.  

But by 1987, Cooper was an elder statesman on a team that was thinking young. Now five years removed from their only World Series, the Brewers were relying on kids like B. J. Surhoff, Dale Svuem, Ernie Riles, and Chris Bosio to lead them into the future. They had also just acquired Brock from the LA Dodgers, a patient left-handed hitter with a slick glove and power. After opening the season on the DL with a ribcage injury, Cooper was penciled in as the every-day DH. 

Cooper got off to a dreadful start in ’87. An all-star in 1985, Cooper struggled in ’86, batting just .258 and registering a career-low .682 OPS. He remained lost at the plate through April, as the Brewers soared in the standings, collecting only 10 hits and a single walk in 60 plate appearances. He continued to scuffle through the team’s 12-game losing streak in May, but rebounded a bit at the end of the month, batting .318 with 6 homers from May 20 through the end of June. But Paul Molitor also got hot mid-summer and with the Brewers treating him delicately after a string of injuries, they installed him at DH and removed Cooper from the starting lineup.

So Cooper was benched. And stayed benched. For the long homestand after the Oakland game, through a couple of road trips, and through a mini-streak that got the Brewers 10 games over .500. Cooper had not spoken to the media since early in the season and now, as his “sitting streak” became a topic of conversation nearly as hot as Paul Molitor’s hitting streak, he remained quiet. His teammates expressed frustration for him and speculated whether he would ever play again. Manager Tom Trebelhorn offered a litany of excuses, insisting that Cooper was available to play but claiming no situation had arisen since the break in he could be used. “It’s very unfair to him,” Trebelhorn said, “as a player who has had such a great career, to use him in certain situations when there are guys better ready to be used.”

The true reasons behind his long-term were financial. Sources told the papers that Trebelhorn had been led to believe that Cooper would be released. But to cut Cooper mid-season would put the team on the hook for his entire 1988 salary and a lump of deferred money that the team owed him from a 1983 contract renegotiation – a total of about $1.5 million. GM Harry Dalton had shopped Cooper at the trade deadline, but found no takers. So, the Brewers acted as though Cooper did not exist.

Cooper remained active, however. He had taken up the role of mentor to many of team’s younger players, particularly emerging black players like Mike Felder and Glenn Braggs. “He had gotten me to play hard even there were times when I wanted to hang my head or throw in the towel,” Braggs said of Cooper in the midst of his exile. “He has been kind of a big brother to me.”

Cooper at County Stadium in 1987. He wouldn’t get a single at bat following that year’s All Star break.

As the season wound down, the media castigated the Brewers for both their treatment of Cooper and their roster management. Journal sports editor Terry Galvin called the entire episode “embarrassing” and wondered why the Brewers – with an outside chance at first place – would play a huge stretch of the season with a short roster. The implication was, of course, that the team’s finances were of more importance than the product on the field.

On September 25, with nine games left in the season, Cooper broke his silence. “How should I feel? Happy? Sad?” he asked the Journal. “That’s how it is. Sad. I’m disappointed it had to end this way. You could say bitter. I think I’ve done a lot for this organization.” The paper also reported that week that Cooper’s agent had actually offered to restructure his contract to allow Cooper to move into a front office position while deferring the remaining money owed. The Brewers allegedly turned that down when Cooper refused their request to discount the total money he was due. The Brewers had no comment on the entire situation. “There’s nothing to be gained by Cooper or the ball club commenting,” said Dalton.

On September 27, the last home game of the season, the stands at County Stadium were dotted with signs thanking Cooper for his time with the team. Chants of “We want Coop!” and the long-familiar “Cooooooop!” were heard whenever the Brewers were at bat. But, just as he had in the previous 76 games, Cooper remained on the bench. After the Brewers closed out the 9-6 win over Boston, the fans rose to their feet and gave the team an elongated standing ovation. They chanted and called for Cooper to join his teammates in front of the dugout and players and coaches urged him to do the same. But Cooper simply gathered his things and walked towards the clubhouse. Four months later, he was officially released.

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