Where Have You Gone… Harper Cooper?

Grainger Stadium
BobLee
April25/ 2016

I don’t wonder where Joe DiMaggio has gone.  He was last seen peddling Mr Coffees.  But with due respect to Simon & Garfunkle, I do muse about “Harper Cooper”.

WARNING:  ANOTHER BobLee Baseball column !!  Noooo…. but NOT about The Cardinals. …. Oh.  OK.

Who was the first professional baseball player you ever “knew”?  By “knew” I mean talked to like you were sorta “buddies”?   Mine was Harper Cooper – the back-up catcher for the Kinston Eagles in 1962.  Kinston was a Class B Carolina League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. ….. BUT FIRST

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All you ABCers grabbing your pitchforks & torches over the latest UNC NOA ….. deep cleansing breaths…. CALM DOWN!  Give this a day or so to be over-analyzed and misinterpreted…. THEN you can attack Chapel Hill or whatever …..

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.. tis the season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns…. to Baseball.”   I just finished reading (listening) to a book that was essentially a minor leaguer’s diary called The Baseball Gospels which was “another Crash Davis  / Bull Durham story” about minor league baseball.  On top of the start of MLB 2016 that has me all “Baseball-y”.

UPDATE: I know you’re wondering re:…. Jeremy Hazelbaker’s Cardinals career.  It has calmed down.  His “bat outta hell” start has levJeremy Hazelbakereled off.  He hit a game-winning HR on Saturday in San Diego after a 0-27 drought; but Manager Mike likes what he’s seeing so Jeremy can “probably” unpack…. maybe.  Tough Bizness!

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My hometown had minor league baseball off/on since the 1930s…until about three years ago.  It was, towards the end, “the smallest town in America with a professional baseball team”.  20,000 people with many of those “poverty-level” simply can’t sustain a team.  But apparently CAN sustain a World-Class 5-star restaurant.  But there WAS a time ……

I started paying attention in the mid 50s…. and was really involved from 1962-66.   I applied for my social security card in order to hawk peanuts and crackerjacks in the stands.  That constitutes a “rite of passage” doesn’t it?

I rose quickly up the concession’s ladder to the coveted “souvenir programs” gig before leaving “pro baseball”, not to “sell Lady Kenmores” but rather to “run” Fairfield Park during the summer…. followed by multi-decades chasing corporate rainbows and finally Nirvana as YOUR Internet Legend…. but I still have that original SS# of course.

Grainger STadiumDown the right field foul line was a special set of bleachers for “Coloreds”.  It was 1962 in the small town South.  It was what it was.

That Spring of 1962 I met Harper Cooper.  I, and my pals – including “Butch” who would grow up to be Kinston’s Ernest T. Bass – would hang out by the home team bullpen down the left field foul line.  Not real sure “why” we did that other than to “watch real pro baseball players doing whatever they do….”.   In the book I just read, kids still “do that” in every minor league ballpark.

Yes…. these were guys 19-20-21-22 years old and most of’em would never spend a day “in the bigs” but they were Professional Baseball Players!  The ones who were married all had wives who looked like “Annette” and “Gidget” and they drove “fancy sports cars”.

TRUE STORY:  Dr No came out in 1962.   My pal “Coby” and I went to see it at The Park Theater.  Sitting four rows behind uUrsula Andresss were FOUR FOR-REAL EAGLES including Player/Coach Tony Bartirome.  That famous scene where Ursula Andress emerges from the surf ….. I’m pretty sure it was Bartirome that uttered the first F-bomb I think I ever heard. ….. Another rite-of-passage.  I digress.

According to “Bull Durham” and my book I just read, a lot of what pro ball players do is talk about “girls” and what they “want to do”…. “did do” …. or “say they did” with “girls”.  I do not recall Harper Cooper talking about stuff like that.  Harper Cooper wore glasses.  Those special “sports glasses” guys wore before contacts and laser surgery.

A back-up catcher wearing glasses for a B League minor league team…. was My Hero.  Maybe because I wore glasses too?

There is a lot of down time in Baseball.  Players learn a lot of time-killing diversions including manual dexterity tricks with a baseball.   Harper Cooper taught me several that I can still do.

In that 1962 season, the first Kinston Eagles’ HR was hit in game six of the season by Larry Fidalgo who was the first-string catcher.  That probably wasn’t “a good thing” for my hero – Harper Cooper.  Harper would only get sporadic starts thru that season.

I don’t know WHY I still remember any of this.  I just do.

I recall asking my mom if we could invite Harper Cooper to our house for dinner.  She said “OK” but we never did.Lou Groman

The team GM – Lou Gorman – rented a garage apartment from Blanche Brogdon who lived across the street from us.  “Mr Gorman” liked me and would give me rides to the ballpark.   He would later become GM of The Red Sox.  Mr Gorman died in 2011.

The team Manager was Harding “Pete” Peterson who would later be GM of the Pirates.  The shortstop was Gene Micheal who would become GM of the Yankees.  Three future MLB GMs with one Class B minor league club in 1962.  I bet that’s a record nobody counts but me.

Pete Peterson’s son – Ricky – was a chubby little kid who came out to Fairfield to play sandlot ball with us.  He had a real pro baseball first baseman’s mitt that was bigger than he was.   Ricky would become a MLB pitching coach with various clubs…. ending his career with the Mets.

The stars of that club were pitchers Steve Blass (R) and Frank Bork (L) – both won 20 games that year.  Blass went on to star for the Pirates in the Steve Blasslate 60s until one day in 1973 he, mysteriously, couldn’t throw strikes any more.  That became known as “Steve Blass Disease”.   Not quite as noteworthy as Tommy John Surgery.

In 1964…. the Pirates scheduled an exhibition game in Kinston on their way “north” from Spring Training.  It rained “cats & dogs” for 24 hours before the game.  It looked like the game would be cancelled.  I was one very distraught future Internet Legend.  Mr Gorman called in helicopters from Seymour Johnson AFB and they “blow dried” the field enough to play.

Because of the marginal conditions, the “star players” just warmed up and signed autographs.  The back-ups actually played.  One big left-handed first baseman I recall complaining to my dad…. “He’s a nobody we’ll never hear of again” .   His name was Willie Stargell.  ….Oops.

In those days, I got The Sporting News and would scour their minor league sections to keep up with former Eagles.  After that 1962 season I never saw Harper Cooper’s name anywhere.   Class B Kinston was, alas, his last stop in a 2-3 year “baseball odyssey”.

Did he end up “selling Lady Kenmores”…. or maybe he went back to school and became a surgeon or an attorney or an engineer or a high school coach or maybe just “the best Lady Kenmore salesman in Lenoir City, TN”.

Did you have “a Harper Cooper” in your life?

What are the odds somehow Harper Cooper will see this and contact me and we’ll get together and do those tricks with a baseball …. ?

UPDATE:  If you bet Harper Cooper WOULD reply – YOU WON!   See Reader Comments.  He is alive and well as a flight instructor in Arlington TX.  Go figger….  🙂

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BobLee
  • Harper.Cooper Reply
    11 months ago

    After reading all the comments, it got me to thinking about my baseball heroes and the love for old ballparks. What a shame that todays youth would rather play games on a computer or xbox than to go to a ballpark and pick a hero like Babe Ruth, Scooter Rizutto, Robin Roberts, or a Harper Cooper or go play stickball in a vacant lot or a street and try to emulate their hero or maybe go watch a John Wayne movie.
    .
    Most of the good heroes are gone. Now the heroes are druggies or thugs with tattoos. Not much out there to look up to. There is no more nostalgia. They tear down old ballparks with all the memories of days of old for the sake of modernizing to keep up ( i.e. Yankee Stadium). What a shame. People should go to the park for the game and not for entertainment. I would rather go watch a minor league game than a big league game. We played better fundamental baseball in Kinston than they play in the majors today. But, I digress. My wife thinks I still try to live in the olden days Those years were really a great era to have been a part of and I wish my grandchildren could have similar experiences.
    .
    Bob Hope use to close with “Thanks for the Memories”. So, thanks for allowing me to have been a part of your life and I’m glad that there is still a bunch of old geezers out there that still love real baseball. I would still love to go to the ballpark and put on the uniform and at least try to play the game. Unfortunately, I don’t think uniform would fit nor would my body last more than one pitch.
    .
    My Best Wishes to the kid from Kinston,
    Harper Cooper

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      I hope you showed all this to your wife. From 50 years ago… “a ball player” left a positive impression on a kid’s life just by being friendly and showing him a few “bullpen tricks”. OK, you didn’t “save me from a life of crime or inspire me to great achievements” but you “made a difference”. Thanks. 🙂
      .
      PS: My pal Coby from the Dr No story and I were discussing “catchers who wore glasses”. We decided it was you and “Scrap Iron” Clint Courtney. Wonder what happened to “Scrap Iron”?

      • Doug Reply
        11 months ago

        Trying to decide which is cooler. This baseball story or the reconnection with Mr Cooper. I’m leaning toward the reply. Was “Coach” or Lady Fairmont involved with connecting the dots? Inquiring minds want to know.

        • BobLee Reply
          11 months ago

          “Coach” is in a slow recovery from a series of pretty scary spinal surgeries. He is always lurking here but has not regained keyboard dexterity yet. … “Princess (Lady) Fairmont” could easily zip out to Arlington and confirm Harper’s cred if I thought it necessary. PF does “covert” very well. The “story” and “finding Catcher Cooper” are inseparable as it should be. 🙂

          • Doug
            11 months ago

            I am praying for coach to get well and stay well.

          • BobLee
            11 months ago

            He’s a very tough Ol’ Bird! ?

  • Barney Reply
    11 months ago

    Bob, as a life-long card carrying Cardinal fan, my earliest memories are from 1950 at the old Southside Park in Winston-Salem. That team had a record of 106-47

    The manager was George Kissell and leading players included Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell, Earl Weaver, and Bobby Tiefenauer.

    The major promotion for the year was a cow milking contest at home plate. My best recollection is that Mizell was the winner.

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      I miss “colorful nicknames” for ball players. Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown was a good one. I guess the PC Nazis kiboshed those. …. Did Southside become Ernie Shore Field or was ESF a different field?

      • Barney Reply
        11 months ago

        Southside was the original minor league park located on what is now the grounds of the UNC School of the Arts. It was a total wooden structure which burned in 1955.
        Ernie Shore Field was opened in 1956 adjacent to the Winston-Salem fairgrounds and the Coliseum. It was named after a former Forsyth County sheriff and a Red Sox team mate of Babe Ruth. Shore also threw a no-hitter in 1917. Shore was given credit for the no-hitter even though Ruth started the game and was thrown out of the game after walking the first batter.
        Ernie Shore Field has now been renamed David Couch Baseball Stadium(Gene Hooks Field) and is the home of the Wake Forest baseball team.
        The current Winston-Salem minor league team, the Dash, plays at the down town BB&T Park.

        • BobLee Reply
          11 months ago

          Thanks!

  • GrahamPacker Reply
    11 months ago

    Like most young boys back in the early fifties, I spent as much time at local Carolina League park which is only couple of blocks from here. The first major league player I ever knew was pitcher for the Senators by the name of Tom Zachary who was noted as having throwing Babe Ruth’s 60th HR pitch. Of course, Tom always said “it was a damned foul ball!” I grew up around his family and his wife gave me one of his baseballs when I was very young.
    During the mid fifties the local team, then in the Pirates chain, I worked at the park hustling soft drinks and popcorn,etc. The player of note you mentioned was for me a really big pitcher named “Rocket Ron” Nechi. He came here from Bristol where reportedly struck out every batter in one game-all 27 of them. They sent a catcher around with him because noone else could handle his blazing fastball. He went up to the Pirates, but he didn’t make a great splash there.
    The final major league participant who played here that I knew, was a catcher-manager that I’m sure you will recognize. He reffed HS basketball in the off season and met his wife here. He was quite a clown on the court and unfortunately, I can’t print much of what he said. His name–Jack Mckeon.

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      I think McKeon still lives around Burlington. And, of course, there was Roxboro’s own “Enos” a/k/a “Country”.

  • NCSU68Grad Reply
    11 months ago

    Nice piece, BL. YES, it WAS a simpler time. Simpler events (save the Hippies and such) and simpler lyrics that you could understand. That is why the NC Symphony recently had their Classical Mystery concert with a Beatles tribute group, in full costume and dialect…which was a boffo show….and got more audience reaction than I have seen in the past several years. Even the stately orchestra musicians were tapping their feet, smiling and mouthing the lyrics.

    Trivia for you. Mrs. Robinson, where the line….”Where have you gone, Joe…?” comes from was actually a tribute to Eleanor Roosevelt. Simon and Garfunkel were supposed to write some new tunes for a Mike Nichols short movie starring a new sensation….Dustin Hoffman. BUT, they procrastinated. All they had was the little dittie….Mrs. Roosevelt. SO Nichols changed the lyrics and the name and it immortalized Ann Bancroft….and launched DH’s career.

    BTW, Paul Simon was a baseball fan….he sort of veered off the reservation (Recreational chemicals?) and added the tribute to a baseball player. He was actually an avid Mickey Mantle fan….but the cadence did not fit the song….so Golden Joe got the title line because it “sang better”.

    Now you know….

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      Good to know. My pal “Butch” was also quite the fan of #7 – Mickey Mantle.

  • Harper. Cooper Reply
    11 months ago

    Enjoying the article and the comments. I am alive and well in Texas. Most of the comments are true. However, I do have the real team picture and all the press clippings to boot. Don’t know who the other Harper Cooper is. Didn’t know I was anybody’s hero. Boy were you scrapping the bottom of the barrel. I did enjoy Kinston except for the batting average. Great baseball town. I think Kinston had the second highest fan attendance in the minors. I believe we averaged about 2000 per game. Too bad you didn’t bet on the odds. You could retire a very wealthy man.Still working at teaching pilots to fly jet airplanes including some at the Kinston airport. Now, I gotta start practicing ball tricks in case someone wants to challenge me.

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      Yep, you were (one kid’s hero). Hope Life has been kind and fair to you which is as much as any of us can expect. My pal who was at Dr No with me recalls Mike Derrick’s wife as the #1 “looker” among the 1962 crop. And Ron Housely was the “bonus baby”. Funny the stuff we keep in our memory over 50 years.

  • Doug Reply
    11 months ago

    Any piece with “Butch” has classic potential. The last time I saw Butch was at an Indians game at Grainger in 2010 after my mom died. I had to ask Bill (Junior) Stallings if was really him. Grainger cost $170,000 to build in 1949 and is superior to many of those latter day baseball palaces in my book.
    In my early 20’s a group of friends went to almost every home game and got to know a few players. One that stands out was pitcher Robin Hippi, a 34th round draft selection who played two of his three pro years (1972/73) in Kinston going 10-5 with a 4.57 ERA before “calcium deposits” ended his dream. After his playing days he coached small college baseball in his the home state of Washington. I learned he retired last year, He was a real live Bull Durham type character and we had about as much fun as was legally possible in his two summers in Kinston. WE also introduced him to pickup basketball games at Fairfield.

    Skeeter and I met Gene Michael before a Yankees-Orioles game in Baltimore in the early 80’s. Skeet remembered his Kinston playing days and went up to hm and told him he was from Kinston. GM (a true prick) deadpanned a “I’m sorry about that” From that one brief chat I’m glad I never saw him play in Kinston.

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      “Stick” was a rail-thin SS with a rifle arm. He could field a grounder – count the stitches – and get the runner by two steps. … Butch would have given ANYTHING for one game in an Eagles’ uni.

      • Doug Reply
        11 months ago

        You got me to thinking about contacting Robin Hippi. My lasting memory of RH was one night at Grainger Ballpark (sounds cooler than stadium). He started the game and in the first inning gave up a run or two. He was getting hammered. Foul balls were leaving the park deep, deep, deep. All three outs were deep, deep, deep, warning track outs. Gene Hassle was the manager and went out to the mound a couple of times to no avail. When the inning finally ended as he was walking to the dug out, GS was erringly quiet. I yelled out “don’t worry Hippi, you got em popping up.” The baseball savvy crowd (800 or so) erupted in laughter marking the first and only time in my life I made a crowd laugh with me rather that at me. BTW Hippi settled down and pitched like a future hall-of-famer until being relieved in the the 8th and the Eagles won. He got the W. I asked him what Hassel said to him on the mound. The part I can repeat was he asked him if he wanted to go home forever, like right F’ing now.

        • Doug Reply
          11 months ago

          Eerily quite Doug you big dummy.

        • BobLee Reply
          11 months ago

          You had your Grainger Stadium “Andy Warhol Moment”…. very cool!

  • TheCowdog Reply
    11 months ago

    Good stuff. Sal “The Barber” Maglie, Moose Skowron, and Warren Spahn, all spent a night at the house in their off season gigs. They would be my firsts.

    I love that yard in Kinston, BL. Spo used to give up a home game every year to play there, while at State. Never played a single game in Kinston while the Phillies payed me the minimum.

    You come from fabulous baseball geography, my man.

    I figure we’ve written this out about 3 or 4 times, now. 🙂

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      I’ll do anything to keep from re-re-re-rehasing TGU but will likely be doing THAT again soon. … Reading my latest book and thinking about Bull Durham and how accurate it was of Life In The Bushes…

  • 58 wolf kennel Reply
    11 months ago

    Great nostalgia piece, and the same could be said for New Bern ten years earlier. The Coastal Plain League Bears (Class D right after WWII) had our share of characters including Pitcher Red Derda who stayed in New Bern and started a good bakery. Bunky Stewart was a high school senior left-hander whom I caught as a freshman who signed with New Bern and later that summer went straight to the Washington Senators where his claim to fame was giving the Yankees a hard time.
    Writing this at State-ECU baseball game with State up 5-1 in the7th :+))

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      Wonder what % of minor leaguers ever get a cup of coffee in The Show? Bet its well under 50%.

  • fayettewuf Reply
    11 months ago

    I like looking up old ballplayers. Harper’s was an interesting career. He hit .296 in D ball but evidently ran into trouble at the B level and hit .190 at Kinston. Wonder if he got hurt or just realized if you are 22 and can’t hit B pitching, you probably should explore other opportunities. He would be about 76 but had no date of death listed.

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      That’s him. I don’t recall any injury. I think he just “reached his peak”. I don’t know the #s of how many minor leaguers EVER have their day in the Bigs but I’m sure it is under .500. And they were all Home Town Heroes in LL and high school ball. Not unlike pro golfers on their minor circuits who can all shoot 65 on any standard muni or normal CC course in the country… but can’t make cuts on the PGA Tour. Competing at the Top Level in anything is damn hard.

      • fayettewuf Reply
        11 months ago

        This piece started me looking at old minor league records. They said that North Carolina had more than 100 minor teams a number second only to Texas. I have a dim memory of seeing many games at Fleming Stadium and a dimmer one of going to see a game in Farmville with my grandfather at which a bench clearing brawl broke out. A piece I read had the Wilson Tobs as one the top one hundred minor league teams the first 100 years of baseball.

        • BobLee Reply
          11 months ago

          Wilson and Rocky Mount and Kinston all had rich histories of baseball, Rod Carew, Carl Yastrzemski, and Rusty Staub all came thru The Carolina League in the early/mid 60s.

  • David Reply
    11 months ago

    Bob Lee:

    There will be more Harper Coopers returning to Kinston soon……The Texas Rangers are planning on loving into an upgraded Grainger Field in 2018…The upgrade has already been approved by the city of Kinston…It’s such an iconic ball park…Baseball should never have left.

    I was one of the “Ball Park Urchins” that hung out along the fence in home bullpen of my hometown Carolina League team in the early 70’s….Yes, we all have “Harper Coopers” ….Mine was an seldom used relief pitcher. He was a wonderful guy who took the time to actually converse with the preteens who invaded his work space.

    I was fortunate enough to get a copy of that year’s team photo in an age when team photos were not given out to the public…….Sadly, I came by it only because I was around when they emptied the offices of the team. We lost our team due to poor attendance in the summer of my 12th year.

    Moving forward 40 years, I spent a summer “laid up” after a surgery…Using a tablet as my constant companion, I was able to locate my “Harper Cooper”…..I e-mailed him a scan of his team photo, which he had never seen….Needless to say, seeing the faces of his old teammates from his youth 40 years earlier, frozen perfectly in time as they were when they were all young and full of dreams, was a wonderful walk down memory lane for him.

    My “Harper Cooper” did a little better than “selling Lady Kenmores at Sears”…..After baseball, he opened a successful insurance agency., and my all accounts, has had quite a successful life….Maybe good things to happen to good people……….After all, the type guy who would pleasantly school a 12 year old on the nuances of a screwball is probably the type guy from whom you’d want to buy anything.

    P.S. – Rather than give kids the egregious “Participation Trophy”, I’ve always felt that a “Team Photo” is the ultimate gift that an athlete can receive…..Having grown up in an age where only the champion received a trophy, I can tell you that the handful of team pictures that I have mean so much more to me than any of the few Championship Trophies that our teams earned……..Look at an old team photo from one’s youth and then look at any trophy….Which one evokes more memories ?

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      I have as many memories in Grainger Stadium as I do from Grainger High School across the street. Wonder what happened to “Eagle Eye”. He had to be 90+ back then ??? Is Vivian Howard going to operate the concession stands w/ the new team? Gourmet Popcorn ???

  • Lakepacker Reply
    11 months ago

    Harper Cooper is a name from the past. He lived down the street from me during his stay in Kinston. That was truly a time of innocence and ball players, some of which became famous as you stated, that blended into and became a part of a real community. Great reflective column.

    • BobLee Reply
      11 months ago

      Life in a pre-Social Media World. To no surprise, Coby absolutely recalls the Dr No moment at the Park Theater! Every boy recalls hearing his first F-bomb I guess.

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