Where Have You Gone… Harper Cooper?

Grainger Stadium
BobLee
June23/ 2017

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August 2016

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Where Have You Gone … Harper Cooper?

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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.

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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.

.. 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”.

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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Harper.Cooper
Harper.Cooper
4 years 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… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 years ago
Reply to  BobLee

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.

Doug
Doug
4 years ago
Reply to  BobLee

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

Barney
Barney
4 years 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.

Barney
Barney
4 years ago
Reply to  BobLee

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… Read more »

GrahamPacker
GrahamPacker
4 years 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,… Read more »

NCSU68Grad
NCSU68Grad
4 years 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… Read more »

Harper. Cooper
Harper. Cooper
4 years 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… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 years 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… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 years ago
Reply to  BobLee

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… Read more »

Doug
Doug
4 years ago
Reply to  Doug

Eerily quite Doug you big dummy.

TheCowdog
TheCowdog
4 years 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. 🙂

58 wolf kennel
58 wolf kennel
4 years 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 :+))

fayettewuf
fayettewuf
4 years 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.

fayettewuf
fayettewuf
4 years ago
Reply to  BobLee

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.

David
David
4 years 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… Read more »

Lakepacker
Lakepacker
4 years 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.

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