Where Have You Gone … Harper Cooper?
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.
.. 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.
Down 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 us 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.
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 late 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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