In Search of Andy Cooper

By Robert F. Darden

The hunt for Waco's forgotten baseball Hall of Famer

On a rare stormy August morning, baseball historian and former Baylor religion professor John A. Wood and I walked the wet grounds of Greenwood Cemetery on the hunt for the grave marker of one the most famous Wacoans you’ve probably never heard of. Greenwood is Waco’s historic African-American cemetery, tucked away at the intersection of Business Highway 77 (New Dallas Highway) and Interstate 35. It was Wood, the author of “Beyond the Ballpark: The Honorable, Immoral and Eccentric Lives of Baseball Legends,” who first told me about the marker.

Walking amid the stones between Rice and Coffee streets is a haunting glimpse into Waco’s black past. Here is the tombstone for Jules Bledsoe, the Waco-born baritone who was the first black man to sing with the nation’s symphonies and who first sang “Ol’ Man River” on Broadway. Nearby is the marker for Vivienne Malone-Mayes, the extraordinary African-American educator who became the first black professor hired by Baylor University.

Just up the small path is a small stone, the size of a plaque, that states simply, “A.L. Cooper. Apr. 23, 1896, June 3, 1941.” It says nothing about Cooper’s astonishing career as one of the greatest pitchers and managers in baseball history, at a time when African-Americans could not compete in America’s national pastime. Nor does it mention that the Waco-born Andrew Lewis Cooper is enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Because he played and coached in the segregated times of the 1920s through 1940s, Cooper doesn’t have much of a paper trail. He is in baseball’s Hall of Fame mostly because the players who played in the so-called Negro Leagues insisted he was one of the best to ever play (and manage) the grand old game. Due to their efforts and the work of a handful of baseball fans and experts, Cooper was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame in 2006, along with 16 other Negro League luminaries.

Yet, in the past year I’ve gone through dozens upon dozens of mostly out-of-print books (thanks to the diligent efforts of Baylor’s Interlibrary Services), studied old newspapers and magazine articles, and followed up on a host of oral histories by his contemporaries only to find — virtually nothing. No long interviews, no insightful personality profiles, no waggish offhand comments in the sports columns. Just player after player speaking in awe of his command of the baseball or his skills as a manager of men.

Andy “Lefty” Cooper, along with hundreds like him, is a wraith, a spirit, a man seen only through the reflection of others.

Cooper was apparently born in Waco, lived for at least a time at 2603 South Ninth Street in Waco, attended A.J. Moore High School and may have attended Paul Quinn College, although no record of that has yet surfaced. Even his birthdate is questioned by some historians, although since his mother, Emma Cooper, erected the marker, I’ll stay with the 1896 date.

Various accounts agree that he eventually grew to be 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 220 pounds in his prime — a very big man for the era. One account even says that he had a brother, Daltie Cooper, who would also someday pitch in the Negro Leagues though, again, documentation is scarce.

Cooper would have been a contemporary of famed pianist Sammy Price, whose autobiography of life in East Waco at the turn of the last century, “What Do They Want?: A Jazz Autobiography,” is our best insight into that otherwise hidden world.

After leaving Waco, Cooper joined the Army and was assigned to the legendary, all-black 25th Infantry Regiment. The regiment was sent during World War I to the famed Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. William F. McNeil writes in “Black Baseball Out of Season: Pay for Play Outside of the Negro Leagues” that the 25th Regiment’s all-black baseball team was considered the greatest nine in the Pacific, perhaps in the entire U.S. military.

Led by “Bullet Joe” Rogan, the Wreckers demolished all comers in the Pacific, including all-white teams composed of barnstorming major leaguers. McNeil sprinkles Cooper’s exploits as a pitcher throughout his coverage of the 25th and includes a team picture — the first we have of Cooper, a large, unsmiling man sitting on the back row in a bleacher shot.

In 1919, the 25th was reassigned to border patrol at the old Apache fighting outpost Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Again, the black players formed a formidable team that included Cooper, Rogan, Oscar “Heavy” Johnson and Dobie Moore. In “Blackball Stars: Negro League Pioneers,” John B. Holway writes that Cooper’s team was “one of the strongest non-professional clubs in the country,” beating major league barnstorming teams led by Casey Stengel, George Sisler, Zach Wheat and Hal Chase. Word of the team’s prowess soon reached savvy African-American execs and Cooper was invited to join the Detroit Stars, while several other players from the 25th joined the Kansas City Monarchs. (So many, in fact, that the Monarchs were long known as the “army team.”) Cooper is mentioned throughout Richard Bak’s “Turkey Stearnes and the Detroit Stars: The Negro Leagues in Detroit, 1919-1933.”

In the century that major league baseball was segregated, the Negro League teams had wonderful, evocative names — the Lexington Hustlers, the Baltimore Elite Giants, the New York Black Yankees, the New York Cubans, the Cleveland Buckeyes, the Boston Blues, the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers, Chicago American Giants, the Chattanooga Choo-Choos, and in Canada, the Clarisse Holm Meteors. A few teams achieved fame across the racial divide — the Indianapolis Clowns, the Detroit Stars, the Birmingham Black Barons, the celebrated Homestead Grays of Washington D.C. and their greatest rivals, the Kansas City Monarchs.

During the leadership of visionary executive Rube Foster, an African-American and former ballplayer, the Negro Leagues were mightily successful in the 1920s. In 1923 alone, Ken Burns’ “Shadow Ball: The History of the Negro Leagues” asserts that the league drew 400,000 fans — virtually all black. Foster’s Chicago American Giants often out-drew the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox.

The Detroit Stars were not that successful, but they were competitive, due in part to Cooper’s pitching prowess. Before leaving the team, he would own every Stars pitching record. Bak features a photograph of the 1920 Detroit Stars in his book. Cooper sits smiling genially at the end of the middle row, with probably the broadest shoulders of anyone on the team. He should be smiling, the big Texan was a hero in Detroit. As Negro League historian Dick Clark said of Cooper, “In my estimation, the greatest black pitcher ever to pitch for Detroit — that’s for the Stars or Tigers.”

In addition to a full Negro League schedule, the Stars barnstormed in the offseason and on off-days, playing Canadian teams, other barnstorming teams like the all-Jewish House of David as well as high-powered industrial league teams in Detroit that were often spiked with ringers, including the Detroit Creamery and Lasky Jewelers.

The Stars also played barnstorming white major league teams and beat them so often that baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis eventually forbade his charges to barnstorm as intact teams. Cooper pitched and won many of those games — none of which counted toward his “official” statistics. Still, he won 15 and lost 7 games in 1923 and consistently won more games than he lost every year.

Additionally, Cooper was invited to play in the prestigious and integrated Cuban Winter League, which boasted some of the best black, white and Latin players in the world. An extremely rare baseball card of Cooper has been found. Sponsored by the Nacionales brand of cigarettes, the card is dated 1924 and Cooper looks passively at the camera wearing the uniform of the Habana team of Havana.

In June 1925, Cooper threw a no-hitter against the Indianapolis ABCs. That year he won his first nine decisions, but a couple of days after the no-hitter, he broke his leg and was out until September. Cooper finished 11-2 in 1925.

Bak reprints a much fainter photo of the Stars from his last year with the team. Cooper is still clearly a big man, but the smile of the earlier photograph is gone.

After the 1927 season, the Kansas City Monarchs traded five players to the Stars to obtain Cooper. The Monarchs were one of the few Negro League teams owned by a white man, J.L. Wilkinson, who had a long history of support for African-American baseball. When they weren’t playing league games, the Monarchs also barnstormed across the country. All of which meant more wear-and-tear on Cooper’s left arm.

In October 1933, a middlin’ St. Louis Cardinals team, but featuring Dizzy Dean and Paul “Big Poison” Waner, played a three-game exhibition series with the Kansas City Monarchs in western Nebraska. Cooper was the losing pitcher in the opening game in St. Joseph, but the Monarchs won the remaining two games, including one in Omaha. Cooper and an all-star team of Negro League players would continue barnstorming that winter — all the way to China, by way of Japan and the Philippines, leaving San Francisco in November on the USS President Lincoln.

Following their World Series victory in 1935, the Cardinals, now led by Dizzy and his brother Paul “Daffy” Dean, ventured to Kansas City on October 20 to play the Monarchs. According to author Timothy M. Gay, “The Monarchs’ Andy Cooper frustrated Diz’s boys all night, allowing only four hits in a complete game shutout.” Attendance was announced at 14,000. A couple of days later, the Cardinals and the Monarchs played again in Chicago, and the “burly southpaw” Cooper pitched a single scoreless inning before 20,000 rabid fans.

Gay’s book “Satch, Dizzy & Rapid Robert: The Wild Saga of Interracial Baseball Before Jackie Robinson” reports that during a 1937-38 barnstorming tour, a particularly strong team of major leaguers, this time led by fire-balling Bob Feller of the Cleveland Indians, played the Monarchs on a tour of Iowa, Kansas and Oklahoma. Cooper is noted as having managed the team.

Leslie A. Heaphy’s “The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960” gives the barnstorming African-American teams much of the credit for creating Japan’s passion for baseball, especially the Philadelphia Royal Giants’ tours in 1927 and 1932. The team, which included Cooper, Frank Duncan and Biz Mackey, won 47 of 48 games.

Duncan said that the black players loved playing in Japan, where they experienced no discrimination. Unlike their white counterparts, including Babe Ruth, Al Simmons and Lou Gehrig who often humiliated their Japanese host by carrying umbrellas, wearing galoshes or lying down in the outfield when playing, the black players treated their opponents with respect, William F. McNeil writes in “Black Baseball Out of Season.”

Cooper, incidentally, played the outfield when he wasn’t pitching and hit a robust .342 on the tour. In Janet Bruce’s “The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball” is a photo dated April 1, 1927. In it, the Tokyo Mayor Nishikubo Hiromichi, in a black suit with tails, throws out the first pitch. Andy Cooper stands placidly behind him.

It should be noted that the Negro League’s schedule was much shorter than major league baseball’s. Still, Cooper won at least 10 games seven or more times with Detroit and those 10 wins would be comparable to a 20-win season over a 154- or 162-game season. On days when he didn’t start, Cooper would often relieve and recorded a host of “saves” before the save became an official statistic.

As Cooper’s pitching career wound down, Wilkinson wisely tabbed him as the Monarchs’ manager. In Brent Kelley’s “The Negro Leagues Revisited: Conversations with 66 More Baseball Heroes,” Kelley quotes the great Willie Simms talking about his former manager Cooper: “He was one of the smartest guys about the game of baseball that you ever looked at, and in his day he was a lefthanded pitcher, and a good one, too. He knew how to get the pitch on hitters inside and out. Away. And he knew how to get it in on their hands and make ’em break up their bats and he’d laugh at ’em.”

“He was a big guy,” Simms added, “weighed 220. He could fire that ball down in there.”

In “Catching Dreams: My Life in the Negro Baseball Leagues,” Frazier “Slow” Robinson also writes about Cooper’s managing skills, although in one anecdote legendary slugger Josh Gibson gets the best of him, smashing a homer when Cooper reluctantly allows a pitcher to pitch to him.

In his autobiography, “I Was Right on Time: My Journey from the Negro Leagues to the Majors,” Buck O’Neil, one of the great ten players in the history of the Negro Leagues, called Cooper “the best manager I ever played for, and I played for some good ones.”

“He was also a father figure and a teacher,” O’Neil wrote, “and he helped me a great deal, as he did other players who were still developing. He could be stern if he had to be, but he was easy to be around.” Rather than threaten his players about curfews and other rules, O’Neil said, Cooper expected his teams to be professional. “With Andy, you felt like you were violating a trust if you broke the rules, so he got better results than the manager who tried to be tough.”

Under Cooper, the Monarchs won three pennants and triumphantly barnstormed across America.

But the exploits of the Negro League greats rarely — if ever — made it into the mainstream white media. Even the coverage of barnstorming games focused almost entirely on the white players. The black press did a better job, although copies of individual newspapers outside of New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh are often difficult find.

However, in late 1940, Cooper began feeling ill and several teammates urged him to take time off. His unnamed condition worsened during spring training in 1941. According to a Chicago Defender article, “This spring it was announced that he suffered a breakdown and would not accompany the Monarchs on [their] spring jaunt.” Finally, Cooper’s mother, Emma, believing the climate in Waco would help his condition, took the train to Kansas City and returned home with her son. A few days later, on April 23, Cooper suffered a stroke and died. Today his simple marker is next to the larger tombstone of his mother.

The Chicago Defender, writing about Cooper’s passing that week, offered one of the longest assessments of his career as a pitcher, praising his pinpoint control and knowledge — especially the weaknesses — of every batter in the league. “He not only won glory on the hurling mound,” the article said, “but also won the respect and praise of fans through his deportment off the field.”

After Cooper’s passing, the Monarchs continued to dominate the league. Jackie Robinson signed with the Monarchs in 1945, joining legends Satchel Paige, “Bullet Joe” Rogan and Buck O’Neil. Robinson hit .387 and drew the attention of Branch Rickey, the man responsible (along with Commissioner Happy Chandler), for integrating major league baseball, which ultimately sounded the death-knell for the Negro Leagues.

Negro League players were long denied entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame despite the continued protests of baseball historians and fans, black and white. Books like “Cool Papas and Double Duties: The All-Time Greats of the Negro Leagues” by William F. McNeil surveyed living black stars, asking them for their nominations. In “Cool Papas,” Cooper’s named appears repeatedly, with legends like Monte Irvin, one of the few players to be an all-star in both black and white leagues, advocating strongly for Cooper’s inclusion.

Finally, major league baseball convened a committee of experts. Ninety-four players and Negro League executives were initially nominated; in time, the committee winnowed the number down until 17 were chosen, only a few of whom were still alive when the induction ceremony took place in 2006.

When the announcement of the inductees was made, Shawn Windsor of the Detroit Free Press tracked down Cooper’s lone surviving heir, his son Andy Cooper Jr., then 77, and living in Seattle. The younger Cooper was 11 when his father died. Cooper knew little about his father’s career, noting that “anything that pertained to black people back then” has only been “uncovered in recent years.” Cooper traveled to Cooperstown for his father’s induction ceremony. It was during this time that the legendary Buck O’Neil, then 94 himself, called Cooper and told him that his father was an “outstanding human being” who “understood every aspect of the game.” High praise from one of the titans of the sport.

Our story ends with one final irony, Cooper — despite being in the Baseball Hall of Fame — is not in the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in his hometown of Waco. Brice Cherry, who has written on Cooper for the Waco paper, has nominated Cooper several times in recent years but to no avail. Part of the problem is that Cooper’s candidacy is now part of the veterans ballot, which only selects two athletes each year.

John A. Wood has visited the gravesites of hundreds of baseball Hall of Famers across the United States. Some have elaborate mausoleums, some have only simply plaques. And as he and I left Greenwood, we passed Cooper’s marker a second time.

Perhaps, we mused, it is time for Waco to celebrate this remarkable man.