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'I'm The Gehrig Of My Time'

Like the Iron Horse, Cecil Cooper of the Brewers is a bright star who has been outshone but not outdone

The two men in the Mercedes 380 SLC were having an upwardly mobile conversation as they pulled into the parking lot at Milwaukee's County Stadium. "I know where I can get a Rolls-Royce for $27,000," said Jim Rice, 30, the Boston Red Sox slugger. "Sure," said Cecil Cooper, 33, the Milwaukee Brewer slugger, as he steered into a reserved parking space. "But," Rice continued, "if I get it, my wife will be so mad at me I'll have to move in with you." "You're always welcome," Cooper said, laughing. "But then I get to drive the Rolls'." Rice gave him a playful nudge and the two ballplayers, close friends since their days in the Red Sox farm system, went off to play against each other in a recent doubleheader, which Cooper's team would sweep.

Rice and Cooper have much in common besides their Red Sox heritage. Both are country boys—Rice from Anderson, S.C. and Cooper from Independence, Texas—who often give the impression that they would rather be on a front porch swatting flies than in a ball park hitting them. Both are among the finest hitters of their generation. Cooper's average for his 10 seasons is .308; Rice's for nine seasons is .304. Both have played in All-Star Games. Both more than earn their multimillion-dollar long-term contracts. But Rice is by far the better known of the two. Cooper's bearded face and balding head are known only to family and friends. Rice has won the American League's Most Valuable Player award; Cooper, despite some imposing numbers, is generally overlooked in the voting. "Unsung" could easily be his first name. "Maybe," he says without a trace of wistfulness, "I'm the Lou Gehrig of my time, always in the shadow of someone else. He's a pretty good role model, though."

Like Gehrig, Cooper shines in the shadows. A perfectionist who isn't entirely content unless he's hitting around .320, Cooper must now reluctantly admit that he's having quite a year. After a slow start that had him batting only .230 on May 17, he is among the league leaders, as he usually is, in almost every major batting category. At week's end, he was hitting .306 with 35 doubles, 27 homers, 91 runs scored and 113 runs batted in (one behind Rice). Significantly, his revival has coincided with his team's. When Cooper was hitting .270, the defending American League-champion Brewers were in last place in the American League East. His splurge carried them into first place on Aug. 17, and though they trailed Baltimore by 7½ games on Sunday, they still have seven games to play against the Orioles.

Cooper is the man who puts the head on the Blue Crew. "They have such a good lineup up and down." says Kansas City Manager Dick Howser, "but he's where it starts. When Cooper started to move, the Brewers moved." White Sox catcher and former Red Sox teammate Carlton Fisk says, "He's the kind of guy you build a club around." and, adds Brewer executive and part-time coach, Sal Bando, "He's the best hitter in baseball."

If he isn't, he's awfully close. After bouncing about the Red Sox farm system for the better part of six years and then playing only part-time on the parent club for another three years, Cooper has become a superstar since being traded to Milwaukee before the 1977 season. In his almost seven years as a Brewer he has hit .316 and averaged 22 homers and 93 RBIs, which isn't bad considering he lost much of one season, 1981, to the players' strike and another, 1978, to a broken leg. Cooper's benchmark season was 1980, when he hit .352 with 25 homers and 122 RBIs. Cooper was actually disappointed when he hit "only" .313 last year, with 32 homers and 121 RBIs, and he was dismayed by his slow start this year. He's also concerned that he's pulling the ball too much, that he has been seduced this year by his proliferating homers. "I'm not being myself," he says. "I'm using only half the ball park. If I'd done anything the first six weeks, I'd be ahead of '80. That was when everything went perfectly. Even if I did something wrong, it came out right."

Those 1980 figures were certainly of MVP quality, and so were last year's. Alas, '80 was the year George Brett hit .390, and '82 belonged to Cooper's teammate, Shortstop Robin Yount, who hit for average (.331) and power (29 homers). "It's not often a guy hits .390," he says, modestly deflecting arguments of his own value. "And how many times does a shortstop lead the league in slugging percentage." Cooper finished only fifth in the MVP voting both years, and anticipates that history will repeat itself this season. "Look at the seasons Dan Quisenberry and Wade Boggs are having," he says. "One thing is certain, though. I won't lose any sleep if I don't get the award."

All too true. Of all the stars in the game today—and Cooper is certainly among the most celestial—he courts attention less than any of them. He is an intensely private man who, though active in Milwaukee community affairs—he won baseball's Roberto Clemente Award for humanitarianism last year—prefers to do his job at the ball park and then rush home to his wife, Octavia, and their 5-year-old daughter, Kelly. Although he's also among baseball's most articulate players, he suffers from a major league case of stage fright that precludes his speaking at banquets. "I just seem to lock up," he says. "It's not that I'm scared. After all, I play in front of 50,000 people and that doesn't bother me. And I can certainly handle smaller groups. I remember once while I was with the Red Sox I had to get up in front of about 500 people at a banquet. I only got through my first three or four lines, then I couldn't get any more out. The lady who introduced me cleaned it up for me."

Earlier this season Cooper wasn't even talking to the media, though unlike other self-imposed silencers, he has nothing against the press. "I just didn't feel I had anything to say," he explains. "I was hitting around .250 and I guess some of the reporters thought I was being a hard and moody guy, but I wouldn't say I'm moody. You have to get to know me. I might walk into a room and be thinking about all kinds of things. There are other things—like home and family—in this world besides hitting sliders."

Cooper's effortless style occasionally obscures his considerable fielding prowess. He has great range and an arm so strong that he'll often throw to another base to catch a lead runner. He is so good at digging balls out of the dirt that, as Yount says, "We're never afraid to just let it fly." And he may be the best stretching first baseman since Willie McCovey. "He gets out there a good two feet farther than other first basemen," says Second Baseman Jim Gantner. "I've actually seen him do the splits."

The key to Cooper's game is relaxation. He does breathing exercises before each time at bat. At the plate he lazily aims his bat at the pitcher before assuming his Rod Carew-like, wide-open, left-handed, crouching stance. "I'm pointing the bat to the zone of the pitcher's delivery," he says. "I'm trying to get my mind and my eyes focused on that certain point." Again like Carew, Cooper will alter his stance from pitch to pitch, changing the positions of his hands and feet according to the situation. "The pitcher is constantly making adjustments, so you should, too," he says.

Another factor contributing to Cooper's anonymity is his numbing consistency. He hit better than .300 in every month of the 1980 season. Last year his only non-.300 months were June, when he batted .278, and July, when he "slumped" all the way to .274. "He's there all the time," says Yount. "The trouble is, when you're as good as he is, people take you for granted."

Only rarely does Cooper rise above his own general level of excellence. His bases-loaded single in the seventh inning of the final American League playoff game beat the Angels last year and propelled the Brewers into their first World Series, which they lost to the Cardinals. That grand occasion was even too much for Cooper. He was actually seen uncharacteristically throwing his arms in the air as he reached base. It had been his second display of emotion in a fortnight: After the last out had been recorded in the Brewers' win over the Orioles in the game that decided the American League East championship. Cooper rushed over to embrace team owner Bud Selig, who is normally about as placid as John Madden hawking Miller Lite. "Cecil told me how happy he was for me," Selig recalls. "You have to admit that that was an unusual thing to do in this day when owners and players are supposed to be at such odds. Cecil Cooper will always be what the Brewers stand for."

Cooper's path to nirvana in Milwaukee was circuitous. Born in Brenham, Texas and reared in Independence (pop. 300), he was the youngest of 13 children. His mother died when he was 10, and his father, an itinerant laborer, was gone from home much of the time, so Cooper was raised essentially by his eldest sister, Helen, who is 17 years his senior. He was taught baseball by his brothers John, Sylvester and Jessie. John and Sylvester later played with the barnstorming Indianapolis Clowns.

Cooper followed his baseball-playing brothers to all-black Pickard High School and then transferred in his senior year to the integrated Brenham High. He was as tall—6'2"—then as now but was some 30 pounds lighter than his current playing weight of 190. "No scouts were pounding on my door," he says. "I'd decided to go to college. I never even knew I was being looked at. Nobody ever talked to me. Then Boston drafted me [in the sixth round in 1968]."

The Red Sox sent Cooper to Jamestown, N.Y. that summer, and despite minor league averages consistently over .300, the Red Sox sent him down after each of three brief tantalizing flings with the big club. Rice, Cooper's sometime minor league teammate in those days, is still baffled by Boston's rejection of Cooper. "I never understood how they could keep sending that man down," he says now. "He could always hit. Something he said to me then still rings in my ears—'Always believe in yourself, because if you don't, you're defeated.' "

By the spring of 1973 Cooper was ready to violate his own dictum. He had gotten married that February to Octavia, who was then a student at Blinn Junior College in his hometown, and he had been attending classes for the past few years at both Blinn and Prairie View A&M. "When they sent me over to the minor league training camp that spring, it seemed like the last straw," Cooper recalls. "I packed my bags and told my wife, 'Let's go home.' Then Haywood Sullivan [the Red Sox player personnel director at the time] persuaded me to give it one more try. They called me up that August."

During three full seasons in Boston, in which he hit .275, .311 and .282, Cooper was platooned and never played in more than 123 games.

"The Red Sox had told me I was finally going to be their first baseman," he says. "Then, suddenly, I'm gone. Looking back, I have no regrets about leaving there." Gone to a team that the previous two seasons had lost 95 and 94 games, respectively, and had never finished higher than a tie for fourth. After the trade—Cooper for George Scott and Bernie Carbo—was announced. Cooper refused to answer his phone for several days. "I was shocked and upset, very depressed," he says. The deal was not an immediate hit in Milwaukee either—Scott had led the league in homers and RBIs in 1975.

In January of 1977, a month after the trade, Cooper checked into Milwaukee's Pfister Hotel to meet his new employers. "The paper said it was one of the coldest days of the century," recalls Cooper, who had been wed to the mild winters of southeast Texas. "With the wind-chill factor, it was about 70 below. I never even left my hotel room." Selig, meanwhile, was being criticized and ridiculed. Shortly after the trade a general manager from another team told Selig, "You keep making trades like this and you'll be in last place forever."

But Selig and Cooper had the last laugh. Scott hit 33 homers for the Red Sox in '77 and then promptly went downhill—all the way to the Mexican League. Cooper hit .300 for the Brewers, going 4 for 4 on the last day of the season. He was one of the first pieces in what Selig now calls "the mosaic of a championship team."

The Coopers have since grown to love Milwaukee. They live year-round in suburban Mequon in a three-bedroom Cape Cod-style house. They're planning to build another house nearby. "Milwaukee is a town, not a city." Cooper says with affection. "If I were in a city, I'd be out of here like a shot at the end of the season, heading back to Texas. But we like it here."

Cooper has become one of the most beloved players on a team of love objects. When Cooper so much as adjusts his socks on the diamond, he sets up choruses of "Coooop...Coooop" from the fans. Driving through town in his beige Mercedes with its personalized COOOOP license plate, he's cheered by other motorists. He is one of the guiding forces of Athletes for Youth, an organization that provides recreation and counseling for local youngsters. "I always believe that if you play in a place, you're taking something from the community that you should give back," says Cooper. "Besides, I like working with kids."

When the Red Sox were last in town, Cooper held a session behind the Brewers' dugout with about a dozen members of Athletes for Youth. He introduced them to visitors Rice and Boggs and to his own teammate, Don Sutton, each of whom spoke for a few minutes. Then Cooper summed up. "You're living in a golden age right now," he told the youngsters. "You can be anything you want to be. You don't have to be a sports star. There are other things in life. The main thing is education."

Cooper's $1 million-per-sea-son contract has another five years to run. When it expires, he says. "I'm through. That will be 16 years in the majors and that's enough. I'm taking a job counseling now so I'll be prepared when the time comes. I don't want to be one of those people who miss playing so much they can't stand it. I know I won't miss it."

He's standing in his living room, gazing out at a backyard that recedes into a kind of suburban wilderness. The sight of all that empty space warms him. This may not be real country, but it's close. He's asked if he will ever regret not being as famous as he should be. He looks surprised. "I don't need all that attention," he says slowly. "All this is temporary, anyway. What's permanent is being what you want to be. What matters is spiritual well-being. All I've ever wanted is a nice simple life. My teammates and the people I work for appreciate me. Milwaukee appreciates me." He shrugs as if to say, "Who can ask for anything more?"





Cooper is the only player among the American League's top 10 in batting average (.306), home runs (27) and runs batted in (113).



Though one of the most articulate of players, Cooper prefers the role of the quiet loner.



Cooper's imposing hitting statistics tend to obscure the fact that he has won two Gold Gloves for his excellence as a first baseman.



Very occasionally, Cooper can be a wild and crazy guy.