In a 17-season career, Cooper posted a .298 batting average with 241 home runs and 1125 runs batted in in 1896 games. He was No. 17 with the Boston Red Sox.
Intending to go to college after his graduation, Cecil was spotted by Boston Red Sox scout Dave Philly and was drafted in the sixth round of the 1968 amateur draft by the Red Sox. He opted to take courses at Blinn Junior College and Prairie View A&M during the off-season. Taken in the Rule 5 draft of minor league players (whereby the team selecting the player pays $50,000 and must keep the player on their major league roster for the entire upcoming season or offer the player back to his previous team for half price) by the St. Louis Cardinals in November 1970. St. Louis returned Cooper to the Red Sox on April 5, 1971. He spent most of five full seasons in the minor leagues (in Jamestown, Greenville, Danville, Winston-Salem, Louisville, and Pawtucket), hitting .327 with 45 home runs and 304 RBIs.
Cooper made his major league debut with the Red Sox on September 8, 1971, pinch-hitting for Roger Moret and grounding to second against Yankee pitcher Jack Aker. He got his first hit three days later, a pinch single off the Tigers' Joe Coleman. He hit .310 in 42 at bats that month. Having hit .343 for Double-A Pawtucket that season, it was thought that he had a shot at the starting job the next season.
Just prior to the start of the 1972 season, the Red Sox acquired Danny Cater from the Yankees and sent Cooper to Triple-A Louisville. Another fine campaign in the minors produced a .315 average, thanks to a league-leading 162 hits, Cooper returned to Boston in September, but garnered just four hits in 17 trips during the tight pennant race.
Despite the failure of Cater, Cooper again failed to stick with the parent club in 1973, as the team elected to move Carl Yastrzemski back to first base the fill the hole. Cecil was sent to Pawtucket, now the Triple-A affiliate, where he hit .293 with 15 home runs. This time he was recalled before the rosters expanded, first playing on August 24 and playing nearly full-time the rest of the season. In 30 games and 108 at-bats, Cooper hit .238 with his first three major league home runs. His first round tripper was struck on September 7 at Fenway Park, off the Tigers' Bob Miller.
In 1974, Cooper was the team's opening day first baseman, hitting third in the lineup. New manager Darrell Johnson used a lot of lineups, trying to divide playing time at first base, left field, and designated hitter amongst Cooper, Yastrzemski, Cater, Tommy Harper, and Bernie Carbo. Cooper ended up playing 74 games at first and 41 more at designated hitter, getting most of the starts when facing right-handed pitchers. He hit .275 in 414 at-bats.
Cooper did not have a good defensive reputation early in his career, which is why he spent a lot of time as a designated hitter. For 1975, the Red Sox had two new rookie outfielders (Jim Rice and Fred Lynn), plus the comebacking Tony Conigliaro, who initially won the DH job. The team had an awful lot of people to beat out and get a chance to play. At the end of May, Cooper was the odd man out, getting just six hits in 24 at-bats. He persevered, and by late June he was playing against all right-handed pitchers. He ended up hitting .311 with 14 home runs in 305 at-bats.
One of the team's hottest hitters in August and September, Cecil had a scary moment on September 7. The Red Sox were playing the second game of a doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers, when he was hit in the face by future teammate Bill Travers. Cecil had to be carried off on a stretcher and was bleeding from his nose and mouth. The incident hampered his performance the rest of the season. With Jim Rice's injury requiring Carl Yastrzemski to play left field, Cooper had first base to himself for most of the post-season. He was 4-for-11 in the playoffs but just 1-for-19 in the World Series.
Appearing in 123 games the following season, again splitting time between first base and designated hitter, Cooper hit a solid .282 with 15 homers and 78 RBI. After the 1976 season, manager Don Zimmer told Cooper told that he would become Boston's regular starting first baseman. This was not to be the case, as on December 6, 1976, Cooper was sent to the Milwaukee Brewers for two former Red Sox first baseman George Scott and outfielder Bernie Carbo.
The trade was not particularly popular in either Boston or Milwaukee. In fact, Brewers owner Bud Selig was told by other AL East clubs that if you "keep making trades like that you will be in last place forever." In 1976, the Brewers finished dead last in their division with a record of 66–95. The extremely popular Scott had first played in a Red Sox uniform from 1966 to 1971 and had posted several good seasons for the Brewers. Alas, neither Scott nor Carbo ever again had the kind of success they had achieved in earlier seasons. Cecil Cooper would become a legend in Milwaukee.
Cooper was a clutch contact hitter who could hit for both average and power. He kept putting up such solidly consistent numbers year after year that it was easy to overlook his achievements. In his first year in Milwaukee he hit .300, in his second year he hit .312, and in 1979 Cooper hit .308. Also in 1979, Cecil had a league-leading 44 doubles. Former Milwaukee player-coach Sal Bando once said of him, "Cecil Cooper can beat you with a home run or a flare to left or a bunt. And he can field his position. You have guys who can hit home runs and guys who can hit singles. But not many can do both. Cecil can."
Playing for a smaller market team in the Midwest allowed Cooper to thrive, and in 1980 he did just that. He hit better than .300 in every month of the season finishing with a remarkable .352 average, 25 home runs, 219 hits, and an American League-leading 122 RBI. His season was largely overlooked because Royals third baseman by George Brett flirted with a .400 batting average, setting for.390. The unassuming Cooper said, "With Brett hitting close to .400 all year, I didn't expect to get much publicity, and I didn't have any trouble living with that."
Coop was also part of a record game in 1980. On April 12, in an 18–1 Brewer rout of the Red Sox, he and infielder/DH Don Money connected for two grand slams in the same inning. This marked only the fourth time in major league history this feat has ever been accomplished. (There have been two since, most recently in 1999, when Fernando Tatis of the St. Cardinals hit two grand slams himself in one inning). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Brewers franchise was moving up in the standings finishing with 93 wins in 1978 and 95 wins in 1979. In 1981, in a strike-shortened split season, the New York Yankees won the first half in the AL East while the Milwaukee Brewers finished first in the second half. This set the stage for a best-of-five game divisional playoff between the two clubs. Although the Yankees won the series in five games, it was the following year that the Brewers had the best season in franchise history. Cooper hit .320 with 12 home runs in the abbreviated campaign.
In 1982, first baseman Cooper was at the heart of the one of the era's great lineups, batting third behind Paul Molitor and Robin Yount, and in front of Ted Simmons, Gorman Thomas, and Charlie Moore. Cooper hit .313, with 32 home runs and 121 runs batted in. On October 3, 1982, in a game deciding the American League East championship, the Milwaukee Brewers defeated the Baltimore Orioles 10–2, closing out the season with a mark of 95–67. Their opponent in the ALCS was the western division champion California Angels.
The Brewers reached their first (and so far only) World Series as they eliminated the Angels in five games, becoming the first team in major league history to come back from a two-games-to-none deficit and win a best-of-five postseason series. In the decisive Game Five, Jim Gantner and Charlie Moore scored on Cooper's seventh-inning bases-loaded single. In a gesture reminiscent of former teammate Carlton Fisk, who waved his arms to keep the ball fair in Game Six of the '75 Series, Cooper was motioning for the ball to get down. "I remember thinking, 'get down ball, get down.' The crowd was so loud I couldn't really hear myself saying anything, but I just wanted to keep waving so that ball would fall in there." Overall he hit just 3-for-20 in the series.
The 1982 World Series was called the "Suds Series" because it pitted the two of America's largest beer cities against each other: Milwaukee and St. Louis. The National League champion St. Louis Cardinals featured first baseman Keith Hernandez and future Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. Cecil homered in a losing effort in Game Three, and his 8-for-28 record was not enough, as his team lost a seven-game series.
After the 1982 season, Cooper's teammate Robin Yount won the American League MVP award, and just as in 1980 when he lost to George Brett, Cecil finished fifth in the voting. Yount hit .331 with 29 home runs and 114 RBI. "Maybe, I'm the Lou Gehrig of my time", says Cooper "... always in the shadows of someone else. He's a pretty good role model, though."
A five-time All-Star, Cooper hit .300 or more from 1977 to 1983. His most productive season came in 1980, when he hit a career-high .352 (finishing second in the American League behind batting champion George Brett's .390 average for the Kansas City Royals), and he also led the league in RBI (122) and total bases (335).
In 1983 Cooper hit .307 with 30 home runs and a league-leading and career-high 126 RBI. He also posted three seasons with 200-plus hits, in 1980, 1982 and 1983, finished fifth in the AL MVP vote, and was named the Brewers' team MVP in three seasons (1980, 1982–83). An excellent defensive first baseman, he was a two-time Gold Glove winner (1979–80). He also won the Silver Slugger Award in three straight years (1980–82); the only other Brewer to have done so is Ryan Braun (2008–10).
Cooper concluded his major league career with 11 seasons as a Brewer, including an appearance in the 1982 World Series. Cooper holds the Milwaukee franchise records for hits (219 in 1980). Cooper held the team record for RBIs in a season with 126 until Prince Fielder broke that record on September 19, 2009 against the Houston Astros, who Cooper was managing at the time. Through 2011 he was one of three Brewers who have had four 100-RBI seasons, along with Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun.
While in Milwaukee, Cecil wrote a column for the Brewers' magazine, What's Brewing? He wrote everything from his baseball experiences as a hitter and a first baseman to how kids could get autographs from their favorite players. In 1983, Cooper won baseball's coveted "Roberto Clemente" award for his community service. Since 1970, the award has been given to players for their humanitarian service and initiatives. Cecil worked with Athletes for Youth, a Milwaukee-based inner city program teaching children about baseball, and was honorary chairman of both the Kidney Foundation of Wisconsin and the 1982 Food for Families Project. Bud Selig said of Cooper, "I think Cecil does a lot more than any of us know. Cecil is shy. What he does, he prefers to do in anonymity." Cecil Cooper holds Brewers single season records in hits (219 in 1980) and RBIs (126 in 1983). As a Brewer, he is ranked third all-time in batting (.302), hits (1,815), doubles (345), and home runs (201). He is second in RBIs with 994. In 2002 he was inducted into the Brewers Walk of Fame.
Following his retirement in 1987, Cooper became a player agent for CSMG International until 1996. He then worked as farm director for the Brewers as well as a scout. In 2002, Cooper returned to the dugout as bench coach for Milwaukee. He also managed the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians in 2003–04. Cooper had a record of 130–156, finishing fourth in 2003 and third in 2004.
In 2005, he took advantage of the opportunity to return to his native Texas as a bench coach for the Houston Astros. On August 27, 2007, he was named the interim manager of the Astros following the firing of Phil Garner, making him the first African American field manager in Astros' history. Cooper's previous managerial experience was at Class AAA Indianapolis, the Milwaukee Brewers' top farm club. The team went 15–16 to finish the season in 4th place with a record of 73–89, 12 games back of division winners Chicago Cubs. On September 28, 2007, Cooper's interim tag was dropped and he became the Astros' 16th manager. In 2008 the team had a winning record of 86–75, good enough for 3rd place, but still 11 games behind the repeating divisional winning Cubs. In Cooper's third full season as manager the team slipped back to a losing record of 74–88, dropping down to 5th place, a disappointing 17 games behind the division winning St. Louis Cardinals.
Cooper was released as Astros manager on September 21, 2009.
Cooper was elected to the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.
He lives now in Katy, TX with his wife Octavia and daughter Tori. He has two other grown daughters, Kelly and Brittany.
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