Convinced he had the leverage to demand a more lucrative contract, Cardinals ace Mort Cooper played hardball with Sam Breadon. The club owner responded by trading Cooper rather than negotiating with him.
Seventy years ago, on May 23, 1945, the Cardinals traded Cooper, 32, to the Braves for pitcher Red Barrett, 30, and $60,000. Three months later, Cooper had elbow surgery. Barrett earned 21 wins for the 1945 Cardinals.
Show me the money
Cooper was a key reason the Cardinals won three National League pennants and two World Series championships from 1942-44. He was named winner of the NL Most Valuable Player Award in 1942 when he was 22-7 with a 1.78 ERA. He followed that with a 21-8 record and 2.30 ERA in 1943 and a 22-7 record and 2.46 ERA in 1944.
Before the 1945 season, Cooper signed a one-year contract for $12,000. That amount, Breadon told Cooper, was the club ceiling on salaries. In spring training, though, Cooper learned the Cardinals had made an exception for Marty Marion and had signed the shortstop for $13,500.
Cooper demanded the Cardinals give him a new contract for $15,000. Breadon refused. In protest, Cooper and his brother, Walker Cooper, left the Cardinals’ spring training camp at Cairo, Ill., and threatened to boycott the club’s opening series against the Cubs.
The Cooper brothers eventually gave in and were with the club on Opening Day at Chicago. Soon after, Walker Cooper was inducted into the Navy. Mort Cooper made his first appearance of the season on April 22, pitching in relief against the Reds at St. Louis.
When the Cardinals left St. Louis by train for an April series at Cincinnati, Cooper, still miffed about his contract, didn’t show. Instead, he arrived in Cincinnati the next day with his lawyer, Lee Havener, and demanded a salary increase.
Cooper started on April 29 against the Reds and earned the win. He also won his next start, versus the Cubs, on May 6 and got a no-decision in his third start on May 13 against the Giants.
With a 2-0 record and 1.52 ERA, Cooper appeared headed toward another big season. Because of injuries and commitments to military service, the Cardinals had little pitching depth. Sensing he had the upper hand, Cooper decided the time was right to force the issue of a new contract.
In mid-May, while the Cardinals were in Boston, Cooper called traveling secretary Leo Ward about 3 a.m. at the team hotel and informed him he was leaving without permission and returning to St. Louis. Manager Billy Southworth suspended the AWOL pitcher indefinitely and fined him $500.
In St. Louis, Cooper and Havener asked Breadon to discuss a new contract. A meeting was scheduled for May 23 in Breadon’s office.
Secretly, Breadon began talking with clubs to gauge interest in trading for Cooper. The Giants offered cash but no players. The Cubs and Phillies offered a combination of players and cash. The Braves, though, offered the most cash, plus Barrett.
On May 23, Cooper and Havener arrived at Breadon’s office, expecting to renegotiate a contract. Southworth was there with Breadon. After exchanging pleasantries, Breadon delivered his surprise, informing Cooper he had been traded to the Braves.
Deal of the year
“In disposing of Cooper, Breadon took the best course, since there was little chance of an amicable agreement,” The Sporting News opined.
United Press wire service called the transaction “the most important baseball deal of 1945″ because the departure of a perennial 20-game winner gave hope to NL teams that the three-time defending champion Cardinals could be dethroned.
Cooper “almost overnight transformed (the Braves) into a pennant contender,” wrote The Sporting News.
Barrett nearly was overlooked in most reviews of the trade. He was 2-3 with a 4.74 ERA for the 1945 Braves.
Barrett was almost as well-known as a singer as he was a pitcher. He sang a role in the opera “Narcissus” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He toured with bands during the off-season.
“There is scarcely a big jazz band in the country that I haven’t sung with,” Barrett said. “Sammy Kaye. Tommy Dorsey. Skinny Ennis and the rest of them.”
No one expected Barrett would be the equal of Cooper. His career record in seven seasons with the Reds and Braves was 16-37.
Barrett, though, sensed a turnaround. “A fellow really ought to win a few ballgames with that club,” Barrett said of the Cardinals. “What a treat it is to have a real infield in back of you.”
Informed of the trade by Braves manager Bob Coleman, Barrett said, “I didn’t give them a chance to change their minds. I was packed and ready to leave for St. Louis two minutes later. I’d have been ready sooner but I had difficulty in getting my suitcase closed.”
Inserted into the rotation, Barrett was 21-9 with a 2.74 ERA and pitched 22 complete games for the 1945 Cardinals. Cooper was 7-4 with a 3.35 ERA for the 1945 Braves.
The 1945 Cardinals finished in second place at 95-59, three games behind the Cubs. The Braves finished sixth in the eight-team league at 67-85, 30 games behind Chicago.
With Breadon’s approval, Southworth left the Cardinals after the 1945 season and accepted an offer to manage the Braves. His replacement, Eddie Dyer, preferred using Barrett in relief and giving him spot starts. Barrett was 3-2 for the 1946 Cardinals. After the season, he was sent back to the Braves. He pitched three more years for them.
Under Southworth, Cooper was 13-11 with a 3.12 ERA for the 1946 Braves. It was his last hurrah. In 1947, his final season as a major-league pitcher, Cooper was a combined 3-10 with a 5.40 ERA for the Braves and Giants.