Fed up with contract hassles and uneasy with the prospect of playing for manager Eddie Dyer, Walker Cooper, the best catcher in the National League, wanted out of St. Louis. Seeing a surplus of suitors causing Cooper’s market value to skyrocket, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon was willing to accommodate him.
On Jan. 5, 1946, the Cardinals sent Cooper to the Giants for $175,000.
The cash amount was the third-largest paid by a club to acquire a player, according to media reports at that time.
(In 1934, the Red Sox sent $250,000 and shortstop Lyn Lary to the Senators for shortstop Joe Cronin. In 1938, the Cubs gave $185,000, plus pitchers Curt Davis and Clyde Shoun and outfielder Tuck Stainback, to the Cardinals for pitcher Dizzy Dean.)
“I decided Cooper wasn’t satisfied here and would do better elsewhere,” Breadon said. “But get me right: Walker was a great player here and I consider him the greatest catcher in the majors since Bill Dickey of the Yankees was a young man.”
In the short term, the trade didn’t hurt the Cardinals. Without Cooper, they won the 1946 World Series championship.
In the long run, losing Cooper was a factor in the erosion of the Cardinals, who went 18 years before winning another World Series crown.
Along with his brother Mort, a starting pitcher, Walker Cooper was a key player on Cardinals clubs that won three consecutive NL pennants and two World Series titles from 1942-44.
He was named an all-star catcher in each of those three seasons. His numbers:
_ 1942: Batted .281 with 32 doubles and 65 RBI. Ranked second among NL catchers in assists (62) and runners caught attempting to steal (58 percent). Batted .286 in the World Series.
_ 1943: Batted .318 with 30 doubles and 81 RBI. Caught 48 percent of runners attempting to steal. Batted .294 in the World Series.
_ 1944: Batted .317 with 25 doubles and 72 RBI. Caught 43 percent of runners attempting to steal. Batted .318 in the World Series.
Cooper also was touted for game-calling skills. “He’s the best fellow handling young pitchers I have ever seen,” said Coaker Triplett, a Cardinals outfielder from 1941-43.
Feuding with front office
The relationship between Cooper and the Cardinals soured, though, in 1945.
In spring training, Mort Cooper demanded a $15,000 contract. Breadon refused. In protest, Mort Cooper and Walker Cooper left camp and threatened to boycott the Cardinals’ opening series against the Cubs.
The brothers gave in and were with the club on Opening Day. Soon after, Walker Cooper was inducted into the Navy after playing four April games for the 1945 Cardinals. A month later, Mort Cooper was traded to the Braves.
While serving his Navy stint in 1945, Walker Cooper remained miffed at Cardinals management for the contract dispute and for dealing his brother.
In October 1945, Walker Cooper called Breadon and requested a trade, the Cardinals owner told The Sporting News.
Cooper confirmed to the Associated Press that he had asked to be traded.
A month later, Cardinals manager Billy Southworth resigned and joined the Braves. Breadon replaced Southworth with Dyer. Cooper again contacted the Cardinals and “said he would rather not play under Dyer,” Breadon said.
Cooper’s problem with Dyer occurred when both were with the Cardinals’ Houston farm club during spring training in 1939. Cooper apparently clashed with Dyer, who had replaced Ira Smith as manager. Cooper was shipped to the Cardinals’ Asheville, N.C., affiliate.
“(Dyer) said there had been differences with Cooper in Houston, but he believed they could be ironed out,” Breadon said. “He felt a player didn’t have to like him personally if he played good ball for his team.”
Said Dyer: “I have always been able to get along with any ballplayer and I could have gotten along with Cooper, whom I consider the best catcher in baseball.”
In his book “Stan Musial: The Man’s Own Story,” Musial said, “Breadon said Coop didn’t want to play for Dyer, but the boss gave the persuasive manager no chance to talk to the catcher. The truth is, Mr. Breadon was annoyed at the Cooper boys for squabbling over salaries.”
At the baseball winter meetings in December 1945, at least five clubs inquired about Cooper, with the Giants, Braves and Phillies making the most lucrative offers.
The Cardinals asked the Giants for $150,000 and three players. A few weeks later, the trade came together when the Giants offered to increase the cash amount to $175,000 if the Cardinals would drop their demand for players.
The transaction was announced three days before Cooper turned 31. It “kicked up more commotion among Polo Grounds customers than any deal since Frank Frisch was traded for Rogers Hornsby in 1926,” wrote The Sporting News.
Cooper was released from the Navy on April 2, 1946, and debuted with the Giants about two weeks later.
His first season with New York was a dud. Cooper hit .268 with 46 RBI for a 1946 Giants team that finished in last place in the NL at 61-93. The 1946 Cardinals, using a platoon of Joe Garagiola and Del Rice at catcher, finished in first place at 98-58.
Cooper had an outstanding season for the 1947 Giants, hitting .305 with 35 home runs and 122 RBI. However, after he left the Cardinals, he never again played in a World Series.
After stints with the Reds, Braves, Pirates and Cubs, Cooper finished his career as a backup catcher for the 1956-57 Cardinals.
Meanwhile, neither Garagiola nor Rice performed at the level Cooper had for St. Louis.
In his book “Musial: From Stash to Stan the Man,” author James N. Giglio wrote, “Both Musial and (Enos) Slaughter rightly contended that the loss of Cooper cost the Redbirds several pennants.”
In choosing his all-time NL all-star team, Musial picked Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella “in a photo finish with Walker Cooper.”
Comparing the Cooper deal with the 1941 trade of St. Louis slugger Johnny Mize to the Giants, Musial said, “Big Coop’s sale by the Cardinals probably was even worse than the loss of Johnny Mize.”
Previously: Why Cardinals traded pitching ace Mort Cooper
Previously: Why Cardinals dealt ace Dizzy Dean to Cubs