Wilbur Cooper

Wilbur CooperCooper was scouted for the Pirates by future President Warren G. Harding, for which historians may credit Harding with his biggest contribution to the country. Lefty Cooper was an excellent fielder and a fine hitter, who was known for his ability to pick runners off third base. His 202 wins for the Pirates is still the most in franchise history, and he teamed with Babe Adams to form one of the longest-running lefty/righty pitching tandems in history. Cooper won twenty games four times, and from 1917 to 1924 his 161 wins were the most in baseball.

Cooper played his first professional ball with Marion (Ohio), in 1911. The publisher of the local newspaper was Warren G. Harding, who also owned the baseball team. The story goes that Harding recognized Cooper’s ability and told Pirates’ owner Barney Dreyfuss about the left-hander. After the season, Dreyfuss bought Cooper from Columbus, for whom he finished the ’11 campaign. The southpaw hurled for the Pirates for 13 seasons, while Harding worked his way up the Ohio political machine and was elected President of the United States in 1920.

Catcher Walter Schmidt became Wilbur Cooper’s “caddie” in a sense. Schmidt was with the Pirates from 1916-1924, and caught most of Cooper’s starts in those nine seasons. Even when Pittsburgh had regular catchers Willy Fischer and Johnny Gooch, Schmidt was Cooper’s choice behind the plate. In 1922, Cooper started 37 games and Schmidt caught 40 games. Schmidt was to Cooper as Eddie Perez was to Greg Maddux in the 1990s.

Cooper and Schmidt were so in synch that in later years they often went the entire game without calling any pitches. Partly due to Schmidt, Cooper was a very fast worker, once defeating Pete Alexander in 51 or 59 minutes, depending on the source. Cooper recalled that special relationship, “I remember many a time, I’d be half through with my windup by the time I got a signal from Schmidt.” After the pitcher was dealt to the Cubs, the Cooper/Schmidt duo was broken, with Schmidt playing just one more season with the Browns before retiring.

On October 27, 1924, Pirates’ owner Barney Dreyfuss angered Pittsburgh baseball fans when he traded Cooper to the Cubs. Chicago received Cooper, Rabbit Maranville and Charlie Grimm. In return, Pittsburgh acquired pitcher Vic Aldridge, infielder George Grantham, and first baseman Al Niehaus. Grimm and Grantham proved to be the key players in the swap. Grimm played 12 seasons for the Cubs and managed the team for 13 years, Grantham solidified the Pirates’ middle infield and starred on two pennant winners. Aldridge was a helpful starting pitcher for the Bucs for a few seasons, but Neihaus never panned out despite great expectations. Within a few years he was dead. Cooper and Maranville never did much for the Cubs.