Cecil Cooper and the Forgotten Summer of 1980

Like the character in the movie Airplane!, who picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue, Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Cecil Cooper picked the wrong season to have a career year.

Like Jan exclaiming, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” on The Brady Bunch, Cooper was well within his rights to exclaim, “Brett, Brett, Brett!” That’s what happens when you have the best season of your career in the same summer someone else has one of the best seasons ever.

Overshadowed

Cecil Cooper
Coop got not respect

George Brett’s 1980 season was simply amazing, but Cecil Cooper put up numbers that likely would have won him the MVP in any other year. While Brett, and some of his teammates, were complaining about all the attention he was getting, Cooper was getting frustrated by the lack of attention he was getting.

“It’s my tough luck that the man’s having a hellacious year,” Cooper said. “But what can I do? All I can do is go out there and keep doing what I’m doing.”

What he was doing was very impressive. On September 1st, while newspapers across the country were running daily updates on Brett’s chase for .400, Cooper was quietly batting .359. The Royals hosted the Brewers for a three-game series at the beginning of the month and Cooper outhit Brett, going 5-12 in a Brewers sweep while Brett went 3-9. But the numbers that mattered were the batting averages and Brett finished the series at .401 to Cooper’s .360.

What Does a Guy Have to Do?

Cooper wasn’t bitter, nor was he jealous. “I wish George every ounce of luck,” he said. “The guy is hitting more than .400 and that’s terrific.” It just seemed that no matter what he did, George Brett was the story.

“I read the paper, ‘Ah, Coop got two hits and it’s no big deal,” he said. “As if to say I’m supposed to do that, I’m expected to do that. It just seems like nobody gives a (bleep), you know?”

“I’m not complaining. I’m obligated to go out and play, but it does bother me a bit. I mean, if I was in L.A. and having this kind of year, I’d be a celebrity. But then maybe I couldn’t handle that either. As long as my teammates and the fans here know what kind of year I’m having, I have to take satisfaction in that and keep doing my job.”

The Final Tally

Cecil CooperCecil Cooper finished the 1980 season with a .352 batting average, good for 2nd overall in the major leagues. He was 2nd in hits (219) and total bases (335). He led the big leagues in RBI with 122, won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger Award. His .352 average would have been tops in the major leagues in 12 of the previous 20 seasons. He finished 5th in the A.L. MVP voting.

“If I put the stats together, it’ll come,” he said. “It might come two years later than you expect it, but it’ll come.”

 

Brewer Bombers

It took the Milwaukee Brewers all of 11 innings to assert themselves as one of the top offensive teams of the early 1980s. After beating the Boston Red Sox 9-5 on Opening Day of the 1980 season, they treated their fans to an offensive explosion in the second game of the new decade.

When Mike Torrez took the mound in the bottom of the 2nd inning on April 12th he was trailing 2-0 and he had only himself to blame. His two first-inning errors were key in Milwaukee grabbing an early lead, but what happened next was the stuff of nightmares.

The Carnage Begins

Robin Yount led off the inning with a single and then stole 2nd. Catcher Buck Martinez walked and Paul Molitor laid down a bunt single down the third base line. The fact that there were no outs in the 2nd inning and Molitor had already reached base twice in the game was a sure sign it wasn’t going to be Torrez’s day.

Cecil Cooper stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and unloaded on a Torrez offering. His grand slam gave the Brewers a 6-0 lead and ended Torrez’s afternoon.

His line:

IP
H
R
ER
BB
K
HR
1
4
6
5
2
0
1

Then it got worse.

Chuck Rainey relieved Torrez and walked Larry Hisle. Ben Oglivie doubled and Gorman Thomas struck out. Milwaukee had two on with one out and Sixto Lezcano at the plate, whose sac fly in the 1st inning gave the Brewers their second run. Boston manager Don Zimmer decided to walk the left-handed-hitting Lezcano to set up a righty/righty matchup with Don Money with the bases loaded. A ground ball would get the Red Sox out of the inning with minimal damage.

But instead, Money hit the 2nd grand slam of the inning and the Brewers had a 10-0 lead. They also weren’t finished. Four pitches later, Yount homered off Rainey to make it a nine-run inning.

“My first granny and my first back-to-back jobs in the majors,” Rainey told the Boston Globe after the game. “I’d rather it be in a 6-0 cause than a close game, but I still don’t like it.”

The Carnage Continues

Milwaukee scored two more in the 5th inning off Rainey and an early-season blowout seemed like a good time for the big league debut of Boston’s top pitching prospect Bruce Hurst. The Brewers proved to be rude hosts once again. Yount walked to lead off the inning and Martinez flew out to center. Then Molitor singled to bring up Cooper with two on. In what would be his finest season, Cooper came through again, doubling to right field to score Molitor. Two batters later, Oglivie singled to score Molitor and Cooper before Gorman Thomas capped the afternoon with a two-run homer to make the score 18-1.

Zimmer called the loss an embarrassment but Fred Lynn took it in stride. “We’ve got to shore up our defensive secondary,” joked Lynn. “They’re bombing us.”

After two games, the Brewers were on pace to hit 729 homers and 243 grand slams while the Red Sox were on pace to allow 2,187 runs. The numbers didn’t quite hold up, but Milwaukee did lead all of baseball with 203 longballs in 1980.

“I’d always said that I’d never seen a team as awesome offensively as the one we had in Boston in ’77,” said Boston pitcher Reggie Cleveland. “But I’ve changed my mind. This team is.”