Wilbur Cooper

Wilbur Cooper

February 24, 1892
5' 11"
175 lbs
Major League Debut:
8-29-1912 with PIT

When the subject of who won more baseball games than any other Pirate pitcher in the history of the franchise comes up, the popular answers are Vern Law or Bob Friend.  In reality, there is one pitcher who had won more than any other for the Bucs, and his name isn’t Law or Friend, its sinkerball specialist Wilbur Cooper who won 202 games in Pittsburgh between 1912-1924.

President Warren G Harding saw him pitch in his hometown and was so impressed with Cooper that he recommended him to the Cleveland Indians.  Cleveland signed him and sent him to their farm club in Columbus where he was eventually traded to the Pirates.

Although Cooper had a fabulous beginning to his career, shutting out St Louis in his first major league start ever, 8-0 on September 12th, 1912, after 4 seasons he did not look like he would come any where near 100 wins, much less the all-time Pirate leader.  After a disastrous 5-16 mark in 1915, Wilbur’s career record stood at 29-34, the bulk of his wins, 16 coming in the previous season when he won 16.

Cooper came back with a solid 1916 campaign in which he finished 4th in the senior circuit with a 1.87 ERA, before he came into his prime, winning at least 17 games for the Pirates over the next seven seasons.

He won 17 in 1917 and then upped it to 19 the following two seasons where he finished third and fourth in the National League respectively.

1919 was just a prelude to what would be Cooper’s first 20-win season and perhaps his marquee campaign in 1920.  The West Virginia native went 24-16 good for second in the league in wins with the fourth lowest ERA in the circuit at 2.39.

The pitch that probably separated Cooper from the rest was his devastating sinkerball.  Wilbur was also a very fast worker.  He was together with catcher Walter Schmidt from 1916 through the end of his time in Pittsburgh and he had a great relationship with the backstop.  Schmidt and Cooper knew each other so well that they often didn’t need to use signals, which helped Wilbur work so quickly.

Besides being an outstanding hurler, Cooper was also not only a very adept fielder, but was quite decent at the plate. The Hurler had a career .239 average with six homers, 4 of which came in 1922, a season where Cooper not only had a career high 15 RBI’s, but also finished, 23-14 second in the league in wins, with a 4th best 3.18 ERA.  He also topped the league with a 4.1 Total Pitching Index, a stat that appears in Total Baseball that is designed to measure the top hurlers by taking into account all their vital statistics.  The 23 wins marked Wilbur’s third consecutive 20 win season, and came on the heels of a 1921 season that saw the West Virginia native lead the circuit in victories with 22.

Cooper fell a little with a 17-19 mark in 1923, but rebounded with a fine year, breaking the 20-win plateau for the 4th and final time in 1924 with a 20-14 record, leading the league in shutouts that season with 4.

Wilbur was a surly player and was rumored to be not too popular among his teammates.  He often would get made at the players behind him when they made a bad play defensively. Because of that he may have not been missed when the veteran pitcher was dealt to the Cubs with Charlie Grimm and Rabbit Maranville for Vic Aldridge, Al Niehaus and George Grantham.  Although it was felt that the Bucs gave up to much in the deal, Grantham had three consecutive .300 seasons while Glenn Wright filled in nicely for Maranville at short and Aldridge was a solid pitcher for the team for three years.  Grimm was the only ex buc to excel in the Windy City as Cooper was pretty much at the end of the road and was out of the league after the 1926 campaign, where he finished his career 0-4 with the Tigers.

After Cooper left, the infamous ABC affair took place, where some players spoke up against Fred Clarke being on the bench and usurping Manager Bill McKechnie’s power.  Cooper felt somewhat vindicated that other players were causing problems inn the locker room as for years he was thought to be the only malcontent.

When his playing Days ended, he managed the local Jeannette team, which was a low minor league club in the Pirate chain.  He took them to a league championship in 1936.  Pirate Ken Heintzelman was a pitcher on that club whom Cooper helped a lot.  Following that he went over to the rival Greensburg team to manage their franchise.

In 1969 the West Virginia native received the honor of being named to the all-time Pirate team as the best left-hander in the teams history to that point.

Wilbur lived to the ripe old age of 81 when he passed away of a heart attack.  Cooper certainly will be remembered as one of the greatest players ever to put on a Pittsburgh uniform.  For the time being, he is also the answer to the trivia question, who is the all time Pirate leader in wins?

Baseball History, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Wilbur Cooper
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