NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 26: RHP MORT COOPER
As near as anyone could tell, Cardinals right-handed pitcher Mort Cooper was not a superstitious man. Not, at least, until the middle of the 1942 baseball season when he decided his uniform No. 13 was bad luck.
In retrospect, his sudden attack of triskaidekaphobia likely traces back to June 23 of the previous summer.
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Cooper had pitched a full nine innings in an 11-3 win over Philadelphia not a week earlier, but chronic tenderness in his elbow and a corresponding decline in his pitch velocity led to the discovery of bone spurs. Dr. Robert F. Hyland, father of the well-known KMOX-AM radio executive, removed them, but was forced to put the staff ace on the shelf for a month as the Cardinals engaged Brooklyn in a tight pennant race.
St. Louis rallied to catch the Dodgers when a rehabbed Cooper won in Cincinnati on Aug. 31 to put his team into a first-place tie. It was win no. 13 for Cooper, who then proceeded to post an 0-4 September as the Cardinals faded into second place.
Healthy again for 1942, Cooper was perfect in seven July starts before notching win No. 13 in the second game of an Aug. 2 double-header against the New York Giants. But when he dropped his next two decisions, and the Cardinals fell nine games behind the Dodgers, Cooper began to fear his season win total would once again be frozen to match that unlucky number on his back.
So he left No. 13 in his locker for the rest of the season.
On Aug. 14, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-hander took the mound at Sportsman’s Park straining the seams of 180-pound reserve catcher Gus Mancuso’s flannel No. 14. Cooper not only shut out the Reds with a complete-game two-hitter, he hit a double in the third inning. Win No. 15 was achieved in like fashion when he commandeered the corresponding jersey of his brother and battery-mate, Walker Cooper.
The game-winning ritual continued through the uniforms of Ken O’Dea, Erv Dusak, Lon Warneke and others until the strapping Cooper busted the buttons off pipsqueek Murry Dickson’s No. 22. That occasion happened to be another two-hit shutout against the Reds which clinched the Cardinals’ first National League championship since the Gas House Gang’s in 1934.
St. Louis had won an incredible 68 of its last 89 games to set a franchise record for victories at 106 (the Dodgers set a franchise record with 104 wins that season, too). Cooper lost Game 1 of the World Series, but the Cardinals swept the New York Yankees over the next four for the crown.
Eight players on that team’s roster, including rookie outfielder Stan Musial, finished in the top 20 of the NL’s Most Valuable Player balloting. With a 22-7 record and a league-best 1.78 ERA, Cooper garnered 13 of 20 first-place votes to win the MVP. He had 10 shutouts, a .987 WHIP, an adjusted ERA of 192 and was worth 8.4 Wins Above Replacement.
The Cardinals faced little resistance over the next two seasons. They won 105 games both years with the nearest contender, the Pittsburgh Pirates, finishing 14 ½ back in 1944. Cooper won 21 and 22 games respectively, pitching no fewer than 252 innings and posting no worse than a 2.46 ERA. He took a tough 2-0 loss in the Yankees’ World Series clincher in 1943, but allowed just two earned runs in 16 innings as the Cardinals beat the Browns in the all-St. Louis Streetcar Series the following autumn. Twelve Brownie batters struck out in his Game 5 shutout.
By that point, Cooper had gone back to wearing his old familiar No. 13. Maybe he shouldn’t have.
Despite his admission that he had taken to chewing aspirin while he pitched to deaden the pain in his balky elbow, he engaged team owner Sam Breadon in bitter contract dispute ahead of the 1945 season. Cooper had signed a contract with the understanding the that payroll was capped at $12,000 by the federal Wage Stabilization Act, which was passed in 1942 to help control inflation during the war years. When Cooper learned later that Breadon had raised shortstop Marty Marion’s salary to $13,500, both he and his brother went “on strike,” demanding $15,000 each.
Walker Cooper was drafted and inducted to the Navy, but big-brother Mort walked out on the team before eventually demanding a three-year contract. He told the Associated Press “I won’t put on a uniform until this thing is solved one way or the other, but I don’t want to be traded.”
Six days later, the Cardinals shipped Cooper to the Boston Braves for Red Barrett, who went on to win 21 games for St. Louis in ‘45, and $60,000 cash. Cooper went 13-11 in 1946, but with recurring arm trouble, never won more than three games in a season again.
Cooper captured more negative attention when the violent nature of his second marriage emerged through newspaper coverage of the couple’s divorce. Embattled by legal trouble, his weight and alcoholism, he died in 1958 at just 45 years old.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1938-1945
105-50 (.677) with St. Louis | 2.77 ERA | 3x All-Star | MVP ‘42 | 28.8 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.90