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Former Brave Finds Himself in Poverty and One Day Shy for MLB Pension

Gary Cooper, who once played for the Atlanta Braves, is in dire need of income that the players pension can provide. So what’s the problem? Cooper was with the Braves for just 42 days in 1980. To be eligible under The Major League Baseball Players Benefit Plan, one must be in uniform for 43 days as a player, coach, or manager.

During his 42-day stay, Cooper appeared in 21 games as a pinch runner or defensive replacement in the outfield. He was 0-for-2 as a major leaguer. In seven minor league seasons across three levels, he hit .234/.332/.311, 25 home runs, and 240 RBI. He also stole 211 bases in 271 attempts. Cooper was born in the wrong year. His batting averages were pedestrian at a time when baseball overvalued batting averages. However, he drew 388 walks in those seven seasons. In 1976 and 1977, his OBP was .356 and .363, respectively. Cooper would have been a coveted player in today’s era of analytics and Moneyball.

Cooper Gets the Call

The Braves called up Cooper on August 25, 1980. They were scheduled to play the defending world champion Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium.

With the Braves ahead, 8-4, in the seventh inning, Cooper was inserted into the game to play left field. In the bottom of the ninth, the Pirates began to rally against pitcher Preston Hanna. A two-out RBI double by Mike Easler knocked Hanna out of the game. With Larry Bradford on the mound, Omar Moreno blooped a single into left field to drive in Easler. Perhaps unfamiliar with the artificial turf, Cooper came in too fast, only to see the ball take a high bounce over his head. Cooper turned, caught the ball over his shoulder with his bare hand, spun, threw, and nailed Moreno at second base as he tried to stretch the hit into a double. That ended the game and preserved an 8-6 Braves victory. It was Cooper’s finest moment in the majors.

Rained Out of a Pension

On what would have been Cooper’s 43rd day in the majors and the Braves’ 162nd game of the year, they were rained out in Cincinnati. The game was not made up due to the lack of any impact on the standings. Thus, the Braves moved Cooper off the major league roster to the minor leagues. He played for Single-A Durham in 1981. With nothing more to prove in the minors, he retired after that season at age 24.

In a game where Shohei Ohtani can sign a $700 million contract, Cooper is at the other end of baseball’s spectrum. Today, Cooper, 67, is struggling. He lives with a niece in Savannah and has only Social Security benefits. He has no car, savings, or pension. He’s had part-time work as a landscaper, but work has generally been unavailable. He appealed to MLB and the MLB Players Association for benefits under the pension plan. Cooper contended if not for the rainout, he would have been on the Braves roster for one more day and thus eligible for the pension.

Both bodies rejected Cooper’s appeals. As it turns out, the rainout did not affect the number of days of service. A game doesn’t need to be played for a player to get credit for that day. Cooper was a day short anyway. Furthermore, the committees would not waive the 43-day rule for Cooper. If that seems harsh, it’s not that simple. By law, a pension plan must operate according to its express terms. One deviation and the IRS can disqualify the plan (or keep it alive in exchange for a steep penalty). Unfortunately, this is the case even when the deviation helps a down-and-out former ballplayer.

Braves Can Still Help Cooper Get His Pension

All is not lost, however. A major league team can sign Cooper to a one-day contract as a coach, and he becomes eligible for a pension. Although any team would do, the Braves are the logical choice. After all, Cooper played for them. Besides, the Braves once did the same for Satchel Paige back in 1968. The Negro League legend Paige, who played for three major league teams, needed 158 days of service to qualify for the pension. The Braves signed him as a pitcher/coach and kept him on the team for the entire season. There was risk involved in signing Paige as a pitcher, as nobody even knew his real age, including Paige himself. Paige claimed to have no birth certificate. At various times, he said the nurse died before she could fill it out. Or it was destroyed in a fire. Or it was eaten by a mule.

Then-Braves president William C. Bartholomay, who appreciated baseball history, didn’t care either way. He confessed to The Washington Post, “We hope we can use him as a pitcher, but very frankly, we want to make him eligible for a place in baseball’s pension.” Paige did no pitching for the Braves but was in uniform as a coach throughout the season. He would also serve as an assistant trainer. His presence was no joke or publicity stunt.

Similarly, Cooper is asking the Braves to help him get his pension, but he’s not asking for a handout. He notes that the Braves don’t have a baserunning coach. He’s willing and able to fill that void.

The Last Word

On March 10, Robert Jonas, a friend of Cooper, started a petition on to ask the Braves to add Cooper to their coaching staff for just one game in 2024. As of this writing, there are 17,018 signatures and no response from the Braves. With a payroll estimated at $230 million while competing in the seventh-largest television market in the US, one would hope the Braves could take on Cooper for a day. That throw to nab Moreno in 1980 must be worth something, right?

Main Photo: © Dennis Knight/ / USA TODAY NETWORK


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