A brilliant day for a forgotten Red

Does anyone in Cincinnati remember Walker Cooper?

Cincinnati baseball fans could hardly be blamed for a lack of enthusiasm surrounding the game between the Reds and the Chicago Cubs on July 6, 1949. The Reds were mired in seventh place, and had lost three games in a row, and 10 of their previous 15. Most recently, Cincinnati had scored only one run in dropping an Independence Day doubleheader against Pittsburgh. In fact, only one team in the league was playing worse than the Reds. Fortunately, that team was the Cubs, who had lost four of their last five, and were already 16.5 games out of first.

To make things worse, Cincinnati was in the midst of a record heat wave. One person died and 12 people collapsed that day due to the heat, as temperatures reached 99 degrees, an all-time high for the city. The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that the temperature on the mound at first pitch was 110.2.

Sidenote: It was the hottest recorded July 6 temperature in Cincinnati’s history, a record that stood until 2012. But the heat wave in Cincinnati was nothing compared to the area around Lisbon, Portugal that same day, where a freak weather phenomenon called a “heat burst” took temperatures from 100° to 158° in two minutes.

Put everything together, and it hardly seems surprising that only 4,036 brave souls ventured out to Crosley Field to take in a ballgame on a Wednesday afternoon. 

Cincinnati manager Bucky Walters had tried seven different cleanup hitters in the season’s first three months, but wasn’t particularly satisfied with any of them until Walker Cooper strolled into the Reds clubhouse in mid-June. A big guy from Atherton, Missouri, Cooper had established himself as perhaps the best catcher in baseball since arriving in the big leagues nine years before. Playing with the Cardinals and Giants, Cooper had been named to six All-Star squads, and had finished second in NL MVP voting in 1943, after hitting .318 and helping St. Louis win the pennant.

Now 34 years old, Cooper had gotten off to a terrible start in 1949, hitting just .211/.261/.354 through 42 games for the Giants.  “Walk,” as he was known, had been engaged in a bitter feud with new Giants manager Leo Durocher. Cooper was openly critical of his skipper, complaining about Durocher to anyone who would listen, including the New York beat writers. For his part, Durocher once told his catcher to “keep your big mouth shut” during a game; Leo’s nickname wasn’t “the Lip” for nothing.

With Cooper struggling at the plate, Durocher had his opportunity; on June 13, the Giants traded him to Cincinnati in exchange for 37-year-old Ray Mueller, a steady catcher who had played parts of six seasons with the Reds (and had made one All-Star team himself, in 1945). Cooper, happy to be in Cincinnati—and batting mostly fourth in Walters’ new-look lineup—homered in two of his first three games after the trade. But by the time July 6 rolled around, three weeks after joining the Reds, he was still in the midst of the worst offensive season of his career, having raised his batting average only 12 points since the trade.

Enter the hapless Cubs.

It became evident pretty early that this would be no ordinary game. In the bottom of the first, Cincinnati’s Peanuts Lowery struck Cubs pitcher Monk Dubiel with a line drive. Dubiel was forced to  leave the game, and Cubs manager Frankie Frisch called on Warren Hacker to take the mound. Walker Cooper greeted Hacker with a single, moving Lowery to third; both would eventually score as the Reds posted a 2–0 lead.

Cincinnati kept up the momentum in the bottom of the second. Cooper drove in the game’s third run—his first RBI of the afternoon, but certainly not his last—with a sharp single to right field that scored Reds pitcher Ken Raffensberger. By the end of the inning, thanks mostly to three Chicago errors, the Reds led 6–0 but hadn’t yet collected a single extra-base hit.

That would change in the third. After the Cubs cut the lead in half, the Reds came back with two more runs before Cooper stepped to the plate with two runners aboard. Cooper unleashed a

mighty swing and delivered a towering three-run homer over the left-field fence. He singled again in the following inning, and after four frames, the Reds led 12–3 and Cooper was 4–4 with a homer and four RBI.

He wasn’t finished, not by a long shot.

In the sixth inning, Cooper hit his second three-run homer of the day, this one a line drive into the left-field stands off Cubs hurler Doyle Lade. The following inning, Cooper came to the plate after singles by Harry Walker and Lloyd Merriman. Bob Muncrief was now on the mound for Chicago, but his fate was the same. Cooper hit his third—and longest—home run, a mammoth drive to dead center field that gave the Reds a preposterous 21–4 lead.

After only six innings, Walker Cooper was now 6–6 with three home runs; his 10 RBI marked a new Cincinnati franchise record.

In the eighth inning, Cooper had an opportunity to break the all-time major league mark of 12 RBI, set by Sunny Jim Bottomley in 1926. With two on and two out, Cooper failed for the only time, grounding out to shortstop.

When it was all over, the Reds had won 23–4. They collected 26 hits, including four homers, three doubles, and a triple. The pitcher, Raffensberger, was the only Cincinnati player who didn’t collect at least one hit (though he scored a run after being hit by a pitch in the second). Eight Reds had multiple hits. But all anyone wanted to talk about was the magnificent performance of Walker Cooper.

In addition to the RBI record, Cooper broke the Reds mark for total bases in a single game, with 15. His six hits, three homers, and five runs scored all tied club records.

Cubs skipper Frisch demanded that the Reds be “subjected to a saliva test” after the game. It’s unclear what substance he suspected. “We thought they were going to be soft” after scoring only one run in the July 4 doubleheader, Frisch complained.

In one afternoon, Cooper raised his batting average 20 points, from .231 to .251, and bumped up his slugging percentage more than 50 points (from .387 to .443). What had been a miserable season at the plate was swept away in the blink of an eye, and six days later, Cooper was on the roster of the NL All-Stars for the seventh time in his career.

It would be his only All-Star appearance as a member of the Reds. The following May, Cooper was traded to the Boston Braves, where he was named to the All-Star team for the eighth and final time.

Walker Cooper only played 97 games for Cincinnati over parts of two seasons. One of those games, however, just may have been the greatest batting performance in franchise history.

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On the television front: after abandoning “The Boys” two episodes into the second season (just too ridiculous for my tastes), we began watching season 4 of “The Crown.” The Netflix series about the British royal family is pretty great, even though I have very little interest in the royals in real life. (We fought the Revolutionary War for a reason.)

I also finally watched the first episode of “The Mandalorian,” after relentless hectoring from my son. It was enjoyable enough to convince me to watch the second episode, perhaps tonight. I was surprised to see Werner Herzog show up. And that baby Yoda is just as cute as everyone said.

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We talk about the Cincinnati Reds — for better or for worse — every single week on RNR. Join us for free by subscribing everywhere you find dangerous podcasts. Or any other podcast, really. And you can support the podcast here.

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