One of baseball’s finest catchers during the 1940s, Walker Cooper has been labelled a war-era star who benefited from playing during the lean years when most of the stars were in the military. This is an inaccurate assumption of Walker Cooper’s career. Cooper did star during the war years but he too missed one season to military service while enjoying his greatest season in 1947 – after the war had concluded.
Walker made his debut with the Cardinals in 1940 – the same team that employed his elder brother Mort, a pitcher – but he was third on the depth chart behind Mickey Owen and Don Padgett. The Redbirds made some moves and opened the catching duties in 1941 allowing Walker to platoon with veteran Gus Mancuso. The backstop chores were all his by 1942 and Walker responded by lashing out 32 doubles (only one other catcher had more than 20 two-baggers) for the World Champion Cardinals. Cooper led all catchers in RBI and hit a nifty .286 during the World Series.
At this time many of the game’s brightest young stars had been inducted into the service but the Redbirds were able to retain the services of their finest players: Stan Musial and the Cooper Brothers. Brother Mort was a 20-game winner in 1943 with Walker caddying for his sibling. Walker made his second All-Star appearance that season as one of only two Major League catchers to hit over .300 (Hall of Famer Bill Dickey being the other). He was the only Major League catcher to smack over 30 doubles and the only NL receiver to slug over .400. His Cardinals went to the World Series again in 1943 but lost to the Yankees. He was second to teammate Musial in MVP voting.
The Cardinals remained rather fortunate in 1944, with Cooper and Musial remaining untouched by Uncle Sam. During the ’44 season, Walker led all Major League catchers with a .317 batting average, 13 homers and a .504 slugging average. Only Phil Masi had a slugging average above .400 among remaining Major League backstops. The Cardinals went to their third straight World Series and took care of crosstown rivals the St. Louis Browns with Walker hitting .318 during the contest.
The 1945 season was underway with Walker as the Redbirds starting catcher but after just four games he was inducted into the military, joining teammate Stan Musial who had been lost during the off season. While serving under Uncle Sam, the Redbirds didn’t remain idle, sitting on his contract, but sold it to the New York Giants who needed a replacement for their ironman Harry Danning who wasn’t going to return after his military stint.
Walker joined the Giants in 1946 and had a sub-par season, giving credence to the critics who labelled him a war era star. But he proved his critics wrong in 1947 when he had one of the greatest seasons in history for a catcher. He led all backstops with 35 homers, 122 RBI and a .305 batting average. Walker distanced himself substantially from his peers that year. Bruce Edwards was the only other catcher in the Major Leagues to eclipse 50 RBI.
An injury derailed Walker’s 1948 season, but despite missing time to the shelf Walker still led catchers with 16 homeruns. After a slow start in 1949 Walker was traded to the Reds for Ray Mueller and promptly socked 16 homers for the Cincy faithful. The Reds didn’t learn the lesson of Coop’s slow starts and swapped Walker to the Braves early in the 1950 season. Just like his ’49 campaign, Walker rebounded from a poor start, catching fire with his new organization. For the Braves, Coop hit .329 with 14 long balls.
Roy Campanella and Walker were the only two .300 hitting catchers in the Major Leagues during the 1951 season. Cooper slugged 18 homeruns for the Braves and showed remarkable plate discipline by striking out an identical 18 times. Nowadays, sluggers like Ryan Howard would have to slug 200 homers to match their strikeout totals.
Walker began to slow down in 1952 but still had enough left in the tank to hit .310 as a platoon partner with Joe Garagiola in 1954. He spent his last two years where his career started, with the St. Louis Cardinals, playing part-time and teaching their young catchers the art of receiving at the Major League level. He ended his career an eight-time All-Star.
G 1,473/R 573/H 1,341/2B 240/HR 173/RBI 812/BB 309/SO 357/BA .285/SA .464