Cooke, Dusty

Position: Outfield
Birthplace: Swepsonville

First, Middle Names: Allen Lindsey        Nicknames: Dusty

Date of Birth:  June 23, 1907  Date and Place of Death: Nov. 21, 1987, Raleigh, NC
Burial: Westview Memorial Gardens, Lillington, NC

High School: Durham High School, Durham, NC  

Bats: L             Throws: R        Height and Weight: 6-1, 205
Debut Year: 1930       Final Year: 1938          Years Played: 8
Team(s) and Years: New York Yankees, 1930-32; Boston Red Sox, 1933-36; Cincinnati Reds, 1938

Career Summary
G         AB       H         R          RBI      HR       BA.      OBP.    SLG.     WAR
608    1745    489      324      229      24      .280     .384     .416     7.1

Life had been good to Dusty Cooke as he trotted out to right field at Griffith Stadium in Washington on that Sunday afternoon in April 1931. He was 24 years old, a kid from the sticks of Alamance County, batting third for the great New York Yankees, and playing in place of The Babe himself, who was nursing an injury. In his second year as a big leaguer, Cooke was beginning to show why one of his managers down in the minors called him “the game wrecker.” Through the first week of the new season, he was playing every day, hitting a torrid .353 and stealing bases with abandon. The kid had greatness written all over him, and his time had come.

Ossie Bluege, the Senators’ leadoff hitter that inning, lofted a flyball to shallow right. Cooke showed his dazzling speed by almost reaching the spot where the ball would land. He dove to make up te last couple of feet, and, in the instant it took to hit the ground, life turned mean. Cooke writhed in pain on the freshly mowed grass. The ball bounced toward the wall. No one thought to chase it down, as worried teammates gathered around the prone kid in obvious pain. Bluege was credited with an inside-the-park home run.

They carried a broken Dusty Cooke off the sun-drenched field that afternoon. Doctors later determined that his shoulder was separated and his collarbone splintered. Surgery would be required.

Injury once again exacted its heavy toll on greatness. Cooke would come back and have a decent eight-year career. His .384 on-base percentage is second among North Carolina players with more than a thousand career at bats and his .280 batting average is tied for 18th. Cooke, though, was never the star that everyone knew he should be. “You will not find his name in the Baseball Hall of Fame and present-day sportswriters have probably never heard of him, but he was denied baseball immortality by a quirk of fate,” wrote a teammate in his memoirs published in 2001.[I]

 If Dusty Cooke is remembered at all these days, it’s how the arc of his altered career later intersected with that of Jackie Robinson’s. Unfortunately, the encounter left such an indelible smear on Cooke and the character of a city that its leaders felt the need to apologize more than 60 years later.

Dusty was thought to be a replacement for the aging Babe Ruth. That’s him, second from right, standing next to The Babe in this 1930 photograph. Photo: Baseball Hall of Fame

Euclid Monroe Cooke survived the grisly horrors of the battlefields of Virginia and a wound received at one of them, Chancellorsville. He returned from the Civil War to the family farm on Swepsonville Road in Alamance County, where he survived two wives. Allen Lindsey, born in 1907 to his third wife, Nannie, was the last of Euclid’s 10 children. Euclid died when the child was 18 months old.

The teenager attended high school in Durham, North Carolina, but may not have graduated. The principal told Cooke that he would have to cut out football or baseball and focus on his studies. “I sorta agreed with the principal,” Cooke said years later. “I remembered the old saying, ‘If business interferes with your pleasure, cut out business.’ So, I quit school and concentrated on baseball, which I figured would be combining business with pleasure if I made good.”[II]

Cooke played for the mill teams that flourished at the time. He became a professional in 1927 when he joined the Durham Bulls. He was big for his era, six-foot, one-inch, and pushing 200 pounds, and he could run. Cooke was hitting .319 for the Bulls and was leading the league in stolen bases with 33 when Ed Barrow in New York took notice.

An able boxer who once fought John L. Sullivan in an exhibition, Barrow was pugnacious, loudly opiniated and a tyrant with players, but there was no better judge of baseball talent. Through shrewd trades, astute signings, and a budding farm system, he put together some of the greatest rosters in baseball history as the Yankees’ general manager from 1920 to 1945. Barrow sent his best man, head scout Paul Krichell, to Durham to take a look.

Ed Barrow

During his 37 years with New York, Krichell would sign many of the players who would make the Yankees one of the great dynasties in American sports. Krichell’s successes included both quality—such as Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Tony Lazzeri, Phil Rizzuto, and Whitey Ford—and quantity. He knew a star when he saw one.

 “When I saw him, I knew he was the ballplayer I had been dreaming about,” Krichell said of Cooke in 1946. “He had everything. A big guy and strong, and he could run like a deer. He could hit and throw and he could go get the ball in the outfield.”[III]

Krichell paid the Bulls $15,000 for Cooke, or more than $220,000 in current dollars. That the tight-fisted Barrow approved what was then a princely sum is an indication of what everyone thought this kid could be.          

At his first stop in the Yankee farm system, the Asheville, North Carolina, Tourists in the Class B South Atlantic League, Cooke in 1928 merely hit .362, four points shy of the battling title, and had 30 triples, a measure of his speed. Promoted to Double A St. Paul in Minnesota the following year, Cooke won the league’s triple crown (.358-33-148). Next stop: New York.

Newspapers by then were referring to him as “Dusty.” There’s some dispute about the origins of Cooke’s nickname. One newspaper columnists claimed high-school friends started calling him that after following him on a long car ride down dirt roads outside Durham. A Cooke relative offered a more colorful alternative that had to do with the cloud of dust Cooke created when he slid into second base. “You get that kind of speed with that kind of size and you’re going to have a lot of dust,” a nephew told a newspaper in 1987.[IV]

By whatever name, Cooke was a Yankee in 1930. He played in only 92 games that first season, but he impressed people with his size – John Kiernan of the New York Times wrote that “he has shoulders as big as an icebox” – and his moxie. It was rumored that Cooke had gotten so fed up with Babe Ruth’s needling during a card game on a team train that he picked Babe up and stuffed him into an upper berth. Ruth was said to get a kick out of the manhandling.

The injured shoulder was still ailing Cooke in 1932, and surgery was needed to fix splintered bone. He hurt himself again while throwing batting practice and appeared in only three games that season.

Sensing that their star had faded, the Yankees traded Cooke to the perennial league doormats, the Boston Red Sox, in 1933. He played well that year, appearing in 119 games, hitting .293 and scoring 86 runs, but another injury required a minor operation on his right elbow. Cooke became a utility outfielder for the rest of his career.

Bill Werber, Cooke’s Red Sox roommate, said Cooke would occasionally get depressed about the injuries and his diminished skills and quietly nurse a bottle of Jack Daniels. He’d pass out and fall out of bed. Werber covered him with a blanket on the floor.[V]

In a hint of what was to come, Cooke was driving in Durham during the offseason in 1935 and hit a black teenager, Henry Griffin, on a bicycle. Cooke put the teen, who had a compound leg fracture, in the back seat of his car and dropped him off at the steps of Lincoln Hospital. He was later charged with assault and battery with a deadly weapon. Cooke told the arresting officer that he had been in “quite a bit of a hurry.”[VI] The charges were dropped three months later after Cooke paid Griffin $600.

He was at the time honeymooning in Florida. Cooke had married Daphne Rouse of Fuquay Springs, North Carolina, in February 1936. The newlyweds would make the Wake County town their home.

The Red Sox traded Cooke to the Cincinnati Reds in 1938, his last year in the majors.

Cooke played in the minor leagues before enlisting in the Navy’s Aviation Cadet Training Program on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina in 1943. One of the first recruits he met was Ted Williams, the American League batting champ.[1] Cooke didn’t complete the training and spent the World War II as a pharmacist’s mate. He treated war-related injuries and also gained experience in fitness conditioning. Cooke saw combat during the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Jackie Robinson, left, and Ben Chapman, the Philadelphia Phillies’ manager, staged this photo in 1947. Neither looks happy about it. Photo: N.Y. Times

The Philadelphia Phillies, in an ironic twist, hired the oft-injured Cooke as a trainer when he returned from the Pacific in 1946. We don’t know much about his abilities healing sore muscles and aching bones, but there’s plenty of evidence that Cooke was a first-class bench jockey. Pitcher Robin Roberts said he had the loudest voice in baseball. Cooke used it to viciously ride opposing players in an attempt to get them off their games. It was, at the time, a common strategy.

The insults, though, took an ugly, mean, racial tone with Jackie Robinson. As the first African-American to play in the major leagues, Robinson had to endure verbal abuse wherever his Brooklyn Dodgers played, especially during his first season in 1947. The City of Brotherly Love, however, may have been the worst stop on the schedule.

The newspapers at the time didn’t record what the Phillies, led by Cooke and their manager Ben Chapman of Tennessee, yelled at Robinson, but it was so vile that some fans expressed embarrassment. The Dodgers were so incensed by the constant barrage of racial slurs that they rose to their teammate’s defense. Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, two other black Dodgers, later got the same treatment.

Chapman defended his team’s actions by noting that opposing players used slurs against Joe DiMaggio, an Italian, and Hank Greenberg, a Jew. “It was all part of the game back then,” Chapman said in 2013. “You said anything you had to say to get an edge.”[VII]

Using prejudice to justify prejudice is a novel approach, but it misses a major point. DiMaggio and Greenberg could defend themselves. Robinson would not. To become the trailblazer, he had promised Dodgers’ management that he wouldn’t retaliate, that his response to the abuse would be silence. Cooke and Chapman knew that. Insulting a man who wouldn’t fight back could then be viewed as cowardly. That’s the way the Philadelphia City Council saw it in 2016 when it unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for the team’s behavior in 1947.

Cooke was the Phillies’ first-base coach and even interim manager for a dozen games when Chapman was fired during the 1948 season until he was fired in 1953.

He became co-owner of Mobley’s Art Center, an art-supply store in Raleigh, North Carolina, after baseball. He suffered a stroke in 1968 that left him unable to speak or write. He died in 1987 after a second stroke.

Footnote
[1] After a year of incessant fan heckling because of the military deferment he received, Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox’s Hall of Fame outfielder, enlisted in in the Navy reserve in 1942 and was called to active duty in November. He spent three years in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and elsewhere learning to fly. He didn’t see active combat before being discharged in December 1945. He was called up again in 1952 and flew fighter planes in Korea.

References
[I] Nowlin, Bill. “Dusty Cooke.” Society for American Baseball Research. https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/e46d5d86.
[II] Ibid.
[III] Ibid.
[IV] Ibid.
[V] Ibid.
[VI] “Arrest Dusty Cooke for Auto Accident.” The News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), December 10, 1935.
[VII] Barra, Allen. “What Really Happened to Ben Chapman, the Racist Baseball Player in ‘42?” The Atlantic, April 15, 2013.