It is often said that the best officials are the ones you don’t notice, the ones that do their job without drawing any attention to themselves. Umpires, judges, and referees are best suited to stay out of the action, so that the matches they officiate can be decided by the players competing. Umpire J.T. Cooper embodied that sentiment. Cooper did such an outstanding job that it took not only 50 years of service but another 12 years after his retirement to be honored with induction into the Alabama Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Cooper was an umpire for a half-century, finally stepping aside not due to lack of ability or fatigue of the job but because of back trouble. Few people in any field are able to stay passionate and sharp after 50 years, and Cooper not only worked high school games but any youth league matches that needed him as well. During his tenure he worked in several different counties around Alabama, calling games for several future Major League Baseball (MLB) pitchers including Jake Peavy. Cooper, who said he never had a major confrontation with a player or coach, managed to keep a cool head all of those years.
Those who spend any significant amount of time around sports of any level will know just how hot things can get during a competition. It is especially true in baseball, where the home plate umpire has a say in the outcome of every single at bat, with no result neutral. MLB umpires, the best in the business and working at the top level, still have frequent bouts with players and managers. Cooper, who was also a math and science teacher for 35 years, had world-class patience and a clear devotion to the kids he worked with. He never let himself rise above the games he observed.
The longest tenured MLB umpire gave 37 years of service, simultaneously an eternity and nowhere near as splendid as J.T. Cooper’s honored tenure. Also consider that professional baseball umpires are compensated much better than those in high school, have a larger crew for assistance, and rotate positions so as to only serve home plate once every four games. While MLB umpires today may have more pressure on them due to television cameras recording their every mistake, the actual on-field interaction between umpire and player or coach is a rather consistent relationship from league to league, and era to era. Cooper’s longevity is as impressive and important as any accomplishment in his field.
When Cooper was honored in January he spoke about how important it was for someone to love the job if they intended on being a good umpire. Enjoying his time on the field was the key to blending in and letting the games occur naturally. Cooper was retired for twelve years before he was honored for his service to baseball. Perhaps in the years he has been gone people didn’t exactly notice something was missing, but began to notice something was there. That was when they realized what J.T. Cooper meant to the game.
Commentary by Brian Moore