RIP to Eric Cooper, who was a MLB umpire for 21 years. He has died at the age of 52, reportedly from a heart attack. Cooper had most recently worked this postseason’s American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred issued the following statement: “This is a very sad day across Major League Baseball. Eric Cooper was a highly respected umpire, a hard worker on the field and a popular member of our staff. He also served as a key voice of the MLB Umpires Association on important issues in our game. Eric was a consistent presence in the Postseason throughout his career, including in this year’s Division Series between the Yankees and the Twins. He was known for his professionalism and his enthusiasm, including for our international events.
“On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to Eric’s family, friends and all of his fellow Major League Umpires. We will honor Eric’s memory during the World Series. Eric will be missed by the entire Baseball family.”
Eric Cooper was born in Des Moines, Iowa on December 18, 1966. According to his biography, he played baseball throughout high school and graduated from Iowa State University in 1989, with a degree in business and an emphasis in transportation logistics. At one point in time, he was considering a career in international trade. However, he got a part-time job at Iowa State in the intramural athletics department, and his life changed.
“I just got the bug,” he told the Des Moines Register in 1991. He paid $2,200 to go to the Joe Brinkman umpiring school and was one of 20 selected to become a professional umpire. His first assignment was to work the Appalachian League in 1990. The Appy League was, to put it mildly, a baptism by fire.
“We were in Pulaski. I had the plate and it was hot,” he recalled. “I went in to take a shower after the game and I noticed a brown stream of water hitting me in the chest. I reached up to adjust the nozzle and it came off in my hands. Then I got hit in the face with a harder streak of brown water. I couldn’t get out of that shower quick enough.”
Cooper moved his way up through the minor leagues, finally getting a change to work a major league game on June 17, 1996. He was the third base ump as the Milwaukee Brewers defeated the visiting Royals 9-4. By 1999, Cooper was working in the major leagues full time.
Cooper was the home plate ump for three no-hitters, which was tops among all active umpires. He called Hideo Nomo’s no-no on April 6, 2001, Mark Buehrle’s no-hitter on April 18, 2007 and Buehrle’s perfect game on July 23, 2009. He also worked Cal Ripken Jr.’s last major-league game on October 6, 2001. Cooper was a fixture in the postseason for many years, including the 2014 World Series, as well as the 2005 All-Star Game. He participated in several international events, including the 2009 and 2017 World Baseball Classics, and he was chosen to represent MLB during the 2018 Japan All-Star Series with Nippon Professional Baseball.
Cooper was selected to work the 2014 World Series in part because his work in the instant replay era was so good. He had just three calls at first base overturned all season long, an extremely low number. He got the call about the Series from MLB’s Joe Torre as he was driving his wife, Tara, to the movies. He joked that he almost wrecked his car when he saw the area code and knew it was from Major League Baseball.
“It’s one of those two or three phone calls you’re always going to remember in your career,” he told the Register on the eve of the Series. “Outside of the birth of a child, marriage, kids graduating and those things, it’s a humbling call. Professionally, I can’t put it into words. It’s kind of surreal still.”
He said the one of the first calls he received was from fellow umpire and Iowan, Tim McClelland. “Tim told me to soak it all in and enjoy it,” Cooper said. “He said, ‘They picked you for a reason.'”