RIP to Terry Cooney, an American League umpire from 1974-1992. He died on March 4 in Clovis, Calif., at the age of 88. Cooney came into umpiring after working as a prison guard, a career change that prepared him well for dealing with the likes of Billy Martin and Roger Clemens.
Terrance Joseph Cooney was born in Condon, Ore., on April 12, 1933. He became a multi-sport athlete for Sacred Heart Academy in Salem, Ore., in the 1940s. He once hit a 35-foot buzzer-beater to defeat Woodburn High, 34-33 on December 13, 1949. He also ran for three touchdowns against Salem Academy to win Sacred Heart the 1950 Marion-Polk League football championship victory. He was considered one of the best fullbacks in the state.
Cooney then attended the Oregon College of Education, where a knee injury ended his football career, and Modesto Junior College in California, where he also played semipro baseball. He settled in Fresno and held down a variety of jobs, including classified ad sales and a prison guard. He worked at the Sierra Conservation Center, a rehab facility for the California Penal System. Prior to that, he was a correctional officer in the isolation division of the Deuel Vocational Institute at Tracy, Calif. While working as a prison guard, he and an inmate set up an umpiring school for convicts. That same convict came to him one day and told him to get out of that depressing line of work and try umpiring professionally. “I like to tell people I was conned into umpiring,” Cooney told the Los Angeles Times in 1988.
Cooney started making inquiries about the profession in 1968. He drove from Sonora to Oakland to talk with umpires like Larry Lapp, Jerry Neudecker and Bill Haller. In the winter of 1969, he drove across the country to Gulfport, Fla., to attend a five-week umpiring school, where he was instructed by current umpires like Napp, Bill Kinnamon and other pros. Cooney wasn’t your typical aspiring umpire. He was 35 years old, married and with three children. “I had a good job. I was making $800 a month and doing well. But I wanted to umpire,” he said.
Cooney started his umpiring career in the California League in 1969. Along with his training at the instructional school, his prior vocation as a prison guard left him well-prepared to handle the less savory aspects of umpiring. “There, you have to fight. Those convicts try every day,” Cooney said. He also had learned the hard way about the intersection of athletics and violence, having had his jaw broken once by a basketball player while working as a referee in Fresno.
From the California League, Cooney moved to the Texas League in 1970 and the Pacific Coast League in 1971. He was named to the umpiring crew for the PCL playoffs in 1973. During his time there, he was exposed to the best (Tucson fans) and worst (Salt Lake City fans, arguing with Tommy Lasorda) that the league had to offer. Cooney reached the major leagues in September of 1974, after the PCL’s season had ended. He was a 40-year-old rookie and had a pretty memorable start. The first game he ever worked was September 27, 1974, between the Minnesota Twins and California Angels; Cooney was the third base umpire. On September 28, he was at second base when Angels pitcher Nolan Ryan threw a 4-0 no-hitter. It was Ryan’s third career no-hitter and Cooney’s second day on the job.
Cooney got a full-time position with the American League in 1975, with the retirement of Napp. He was a survivor. “The attrition rate for umpires is fierce,” Cooney said in 1974. “Of the 43 candidates with me in the Umpire Development Program in 1969, there are only a half dozen of us left — all with majors contracts.”
Cooney umpired in the American League for the next 18 seasons, for a total of 2,233 games (per Retrosheet). He worked three AL Championships in 1978, 1986 and 1990, as well as the 1981 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees. He was part of the umpiring crew for All-Star Games in 1979 and 1989 as well.
Cooney’s first ejection came on June 1, 1975, when he was introduced to Rangers manager Billy Martin. The ump had ruled that Yankees baserunner Fred Stanley slid into home plate just ahead of the tag by Rangers catcher Jim Sundberg. “Cooney must have seen Martin coming,” reported Jim Reeves of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “At Billy’s first outburst Cooner thumbed him out of the game. Martin then shoveled a bucket or so of sand across Cooney’s feet and legs. First base ump Nestor Chylak separated the two before other difficulties might develop.”
It wouldn’t be the last run-in with the volatile manager. On May 29, 1981, Cooney was working home plate between the Oakland Athletics and Toronto Blue Jays. Martin had been questioning balls and strikes from the dugout throughout the first four innings, getting a warning from Cooney. Then Toronto’s Ernie Whitt asked Cooney to check the ball after a pitch from Oakland’s Matt Keough, and Martin charged out of the dugout and bumped Cooney, knocking him backwards. “I played college football and worked six years in a state prison wrestling convicts and fighting them, and I don’t think I’ve ever been hit any harder than I was by Billy Martin last night,” the umpire said. Martin was instantly ejected and finished his tantrum by kicking and throwing dirt on Cooney as he walked away. For his actions, Martin was suspended for a week and fined $1,000 — a paltry sum, considering that touching an umpire is strictly forbidden in an argument.
Cooney later had Martin charged with simple assault in Toronto — with a maximum penalty of six months in prison in. Martin, acting as the A’s general manager as well, requested that Cooney be barred from umpiring any AL West Division teams because of his “bias” against him. American League President Lee MacPhail considered pulling Cooney and his crew off Oakland games, and all the American and National League umpires were prepared to go on strike if it happened, Cooney told UPI. However, the players’ strike occurred before anything further could develop between Martin and the umpires’ association, and any legal actions apparently ended.
Cooney was one of the umpires who went on strike in 1979 for better wages. He took a job as a bartender in Fresno while Major League Baseball tried to make do with replacement umpires. He noted that the umpires were simply looking for living wages. “What we’re asking for in pay raises amounts to about $20,00 from each club,” he said, “Some clubs spend more than that for a single cocktail party… I just want a living salary, but I have to live with a flock of millionaires. We’re just too far on the short end of the stick.”
Over his career, Cooney had plenty of run-ins with the usual suspects, like Bobby Cox and Earl Weaver (who also earned a suspension for bumping Cooney). Perhaps his most infamous ejection came during the 1990 ALCS between Oakland and the Boston Red Sox. It was in Game Four on October 10, with the Red Sox facing elimination. Clemens, having already allowed a run in the second inning, walked Willie Randolph and said… something. The pitcher denied arguing about the strike zone. Cooney heard differently, and he also heard a few words that ballplayers should never direct at umpires under any circumstances. He ejected Clemens and infielder Marty Barrett as well after the infielder threw a water cooler onto the field. Red Sox reliever Tom Bolton allowed a double to Mike Gallego, which scored two runs, and the A’s cruised to a 3-1 win behind starter Dave Stewart.
Cooney was criticized by television analyst Jim Kaat during the game, and columnists nationwide were furious that the umpire had robbed the audience of a Clemens-Stewart showdown. But anyone who was within earshot of Clemens backed up Cooney. “Roger was upset about some pitches. He was just jawing at first, then he got out of control,” said Gallego, who was coming to bat. “I backed out to let Terry do his job. I thought he handled it well.”
“It kind of ticked me off, to be honest. There’s no excuse for what Clemens did,” said Stewart. “I heard it all, and it warranted Roger’s ejection. He said a couple of magic words.”
Cooney also had the full support of AL president, Dr. Bobby Brown, who noted that Cooney had a relatively low ejection rate. Major League Baseball later suspended Clemens for five games and fined him $10,000 for his outburst.
Working as an umpire can take a physical toll. Cooney missed half of the 1977 season when he tore cartilage in his left knee while keeping track of a fly ball in a game between the Angels and Twins. It was the same knee that he had injured playing football in Oregon. His umpiring career came to an end on September 19, 1992, when he was struck in that same knee by a pitch from Detroit’s Frank Tanana. He had to be carted off the field, and he retired after the season. His retirement enabled the late Chuck Meriwether to become a full-time umpire.
Cooney had to have a knee replacement in 1995. He successfully battled colon cancer in the 1990s as well. He still watched baseball, but only during the postseason, so he was watching when Clemens infamously threw a portion of a splintered bat at Mike Piazza during the 2000 World Series. Clemens, who wasn’t ejected in that incident, maintained that he mistakenly thought it was a baseball. Cooney, unsurprisingly, didn’t buy the excise. “I don’t think Roger Clemens can tell the truth about anything if he believes it will get him in trouble,” the retired umpire said.
Cooney was elected to the Fresno Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002. “We are all proud of it. I think that was great, watching that little twinkle in his eye,” his granddaughter Brittany Funderburg told KMPH News. He had two children (daughter Teryl and son Shane) with his first wife Sandra, and two daughters (Diane and Kimberly) with his second wife Beverly. He is survived by his wife Joanne, four children, 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
For more information: KMPH News