James Cooney Jr.

Inducted: 1976
Born: 08/24/1894
Died: 08/07/1991

Known as the “Cranston Cooney’s,” this family produced three major league baseball players and two others who had successful minor league careers. The first was Jimmy Cooney, who played 324 games for the Cubs and Senators when Ernest Thayer wrote the famous poem “Casey at the Bat.” Many baseball experts believe that the Cooney mentioned in the poem’s opening stanza was based on Jimmy, a slick-fielding shortstop with a knack for getting on base. Batting at the top of the lineup, he would have scored if Casey had hit a home run instead of striking out. 

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

Jimmy Cooney played shortstop in the majors but was originally a catcher and played all over the diamond in the minors. He was known as a good fielder who ran and threw well and showed great spirit and toughness. He acquired the nickname “Snapper” early in his major league career, reflecting his hustle and reputation for being a “tough” out. Cooney was born on July 9, 1865, to John and Bridget Cooney, who had emigrated from Ireland. John worked at the Cranston Print Works as a bleacher, refining paper pulp during the printing process. Jimmy Cooney began playing baseball at an early age in the Rhode Island State League, which consisted of teams from Bristol, Lonsdale, Rumford, and Pawtucket. Their games were played at Rocky Point Field in Warwick and Messer Street Grounds in Providence. On June 21, 1884, The Providence Journal reported a box score and summary from a game played between the Rumfords and the Pawtuckets, which mentioned some “sharp fielding” by 19-year-old catcher James Cooney. He also played with the Holyoke team of the Massachusetts State Association until that league disbanded in August of 1884. He returned to the Rhode Island State League with the River Points, where he played with future Hall of Famer Hugh Duffy of Cranston. (Hugh Duffy was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1967.) Jimmy was a major league shortstop from 1890 through 1902 for the Chicago Colts (later Cubs) and Washington of the National League. With the Colts, he played with Cap Anson, a Baseball Hall of Fame inductee in 1939. Anson described Cooney as “a great fielder, a good batter, and speedy on the bases.” Cooney played in 135 games for the Colts, compiling a .935 fielding percentage and batting .272 with 45 stolen bases. The New York Herald described him “as a remarkable player and a grandstand favorite. 

In 1891, Cooney married Ella Dunham, who lived in Providence. After spending part of his offseason working as a barber in his brother’s shop in Rhode Island, he returned to the Colts in 1892. Later that year, after being released by the Colts, Cooney was acquired by the Washington Senators of the National League. His three-year season major league batting average was 242. After completing his major league career, he returned to Cranston and died of pneumonia at 37 on July 1, 1903.

The Providence Journal published this tribute:

“Jimmy Cooney was one of the most graceful infielders in the history of the game and was especially skillful in the timing and handling of grounders. He was an accurate and reliable thrower, enjoying the distinction of being one of the first players to demonstrate the possibilities of the sacrifice hit. In disposition, he was sociable to a degree which won him friends wherever he went. He had a keen sense of how the game of baseball should be played, hard-nosed and fairly. He excelled as a player, coach, and manager and used his knowledge of the game to help young players improve their skills. Whether Jimmy Cooney deserved a longer life will never be known. But it can be said that the life he actually had was a full and productive one.”

Jimmy had four sons, all of whom had baseball careers. Henry, the oldest, played baseball for Portland and Fitchburg in the New England League. Frank was a well-known player for the Cranston Print Works. Jimmy Jr. was the first to make the major leagues as a second baseman/shortstop with six teams. He reached the majors in 1917 with the Boston Red Sox. He played for the St. Louis Cardinals (1924-1925), Chicago Cubs (1926-27), Philadelphia Phillies (1927), and the Boston Braves (1928.) In a seven-year major league career, Jimmy was a.262 hitter and the sixth player in modern baseball history to turn an unassisted triple play. 

Johnny Cooney was the youngest of the brothers and the most successful at the major league level. He was a three-time All-State first baseman at Hope High from 1917 to 1919. Before signing on to play major league baseball, Johnny played for the Willimantic team of the American Thread Athletic Association. On August 20, 1920, Johnny pitched a perfect game. He had a 20-year Major League career as a pitcher for the Boston Bees/Brave, 1921-30, the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1935-37, and New York Yankees, 1944. In 1930, a sore arm seemingly ended his major league career. But he continued to play in the minor leagues as an outfielder, and after winning the American Association batting title, he came back to play left field in the majors from 1935 to 1944. He tied the major league record in 1937 when he had four extra-base hits, including three doubles and a triple. He compiled a .286 batting average and made 159 appearances as a pitcher, winning 34 and losing 44, with 224 strikeouts and a 3.72 ERA. Cooney’s best seasons as a regular came with Casey Stengel, who managed the Dodgers and the Braves. Stengel compared Cooney favorably with Joe DiMaggio as a fielder. Cooney spent the last two decades of his baseball career as a coach for the Braves and the Chicago White Sox.    

James Cooney Sr., James Cooney Jr., and John Cooney were inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1976.

For additional reading:

  1. “Anson Speaks of His Colts, Sporting Life, March 19, 1890.
  2.  “Baseball Notes”, Providence Evening Bulletin, July 31, 1894.
  3. “A Great Finish,” Providence Evening Bulletin. September 8, 1896.
  4. James J. Cooney, Ball Player is Dead, Providence Evening Bulletin, July 2, 1903.
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