Baseball Icons Cooper, Mondor, Pass Away

Bull Durham, the campy 1988 blockbuster starring Kevin Costner as a minor league lifer, has often been credited with fueling the minor league baseball boom, turning a mom-and-pop sport into a billion-dollar industry.

While the film's impact on drawing fans to the ballpark shouldn't be minimized, the minor league revolution truly began 11 years earlier in Columbus, Ohio. That's when local civic leader Harold Cooper helped return baseball to Ohio's state capital by organizing a renovation of Franklin County Stadium, complete with luxury suites and astroturf, that transformed the Clippers into the International League's flagship franchise and served as a model for other teams.

Fittingly, the ballpark was renamed Cooper Stadium in 1984.

"It was a big, big deal, and it was really the refurbishing of that ballpark that you can trace the ballpark construction (boom) back to," International League president Randy Mobley said.

Baseball bid farewell to Cooper and another minor league baseball stalwart, Pawtucket owner Ben Mondor. The two passed away yesterday in their respective hometowns, where each was a beloved figure. Cooper was 87. Mondor was 85.

"Our game has lost two icons," Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Conner said. "These two men are the architects of the modern minor league baseball era."

The Heart Of Pawtucket

Much like Cooper, Mondor's impact on baseball went beyond the state lines his ballpark sat in. At the urging of the Red Sox in 1976, Mondor took over a bankrupt Pawtucket franchise that had become ostracized by local business owners and fans. (In 1977, Pawtucket won the International League championship but managed to draw just 77,000 fans).

Mondor, a retired local businessman, slowly but surely rebuilt those damaged relationships through shrewd business practices, a charitable involvement in the community, and a naturally welcoming and disarming personality that made players, fans and employees feel welcome at McCoy Stadium.

“This guy was an icon," team president Mike Tamburro, who Mondor hired in 1977, told the Boston Globe. "What he accomplished here is just absolutely remarkable. It’s a great loss, not only for us personally but for the entire community. He was a Rhode Island treasure.

“It’s not going to end now. This operation will continue to grow and flourish because of him and in his memory.’’

Mondor oversaw the $16 million renovation of McCoy Stadium in 1999 that allowed the team to stay in Pawtucket. And even after many years around the game, Mondor considered himself a baseball outsider.

When passing along advice at league meetings, Mondor always prefaced his comments with "I'm not a baseball guy, I'm just a business man," Mobley said. "He was always right. It would cause you to think about why you are doing this or why you are doing that."

It was Mondor's relationship with fans and players that was truly special. Before road trips this past season, Mondor would hand manager Torey Lovullo stacks of cash so he could treat the players to a good meal. "He treated the players like his own family and his devotion to their development was absolute," Red Sox GM Theo Epstein told The Globe.

Columbus' Father Figure

Cooper worked his way up in Columbus from clubhouse attendant to general manager. He once told current GM Ken Schnacke that his first job with the team, back in the 1930s, was scraping mold off of hot dogs so they could be re-used the next day. "I laughed and promised people that this is not what we sell as dime dogs," Schnacke said.

Cooper is actually credited with saving baseball in Columbus twice—first, when he brokered a deal to bring a team to town in 1955, and again in 1977 (seven years after the Columbus Jets departed), when as a county commissioner he led the charge for a $6.5 million ballpark renovation.

The project was not necessarily well received by everyone. Mobley recalls a headline in the local paper referring to the project as "Cooper's Folly."

"He certainly proved over time that he knew what he was doing," Mobley said.

The county bought a franchise from Charleston, W.Va., for $25,000 and drew 457,251 fans in 1977, pioneering a business practice that would later become a recipe for success throughout the minors: better facilities means better business.

"You saw it throughout the minors," Cooper told Baseball America's Will Lingo in 1998. "Wherever there was a new ballpark, there was a new enthusiasm and a new interest in baseball."

In 1978, Cooper took over as president of the International League and in 1985 hired Mobley, then a front-office official in Columbus, as his administrator and groomed him as his successor. Mobley took over as president in late 1990, and though his even-keeled demeanor contrasts Cooper's bigger-than-life bulldog personality, Mobley credits much of his success and longevity to the lessons he learned in those five years. 

"It was a remarkable experience," Mobley said. "One of the things he shared with me early on is that (serving as league president) is a wonderful opportunity. Because of his experience working with the team for so long, there were different family events that he missed because of having to be at the ballpark. Here is an opportunity to do something where you have a little flexibility, stay involved in the game you love and have a family life."

Mobley also learned how to run the league. He recalled one incident when a farm director bickered with Cooper after he disallowed a transaction. The farm director threatened to sue him. " ' Bring it on,' " Mobley recalls Cooper responding. "He stood for what he believed in and didn't let go."

Ultimately, Cooper had to let go of the stadium bearing his name. Clippers management began brainstorming a new ballpark project about 12 years ago, and Cooper was resistant to the idea at first, Schnacke said. But as new sports complexes sprouted around Columbus, Cooper began to realize that the team would not be able to compete. He took part in the committee to build Huntington Park, a state-of-the-art facility that debuted in 2009 by topping the minors in attendance with 666,797 fans.

The ballpark also debuted with a bronze statue of Cooper out front, honoring him as "the patriarch of Columbus baseball and the modern-day father of Columbus baseball."

"I can see the back of the statue from my office," Schancke said this morning, "and there are flowers and candles around it right now. It's quite touching."

Cooper made it out to each of the Clippers' six day games this season and a couple of night games as well. There was often a cue of people hoping to shake his hand.

"We would let people know when he was (at the ballpark)," Schnacke said. "They would come into the suite and reminisce with him. It was neat to see."

Mobley and Cooper remained close over the years, regularly meeting for lunch. Over the past several months, as Cooper's health worsened, Mobley would bring sandwiches to Cooper's house and the pair would sit around the kitchen table talking baseball and life. At their last meeting, about three weeks ago, Mobley brought the final league attendance sheets from the season.

"He was always interested in how everyone was doing," Mobley said.