This Retired Braves Player Just Needs One More Day on The Roster to Qualify For a Pension

April 13, 2024
2 mins read
Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News

67-year-old Gary Cooper of Savannah spent 42 days on the Atlanta Braves roster in 1980 — one day short of qualifying for an MLB pension. Now a petition is asking the Braves to put him on the roster for one more day so he can qualify. GPB’s Peter Biello reports.

Major League Baseball players can make a lot of money. But many players, if they make it, only spend a few days in the big leagues and never get a chance to sign a set-for-life contract.

67-year-old Gary Cooper is one of those players. The Savannah-native spent 42 days on the Atlanta Braves roster in 1980 — one day short of qualifying for an MLB pension. Now a petition is asking the Braves to put him on the roster for one more day so he can qualify.

Cooper was playing with the Savannah Braves in 1980 when he got the call he’d been dreaming of. His coach took him out of the line up in a game against Jacksonville.

“Pack up,” his coach said, “because the Braves need you in Pittsburgh.”

“I was so excited, when I got there I ended up in the wrong locker room,” Cooper said. “And from then on had been a real wonderful ride.”

That wonderful ride lasted 21 games, two plate appearances, and a couple stolen bases. But he was on the roster for 42 days — and on his 43rd day, the game was canceled for rain. 

Cooper started the next season with the minor league Durham Bulls. 

“I went from top to bottom real quick and it just blew my mind.”

He hung up his cleats at the end of that season without ever rejoining the Braves. And then when he applied for a pension, he got disappointing news.

“I didn’t have enough days,” he said. That rainout for his 43rd game left him one day short, and it was never made up because in 1980, the Braves weren’t in playoff contention.

When he left baseball — his only specialized skill — he floated from job to job. Sometimes he had a place to live, but occasionally he was unsheltered. He’s currently living with his niece and working for a landscaping company owned by Robert Jonas.

“I think Gary’s situation is kind of fallen through the cracks,” Jonas said. 

Jonas employed Cooper for years before learning he’d played pro ball. One day, they discussed his pension woes while headed to a job on Tybee Island. 

“And you could see that it was weighing on him pretty heavy,” Jonas said. “And I told Gary, I said, Gary, ‘I’ll help you out any way possible.’”

Jonas connected Cooper with an attorney, who petitioned Major League Baseball to make an exception to the 43-day rule. Give him the pension, the lawyer argued, because he’s not short by much, plus there was a rainout, which should’ve counted. Denied. The lawyer appealed. Denied again. 

“You know, the clock’s ticking,” Jonas said. “Even though Gary is in phenomenal shape, what’s five years from now going to bring to Gary?”

The last option, as they see it, is for Gary Cooper’s former team, the Atlanta Braves, to add him to the roster for one day

“It’s been done before,” Jonas said. “It’s in the history books. It can be done again.”

In 1968, the Braves signed pitcher Satchel Paige to help him get his pension. He was in his early 60s at the time and served as a coach. Jonas says, why not do the same for Gary Cooper, who says he could be an outfield coach. 

“I ain’t got the speed like I used to, but everything else in order,” Cooper said. 

The Braves did not respond to a request for comment on Cooper’s bid for another day in uniform. And it’s not clear how much his pension would be, though estimates put it somewhere around $550 a month.

Cooper said anything would be outstanding. 

“Whatever they give me, I’ll accept it, because it’s been so long, you know?” Cooper said. “So anything’ll help.” 

Cooper said he could even see a baseball career beyond that elusive 43rd day in the majors — perhaps coaching in the minor leagues.

His mind is still right, he said, and it’s never too late.

This story comes to The Georgia Sun through a reporting partnership with GPB a non-profit newsroom focused on reporting in Georgia.

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