In 1948, the Red Devils’ only major leaguer – Cal Cooper – lasted just nine batters in his debut. Sixty-five years later, a USC-Upstate product enters the New York Mets’ farm system, trying to get to the majors, and stay there.

Bumgardner aiming for Great Falls’ next big league shot

bmccormick@heraldonline.comJune 18, 2013 

It’s been 65 years since a Great Falls High School alumni last played in the majors. Gaither Bumgardner took a big step toward becoming the second when he was drafted June 8 by the New York Mets in the 23rd round with the 686th overall pick.

A 2010 graduate of Great Falls, Bumgardner joins the Mets organization after a successful four-year career at USC-Upstate in Spartanburg. In Port St. Lucie, Fla., Bumgardner said the thrill had hardly subsided.

“I was very excited,” he said Monday. “I knew from about the time that I was nine years old that I wanted to play Division I college baseball, and then once I got there the next goal was to maybe get drafted and play some professional baseball. It’s a great feeling, for sure.”

Cal Cooper knew that feeling too, if only for a fleeting time. The Great Falls graduate signed with the Washington Senators in 1947 after serving in the Navy during World War II, and playing college ball at Newberry. According to baseball-reference.com, Cooper, a 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-handed pitcher, spent three seasons in the pro ranks from 1947 to 1949. He pitched two seasons in the minors before finally earning a call-up from the Senators’ Class B affiliate, the Charlotte Hornets, on Sept. 14, 1948.

Ascent

Bumgardner, a 6-foot-6, 215-pound native of Fort Lawn, was a multi-position standout at Upstate. He hit .376 as a junior en route to Atlantic Sun Conference player of the year honors. He also batted over .350 this season with 34 hits during his last 19 college games.

But it was on the mound where the two-time All-Atlantic Sun selection delivered a couple of gem performances in front of MLB scouts this spring. Bumgardner’s best outing came when he threw eight innings for Upstate against nationally-ranked Mercer in the A-Sun tournament, striking out nine batters and holding the Bears to just one earned run in the Spartans’ first postseason win as a Division I program. He lasted at least seven innings in six of his final eight starts this spring, and was 5-2 with a 4.25 ERA.

“We were really fortunate to have him part of the Upstate program,” Spartans coach Matt Fincher said in a press release. “He did a lot of different things for us and has been right in the middle of everything we have done the last four years. He is definitely one of the best players to ever play at USC-Upstate.”

Bumgardner’s ascent in the Mets’ farm system begins in Florida at a training camp where he’ll most likely be assigned to the Mets’ Gulf Coast League club. There he’ll begin to focus solely on pitching.

No question that Bumgardner’s height intrigued scouts. The tall right-hander grew a couple of inches each of his first three years of high school, before settling in at around six and a half feet tall. Bumgardner admitted “there were some awkward moments in there,” but his stature certainly made him an enticing pick.

“He has a chance to improve with time and I think that makes him a very interesting selection,” Fincher said. “I don’t think he has topped out at this point in his career, and with his work ethic, he will continue to get better.”

Residents of Great Falls would love to see that. Bumgardner said he was inundated with texts and voicemails from classmates and well-wishers after the draft. It’s a timely reminder of his roots just as he launches a pro career.

“It’s a tight little town and they’re all interested and care about what you do,” said Bumgardner, who hit .500 as an All-State senior for the Red Devils and didn’t strike out once that entire season. “Coming from a small place like that, I’ve always kind of battled against the odds. I feel like there’s a chip on my shoulder.”

Ascent … and descent

Cal Cooper would’ve been rooting for Bumgardner too.

Cooper’s Major League career lasted nine batters. Facing Detroit that fateful afternoon in the second game of a doubleheader, in front of more than 5,000 fans at the Tigers’ Briggs Field, the 25-year-old trotted out to the mound for the sixth inning in relief of Dick Welteroth. The Senators, who went on to lose 97 games that season, were already behind 5-0. Cooper didn’t fare much better. He surrendered five hits and five earned runs and walked a batter before recording three outs.

He never went back out for the seventh and the Senators got steamrolled 12-1, their 14th straight loss. Cooper’s brief MLB career was over. One inning pitched and an unseemly 45.00 ERA was all he was left with.

About a year later, Cooper gave up on pro ball and moved to Clinton, where he got a management job at the town’s mill, and later served on the Laurens County School Board for over 20 years.

He passed away in 1994 at the age of 71.

Bumgardner had never heard of Cooper’s story before Monday. That retelling of a single afternoon seemed to catch his ear though.

“It’s amazing how few people actually make it,” said Bumgardner. “To be in a big league uniform for one day would be something special, and something that not a lot of people get to do. That’s something I’m working toward.”

“Hopefully this is the start of a longer journey.”

Bret McCormick •  329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T

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