Monday, July 26, 2010

Cosmo Como Cotelle - EFF's Player of the Century

One of the wonders of baseball is how much can be gleaned from its statistics. Players of different eras can be contrasted and compared. Old arguments can be settled, and new ones begun. Bill James, for example, has made an entire career of the study of baseball statistics.

In my line of work, I see a lot of statistics from lesser-known teams and players. The Negro leagues, for example, were notoriously poor at record keeping, so even won-and-loss records can be suspect. Many records in the lower minors were also spotty, and a few dedicated researchers have painstakingly reconstructed some of these records only in relatively recent times.

Sometimes very little real information can be gleaned. A ballplayer's entire career can be reduced to one sentence in a reference book. More questions are raised than answered. Other times just by looking at seemingly bland lines of text, a story begins to emerge, though the totality of that story remains shrouded in mystery. Such is the case of one Cosmo Como Cotelle. Born in 1904 in St. James Parish, LA, on the Cajun Coast, Cotelle played 21 seasons for 21 different clubs in minor league baseball. He had a lifetime .323 average, hit over .300 in eighteen of those seasons, and yet never played a single major league game.

Cosmo Cotelle's lifetime statistics

Despite his impressive statistics and lengthy career, little beyond the dry numbers on the page seems to be known about Cotelle. I could not locate a single photograph of Cosmo, or any mention of him besides his career stats and a brief listing on a few of the many rosters he was on. When we look at his career as a chronological table of data, the mind wants to fill in the blanks of the story. For example, it seems Cotelle started out as a left-handed pitcher, compiling a middling 7-8 record his rookie season for the Rock Island Islanders of the Mississippi Valley League. The fact that the 21-year old hit .336 that season and only pitched seven games the following year with Marshalltown probably means that his bat was more noticed than his arm, and the fledgling southpaw hurler was converted to an outfielder.

Members of the Davenport Blue Sox in a photo op with sponsor Iowana Farms Milk Co. Cosmo Cotelle hit .407 as a member of the 1933 Blue Sox (leading the Missouri Valley League), but he is strangely missing in the above team photo. Maybe he thought being photographed in uniform drinking from a milk bottle was undignified?

The fact that Cotelle spent 21 years playing for as many teams is also interesting. Starting in Class D, he quickly moved up and down the minor league levels, and through different major league organizations, with startling frequency. Up from Marshalltown to Danville, then Houston, then back to Danville (all in the Cardinals organization). Still with St. Louis, he got as far as Rochester before being acquired by Hartford, a Brooklyn affiliate, in 1932. His best season proved to be 1933, when he hit .407 for Davenport, scored 106 runs, and stole 31 bases. The majors must have seemed very close. (Cotelle was involved in a controversy while with Davenport. Because he never had his contract notarized, he was able to sign as a free agent with another team for a $500 bonus for the 1934 season. The Blue Sox' management was not happy to lose his services because of this technicality).

After lingering at the top levels of the minors through the early and mid 30s, he hit a peak at age 31 in 1936 when (by now with the New York Giants organization) he hit .309 for the Memphis Chicks and was promoted to AA Indianapolis, where he seems to have been a disappointment, as he ended up back down at A-level Albany the next two seasons, and then started a gradual decline as he aged, landing at Class C Erie in 1941 after passing through five more major league organizations in dizzying succession. His age seems to have been the reason there is not a big gap in his stats during the war, as he was probably too old by this time to serve. The vacancies created by the temporary disappearance of so many players in wartime also probably explains why Cotelle was promoted back up to the higher levels of the minors in the twilight years of his career. But his peripatetic ways continued, as he played for six different teams his last six seasons, ending with Scranton (where he hit .314 at the age of 40), and finally Louisville, in 1945.

It must have occurred to Cotelle that with thousands of players due to return to organized ball in 1946, the chances for a 40-year old minor league outfielder were pretty slim, but Cotelle was not quite finished with baseball just yet. He joined the El Paso Texans of the Mexican National League in 1946, hitting .347 at the ripe old age of 41 before finally hanging up his spikes. (The Texans were managed by Andy Cohen. A teammate on the '33 Blue Sox was pitcher Irving Cohen. Hey, we Cohens notice this stuff, as there has been a serious shortage of Cohens in the baseball profession.)

So it remains something of a mystery. How could a player of Cotelle's obvious offensive ability never breath the rarified air of a major league ballpark? What must have gone through his mind each time he would get close to the big leagues - in Rochester, Indianapolis, Louisville - only for his hopes to be dashed yet again? This part may not be as mysterious as it sounds. There were only 16 major league teams during Cotelle's era, and therefore only about 400 roster positions in all of major league baseball during his era. These jobs were not yielded easily. The minors were full of players who could hit, yet lacked that certain something that took them the rest of the way. Perhaps major league scouts were dismissive of Cotelle because of his diminutive 5' 5" stature. Or was it Cotelle's temperament? Twenty teams in as many seasons suggest that perhaps he wore out his welcome more than once. There is some evidence to support this theory. Cotelle was fined for assault for attacking a fan in Davenport in 1933, and in 1939 while playing for the Albany Senators he reportedly set the outfield on fire. "The lighting was bad and I couldn't see", was his explanation.

So we tip our hat (our 1933 Davenport Blue Sox hat!) to Cosmo Cotelle. Maybe not one of baseball's legends, but we can think of no player who more typifies the journeyman ballplayer of the mid-20th Century. The kind of player whose legacy only exists in a few fading memories, in some correspondence in a file, or in the cold black and white of a sheet of baseball statistics.

Cosmo Como Cotelle amassed a .323 lifetime average and 2,730 hits in his long career. We do not know what kind of life he lead from 1946 when he gave up his baseball dreams, to his death in Chicago on Christmas Day in 1975.

If you know more about Cosmo Cotelle (or better yet, have a photograph of him) please let us know. We will reward you with a free 1933 Davenport Blue Sox cap.

Our Flannel of the Month is Cosmo Cotelle's 1945 Scranton Miners jersey. It has the World War II Stars & Stripes patch on the left sleeve and number on back, and is available for the special $99 Flannel of the Month price for a limited time. We also have Cosmo Cotelle's 1933 Davenport Blue Sox cap in stock. And of course, if you want any jersey from Cosmo's 21 different teams, you know who to ask).

This just in: Our readers are the best! Received three photos of Cotelle this morning. Best one is from Bud Holland. Cosmo is shown second from left in bottom row: