On September 29, 1979, Dave Parker was operating on roughly forty-five minutes of sleep. He had broken up with his live-in girlfriend the night before after she had cursed out his mother on the phone. She did not take it well and had proceeded to cause thousands of dollars in damage to his home and car, necessitating a police visit.
But this was Dave Parker, aka “The Cobra.” The Pirates’ All-Star right fielder went five-for-six that afternoon in a thirteen-inning loss to the Chicago Cubs. The Bucs, though, clinched the Eastern Division with a 5-3 win over the Cubs the next day, on their way to a World Series championship.
That was Parker’s MO—no matter what was happening off the field, he was always ready to go on it.
In the past couple of years, the previously guarded Parker has come out a bit. In 2019, he was the subject of an excellent MLB Network documentary, The Cobra at Twilight. On April first, his autobiography Cobra, co-written with Dave Jordan, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.
The book opens in 1985, when Parker, then on the Cincinnati Reds, was preparing to testify in the infamous MLB drug trials in Pittsburgh on the same day that his manager, teammate, and friend Pete Rose broke the all-time hits record. It moves swiftly and interestingly through his high school career at Cincinnati’s Courter Tech as a three-sport athlete, where a knee injury derailed his dream of playing football at Ohio State, his drafting by the Pirates, and his conversion to the outfield in the minors. The book is worth reading just for Parker and Jordan’s vivid descriptions of Parker’s ascent through the minors and his astute observations of his teammates.
Parker’s career with the Pirates is already pretty well-documented, and if you love detailed descriptions of 42-year-old baseball games, you’re going to love the stuff about the 1979 Series. I would have preferred a little more personal stuff, but I admit that’s me. Parker famously skipped the victory parade, which he says was due to a combination of highly racist mail after he signed his big contract and … just being tired and injured. “I had a lot going on, man, both in and out of the game,” he writes. “If I had to do it all again, would I have gone to the parade? Yeah, probably. If you went out that day just to see me, I’m very sorry.”
Parker also doesn’t avoid his notorious drug issues. He doesn’t name names—if you do a little research, he really doesn’t have to—nor does he claim to have been unjustly prosecuted. He notes that he was fortunate enough to be able to quit drugs without having to go to rehab, which was greeted with some disbelief during his testimony at the Pittsburgh trials. He credits Rose, who, of course, had his own issues, for believing in him, and as his playing career waned, he was a well-regarded mentor to younger players on the Reds, Athletics, Brewers, Angels, and Blue Jays, retiring in 1991.
Cobra isn’t a gossip fest. It’s uneven in parts, going into too much detail in some areas and glossing over others, but it’s never boring and often very funny. It’s obvious at times that Jordan is doing a straight transcription of a Parker interview, but that’s not a bad thing. Fans of the 1970s Pirates teams will enjoy the appearances of their favorites, and those not familiar with Parker’s post-Bucs career, particularly his relationship with Rose, will learn a lot.
Dave Parker has long been a controversial figure in baseball. Players with lesser numbers are in the Hall of Fame, but some baseball writers have said flat out that due to his cocaine use, they will never vote for him. He was a great player, no question. He is also, like all of us, a flawed human. Cobra might not change your mind about him, but as an autobiography, it’s a pretty solid read.
Special thanks to Adam Rifenberick of Press Box Publicity for the advance copy of Cobra.