Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Al Lopez

Al Lopez, a Hall of Fame catcher and manager who led the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox to American League pennants in the 1950s, died Sunday October 30th at age 97.

Lopez had been hospitalized in Tampa since Friday, when he suffered a heart attack at his son's home, Al Lopez Jr.

Lopez was the oldest living Hall of Fame member, and may have caught as many “Hall of Famers” as any catcher ever. He caught Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean and Dazzy Vance, and even worked as a teenager with Walter Johnson, who won 417 games and possessed a legendary fastball.

Lopez hit .261 with 51 homers and 652 RBIs during a 19-year career in which he was one of baseball's most durable catchers. A solid major league catcher whose record of 1,918 games caught stood for more than 40 years until the record was later broken by Bob Boone, then Carlton Fisk.

Lopez was elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager. His 1954 Indians and 1959 White Sox interrupted a 16-year stretch in which the Yankees won every pennant but those two. He helped the Indians to the 1954 pennant and, until a few weeks ago, was the last manager to lead the White Sox to the World Series — their 1959 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. His Indians set a record with 111 wins in '54, and his '59 "Go-Go Sox" won that franchise's first pennant in 40 years. Had there been a wild-card in his managerial days he may have taken his teams to the post-season every year - he guided his club to a second place finish ten times.

"We're saddened by the news," White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said through a spokesman Sunday. "Al lived a long and good life. We're so pleased we were able to win the World Series this year and that he was able to see it before he died."

Lopez began his professional baseball career at the age of 15. During spring training in 1925, the Washington Senators hired Lopez to catch batting practice for $45 a week. Lopez was afforded an opportunity that every 15 yr/old boy in 1925 would have dreamed about, the chance to catch for Walter “The Big Train” Johnson. Johnson was nearing the end of his career by then, but still made an impression on the youngster.

"He wasn't firing like he used to, but he was still very fast and had very good control," Lopez said. "All you had to do was hold your mitt around the strike zone, and it'd be right there."
The two-time All Star's first full season in the majors was not until 1930. In his career Lopez played for Brooklyn, the Boston Braves, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He also managed the Indians from 1951-56 and the White Sox from 1957-65 and 1968-69.

Every off-season, Lopez returned to Tampa, where he was born in 1908. The people of Tampa loved Lopez. I can speak from experience. As a young man growing up and playing high school baseball in the area you knew who Lopez was. Lopez was like “The Godfather” of Tampa baseball (which by the way is no small thing; take a look at the number of big leaguers from this area).

"They've treated me real nice here," Lopez said in a 1994 interview. "They've given me parades, they've given me banquets, they named a ballpark after me. Now they tore the ballpark down, so they named a park after me and put up a statue.

"I say, 'Why are you doing this? I was just doing something I liked.'"

One of my favorite stories about Lopez may be the time that he was thrown out of an exhibition game in Tampa after umpire John Stevens blew a call on the first day of spring training.

"I hollered, 'John, are you going to start out the year like that? First play we have and you miss it. Are we going to have to put up with you all spring?' Lopez said.
"He said, 'One more word out of you and you're gone.' I said, 'You can't throw me out of this ballpark. This is my ballpark — Al Lopez Field.' He said, 'Get out of here.' He threw me out of my own ballpark."

Lopez loved to talk baseball, and would willingly give his opinion on just about any baseball related topic

"I don't think he thought there were any players today that were better than Babe Ruth, and the old-timers he played with," said the 63-year-old Lopez Jr.

Anyone who ever played for Lopez knew what a great manager he was.

"We called him 'Senor' Lopez," said Jim Rivera, a center fielder for the '59 White Sox. "He was very fair. If you did something good he would compliment you. If you struck out or made an error, he wouldn't say a word, as long as you hustled and worked hard,"

Lopez's second stint as manager of the White Sox ended May 2, 1969, when he resigned for health reasons with a career record of 1,422-1,026.

Lopez had lived alone in Tampa since his wife, Connie, died in 1983. He is survived by Lopez Jr., three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

"Probably the finest manager I ever played for, baseball-wise, running a ball club and just being the gentleman that he is. He wasn't all that easy, he was the manager and no one ran all over him."
— Hal Newhouser

Did You Know... that Al Lopez managed the 1954 Indians and the 1959 White Sox, the only teams to beat out the Yankees for first place in the American League from 1949-1964?

Did You Know... that prior to his death on October 30, 2005, Al Lopez was the last living player who had played a major league game in the 1920s?


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