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WSI News - Season Features

Al Lopez Remembered

By Mark Liptak

He may have been the best manager the Chicago White Sox have ever had, certainly he was one of the winningest. Al Lopez, ‘The Senor” died Sunday, October 30th, 2005 at the age of 97 in a Tampa hospital. Lopez apparently suffered a heart attack on Friday before eventually succumbing to the issue. At the time of his passing he was the oldest living Hall Of Famer.

Lopez, was a big league catcher who at one time held the record for most games caught. He played from 1928 through 1947 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians. A leader of men, he’d become team captain at every one of the clubs that he played for. After retiring as a player he turned to managing where he took over the Indians in 1951. In the next six seasons he helped lead the Tribe to five second place finishes as well as taking the pennant with a then league record 111 wins in 1954. He left Cleveland after the 1956 season because he was getting tired of the fickle Indian fans who actually cheered when players such as Joe Gordon got hurt and because he couldn’t find a way to get back to the World Series which the Tribe shockingly lost in four straight to the New York Giants.

A change of scene was needed and the White Sox provided just the place for Lopez who took over in time for the 1957 campaign. Lopez replaced Marty Marion, who did a surprisingly good job with the Sox but was fired after missing a board meeting in order to attend a family gathering.

Lopez immediately began to instill his mark on the White Sox using the spacious Comiskey Park to his advantage. He turned to the staples of pitching, speed and defense to continue the Sox winning ways which began in 1951 under manager Paul Richards.

Lopez brought with him coaches like Ray Berres, John Cooney, Tony Cuccinello and Don Gutteridge. The group was very close, playing golf frequently together on off days and thought as a single unit. Lopez was the opposite of fiery skippers like Billy Martin or Earl Weaver. He was usually calm and quiet, positioning himself at the end of the Sox dugout after the first pitch and working through his staff. Ken Berry who played for Lopez in the 1960's said, “I never saw him get upset.”

He was regarded as a brilliant baseball man although not one to take unnecessary chances. He played the percentages and with the pitching staffs he had with the White Sox, he could afford to play for one or two runs. “He was the finest man I ever knew,” according to Sox owner Chuck Comiskey. “A gentleman and he knew baseball. I thought Paul Richards knew baseball and he did, but Al knew and understood even more.”

In 1957 the Sox finished in second place for the first time in decades but regressed somewhat in 1958. What the fans and media didn’t understand though was that Lopez and his staff were teaching the Sox how to win. Jim Landis, with whom Lopez would later have issues, became a top center fielder and a steady hitter, Luis Aparicio learned how to wait for his pitch and Sox 3rd baseman “Bubba” Phillips improved his hitting by abandoning his crouch.

As the 1959 season approached Lopez confided to new owner Bill Veeck that ‘the Yankees can be had this year.’ Lopez was right, as the Sox used the talents of league MVP Nellie Fox and the base running daring of Aparicio, Fox and Landis along with a top pitching staff including the likes of Early Wynn, Dick Donovan, Bob Shaw, Billy Pierce, “Turk” Lown and Gerry Staley to win the pennant. Even though the Sox lost to the Dodgers in six games and the fact that the team was in a transition phase the next three years, Lopez continued to keep the Sox in contention and to produce winning seasons.

By 1963 the Sox had been reborn thanks to the brilliant trade that brought them Hoyt Wilhelm, Pete Ward, Ron Hansen and Dave Nicholson. That year despite key injuries to pitcher Johnny Buzhardt and first baseman Joe Cunningham, the Sox won 94 games. The pitching staff was again the class of the league as Gary Peters, Joe Horlen, Juan Pizarro, Buzhardt, Wilhelm, Ray Herbert, Eddie Fisher and Don Mossi dominated hitters and it almost led to another pennant under Lopez in 1964.

That season saw the Sox win 98 games and finish one game behind the Yankees despite closing the season with nine straight wins. The pennant was lost because the Sox amazingly lost their first ten straight head to head meetings with the Bombers causing Lopez to show a rare display of anger in public. After one frustrating loss Lopez banged his fists on his desk in his office and yelled, “just once I’d like to win a big game for all these good fans.”

Lopez left as field manager after the 1965 season, after three straight ninety wins or more campaigns, to become a vice president with the Sox. He was suffering from stomach problems at the time which may have led to his decision. He was asked to come back for 47 games in 1968 and 17 games in 1969 before retiring for good. His 840 wins in a White Sox uniform is second all time and his winning percentage of .562 is fifth on the all time Sox list. In his nine full seasons as manager he had one pennant, five second place finishes and a third place finish. He had nine winning seasons and five years with ninety or more wins.

Lopez though was a complex man, loved by the fans and the media for his accessibility and his friendliness, he could also show a different side to his players, particularly if he felt they did something wrong.

For years afterwards Lopez did not support Nellie Fox’s candidacy to the baseball Hall Of Fame. Lopez was on the veterans committee and according to some campaigned against his little second baseman. Lopez himself though said he would never vote for any player he managed because he didn’t think that was right. Another controversial decision made by Lopez involved Billy Pierce. Pierce was passed over for a start in the 1959 World Series in favor of Bob Shaw in game two and Early Wynn in game six. Pierce had suffered a hip injury earlier that season which may have played a part in the move. It didn’t however sit well with Pierce, a player universally loved then and now by Sox fans.

As Billy told me in his WSI interview, "It was very tough. It was a real hard thing. I appeared in three games and pitched well but it was a disappointment. I was very glad when it was over. Let’s put it this way, I left town pretty quickly to try to forget about it all. I honestly think the controversy affected Al more then me. I wasn’t the culprit, all I could do was what he told me.

He had to listen to the fans who wanted me to pitch but I couldn’t do anything about it."

The issue with Jim Landis came to a head in 1964 over what appeared to be a misunderstanding.

According to Landis, "The Sox lost our player rep, I think it was Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell and the guys wanted me to take over for him. I said that I’d do it temporarily until we could formally elect a guy. It turned out that the Sox players decided that whenever we would appear on a major radio or TV station, like WGN, we wanted to get fifty bucks for it. Most of the time we were getting a transistor radio for doing it. Well as player rep, I was the club spokesman and Ed Short (Author’s Note: White Sox general manager) came downstairs and I told him that. Short got mad at me and I got the brunt of it. I don’t blame Al, he wasn’t going to buck the GM. Al didn’t talk to me for a long time and I was benched for a long spell. I started opening day then sat a long time."

Sox pitcher Ray Herbert also had some memories of how tough Lopez could be commenting to me on the last day of the 1962 season when he was shooting for his 20th win. “I remember that I didn’t pitch very well that day. Lopez took me out after five innings or so. I gave up three or four runs. Al said to me, ‘‘you’re horseshit today, you’re lucky. Go take a shower...’’ We were able to win the game though.” Al also had to be convinced about an injury Herbert suffered which eventually led to his being traded to the Phillies in 1965. “I got hurt batting in Cleveland. I started swinging at an inside pitch and saw that it was going to hit me so I pulled back and turned my right arm as I did so. The weight of the bat pulled my elbow back, it snapped it and I hurt the muscle around it. ”

“I actually went out and pitched the next inning but it was hurting and when I got back in the dugout I told Al that I was hurt. Al looked at me and said ‘‘what do you mean you’re hurt? You threw fine the last inning.’’ I said the arm was hurting me and that I needed to be taken out. I guess Al thought I was jaking it, trying to get out of the game. Why he would think that after I spent thirteen years in the major leagues I don’t know, but he took me out, the trainer looked at me and it didn’t seem to be to bad.”

“I went to bed that night and got up the next day and had trouble raising my arm. Even worse was the way my arm looked. I got dressed, went to the stadium and saw Al in the locker room. He asked me ‘‘how’s your arm?’’ I got my shirt off and said ‘‘what do you think?’’ Al looked at me and said ‘‘ need to see a doctor!’’ My arm was purple from the elbow all the way down to the wrist! I broke some blood vessels along with injuring the muscle around the elbow when my arm jerked back getting away from that inside pitch.”

Herbert also mentioned an incident that happened in 1963. “We were at home on a Saturday afternoon. It was a national TV game. Floyd Robinson was up in the first inning and he hit a little pop up. He ran about halfway down the line then slowed up as the infielder caught the ball. Jim (Landis) brought his glove out to him in the outfield and they started warming up between innings.

Lopez didn’t like the fact that Floyd didn’t run the ball out the entire way so while they are in the outfield, Al turns to one of the guys on the bench and says ‘‘you go in for Robinson.’’ The kid ran out there with his glove. Floyd had his back turned so he never saw the guy and didn’t know what was going on. The kid must have said something like ‘‘I’m in for you.’’ Floyd went back to the dugout.

Lopez looked at him and said, ‘‘I see you don’t want to play today so you can have a seat on the bench.’’ Floyd didn’t move or say anything the rest of the day.”

As Joe Horlen told me when I asked him to comment on Al’s death, “He didn’t put up with any loafing and he had a quick hook. If you didn’t have it in a game as a pitcher, he wasn’t going to mess around with you. He’d take you out.”

To leave this retrospective of Al Lopez like this would be doing him an injustice. He had another side of him to his players as well. “He was a class act and he gave me a chance to win a job,” said Ken Berry. “He stayed with me even when I wasn’t doing so well.”

Ed Herrmann was called up to the Sox for good in August 1967 but he was around Lopez during the 1965 and 1966 spring training camps. “The Senor was an outstanding educator. He took me aside and taught me the things that I needed to know to become a major league catcher. Remember I was signed as a pitcher and changed positions. He took me under his wing and showed me what needed to be done and how to do it. Al was very astute about the game, he was already a few innings ahead of where the game actually was, thinking about what he might have to do.”

Lopez’s influence in baseball continues to this day. Tony LaRussa, another former Sox manager grew up around Al in Ybor City, Florida. LaRussa often consulted with The Senor when he was back home in Florida about how to manage a game and a team. Some of Lopez’s characteristics can be seen in Tony who will eventually join Al in the Hall Of Fame.

Lopez is survived by his son, daughter-in-law, three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. His wife, Connie, died in 1983.


Hey Sox Fans!

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WSI is staffed 100 percent by Sox Fan volunteers. Here is your chance to join us in dedicating this extraordinary Sox baseball season to those most important in your life -- along with hundreds of your fellow Sox Fans -- and see the results help the worthy cause of cancer research here in Chicago.

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-- George Bova
on behalf of the the volunteer staff of Sox Fans at White Sox Interactive

Be sure to contact all of your Sox Fan friends and acquaintances and invite them to post their dedication too, while this thread is still open!

Editor's Note: Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work. He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years. "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.

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