Sunday, November 16, 2008

#414 Al Lopez

Al Lopez by you.
I am a big fan of this pose, which Topps photographers used to great effect for several managers (Sam Mele and Chuck Dressen among them) in this set. Really, it's surprising that no one thought of it sooner. Pitchers posed in their windup or follow-through. Batters posed in a batting stance. Fielders posed bent at the waist, glove out in front in anticipation of a grounder. So why shouldn't managers pose with a hand cupped to the mouth, shouting instructions to their charges?

Al Lopez had as long and colorful a career in baseball as anyone. He broke into the major leagues as a 19-year-old catcher with the 1928 Brooklyn Dodgers, and played nineteen seasons, retiring from the 1947 Cleveland Indians. He set a record for games caught (1,918), which was broken four decades later by Bob Boone. In 1930, he hit the last-ever "bounce home run"; the following year, balls that touched the field of play and then bounced into the stands were scored as ground-rule doubles. He was a two-time All-Star, and twice hit over .300 in a full season.

Lopez found his true calling as a manager. From 1948-1950, he helmed the Indianapolis Indians, taking the Pirates' AA affiliate to the postseason in all three years and winning the Junior World Series in 1949. Cleveland hired him in 1951, and he was an instant hit, leading the Tribe to three straight 90-plus-win seasons. In each of those years, the club was the runner-up to the dynastic Yankees. But 1954 was a season for the ages. Led by a dominant starting rotation of Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, Art Houtteman, and Bob Feller, the Indians won a then-record 111 games (against just 43 losses) to interrupt New York's run of dominance. Regrettably, Cleveland ran into another New York team in the World Series. Willie Mays introduced himself to the world as the Giants swept the Indians in four straight. After two more second-place finishes behind the Yanks, it was time for Lopez to move on.

Al took over the White Sox in 1957, but found himself in a familiar position: looking up from second place at the pennant-winning Yankees. After more of the same the next year, he guided the Pale Hose to the top in 1959. The "Go-Go Sox" won 94 games but succumbed to the Koufax/Drysdale Dodgers in six games in the World Series. Chicago couldn't build any momentum in the ensuing years, finishing third, fourth, and fifth from 1960-1962. Led by young stars such as third baseman Pete Ward and pitcher Gary Peters, the White Sox vaulted back into contention in 1963, winning 94 but finishing 10 and 1/2 games back of (who else?) the Yankees. The next year the Sox were even better, notching 98 victories. Despite winning their last nine games, they finished a heartbreaking second, only one game behind the...Bronx Bombers. 95 more wins in 1965 were not enough to overcome the surging Twins, who won 102. Lopez walked away from managing, only to return for a brief and unsuccessful stint at the end of 1968 and beginning of 1969.

Al did have quite an impressive run as a manager, never finishing a full season with less than 85 wins. He won 1410 games and lost 1004, for a .584 winning percentage. His pennant-winning teams in 1954 and 1959 were the only clubs from 1949-1964 to interrupt a staggering string of Yankee league titles. On the strength of his managerial record, Lopez was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977. He lived to the ripe old age of 97, passing away in 2005 shortly after his White Sox won their first World Series in nearly a century. He had been the last living player of the 1920s.

Fun fact: In 1954, Al Lopez Field was dedicated in the former catcher's hometown of Tampa. It was razed in 1989, and the spot where it once stood is now the south end zone of Raymond James Stadium, home of the NFL's Buccaneers.
Al Lopez (back) by you.

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