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Yankees still haunt Al Lopez

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  • Yankees still haunt Al Lopez

    New York Daily News -

    Yankees haunt Lopez

    Wednesday, March 10th, 2004

    TAMPA - The old senor's eyes still sparkled, his handshake firm, belying his 95 years, and as we chatted in the den of his modest ranch home on the shoreline of Tampa Bay, there was no escaping the wonderment of those hands that once were on the receiving end of a Walter Johnson fastball.

    "It was the spring of 1925," Al Lopez was telling me. "The Washington Senators were training here and they needed a catcher to catch batting practice. For some reason, they didn't want to use their regular catchers, Muddy Ruel and Pinky Hargrave, and I was playing sandlot ball when they called me and offered me $45 a week. Heck, I'd have done it for nothing, but that was my start in professional baseball.

    "Johnson threw hard, maybe the hardest of all, but he was easy to catch because he was always around the plate."

    The son of Spanish immigrants who came to Tampa's famous Ybor City district to work in the cigar factories in the late 1800s, Lopez wound up catching 18 years in the big leagues with the Brooklyn
    Dodgers, Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians from 1928-47. The oldest living baseball Hall of Famer, he held the major league record for games caught (1,918) until Bob Boone broke it in 1987. In his second career as a manager, Lopez won American League pennants with the Indians in 1954 and the Chicago White Sox in 1959, while finishing second 10 times.

    Inevitably, the conversation got around to the Yankees, who, despite the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, have a rather overbearing presence in this town. Even before George Steinbrenner moved the Yankees' spring training base of operations here in 1996, the Bombers were never a particularly favorite subject for Lopez.

    "It seems like I spent my entire managing career chasing the Yankees," Lopez sighed. "They always had the deep farm system with more players than almost all the other teams combined. And when they still needed a good player, they always had the resources to go out and get 'em - just like today."

    During Casey Stengel's remarkable run of 10 pennants in 12 years, from 1949-1060, the only manager to beat him was Lopez, in '54 and '59. The one year Stengel won more than 100 games in that span was 103 in 1954, but Lopez's Indians won an AL-record 111, only to get swept by the Giants in one of the greatest World Series upsets of all time.

    "I look back and still don't know how that happened," Lopez said, "other than the fact that, in a short series like that a team can get hot and anything can happen. You know, we won 111 games that year and never lost more than two in a row? I do believe if the Series had opened in Cleveland instead of the Polo Grounds things might have been different. I know the ball Willie Mays caught off Vic Wertz in that first game would have been a homer in Cleveland, and (Dusty) Rhodes' 290-foot homer for the Giants would've been an out. But I'm not making excuses. We didn't hit and these things happen.

    "It happened other times too - like 1990 when two Tampa boys, Tony LaRussa and Lou Piniella, squared off against each other and Piniella's Reds swept LaRussa's A's. I think most people felt the A's were clearly the better team.

    "And I go all the way back to the 1914 'Miracle Braves,' who came from last place in the middle of the season to win the pennant and then stayed hot by sweeping Connie Mack's great Philly A's team with the $100,000 infield of Eddie Collins, 'Home Run' Baker, Jack Barry and Stuffy McInnis, in the Series."

    The SeƱor, who rarely grants interviews, seemed to be on a roll now, so I decided to push his buttons a little firmer with another reference to the Yankees.

    "What did you think about the Yankees getting Alex Rodriguez?" I asked. "Do you think he'll have a problem moving to third?"

    "Like I said," Lopez replied, "the Yankees have always gotten the guys they want. Rodriguez is a helluva player, and he won't have any trouble moving to third. I've seen some of the greatest players ever, Hall of Famers, make that switch with ease. Travis Jackson did it with the Giants back in the '30s and Arky Vaughan did it with Pittsburgh and the Dodgers at the end of his career in the '40s. Then, of course, there was (Cal) Ripken.

    "The hardest position to play is shortstop because you've always got to come up with the ball clean and you don't have that extra second to make your throw. I remember Frankie Frisch with the Cardinals moving Pepper Martin from the outfield to third base because Martin had a big chest to knock down balls and a good arm. That's all he needed."

    Because of a bad back - the only physical concession to his age - Lopez has had to give up his great passion, golf, and he spends his days mostly at home, entertaining a small cadre of 80-something pals who stop by for a daily game of gin rummy. It was getting to that time, but as I got up to leave, Lopez ushered me over to his bar (made entirely of old game-used bats) and the adjoining shelf where dozens of yellowed autographed balls and pictures of him with Presidents Reagan, Kennedy and FDR, the residue of his nearly 70years in baseball, were proudly displayed.

    His housekeeper saw me out, and as she closed the front door, I couldn't help but notice the little white sign under the door bell: "No autographs, thanks." I could have told him his memories were more than enough.
    "Heroes are people who are all good with no bad in them. That's the way I always saw Joe DiMaggio. He was beyond question one of the greatest players of the century."

    ~Mickey Mantle

  • #2

    If they were insignificant, they would have been deleted!
    Still a long suffering TIGERS fan


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