Señor Al Lopez: The Yankee Slayer

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They called him The Señor, for his Spanish heritage and his gentlemanly demeanor. He was born in Tampa, Florida in 1908, the seventh son of a seventh son. His parents having emigrated from Spain(via Cuba), Al Lopez was at the front of a long line–Cuban Dolf Luque predated him–of what would become an even longer line of major leaguers with Spanish surnames.

Career Highlights

In a 19 year major league career(which began in 1928), Lopez appeared in 1,950 games—all but a handful as a catcher. He spent 7 seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers catching top flight pitchers like Dazzy Vance, Dolf Luque, and Van Lingle Mungo. This was followed by 5 seasons with the Boston Braves, and 7 with the Pirates. His lifetime batting average was .261. He was a good baseball player—ya gotta be good to last that long as a starting catcher in the major leagues in a day and age when there were only 16 of them. But good isn’t great, and great gets you into the Hall of Fame. Al was overshadowed in Hall of Fame credentials by his contemporary backstops, HOFers Gabby Hartnett, Mickey Cochrane, and Bill Dickey.

Nineteen years wearing the “tools of ignorance” at the major league level gave Lopez the opportunity to learn the nuances of the game and develop the leadership skills that would serve him well as a manager. He held the major league record  for number of games caught (1,918) for forty years until it was broken by Bob Boone in 1987. His managerial accomplishments are what would get him into the Hall of Fame in the managers section.

In the twilight of his career (he was 39), the Pittsburgh Pirates traded this longtime National League stalwart to the Cleveland Indians for a young prospect named Gene Woodling, who would go on to win 5 World Series rings with the Yankees, before actually joining Lopez in Cleveland to play under him in 1955.

But I get ahead of myself.

The Yankee Slayer

How did a guy who spent 97% of a long and successful playing career in the National League get to be known as a “Yankee Slayer?” That distinction came from what would become his Hall of Fame managing career.

The Señor retired as a player after that solitary season with Cleveland (in which he served as a backup catcher to Jim Hegan, whom he would also later manage). Lopez was immediately dispatched into the Indians’ minor league system to hone his managerial skills. He would be groomed as Lou Boudreau’s successor over the next three years. In three seasons managing the AAA Indianapolis Indians, Lopez won a league pennant, a league playoff championship, and was playoff runner-up once.

By 1951, Lopez moved back up to the bigs to take over the reins of the Cleveland Indians. The early 1950’s was a tough time to be managing any American League club except the Yankees. Lopez took a Cleveland club which had finished fourth under Boudreau in 1950, and brought them in second to the Bronx Bombers with a 93-61 record. The following year he had the same record and the same placing. In 1953, the Tribe also played bridesmaids to the Yankees with a 92-63 mark. Those were marks which would have won pennants in other seasons without Messrs. Mantle, Woodling, Bauer, and Berra in the way.

Then came 1954. That year the Yankees won 103 games, but they played bridesmaid to the Indians’ 111 wins and American League pennant. This was in a 154 game season, setting an American League record that would stand for almost half a century.

The next season the Yankees regained their dominance, however, and Lopez guided the Tribe to runners-up positions in 1955 and 1956 with marks of 93-61 and 88-66 respectively. This was not satisfactory to management so they gave Al the heave ho. The Chicago White Sox immediately snapped him up, and he took his runnin’ buddy Tony Cuccinello to the Windy City with him. In 1957, Al Lopez (wearing a White Sox uniform) was back in a familiar spot—second place to the Yankees, while the Tribe under an unknown named Kerby Farrell who’d shuffled in from Buffalo, languished in sixth place with their first sub-.500 record in a decade. Even with two future Hall of Famers(Early Wynn and Bob Lemon)on the staff and an outfield of Colavito, Maris, and Woodling the Tribe was only able to beat out the lowly Athletics and Senators—their poorest showing in years.

David versus Goliath Part 2

In 1958, Lopez again finished second to Casey Stengel’s Yankees, but in 1959, assisted by the play of former Indians Al Smith and Early Wynn (22-10), the Señor copped his second American League pennant. The New York Yankees had maintained a dynasty, handed off from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle and stage managed by Casey Stengel whereby they won every American League pennant for 16 years except for two—1954 and 1959. The Indians topped them in the former, the White Sox in the latter—both teams managed by Señor Al Lopez. So that’s how the catcher who spent 97% of his playing career in the National League got to be the Yankee Slayer.

But were those two deviations from Yankee domination of the A.L. flukes? Does a guy get into the Hall of Fame as a manager by creating two exceptions to a 16 year rule?   

Ironically, Lopez’ lifetime won-lost percentage as a manager(over 17 years) is higher(.581) than Stengel’s (.508). It is also higher than such managing luminaries as Earl Weaver, Walter Alston, Sparky Anderson, Cap Anson, Leo Durocher, Miller Huggins, Tommy Lasorda, Connie Mack, Billy Martin, and Dick Williams. Among pilots who managed in the 20th century, only the venerable John McGraw and Joe McCarthy have posted higher marks.

Al Lopez lived to the ripe old age of 97, dying of a heart attack in October of 2005, four days after the Chicago White Sox won their first World Series in 88 years, and their first American League championship since he had led them to the title in 1959.

Main image credit Embed from Getty Images

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