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Lopez, Alfonso Ramon (“Al”; “El Señor”)

Lopez, Alfonso Ramon (“Al”; “El Señor”)

(b. 20 August 1908 in Tampa, Florida; d. 30 October 2005 in Tampa, Florida), durable catcher and respected manager who was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977.

Lopez was born in 1908 in Ybor City, Tampa’s Latin Quarter. He was the eighth of nine children born to Modesto Lopez and Faustina (Vasquez) Lopez, who had emigrated from Spain to Cuba before traveling to Florida. Ybor City cigar factories were recruiting skilled workers from Havana, Cuba, and tabaqueros (cigar selectors) like Modesto Lopez were in high demand. Lopez’s mother was a homemaker. While Lopez’s childhood was spent outdoors swimming, chasing squirrels, and playing baseball, it was not without difficulty. Two of Lopez’s older brothers, Urbano and Julio, were killed in accidents; one was shot in the eye with a rusty arrow, causing lockjaw; the other broke his neck while diving into the Hillsborough River. Lopez, who attended Ybor City Grammar School and Sacred Heart Academy (later called Jesuit High School), worked delivering bread for an Italian bakery owned by the businessman Angelo Ferlita, but with little more than a cigar factory job in his future, his energy turned to baseball.

As an agile catcher, Lopez, who was earning $45 per week to catch batting practice for the Washington Senators, caught the attention of a sportswriter from a Spanish-language newspaper who recommended him to the local Class D team, Tampa Smokers. Upon meeting with the team’s coach outside of a pool hall, Lopez was signed to play for $150 per month. With his parents’ blessing, he subsequently left Sacred Heart Academy, where he had batted .323 that season, and his job at Ferlita’s Bakery to become a professional baseball player.

In 1925 Lopez became part of the early entry of Hispanics into organized baseball. For his part Lopez did not seem to notice. “I never had this minority thing handicap me in any way,” he said. “I’m Spanish and proud of it.” Lopez stayed with the Smokers for two years before advancing to the Class B Jacksonville Tars, during which time the teenager also gained notice for catching the great pitcher Walter Johnson in an exhibition game. In Jacksonville, Florida, his play led to the Brooklyn Dodgers purchasing his contact for $10,000. In two seasons with Brooklyn farm clubs, Lopez caught more than 200 games, batting .327. While Lopez was brought to Brooklyn briefly in 1928, he was permanently called up in 1930, remaining in Major League Baseball (except for a three-year hiatus) until 1969. His gentlemanly demeanor earned him the nickname “El Señor.”

His major league playing career consisted of eighteen seasons in the National League and one in the American League. During this time Lopez, who hit .261 with 51 homers and 652 RBI and played in 2 All-Star games, was on a first division club a mere nine times, with most of those teams finishing no better than fourth. Lopez recalled the 1930 Brooklyn Robins as a great team. They were led by the manager Wilbert Robinson and featured the respected players Babe Herman, Dazzy Vance, and Glenn Wright. The Robins were in first place as late as August that season before tiring to fourth. The 1944 Pittsburgh Pirates, with the shortstop Arky Vaughan and the pitcher Rip Sewell, gave him his highest finish, placing a distant second. An ironman, durability proved to be Lopez’s calling card, as he established a record that would stand for forty years for most games caught in a career of 1,918—all of which were day games.

In contrast, as a manager El Señor’s teams finished in first or second place during eleven of his first sixteen seasons. A reserved leader—some called him spiteful—Lopez focused his attention on the field. He treated his players the way he wanted to be treated: with respect and a quiet dignity. His best teams were the 1954 Cleveland Indians, whose 111 wins established a record that held for forty-four years, and the 1959 Chicago “Go-Go” White Sox. His stints in Cleveland and Chicago also displayed the flexibility with which Lopez operated. In Cleveland, Lopez had a powerful squad made up of sluggers such as Larry Doby, Vic Wertz, and Al Rosen. He also had tremendous pitching with Mike Garcia, Art Houtteman, and four Hall of Famers: Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Early Wynn, and Hal Newhouser. With this crew Lopez focused on pitching and the long ball. In Chicago, however, the raffish White Sox had to manufacture runs, using tactics such as bunting, stealing base, and hitting behind the runner to scratch a win. Lopez also relied heavily on pitching and defense, especially up the middle with Luis Aparicio, Nelson Fox, and Jim Landis. A walk and stolen base were known around the league as an “Aparicio double.” While both the 1954 Indians and 1959 White Sox ultimately lost in the World Series, they proved to be the only two teams between 1949 and 1964 to overtake the dynastic New York Yankees for the American League pennant.

Having spent portions of seventeen seasons as a big-league pilot, Lopez finished his career tied for ninth place on the all-time winning percentage list with a .584 average, a record of 1,422–1,026. In 1977 he was enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame as a manager.

Lopez retired to Tampa and in doing so resumed a passion that had never left him: being a Tampa guy. He so enjoyed living in his hometown that he seldom failed to return there during the off-season. Lopez’s wife, Evelyn “Connie” (Kearney) Lopez, whom he had met while she was a dancer in New York City and married on 7 October 1939, had long since established a home there with their only child, a son. Connie died of emphysema in 1983 shortly before their forty-fourth anniversary, but Lopez pushed on, occupied with golf, visits with his family, dinner at the Lincoln Spanish Restaurant, and games of gin rummy with friends. Tampa loved him in return, naming a ballpark after him, which he outlived. Other accolades followed—monuments, honorary doctorates, and days—for Tampa’s favorite son.

On Sunday, 30 October 2005, four days after the Chicago White Sox clinched their first World Series victory since 1917, Lopez died at age ninety-seven. Lopez had been hospitalized two days earlier for an apparent heart attack shortly after having dinner with his son; he never regained consciousness. He is buried in Garden of Memories Cemetery, Tampa.

At the time of his death Lopez was baseball’s oldest living (and oldest ever) Hall of Famer. His years in the game, however, are remembered as much for the way in which he conducted himself as for his skills; simply put, he was a gentleman. “If he was your manager, you respected him,” player Monte Irvin said. “If you played against him, you looked up to him.” As the game evolved, often in a negative light, Lopez remained an ardent ambassador, always aware of his position and keen to another’s need, whether a kind gesture or a patient moment. Lopez was the seventh son of a seventh son, a good player, a great manager, and baseball’s finest gentleman, El Señor.

Wes Singletary, Al Lopez: The Life of Baseball’s El Señor (1999), is the foremost source for information about his life and career. Singletary, Florida’s First Big League Baseball Players: A Narrative History (2006), contains a first-person narrative account from Al Lopez taken from a 1992 interview. Other important sources include Steven F. Lawson, “Ybor City and Baseball: An Interview with Al Lopez,” Tampa Bay History 7 (fall/winter 1985): 59–76; and Lopez’s interview with Gary Mormino from 4 Apr. 1980, University of Florida’s Oral History Project, Gainesville. The National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York, has an extensive research file on Lopez containing clippings, correpsondence, and taped interviews. Important secondary works include and Gary R. Mormino and George E. Pozzetta, The Immigrant World of Ybor City: Italians and Their Latin Neighbors in Tampa, 1885–1985 (1987); and Joseph Thomas Moore, Pride Against Prejudice: The Biography of Larry Doby (1988). Obituaries are in the Tampa Tribune, Saint Petersburg Times, New York Times, and Chicago Sun-Times (all 31 Oct. 2005).

Wes Singletary

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