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R.I.P. Al Lopez

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Al Lopez, who led White Sox to 1959 Series, dies at 97

(by JENNIFER KAY, Associated Press Writer -- AP Sports Writer Fred Goodall in Tampa contributed to this report)

MIAMI (AP) -- Al Lopez was one of Baseball's most durable catchers in the 1930s and 40s, worked with the likes of Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean and Dazzy Vance, and went on to manage the Indians and White Sox to American League pennants.

The oldest Hall Of Fame member, Lopez died Sunday at 97.

He held a long-standing record for games caught, is the only AL manager to lead teams that finished ahead of the New York Yankees between 1949-64, and took the White Sox to the World Series in 1959.

But the one Baseball experience Lopez never forgot: catching Walter Johnson.

Lopez saw the 417 game-winner's legendary fastball when, during spring training in 1925, the Washington Senators hired the 15-year-old Lopez to catch batting practice for $45 a week. Johnson was nearing the end of his career, but still made an impression on the youngster.

"He wasn't firing like he used to, but he was still very fast and had very good control,'' Lopez said. "All you had to do was hold your mitt around the strike zone, and it'd be right there.''

Lopez had been hospitalized in Tampa since Friday, when he suffered a heart attack at his son's home, Al Lopez Jr. said. He was the oldest living Hall Of Fame member, said Jeff Idelson, spokesman for the Hall.

Lopez hit .261 with 51 homers and 652 RBIs during a 19-year career in which he set the record for most games caught in the Major Leagues at 1,918. The record was later broken by Bob Boone, then Carlton Fisk.

He helped the Indians to the 1954 pennant and, until last week, was the last manager to lead the White Sox to the World Series -- their 1959 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"We're saddened by the news,'' White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said through a spokesman Sunday. "Al lived a long and good life. We're so pleased we were able to win the World Series this year and that he was able to see it before he died.''

The two-time All Star's first full season in the majors was 1930, and he played 18 seasons for Brooklyn, the Boston Braves, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. He managed the Indians from 1951-56 and the White Sox from 1957-65 and 1968-69.

Every offseason, Lopez returned to Tampa, where he was born in 1908.

"They've treated me real nice here,'' Lopez said in a 1994 interview. "They've given me parades, they've given me banquets, they named a ballpark after me. Now they tore the ballpark down, so they named a park after me and put up a statue.

"I say, 'Why are you doing this? I was just doing something I liked.'''

Lopez also recalled the time as a manager that he was thrown out of an exhibition game in Tampa after umpire John Stevens blew a call on the first day of spring training.

"I hollered, 'John, are you going to start out the year like that? First play we have and you miss it. Are we going to have to put up with you all spring?' Lopez said.

"He said, 'One more word out of you and you're gone.' I said, 'You can't throw me out of this ballpark. This is my ballpark -- Al Lopez Field.' He said, 'Get out of here.' He threw me out of my own ballpark.''

Though baseball players got bigger and stronger though the decades, Lopez still revered the players he knew, his son said.

"I don't think he thought there were any players today that were better than Babe Ruth, the old-timers he played with,'' said the 63-year-old Lopez Jr.

Although he held the record for most games caught until Boone caught his 1,919th game in 1987, Lopez was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 as a manager with a .581 winning percentage.

The Indians won a then-AL record 111 games in 1954, and his 1959 "Go-Go'' White Sox won Chicago's first AL pennant since 1919. His teams finished second to the Yankees every other season that decade.

"We called him 'Senor' Lopez,'' said Jim Rivera, a center fielder for the '59 White Sox.

"He was very fair. If you did something good he would compliment you. If you struck out or made an error, he wouldn't say a word, as long as you hustled and worked hard,'' Rivera said Sunday from his home in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Lopez's second stint as manager of the White Sox ended May 2, 1969, when he resigned for health reasons with a career record of 1,422-1,026.

"Al was a Hall of Famer in every sense of the term,'' Idelson said. "He carried himself with great class and he was incredible contributor to the game.''

With Lopez's death, former New York Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto, 88, becomes the oldest living member of the Hall.

Lopez remained active in his retirement, frequently shooting his age in golf, and he also closely followed the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, his son said.

Lopez had lived alone in Tampa since his wife, Connie, died in 1983. He is survived by Lopez Jr., three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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I would liked to have walked in his shoes during his baseball tenure. He could probably tell some real great stories !!

 

See you in the Field of Dreams, Al. Enjoy it till we all join you.

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