Lopez was oldest living Hall of Fame member

Updated: December 12, 2005, 3:04 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- Al Lopez, a Hall of Fame catcher and manager who led the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox to American League pennants in the 1950s, died Sunday at 97.

Al Lopez
APLopez caught many of the game's all-time greats, from the Big Train to Bob Feller to Dizzy Dean.

Lopez had been hospitalized in Tampa since Friday, when he suffered a heart attack at his son's home, Al Lopez Jr. said.

Lopez was the oldest living Hall of Fame member, said Jeff Idelson, spokesman for the Hall. He caught Bob Feller, Dizzy Dean and Dazzy Vance, but never forgot working as a teenager with Walter Johnson, who won 417 games and possessed a legendary fastball.

Lopez hit .261 with 51 homers and 652 RBI during a 19-year career in which he was one of baseball's most durable catchers and 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.

Lopez was best known for being the only AL manager to lead teams that finished ahead of the New York Yankees between 1949-64. 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.

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 by then, 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."

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 through 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 Bob 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.

"He was very fair," said Jim Rivera, a center fielder for the '59 White Sox. "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."

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.


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press