April 18, 2014

Remembering Al Lopez, Tampa’s Latin Jackie Robinson

July 12, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

Recently the family home of Al Lopez was uprooted and moved a short distance. In about a year it will open as the Tampa Baseball Hall of Fame.

It is obviously appropriate the baseball history of Tampa would be housed in the Lopez home, and in Ybor City, a neighborhood just east of downtown Tampa, a lively cauldron of historic immigrant diversity, a neighborhood were beisbol was hugely popular, and would become more so with the success of Lopez.

He was the talent-rich area’s first Major League player, and also a Jackie Robinson figure for the community among other things. Latin players had made it to the Majors before Lopez, but they were few, and far from embraced as they are today. Lopez’s reputation in his hometown would grow well beyond baseball. Indeed, he would come to be regarded – and still is – as the area’s greatest sports icon. A greatly honored, respected citizen, period.

In Tampa, Latins mostly were segregated in the communities of West Tampa and Ybor City. Their presence was accommodated, largely for the relatively cheap immigrant labor they provided for the hundreds of cigar factories in the area. The Latins – Italians, Cubans and Spaniards – while not as widely and viciously discriminated against as the blacks, were not exactly invited warmly and without reservation into Tampa Anglo community, by the “crackers” and pioneer blue-bloods alike.

Baseball was Lopez’s ticket out of the cigar factories, out of Ybor if he wanted, and his entrance into all strata of local culture, and beyond.

A durable, savvy catcher Lopez enjoyed a 19-year playing career that ended in 1947. He was an average hitter (.261 career average), but superb defensively, and as a handler of pitchers, and earned entry into two All-Star games.

Lopez then transitioned smoothly to a manager’s role and after just one season as a minor league manager Lopez put in 17 years in the Majors, six with the Indians, the balance with the White Sox. The career earned him Hall of Fame induction in 1977. When he died in 2005 at the age of 97, he was the oldest living member of the Hall. He was and still is the iconic sports figure of the Tampa area, his name and reputation known to all with any sense of the area’s rich baseball history, and many who know little if any of it.

Over the years Tampa has been a deep pool of baseball talent: some 75 of its natives have made it to the Majors. The University of Tampa has won multiple Division II championships and other youth teams have had much success in national tournaments.

Many of those to reach The Show were of course of the ‘cup of coffee’ variety. Charlie Cuellar (also from Ybor City) pitched 1.1 innings for the 1950 White Sox and departed with a 33.76 ERA. Nardi Conreres had 13.2 innings and a 5.93 ERA for the 1980 White Sox. Ricky Puig was hit-less in 10 at bats with the 1974 Mets. Yankee catcher John Ramos was 8 for 26 in 1991 before injuries pushed him out of baseball.

But many were all-star quality: Dodger 1B Steve Garvey (19 years, 2,599 hits, .294 career average), Diamondback OF Luis Gonzalez (19 seasons, 354 HRs, .283), Met pitcher Doc Gooden (194 wins, 2,293 Ks), Mariner-Yankee 1B Tino Martinez (16 years, 339 HRs, .271), Braves 1B Fred McGriff (493 HRs) and OF Gary Sheffield (509 HRs, .292 average over 22 seasons), to name a few (Wade Boggs was born in Omaha but moved to and stayed in Tampa until being drafted by the Red Sox).

And to manage an All-Tampa Team, a choice between Lopez and two other terrific skippers:

Lou Piniella, after a solid playing career, would manage 23 years, reach the playoffs five times, and win the 1990 World Series with the Reds. Three times he was voted American League Manager of the Year and he has a reasonable chance of making the HOF.

Tony LaRussa’s playing career was marked by injuries. He was one of the first ‘Bonus Babies’ and Kansas City A’s owner Charley O. Finley personally went to Tampa to sign him out of Jefferson HS in 1962. But the middle infielder would play only 132 games in the Majors, with a .199 batting average). Different story as a manager: 33 seasons, 13 playoffs, six pennants and three WS championships. Four times he was Manager of the Year, once in the Al and three times in the NL. His Cooperstown enshrinement looks certain.

Has any area of comparable size to Tampa produced such an abundance of playing and managerial talent?  And it all started with Alfonso Ramon Lopez, the seventh son of a seventh son.

“It’s supposed to be lucky … and I’ve been very fortunate,” Lopez would tell renowned Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman in 1986, just before Lopez went with family to northern Spain, to visit the birthplace of his parents.

He was the child of immigrant parents Modesto and Faustina. As many others who settled in the area, they were from the Asturias region of Spain and had spent time in Cuba before settling in Ybor City. What brought them in the early 1900s was simple: work, economic survival. Jobs in the cigar industry were plentiful; at its speak there were some 400 factories in “the Cigar Capitol of the World.” Lopez’s father died young, in his 50s, but long before then young Al knew he did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps as a tabaquero.

“I hated it,” Lopez would recall to the Associated Press, “I vowed never to work in one.”

Al Lopez was born in 1908 and grew up in a period when relations between Latin and Anglo Tampa were at odds. Other than as labor for the cigar factories – the economic backbone of the rapidly developing area – Latins were not welcome.

“To grow up in Tampa during those days and having a Latin name was a tough undertaking,” Cuban Cesar Medina was quoted in historian Gary Mormino’s acclaimed The Immigrant World of Ybor City. Signs that read “No Dogs or Latins allowed” were common as were taunts of “Cuban Nigger,” and “Daggo.”

Said Alfonso Noto in Immigrant World, “Let’s face it, the Anglo-Saxons think that they’re the only Americans. They’re very prejudiced. Even today, they talk to us and they chew us, but they won’t swallow us.” From a Tampa Morning Tribune editorial of the times: “Latins seem to have very little decency in their composition.”

Sports, especially baseball, helped mesh the cultures. Most of the cigar factories and social clubs had teams had teams and and sports competition provided a way to mix with the Anglo world. Lopez in particular would create a great sense of pride in the Latin community.

“I was just one of the local guys and I lived in the area,” Lopez would recall in what for him would be typical modesty. “I never figured I was a hero, but I guess I was.”

Tony Pizzo, a local historian who grew up in the same area and times, recalled how Lopez was welcomed home at the end of each season and paraded down Seventh Avenue, a main artery of Ybor City. “Al Lopez was a real hero to everyone from Ybor City. It didn’t matter that you were Spanish, we (Cubans, Italians and Spanish) all stuck together.”

Lopez’s early talent was noted by a local sportswriter, who encouraged him to consider professional baseball. At age 16 Lopez quit his job as a bakery delivery boy through the dirt roads of Ybor, quit Jesuit High School, and signed a contract in 1924 with the Tampa Smokers, a Class D operation in the Florida State League. The teenager got a taste of Major League competition in 1925 when he worked out with the barnstorming Washington Senators. One of the pitchers Lopez caught: the legendary Walter Johnson.

After a short minor league career Lopez got a call up in late 1928, and made it to the Majors for good in 1930. He would play  for the Brooklyn Dodgers (Robins when he broke in), Boston Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cleveland Indians. In his career he would play against Ruth and Gehrig, be managed by Stengel, see the end of DiMaggio and the beginning of Mantle.

An iron-man, Lopez broke every bone in his right hand, some twice, but still was behind the plate for 1,918 games, a career record that stood until Bob Boone broke it in 1988. One season he had zero passed balls, and several others just one or two.

He was 5-11, about 180 pounds, on the small side for a catcher. Wrote Arthur Daley of the New York Times, “what he lacked in bulk, he compensated for in agility, speed, intelligence and class.” And every off season he would return to his hometown and renew old friendships, as a player and then a manager. He never considered otherwise, said Al Lopez, Jr., the only child of Al and Connie, a petite dark-haired New York City dancer of Irish descent, who died in 1983.

Lopez, Jr., a Tampa lawyer who played at the University of Florida and three years in the minors, worked out with White Sox, and saw his dad’s skill in handling people up close. And of course he saw the man, and what he meant to his hometown.

“Everywhere he went in Tampa, he was treated like royalty. He was very humble, nice to everybody. He was cherished in the Latin community.”

Lopez ended his managerial career 1,422-1,026, a .581 winning percentage that is fourth among managers with at least 2,000 games. In a poll taken in the mid-1980s of retired Major League managers, Lopez was voted the seventh-best defensive catcher and seventh-best manager of all time. From 1949 until 1964 the New York Yankees won every American League pennant except when they were beaten by Al Lopez’s Cleveland Indians in 1954 and his 1959 Chicago White Sox.

As a player and manager, Lopez was known for being even-tempered, and a gentleman. El Senor would become his nickname. Away from the park, his public attire was usually a coat and tie and most of his players called him Mr. Lopez, Holtzman said. Class and dignity were two frequently terms frequently attributed to him.

White Fox radio announcer Milo Hamilton said Lopez, “had a presence you couldn’t forget … he just looked the part of someone important.”

One of the best players he managed was Al Rosen, the Indians’ third baseman in 1954 when the Indians won a then record 111 games. A slump and widespread anti-Jewish sentiment resulted in Cleveland fans mercilessly getting on Rosen. It didn’t set well with Lopez and he quickly let the fans know it, blasting their behavior in the press.

“I think every player who ever played for him must feel the same way: He was the consummate gentleman, and you knew he was always in your corner,” Rosen once said of Lopez. “He knew about catching, he knew about defense, he knew about pitching. He was one of those people who just had a great feel for the game.”

“A manager without a doghouse,” the AP once called him.

In his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1977, he went out of his way to thank the press for always being ‘fair,’ a far cry from today’s frequently confrontational relationships. ”He would sit and talk with the press for hours,” said Lopez, Jr. “He realized they had a tough job to do, too. He became good friends with some of them.” He was particularly close to Jerry Holtzman, who after a lengthy writing career became the official historian of Major League Baseball.

And through it all he was remembered and honored his friends back home. When Tampa built a state of the art spring training ball park in 1954, there was really only one choice for the name: Al Lopez Field. Parades were frequent. When the facility was razed in 1989 to make way for a new football stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the city re-named a large nearby park for him. Al Lopez Park is used by thousands and is the home of an impressive bronze statue of Lopez, who is posed in his catching gear, mask off, honing in on a pop up.

“To be remembered like that is one of the highlights of my life,” Lopez would say. “I was just doing something I enjoyed.”

The statue idea, and the work that produced it, was largely the labor of Tony Saladino, a 77-year-old who still teaches phys ed in an elementary school. A native of Tampa, Saladino was called “Tampa’s No. 1 baseball fan” by Lopez. He runs a high school baseball tournament in the spring, also honoring baseball old-timers in the Tampa area, and sponsors an annual award to the county’s top senior baseball player. His home is a treasure trove of baseball memorabilia.

The statue was funded totally from private donations. “We told him we were going to do it; if we had asked  him, he would of said no,” Saladino said. “I would get these $5 checks from old cigar workers who just wanted to do a small part to get the statue done. It about made me cry. But that just shows you the regard people had for him. He was truly a gentleman, someone people looked up to.”

In 1998, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their inaugural game, Lopez was one of four given the honor of tossing a ceremonial first pitch.

Lopez was a self-taught golfer and could shoot his age well into his 80s. When back problems forced him to quit, regular gin rummy games with old friends was his primary recreation.

He watched a lot of baseball on television and in 1990 he was particularly delighted when two neighborhood boys, LaRussa and Piniella, squared off in the World Series as managers. He would have never said it himself, but Lopez’s legacy had plenty to do with the moment.

He was mentally sharp, with good memory, until a heart attack struck, just four days after watching the White Sox return to the World Series for the first time since his ’59 Go-Go Sox.  He died a few days after the stroke, Oct. 30, 2005, forever to be remembered as Tampa’s first and foremost sports hero.

And one heck of a nice man.

“He’d ask you about yourself, with genuine interest,” Saladino said. “Here was this man who had seen and done it all. And he wants to know about you. The way he lived; the way he treated people … a great role model.”

David Alfonso is a former sports writer and high school math teacher who continues as a philosopher living in Largo, Fl. 

Comments

3 Responses to “Remembering Al Lopez, Tampa’s Latin Jackie Robinson”
  1. Fred Taylor says:

    Al Lopez a true #1

  2. Skip Perez says:

    Splendid job, David! Now I knight you as Tampa’s unofficial baseball historian.

  3. Pat Perez says:

    Bravo David

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