Between the coming of Casey Stengel in 1949 and the end of the Yankees Dynasty in 1964, the Bronx Bombers won every American League pennant except two. Those were the 1954 pennant won by Cleveland and the 1959 pennant won by Chicago. Know what those teams had in common? Well, the both featured Early Wynn on the mound. They also had Larry Doby, although Doby, a center piece in 1954 only had a few games with Chicago in 1959. They also had Al Lopez as their manager. Between 1949 and 1964 Lopez was the only non-Yankees manager to win an AL pennant.
Lopez was from Florida and got to Brooklyn for a three game cup of coffee at age 19 in 1928. He settled in as the Dodgers’ front line catcher in the 1930s, playing a career high 140 games in 1934. Early on he earned the nickname “El Senor” (roughly, “The Man”). He stayed with Brooklyn through 1935, then went to Boston (the Braves not the Red Sox) and Pittsburgh before finishing up with Cleveland in 1947, the year before they won the last pennant before the Yankees dominated the next 16 years. For his career he hit .261, slugged .337 with an OBP of .326 for an OPS of .663 (OPS+ of 83). He hit 51 home runs, 206 doubles, and 1992 total bases. He scored 613 runs and knocked in another 652. By the time he was through he had caught more games than any catcher in Major League history, a record that lasted into the 1980s. As a backup catcher for the latter part of his career, he was considered especially knowledgable about the game and considered an exceptional handler of pitchers. I’ve discovered that backup catchers, particularly aging ones, frequently get labeled as knowledgable and a handler of pitchers. I’ve never known if that was true or simply way of justifying keeping a low-cost player who wasn’t going to appear in many games around.
For Lopez it was apparently true. In 1951 he took over managing the Cleveland Indians. In 1950 the Indians finished fourth. With essentially the same roster, Lopez guided them to second in his rookie year as manager. They stayed there the next two years, then swept to a pennant in 1954. They set an AL record with 111 wins (not bested until 1998). But there was a flaw in that stat. They beat up on the second division teams and had only moderate success against the second and third place teams. Of course in the World Series you don’t get to play a second division team and Cleveland was swept by the Giants led by Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes.
Lopez stayed with Cleveland through 1956, never finishing below second. In 1957 he jumped to Chicago and again guided the White Sox to a second place finish (you starting to notice a pattern here?). The Sox were also second in 1958, then won their first pennant since 1918 in 1959. They lost the World Series in six games. The White Sox dropped to third in 1960, fourth in 1961, and fifth in 1962 before bouncing back to second in 1963. They stayed there until Lopez’s retirement after the 1965 season. He remained retired until Chicago brought him back in 1968 for two short stints (they fired a manager, had Lopez replace him as interim, then fired the new guy and had Lopez finish out the season). He managed 17 games into 1969 then retired permanently. For his career he was 570-354 for a .617 winning percentage. Between his debut in 1951 and 1959 his teams never finished lower than second. He had three years outside the top two slots, then finished second three more times. In fifteen full seasons Al Lopez teams finished lower than second three times. That’s quite a feat in the American League when you are never the Yankees manager. He made the Hall of Fame in 1977 and died in 2005 at age 97.
I have, in previous posts, be critical of managers. I’ve said I have little idea how to judge the effect of a manager on a team. Given the talent of the 1927 Yankees I could have won a few games as manager (write in Ruth and Gehrig a lot and pitch Hoyt and Pennock a bunch). I could have eked out a few wins for the 1930s Yankees (pitch Ruffing and Gomez, bat DiMaggio and Gehrig three and four). Heck, I could have even managed the 1962 Mets to 140 or so losses (instead of 120). Talent seems to matter most. But somehow Lopez is different. He wins every time. Yep, he has good talent, but he also wins with weaker teams like the mid-1960s White Sox. In 1954 he acquires Hal Newhouser from Detroit, shifts him to reliever and gets one last good year out of the future Hall of Fame pitcher. Obviously I like Lopez a lot and think he made a major difference to his teams. For most of his career he was overshadowed by Stengel, which is too bad.