Spaniards have the gift of patient melancholy. The long Castilian face, the black hair, the dark eyes provide a perfect backdrop for brooding, for pondering on the inevitable cruelties of fate. Que sera, sera, the song goes. What will be, will be. The Spaniard's face grows sad, but he shrugs his shoulders and endures.
Alfonso Ramon Lopez, 48, manager of the Chicago White Sox, son of Modesto and Faustina Lopez of Madrid (where they were married) and later Cuba and eventually Tampa (where their son was born), sat in the dining room of the Del Prado Hotel in the quiet east end of Chicago. According to the morning papers, the White Sox were in first place in the American League, with a surprisingly good lead over the New York Yankees. It had been a long time since an American League manager had maneuvered his team so far ahead of the Yankees. The last man to do so was this same Alfonso Ramon Lopez, in 1954 when he was managing the Cleveland Indians.
Lopez might well have been forgiven if his expression had been cheerful and proud, smug, vain, even arrogant, but his face displayed none of this. Rather, it was patient and a bit wistful, almost sad, as though he were trying to anticipate what foul plans fate might have in store for his White Sox.
It is his normal expression. For Lopez, managing is a constant worry, a nervous strain, a jittery agony. Some managers thus beset relieve the harrowing pressure by exploding in sudden rages at players and sportswriters, or else by maintaining an almost sphinx-like silence in an effort to remain calm. But Lopez is a gentleman—a decent, thoughtful, exceptionally courteous man. He seldom permits himself the luxury of a temper tantrum, and he talks to anyone who talks to him.
June 30, 1957
Occasionally, though, he shows his feelings. In 1954, the year he managed Cleveland to the pennant and a record for games won in one season, a sportswriter asked him quite innocently one day, "Al, are you having any fun?"
Lopez at once protested: "Fun? How can you have any fun managing?"
SUCCESS IN CHICAGO
This season, if ever, Al Lopez should be enjoying himself. Pushed out of his job at Cleveland because of the bumbling policies of the Cleveland front office, Lopez signed on as manager of the Chicago White Sox last autumn. The White Sox, with the most aged starting lineup in the league, were considered a dying team, with their best days—and in their best days they never finished better than third—behind them. The deposed White Sox manager, Marty Marion, on hearing that Lopez had been named to succeed him, commented grimly, "He better bring his pitchers with him." (At Cleveland, Lopez had possibly the best pitching staff baseball has ever seen.)
Lopez didn't bring his pitchers. He made no dramatic trades. Quietly, he went to work. He completely changed his strategy of managing. At Cleveland he had a slow-footed, poor-fielding team that depended almost entirely on the home run for offense and on pitching alone for defense. The Indians seldom took an extra base, seldom used the hit-and-run, seldom tried to steal; base runners planted their flat feet firmly on the ground and waited patiently for the home run. Fielders tensed as the pitcher threw and prayed for an easy pop fly. If one of the great pitchers faltered, Lopez gestured to the bullpen and brought in one or another of his remarkable relief pitchers. It was very sound and logical procedure but it was deadly dull, and it brought Lopez an undeserved reputation as a mechanical, unimaginative manager.
At Chicago, on the other hand, Lopez found himself with a thin pitching staff (except for Billy Pierce, the best in the league) and a distinct lack of power hitters. To compensate, Lopez worked toward developing a team of superior fielders (to give the pitchers all the defensive help possible) and race-horse base runners (to steal the runs they wouldn't get with home runs). He allowed his starting pitchers to stay in the game as long as possible, babying them, soothing them, hoping they'd stagger through, knowing that the team's chances were better with the tired starting pitchers than with the uncertain bullpen.
However he did it, it worked. The White Sox surprised every last cliché out of baseball observers during the spring by taking an aggressive hold on first place. Moreover, they became purveyors of a continuing daily drama that fascinated onlookers: the White Sox pitcher, alone on stage, his fate in his own hands rather than in the bull-pen's; the base runner, broadening the arena of action with his constant threat to race wildly for the next base; the fielder, repeatedly working things of desperate beauty on grounders and fly balls and throws to home. After a while, people began to realize that these White Sox were just about as daring and exciting a baseball team to watch as the Indians had been a dull and dreary one, and Lopez finally began to receive proper recognition as a shrewd and resourceful manager.
But despite all, it was, and is, no fun for Al Lopez. The good days help but the bad days hurt, and so does the anticipation of the bad days and the enduring of them.
Back to the hotel dining room. The day was a Friday. A game was scheduled for that night with the. second-division Baltimore Orioles. It was raining. The Orioles should not have been a worry, but Lopez knows that in major league baseball the difference between the best team and the worst team is really very slight and shows up only over the length of a season. No law says the worst team cannot beat the best team any given time they play. The odds did favor the White Sox, however, and the rain therefore worried Lopez, too. A hot team hates to be rained out, and at that time the White Sox were hot. Perhaps, also, as he looked at the cold Chicago drizzle, he was thinking of Tampa and home.
Lopez lives alone in Chicago during the baseball season. He's married to a New York girl named Evelyn Kearney, and they have one child, a 15-year-old son. From early spring until school is out, Lopez is separated from his wife and son and his mother, who lives with them in Tampa (his father died in 1925, the first year Lopez played professional baseball). This year, because his son is going to Mexico in July on a special six-week school trip to study Spanish, the separation will last even longer. Lopez, who is a homey sort of man—he has lived all his life in Tampa, and his old friends are still his closest friends—feels the absence of his family keenly.
"But I'm glad the boy is going to Mexico," he said. "I want him to learn to speak Spanish. I can speak it and my mother can, and I'd like for him to be able to. This will give him the chance. He probably won't come up here at all this summer, though, because when he gets home he'll be playing ball in Tampa. He's pretty serious about baseball."
Lopez' face was pensive.
"They grow up so fast," he said, in the age-old protest of the parent. "When he was little we used to go to the movies together. I like movies. They're relaxing. I'd come in the house and I'd say, 'Did you finish your homework?' And he'd say, 'Yes.' I'd say, 'Want to go see a movie?' He'd say, 'Sure.' He'd go ask his mother, and then he and I would go down and see a cowboy movie. We'd do that during the winter sometimes three or four times a week. When he was littler. We don't go to the movies together any more."
After lunch Lopez went up to his room and lay on the bed reading until 4 o'clock, when he and Coach Johnny Cooney drove out to Comiskey Park. It had stopped raining, but the sky was still heavy with clouds. Inside, in the small room that is his office, Lopez undressed, put on his uniform shirt and his cotton and wool uniform stockings. Charles Comiskey, vice-president of the White Sox, walked in.
"You want to hit?" he asked Lopez.
"I don't think it's going to rain," Comiskey said. He went out of the office and opened a door to an outside landing. Lopez, in stockings and shirt, followed him. Comiskey squinted at the sky. Lopez peered over his shoulder.
"We can get it in," Comiskey said.
He went back into the office and picked up a phone.
"Gene? They're going to hit. No, just roll the tarp back a little bit but don't take it off in case it starts to rain again. There won't be any infield practice."
He sat down and chatted with Lopez as the manager continued to dress.
Hugh Trader, a Baltimore sportswriter, stopped in to ask Lopez about the now-famous "curfew" home run that Dick Williams of the Orioles had hit in May against the White Sox at the last instant before the game was to be called, thus tying the score and snatching victory away from Chicago. Trader asked Lopez why Pitcher Paul LaPalme had not deliberately thrown wide pitches. Lopez, who had been asked the question many times since the incident, patiently replied that LaPalme was supposed to do that, just as Williams had orders from Paul Richards, the Baltimore manager, to swing at any pitch he could reach.
"It was one of those things, Hugh. How can you figure Williams would hit a home run? It's the only homer he's had all year."
"But LaPalme shouldn't have given him a good pitch," Trader insisted.
"What do you want me to do, Hugh?" Lopez asked quietly. "Take him out and shoot him? He feels pretty bad about it, too."
Dr. John Claridge, White Sox team physician, came in to report to Lopez on Luis Aparicio, the regular shortstop, who had pulled a muscle in his thigh, and Larry Doby, the regular center fielder, who has a chronic difficulty with his legs. In scholarly phrases Dr. Claridge described their condition. Neither was ready to play. Resignedly, Lopez reached for a blank lineup card and began to figure out a batting order.
It turned out to be a trying evening. The game, tied at 2-2, went into extra innings. The White Sox threatened to score several times but failed. In the 11th inning, with a man on second, a Baltimore batter sliced a puny little hit to left that sent in the winning run.
Afterward, Lopez sat in his office, attended by two or three silent sportswriters. He took off his uniform pants and hung them up. He sat down, removed his spikes and stockings, rested his arms on his thighs, clasped his hands and looked down at the floor.
DEFEAT AND VICTORY
Though major league players are professional athletes and though even the best of them experience defeat 50 times a season, the mood in a losing team's locker room after an extra-inning defeat is one of great, muted tragedy. The only sounds this night were of the clubhouse men smacking spiked shoes together as they cleaned mud from them, the rattle of wood as bats were replaced in the clubhouse rack, the low murmur of voices.
One of the sportswriters said something comforting to Lopez.
"We should have won," Lopez said. "We had plenty of chances to score."
Coach Don Gutteridge, dressed in slacks and sport shirt, paused at the door on his way out of the clubhouse. He looked in at somber Lopez.
"There'll be another game tomorrow, Skip," he said. "You come out to the park again tomorrow."
"Yeah," Lopez said softly.
The next day was much better. It was sunny and warmer, and Billy Pierce pitched a three-hit shutout to win 2-0. As the game ended, the scoreboard showed that the Yankees were losing to Detroit 6-0. The clubhouse was as noisy as a cocktail party. Shouting voices rang back and forth over a loud conversational buzz, and the rattle of the clubhouse men cleaning the spikes was lost far down in the hierarchy of sound. The players dressed slowly, enjoying each other's presence and the atmosphere of victory. Lopez was, as always, cordial, and much more cheerful than he had been the night before. He kidded Whitey Diskin, the Baltimore clubhouse man, who had come to see him.
"Hey, Whitey," he said. "That was a hell of a tip you gave me on that horse in Baltimore."
Whitey looked at him.
"You mean Federal Hill," he said. "Well, he finished last."
"You're damn right he finished last."
"He broke down, Al," Whitey explained. "Now, I am not responsible for a horse breaking down. He's a good horse."
"I told Jimmy Dykes about it," Lopez said. "Dykes said he thought I knew better than that. He said he went broke on your tips when he was in Baltimore."
Whitey changed the subject. Casey Stengel's name was mentioned.
"I'll tell you a story about Casey," Lopez said. "You know I used to play for him. Did you know that he traded me twice? He traded me from Brooklyn in 1935 and from Boston in 1940. I remember, that first time, I came up to New York during the off season to straighten out some insurance. I was having dinner with some friends, and they stopped in my room first for a drink. The phone rang, and it was Casey. He asked if he could come up, and I said sure. He came up—well, you know Case; you know how he can tell stories. He talked for three solid hours. Now it's about 8 o'clock and I'm hungry. I finally broke in and I said, 'Casey, come on, we have to eat. Come on with us.' He said, 'All right, but only if I pay for dinner.' I said, 'I don't care who pays, just so we eat.' Well, we went out and ate, and Casey talked. Afterwards, we stopped someplace for a drink, and Casey was still talking. It must have been close to 2 by the time I got back in my room, and Case had been talking since 5. Now, I'm no sooner in my room than the phone rings, and it's Casey. He's in the lobby and he says, 'Al, could you come down a minute. I want to talk to you.' "
Lopez smiled at the memory.
"I went down and he said, 'Al, I'll tell you what I came to see you about. I think we're going to trade you.' He said, 'The club's in trouble and we have to make a deal. The other clubs want either you or Mungo, and we can't trade Mungo because he's a drawing card.' He said, 'Al, I just want you to know I'll trade you to a good club.' I said, 'Thanks, Case. I appreciate that.'
"I was back in Tampa, later on, and a sportswriter called me up. He said, 'Al, did you hear about the trade?' I said, 'What trade?' He said, 'You've been traded to Boston.' I thought, Boston! A good club? That year they'd lost 115 games! It's still a modern National League record.
"Tony Cuccinello had been traded with me, so that spring we drove over to Clearwater one day, where the Dodgers were training, and we found Casey in the hotel. He said, 'Well, I suppose you want to talk about that trade.' I said, I am sort of curious.' He said, 'Al, we couldn't help it. We tried, but this was the best deal we could make and we had to make it.' I said, 'Case, I'm sure glad you said you were going to send me to a good team. I might have ended up in Keokuk.'
'And then five years later, he traded me again, from Boston to Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh finished fourth that year, but in June when I was traded, they were still last. I still get on Casey about those trades."
A sportswriter walked in. Lopez looked up. "Feeling better today?" the writer asked.
"A whole lot better," Lopez agreed. He picked up the phone and dialed a number.
"Ed? What's the Yankee score now? Seven-four! Oh, that's the final. Good. Thank you." He put the phone down and smiled.
"A lot better," he said.
But on Sunday the Orioles stunned the White Sox and swept the double-header. In Detroit the Yankees, losing 4-0 in the sixth inning, came up from behind to win 5-4.
All that Lopez took off afterward was his cap. He sat with his feet on his desk, reading The Sporting News. The writers asked questions in near whispers and Lopez answered them in monosyllables.
Johnny Cooney stood in the doorway. No game was scheduled for the next day, and ordinarily the players would be free until Tuesday night, when they were scheduled to play the Yankees. However, there was a chance that Lopez, angry over the double defeat, might call a special practice session for the off day. Cooney spoke:
"Anything doing tomorrow, Al?"
Cooney turned away from the door and said to the players, silent in the mausoleum of the locker room, "Nothing doing tomorrow."
Lopez looked around at the silent baseball writers who had come in for the post-mortem.
"Every ball we hit was right at them," he said. "They made some great plays. Kell, and that guy in left." He shook his head.
He picked up a letter from his desk, a request from a friend in Indiana for tickets to a White Sox game in July, looked at it absently and put it down.
"That boy O'Dell pitched a good game for them," he said.
He began to undress, relaxing now. "They beat us twice," he stated, in tones of finality. "Those things happen. There's nothing you can do about it now."
He went out of the office to the shower room, the double defeat a thing of the past, the worry now the future, the series of games coming up with the Yankees, games that had to be won, games that could so easily be lost.
Que sera. He would endure. But it certainly was no fun.
The time had come at last. As millions feared, the annual and inevitable march of the New York Yankees to the American League pennant was in full stride.
The team was by no means an exact replica of the 1956 champions. Billy Martin, long the club's self-appointed hair shirt, had been dealt off to Kansas City. In his place at second base was Rookie Bobby Richardson, who was showing all the zip and sparkle that were once Martin's. Bill Skowron was hitting like a Yankee first baseman (.330, 12 home runs), and the victorious pitching names were Shantz, Sturdivant and Grim instead of Ford, Kucks and Larsen. But the Yankees who made the difference were still Berra and Mantle.
Detroit was first into the Yankee Stadium slaughterhouse last week. Three defeats later, thoroughly mauled and humiliated, the Tigers gave way to the White Sox, who then led the Yankees by an uneasy game and a half. The Yankees disdainfully won three out of four. As Cleveland appeared, the Yankees had built a half-game lead and the American League race was looking a lot more logical—and far duller. Were it not for the good old National League and its customary surprises (see page 12), the baseball fan would have nothing more to think about until spring training started again, when he could begin the futile and frustrating game of figuring who might beat the Yankees in 1958.