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Al Lopez, 97; manager led White Sox to '59 pennant

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 yesterday at 97.

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

Mr. Lopez was the oldest living Hall of Fame member, said Jeff Idelson, spokesman for the Hall.

Mr. Lopez hit .261 with 51 homers and 652 RBIs 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 broken by Bob Boone, then Carlton Fisk.

Mr. Lopez was also known for being the only AL manager to lead teams that finished ahead of the New York Yankees between 1949 to 1964. He helped the Indians to the 1954 pennant and, until last week, he 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 yesterday. ''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, with the Brooklyn Dodgers. After the 1935 season, he was traded to the Boston Bees with Ray Benge, Tony Cuccinello, and Bobby Reis for pitcher Ed Brandt and outfielder Randy Moore. He caught for the Bees from 1936 to 1940, before the National League franchise was renamed the Boston Braves. In the midseason of 1940, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates for fellow catcher Ray Berres and cash.

He retired with the Cleveland Indians after 18 seasons in the major leagues.

He managed the Indians from 1951 to 1956 and the White Sox from 1957 to 1965 and 1968 and 1969.

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

''They've treated me real nice here," he 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.' "

Mr. Lopez 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. During spring training in 1925, the Washington Senators hired the Mr. 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," Mr. Lopez said. ''All you had to do was hold your mitt around the strike zone, and it'd be right there."

Mr. 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?' " Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Lopez was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 as a manager with a .581 winning percentage. Boone passed him with his 1,919th game caught a decade later.

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 yesterday from his home in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Mr. 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," said Idelson, the Hall of Fame spokesman. ''He carried himself with great class and he was an incredible contributor to the game."

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

Mr. 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.

Mr. Lopez had lived alone in Tampa since his wife, Connie, died in 1983. In addition to his son, he leaves three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

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