- The Washington Times - Monday, October 31, 2005

Good ol’ wishy-washy Charlie Brown is exhorting his hopeless baseball team to do its darndest because “nobody ever remembers who comes in second.”

“I do, Charlie Brown,” Linus insists. “In 1928, it was the Giants; in ‘29, it was the Pirates; in ‘30 …”

“Good grief!” exclaims Charlie Brown, thwarted once again.

We don’t know if Charles M. Schulz was thinking of Al Lopez when he drew that classic “Peanuts” strip, but he might as well have been. Finishing second to Casey Stengel’s lordly Yankees was Lopez’s fate through most of the 1950s, but it never left him bitter or disillusioned. The way the Senor figured, finishing second in a field of eight American League teams was nothing to be ashamed of.

After Lopez died Sunday in Tampa, Fla., at 97, most of the obituaries cited the pennants he won with the 1954 Indians and 1959 White Sox. But what he taught us primarily was how to lose with grace and dignity. Between 1951 and 1958, he managed seven other Cleveland and Chicago teams that finished second — a run of success that pales only in comparison with Casey Stengel’s 10 pennants in 12 years with the Yankees. All told, he was second 10 times, nine to the Yankees.

You have to wonder whether Al was fated never to win the final game of any postseason. Even his two pennant winners rolled over in the World Series. The 1954 Indians were swept by the Giants after winning a league record 111 games during the season. The 1959 White Sox lost to the Dodgers in six games.

Yet as far as we know, Lopez never kicked a water cooler or the family dog. He remained gracious to everyone he met, and players tended to work their wazoos off for him. Temperamentally, he was the total opposite of fellow Hall of Famer Leo Durocher, the mean firebrand who arrogantly insisted, “Nice guys finish last.” Oh yeah? Then how come Lopez’s career winning percentage was .584, third-best all time, compared with Leo the Lip’s .540?

And as far as finishing last goes, forget it. During Lopez’s 15 full seasons, he came home as low as fifth only once and never had a losing season. But Durocher slunk home 10th in 1966 with a Cubs team that lost 103 games.

It was nice that Lopez lived long enough by a few days to see the White Sox win their first World Series in 88 years. Mortals too often perceive a heavenly design in coincidences, but it’s hard not to feel that Somebody Up There wanted him to go out as a winner, at least indirectly.

Lopez spent nearly half a century in pro baseball before bowing out 17 games into the 1969 season with the White Sox. His debut came in 1925 when the Washington Senators, training in Tampa, needed somebody to catch batting practice.

“For some reason, they didn’t want to use their regular catchers,” Lopez told New York Daily News columnist Bill Madden a couple of years ago. “I was playing sandlot ball when they called and offered me $45 a week. Heck, I’d have done it for nothing.”

Though he was just a fair hitter (.261 average, 52 homers) Lopez’s catching skills and smarts earned him 18 years in the bigs with the Dodgers, Braves, Pirates and Indians. When he retired in 1948, he had caught more games (1,918) than any man in history — a record that lasted 40 years.

In what qualified as an ominous harbinger, though, Lopez never played in a World Series. And if you’re into cruel twists, consider this: His skipper with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1934 and 1935 and with the Boston Braves from 1938 to 1940 was Charles Dillon Stengel. What’s more, the Ol’ Perfessor traded the Senor twice.

As a manager, Al was able to nurture and improve hurlers in an era when few teams had pitching coaches. His Cleveland staffs included Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia and Early Wynn. In Chicago, his principal aces were Wynn, Billy Pierce and Dick Donovan, aided and abetted by the likes of Bob Shaw, Gerry Staley and Turk Lown.

Considering that Stengel bedeviled Lopez in one way or another through their careers, do you suppose Al sent him a Christmas card each year? Yep, probably, because that’s the kind of decent person Lopez was.

That didn’t mean, of course, that he liked finishing behind Stengel’s Yankees year after year. It’s likely Al simply made peace with himself because he couldn’t do anything about it.

“They always had the deep farm system with more players than almost all the other teams combined,” he told Madden. “And when they still needed a good player, they always had the resources to go out and get ‘em — just like today.”

There’s at least one other similarity between then and now: Real class guys are hard to find, in or out of sports. Al Lopez was one of the classiest — a fact that should be more important than the number of long-ago pennants he won.

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