Monday, July 28, 2008

Al Lopez Enjoys All-Star Game, 7/10/34

Taken on the field prior to baseball's 1934 All-Star Game, this historic photograph captures a moment between Brooklyn Dodger and Tampa native Al Lopez (right), Brooklyn pitcher Van Mungo (left) and Babe Ruth. At the time, the All-Star Game was a bit of a novelty in only its second year of existence. This game, played at New York's Polo Grounds, marked the first of Lopez's two All-Star appearances, as well the second and final All-Star appearance of Ruth's fabled career. Other than games held during Spring Training, this was one of the few occasions Lopez and Ruth ever shared the same field. Between Lopez's professional debut in 1928 and Ruth's retirement in 1935, the Dodgers and Yankees never faced off in a World Series.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Great Judy Alvarez, 7/18/63

In the spring of 1963, American Darlene Hard captured the women’s singles title at the Dixie International Tournament held on Davis Islands. The top-ranked tennis player in the U.S. – and second in the world only to Margaret Court – Hard captured the title in the backyard of one of Tampa’s own up-and-coming court stars: Judy Alvarez.

On July 18, 1963, the 20-year-old Alvarez geared up to face Hard in the quarterfinals of the National Clay Court Tennis Championship in River Forest, Ill. The match represented a chance for the eighth-ranked Alvarez to atone for the 6-0, 6-0 beating Hard administered to her earlier in the year at the Dixie, and a 1-6, 6-2, 6-3 loss a week later in Miami.

By the summer of 1963, Hard boasted one of the strongest resumes of anyone on the women’s circuit. As a singles player, Hard won three Grand Slam events -- back-to-back U.S. championships in 1960-61 and a French championship in 1960. Even more impressive, Hard won 12 Grand Slam doubles events. Hard was the standard of excellence to be measured against, and if Alvarez wanted to be the best, she would have to beat the best.

While comedian Jerry Lewis had summer movie audiences in stitches at his performance in “The Nutty Professor,” Darlene Hard certainly found nothing funny about playing the crafty Alvarez. Buoyed by some success on an early-summer swing through Europe with appearances at Wimbledon and the Italian championships, Alvarez felt prepared for her third shot at Hard.

“I’d just gotten back from Europe, and it sure made a difference in my level of play and in my confidence,” Alvarez recalls. “I think I was better prepared because of the tournaments I played on clay and just wanted the chance to show I could beat her on that surface. It was my best surface.”

Their playing styles on the court could not have been more different. Appropriately, Hard thrived on hard court and grass surfaces, which suited her aggressive serve-and-volley style. Alvarez, reared on the clay surface of the Davis Islands Tennis Club, played the quintessential soft court style of consistent, baseline tennis designed to force an opponent into making mistakes. Alvarez wound grind out rallies using a mix of top spin, slice, and flat shots to keep her opponents off balance.

Right out of the gate against Hard, Alvarez played her style to perfection. Using her patented mix of slices and lobs, she quickly raced to a 5-2 lead. With a chance to close out the opening set, Alvarez fell victim to a comeback that featured four unanswered games in a row by Hard. Having once been in a position to close out the set, Alvarez now found herself one game away from blowing a golden opportunity against Hard.

Then, through a combination of self-confidence and stamina, Alvarez rallied to win the next three games and capture the opening set, 8-6.
On a steamy day when temperatures on the court reached the high 90s, Alvarez found herself unfazed by the conditions while her opponent seemed to wilt by the point.

“Heat was my cup of tea,” Alvarez says. “When it’s hot up north, it’s not hot enough for me because I’m used to it. I had a darker complexion, too, so I could take it a lot better than a blonde like her.”

As Alvarez recalls, the first set could have gone either way. There was never any doubt, however, about the outcome of the second set. Alvarez’s mix of shots denied Hard easy passage to the net and threw her game out of whack. Alvarez tossed in a few service aces to punctuate the 6-2 second-set triumph.

“If she stayed back, I could rally with her,” Alvarez says. “If I gave her pace, she liked it so I moved her side-to-side. I used lobs, I used slice. Basically, I sliced and diced her.”

Beating the top-ranked American player at the time was the greatest victory of Alvarez’s career. An emotional post-match call to her mother highlighted the significance of the moment. Prior to leaving for the tournament, Alvarez’s mother asked her daughter to call her immediately if she happened to defeat either Maria Bueno or Darlene Hard, saying “those are the two fishes I want.”

“Well, right after the match I told the reporters that I can’t stop to talk to them because I had to call my mother,” Alvarez recalls. “So, one of the reporters overheard me talking to my mother on the phone when I happened to say, ‘Mom, I caught the fish.’ We were both crying because it was such a proud moment.”

The following day in the semifinals, an emotionally spent Alvarez ran into the worst possible opponent in Nancy Richey, who six years later would rise to as high as No. 2 in the world. Richey controlled the match by keeping Alvarez on the run and forcing her into defensive, rather than aggressive, shots.

“She completely out-steadied me,” Alvarez says. “She didn’t allow me to bring her in or pass her. I probably didn’t realize at the time how good Nancy was, even though I knew she had a game that could match mine.”

Despite the 6-2, 6-1 loss, Alvarez left Illinois with the confidence that she could hang with anyone on the tour on any given day. The list of foes vanquished by Alvarez during her career features several Grand Slam event winners and future Hall of Famers, such as Hard, Maria Bueno, Virginia Wade, and Billy Jean King. Still, Alvarez’s victory over Hard remains to this day one of the most meaningful of all.

“That win put me over the top,” Alvarez says, “and told me that I could beat any of those girls in the top five.”

Monday, July 14, 2008

Al Lopez Returns to Baseball, 7/12/68

On July 12, 1968, two distinguished gentlemen received endorsements for very different reasons. In Miami Beach, Florida Gov. Claude Kirk officially threw his support behind New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican presidential primary, calling Rockefeller “a man who can win.” Those words could have easily been attributed to Chicago White Sox owner Arthur C. Allyn in talking about his newly hired manager, Tampa’s own Al Lopez.

Lured out of a comfortable retirement to help revive the slumping White Sox, Allyn enlisted “El Senor” to take over a team 18½ games out of first place and languishing dead last in the American League. Following the resignation of manager Eddie Stanky, Allyn turned to his friend Lopez, who had resigned as Chicago’s manager after the 1965 season.

In 1968, the White Sox needed Lopez more than Lopez needed the Sox. In fact, Stanky’s resignation and the offer to manage again caught Lopez by surprise. Despite serving as White Sox vice president for – essentially an honorary title – Lopez enjoyed a leisurely life consumed mostly by rounds of golf. In his third year of retirement, Lopez thought he had seen the last of major league dugouts.

Lopez was set to manage an old-timers game in Atlanta when Allyn called to inform him of Stanky’s decision. Included in the conversation was an offer to finish out the season and possibly stay on board through the end of 1969. The franchise Lopez inherited when he said “yes” to Allyn bore little resemblance to the one from the halcyon days of his first tenure in Chicago from 1957-65. In nine seasons with the Sox, Lopez had posted nine winning seasons, including five second-place finishes and an American League pennant in 1959.

During an era when the New York Yankees dominated baseball, Lopez’s success as a manager cannot be understated. In fact, only two times between 1947 and 1964 did the Yankees fail to win the American League pennant. Lopez-managed teams, first in Cleveland in 1954 and then in Chicago in 1959, were the only squads to interrupt New York’s dynastic run. Equally as remarkable, from 1951-59, his teams never fared worse than second in the American League.

Under Sanky’s stewardship, the White Sox slumped to fourth-place finishes in 1966 and 1967. The 1968 campaign began on a dreadful note – Chicago lost its first 10 games and quickly settled at the bottom of the league’s standings. By mid-July, a fourth place finish would have been considered a major success.

Compounding the dismal mood in the Windy City, the threat of the White Sox possibly relocating hung in the air as Allyn arranged for nine of his team’s “home” games to be played at County Stadium in Milwaukee. It was under these less-than-favorable circumstances that Lopez agreed to manage a team admittedly had not seen play all summer. He made quite a splash on his first day back on the job, however, as the White Sox swept both games of a doubleheader against the Washington Senators.

Despite the initial jolt Lopez’s return provided, the Sox would only win 19 of their next 45 games. In fact, just 11 days after his return, Lopez underwent an emergency appendectomy that kept him away from the job for five weeks. The White Sox ended the season in eighth place, 36 games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers, their worst season since losing 101 games in 1948. Lopez returned for the 1969 season, but lasted just 17 games, posting an 8-9 mark before calling it a career once and for all.

In his second go-round with Chicago, Lopez’s 29-35 record in no way diminished the overall success of his managerial career. He is remembered as one of the most successful managers in baseball history with a .584 winning percentage, 1410 career wins and two American League pennants to his credit. His induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 -- one of just 16 managers currently enshrined in the Hall – cemented his status as one of the all-time greats.

Monday, July 7, 2008

John "The Tooz" Matuszak, 7/5/73

John Matuszak, one of the most renowned and colorful football players to ever suit up for the University of Tampa, stood larger than life. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-8 and nearly 280 pounds, “The Tooz” menaced opposing offensive lineman and terrorized quarterbacks throughout his illustrious playing career.

Even among aficionados of Tampa football, it is sometimes forgotten that Matuszak did not begin his college football career as a Spartan. Matuszak spent his first season playing for Fort Dodge Junior College in Iowa before transferring to the University of Missouri.

Matuszak left Missouri after his sophomore season and finally found a home with the Spartans in time for the 1971 season. He called the University of Tampa “the best school I could find at the time,” and said that he “wanted to go someplace where I could play right away and also that had a good caliber program.” In 1972, Matuszak registered 64 tackles as a defensive lineman and sparked the Spartans to a 10-2 record.

To cap the season and his collegiate career, the Spartans won their first major bowl game, a 21-18 triumph over Kent State in the Tangerine Bowl. Despite a legendary temper and a well-known reputation for brawling on and off the field, Matuszak's gridiron talent earned him All-America honors and propelled him to the head of the National Football League’s draft class of 1973.

The Houston Oilers thought so highly of Matuszak, in fact, that they selected him with the first overall pick of the 1973 entry draft. On July 5, 1973, as Tampa moviegoers prepared for the local debut of "Shaft in Africa," the Oilers readied themselves for the debut of “The Tooz” in Houston by signing Matuszak to a four-year contract worth nearly $175,000. At the time, his contract was the largest-ever deal for a rookie defensive lineman.

The ensuing weeks proved to be a harbinger of the notoriety Matuszak would attract throughout his career. Before playing his first game in the NFL, “The Tooz” would make the cover of one magazine (Sports Illustrated), and be named to the All-Rookie Pre-Season Team of another (Playboy). Controversy soon followed as Matuszak signed a deal to play for the Houston Texans of the World Football League in their inaugural season of 1974. A court-order barred him from playing for both teams, but the Oilers were sufficiently disgusted with Matuszak to trade him to the Kansas City Chiefs after just one season.

After two seasons in Kansas City, Matuszak wound up as a member of the Oakland Raiders in 1976. Brash and intimidating, hard-playing and even harder-partying, Matuszak was a perfect fit for the Raiders, long-considered the renegade organization of professional football.

Matuszak played a major part in the team’s success during the 1976 season, helping the Raiders to a 13-1 record and a 32-14 triumph over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

He won another championship with the Raiders after the 1980 season, as Oakland became the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl, a 27-10 romp over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV. After six years with the Raiders, Matuszak retired from football after the 1981 season to pursue a career in show business.

"The Tooz" made a splash almost immediately, posing nude in the December 1982 issue of Playgirl magazine. He earned film roles and guest-starring appearances on television shows as rough-and-tumble characters, and he parlayed his wild-and-crazy persona into a part on the long-running HBO football comedy, “1st and Ten.”

The role of his career, however, came in the 1985 hit "The Goonies." In the film, he portrayed Sloth, a deformed but gentle giant who loved Baby Ruth candy bars and Rocky Road ice cream. In real life, however, Matuszak’s love of drugs and alcohol helped contribute to his untimely death just four years later at the age of 38.

On June 17, 1989, Matuszak passed away from heart failure at his home in Burbank, Calif. The Los Angeles County coroner reported that Matuszak died from an overdose of a mild narcotic painkiller, but that pneumonia and an enlarged heart were contributing factors as well.

While his pro career may have failed to live up to the expectations that accompany No. 1 draft picks, “The Tooz” remains a giant in Tampa sports history. Enshrined in the University of Tampa Hall of Fame in 1983, and one of only three players from a Florida school to be chosen first overall in the NFL draft, Matuszak is perhaps, in the words of former Spartan teammate Eddie Caldwell, “The most well-known individual to come out of the University of Tampa. Ever.”