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.

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