Obituary: Hector Lopez (1929-2022)

RIP to Hector Lopez, an infielder/outfielder who won two World Series with the Yankees in the 1960s. He also became a barrier-breaking minor-league manager. Lopez died on September 29, in Hudson, Fla., from lung cancer He was 93 years old. Lopez played for the Kansas City Athletics (1955-59) and New York Yankees (1959-66).

Hector Headley Lopez was born in Colon, Panama, on July 8, 1929. According to the New York Times, his father Manuel was an amateur baseball player. His mother, a big baseball fan herself, once told Newsday that she used to attend baseball games while pregnant with Hector in the hope that he become a ballplayer himself. Lopez attended Silver City High School in Cristobal, Canal Zone, and he played baseball and track there. He signed his first professional contract and reported to the St. Hyacinthe Saints of the Provincial League in Canada in 1951. He was 21 years old when he entered into professional baseball, but it’s likely that nobody in the Saints were aware of that fact. All of Lopez’s baseball questionnaire forms that are available on Ancestry show a birthdate of 1932, so when Lopez batted .297 with a couple of homers in 1951, the team probably thought they had an 18-year-old phenom.

Source: The Ottawa Citizen, May 27, 1954.

Lopez hit .329 for St. Hyacinthe in 1952 and upped his home run total to 8. He also stole 32 bases, which was second in the Provincial League. His defense at shortstop was concerning, as he committed 61 errors in 127 games. The hitting was impressive enough that the Philadelphia Athletics acquired him and four other Saints players at the end of the season. Lopez, a dark-skinned Panamanian, was the fourth Black player acquired by the team. He was eventually assigned to Williamsport of the Eastern League in 1953.

Lopez batted .270 in his first season in the United States. He hit 6 home runs, including a grand slam off Binghamton’s 21-game-winner Wally Burnette on August 30. He stole 24 bases, but Lopez was playing in an era where the stolen base was almost extinct (see Maury Wills‘ obituary). Lopez swiped 10 bags for Ottawa in 1954 and never reached double digits in stolen bases again. He was something as a curiosity, as the local papers pointed out that there were few Panamanians playing baseball. That statement wasn’t exactly true. There were several Panama natives who played professional baseball in the 1940s, but they were all in the Negro Leagues. By 1953, a few of the Panamanian Negro League veterans like Frankie Austin and Pat Scantlebury were still kicking around in the minors. Lopez, along with contemporaries like pitcher Humberto Robinson and outfielder Bobby Prescott, were part of a relatively small number of Panamanians who came into baseball post-integration. Lopez attended an English-speaking high school, so he didn’t have problems with a language barrier, even if there were other barriers in place that were out of his control.

The A’s moved Lopez up to Triple-A in 1954, and he hit at a .300+ clip for Ottawa in 1954 and Columbus in 1955. He was brought up to the majors in May of 1955, as the A’s, playing their first year in Kansas City, were in the midst of turning over their roster. Lopez replaced Spook Jacobs, a light-hitting infielder with a sore arm, on the roster. Lopez had started the ’55 season in Triple-A because he had looked overmatched in spring training, but A’s manager Lou Boudreau took a gamble and moved the rookie into the starting lineup at second base. He debuted on May 12 in Boston and was 1-for-4 with a single off Red Sox starter Ike Delock. He remained the starting second baseman for about a month and hit in the .230s. Though he wasn’t bad defensively at second, Boudreau had him and third baseman Jim Finigan swap positions in mid-June. Coincidentally, Lopez started heating up at the plate when he moved to third base. He racked up 4 hits against Detroit on July 2 to raise his batting average to .261. Then he started showing some home run power — more than he’d ever shown in the minors in fact. He homered in three straight games from July 4-6, off Harry Byrd of the White Sox and Early Wynn and Herb Score of Cleveland. By the end of the season, Lopez had slashed .290/.337/.422, with 15 home runs and 68 RBIs. He had an OPS+ of 104 and would remain just over or under 100 for the entirety of his career.

The A’s thought Lopez was 22 years old (he was 25) and considered him to be a core part of the youth movement in the team. The question was, where to play him? He didn’t handle third base as well as Finigan had, so Boudreau began experimenting with him at second base, shortstop and center field. Lopez had never even considered center field, but he loved it. “Man, you’re as free as a bird out there. You can run all day,” he said in a 1956 interview. He played 20 games in center that year and made two errors for a .959 fielding percentage. Boudreau felt that Lopez could become a “Mr. Versatility” like Al Smith of Cleveland. “Those fellows who can play ball like that are the real most valuable players to a club. That automatically gives a team better depth because you have a first class player for several different positions,” the manager said.

Lopez played consistently for the A’s, even if the position might change from game to game. He hit .273 with 18 homers in his sophomore season of 1956. He got off to a slow start in 1957 and lost a little playing time. Then in mid-June he started a 22-game hitting streak, batting .434 and slugging .663 in that span. Thanks to some well-timed walks, he reached base in every game from May 18 until July 16 — a streak of 35 games. He flirted with a .300 batting average until the end of the year and finished with a career-best .294 mark. In 1958, his last full season for Kansas City, Lopez got a taste of the corner outfield spots but was the primary third baseman again. His batting average slipped to .261, but one of his 17 home runs was hit in front of former president Harry Truman and a host of other dignitaries on July 22. It was “Bob Cerv Night” to honor the veteran slugger. Lopez was the offensive hero of the night with a 2-run homer off Red Sox pitcher Tom Brewer to lead the A’s to a 4-3 win.

Lopez was the subject of trade rumors over the 1958-59 offseason. When the deal finally went down, it was with an unsurprising team: the New York Yankees. The Yankees and Athletics were regular trade partners while the A’s were in Kansas City and owned by Arnold Johnson. By the time this particular trade was made on May 26, 1959, the two teams had exchanged 52 players since 1955, and they would make many more trades before the Yankees-A’s pipeline was severed by future A’s owner Charles Finley. This particular trade sent Lopez and pitcher Ralph Terry to the Yankees for infielder Jerry Lumpe and pitchers Johnny Kucks and Tom Sturdivant. Like most Yankees-A’s trades, it would eventually slant heavily to the Yankees side, though it seemed more even at the time. Lopez had been hitting well as usual, with a .281 average and 6 homers in 35 games, but he had been moved to second base and fielded poorly. Terry was a fringe starter at the time. The A’s shored up their defense with the addition of Lumpe at second base, though the two pitchers didn’t last long with the team. Ultimately, Terry blossomed into a top-tier pitcher for a while, with the powerhouse Yankees behind him. And Lopez kept on hitting, even if the Yankees were just as confused as the A’s were about where to play him.

Lopez attempts to slide past catcher Cline Courtney of the Washington Senators. Source: Kansas City Times, May 5, 1958.

Over 112 games with the Yankees, Lopez hit .283 with 16 homers, ending the season with career highs in home runs (22) and RBIs (93). Over his first seven games with his new team, he homered twice and drove in 8 runs, which was more production than the Yankees had gotten from their old third base tandem of Lumpe and Andy Carey all season. Defensively, the Yankees tried him at second base, third base and left field, and he was a below-average fielder at all positions.

Going to the Yankees was a homecoming of sorts. Lopez’s mother had come to the United States originally as a domestic in the employ of a woman in San Francisco. When the woman died, she moved to Brooklyn to work as a maid in hotels. Once Lopez was traded to New York, he bought a home in Brooklyn for himself, his mother, younger brother and his uncle. After one 1960 game at Yankee Stadium, Lopez brought a Newsday reporter to visit. Mrs. Lopez immediately showed her disapproval of how her son was being handled when she said, “Well, I see old Casey let you play today… Sometimes I don’t know if I should root for them Yankees at all. Why that Casey don’t let Hector play shortstop? He is a good shortstop.”

Mrs. Lopez cut to the heart of her son’s problem in New York. Stengel was so wary of Lopez’s defense that he had moved him to the outfield, and the Yankees had a wealth of outfielders. There were a couple of ex-Athletics who were traded to the Yankees in Cerv and Roger Maris, as well as future Hall of Famers in Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, who was playing the outfield more frequently because of the emergence of Elston Howard. Lopez, who was given the unwieldy nickname “What a Pair of Hands” for his defensive struggles, was rumored to be traded. Eventually his bat proved too important to be taken out of the lineup. In 131 games in ’60, he hit .284 with 9 home runs and 42 RBIs and saw some playing time in the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had 3 hits in 7 at-bats but also hit into 2 double plays, including one that ended Game One. He had a pinch-hit single in the famed Game Seven, but he was long out of the game by the time Bill Mazeroski ended it with a game-winning homer.

During his offseasons, Lopez regularly traveled back to Panama to play winter ball. While playing there in 1960, he married Claudette Brown on November 30. They remained married for 61 years before his death, and they had two sons, Hugh and Darroll.

Lopez fell into the role of a reserve outfielder in 1961 and had his worst season, with a .222 batting average and just 3 home runs in 93 games. His biggest heroics came in the World Series against the Reds, where he hit .333 and led the team with 7 RBIs. He hit a 3-run blast off Cincinnati reliever Bill Henry in Game Five, as the Yankees won the World Series with a 13-5 win.

Yankees manager Ralph Houk never gave up on Lopez, despite his struggles in 1961. “I certainly haven’t forgotten him,” he told the press that year. “I know he’s a better ballplayer than he’s shown.” In 1962, after Berra, Johnny Blanchard and Joe Pepitone all tried and failed to hit as the starting left fielder, Lopez got another chance. The Yankees won 14 of the first 21 games with him in the lineup, and Lopez hit .320 in that span. His defense also showed notable improvement, so he held onto the role for the rest of the year. “You can’t hit good unless you play,” Lopez said after smashing a 2-run home run on his 30th birthday (actually his 33rd birthday). He finished the year with a .275 average, but when the Yankees faced the Giants in the 1962 World Series, Lopez was benched. Rookie of the Year shortstop Tom Tresh took over in left field and hit .321 in seven games as the Yankees won back-to-back championships.

Lopez with Yankees Manager Casey Stengel. Source: Daily News, June 6, 1959.

Lopez still played regularly with the Yankees in the ensuing seasons, but he was used less often as a starter. The last season where he had more than 400 plate appearances was 1963. His production slipped to .249, and the Yankees were swept in the World Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Lopez had 2 hits — both doubles off Johnny Podres in Game Two — in the Series. After that year, he filled in as a corner outfielder in 1964 and ’65 whenever Maris or Mantle were injured, which was pretty frequent, and he hit in the low .260s in each season. Houk praised him for being able to come off the bench and be productive. “He’s the best two-strike hitter in baseball,” the manager said in 1963. “He has come through with at least 15 key hits this year with two strikes on him.”

Lopez’s final year came in 1966, when he was primarily a pinch-hitter. He still made some starts in the outfield as a fill-in for an injured regular, but he didn’t drive in a run until he hit a 3-run homer against Boston on June 4. But Lopez saw the writing on the wall, and he began to talk about a potential career in coaching after he was done as a player. He noted that there were a couple of African-American coaches in baseball by then, and Bill Russell had been hired recently as the coach of the Boston Celtics. “I think the appointment of Russell is important because he was picked not because he was a Negro, but because he was that best man available,” Lopez told The Record of Hackensack, N.J. “That’s the way it should be.”

Lopez hit .214 in his final season in 54 games, with 4 home runs. Over his 12-year career, Lopez slashed .269/.330/.415. He had 1,251 hits, including 193 doubles, 37 triples and 136 home runs. He drove in 591 runs and scored 623 times. He also hit .286 and slugged .536 in 15 World Series games. On the field, most of his innings were spent at third base, where he had a .937 fielding percentage. He also spent significant time at left field, and his .970 fielding percentage was also a little below average.

Source: Newsday, July 18, 2010.

Lopez spent 1967 with the Hawaii Islanders and finished his playing career with the Buffalo Bisons of the International League in 1968. He then made baseball history in 1969 when Buffalo named him manager. He was the first Black manager in professional baseball, six years ahead of Frank Robinson debuting as player-manager for Cleveland in 1975. Lopez said he prepared for the worst when he debuted as manager at an away game in Louisville, but he heard nothing from the crowd. Joe Marcin, the team’s general manager, said that the move was supported by the fans. “When Hector was named manager, we started getting phone calls from fans telling us what a good move it was. That itself was unusual, because Lord knows we’ve been getting our share of the other kind of calls, too. If anybody has the fans behind him, it’s Hector.”

The Bisons finished the year with a 58-78 record, in seventh place in the IL. The team and Lopez parted ways after the season, and he rejoined the New York Yankees in 1970, this time as a scout. He held that position for three years and then was hired by the Hempstead, N.Y., Town Board as a recreation specialist. He managed Harold A. Walker Park and ran educational programs. He also worked part-time as a high school baseball coach. He got a second chance to manage in 1994 and ’95, when he was hired to run the Yankees’ Gulf Coast League team. During those two years, the biggest superstar the team had was Darryl Strawberry, who had a couple of productive seasons with the Yankees after drug problems nearly ended his playing career. Playing for the Gulf Coast Yankees was part of Strawberry’s rehab assignment following a 60-day drug suspension.

Lopez stayed in the Yankees’ organization as a coach until 2008, giving him a chance to work with another Panamanian great in Mariano Rivera, as well as many of the other Yankees stars of the 2000s like Jeter, Posada and Pettitte. He also managed the Panama team during the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He remained a regular at Yankees Old-Timers’ Games for years, after he had retired to Florida. His son Darrol, who became a successful high school basketball coach in Long Island, was able to share in those moments; he was too young to have seen his father play with the Yankees.

“That’s the greatest feeling as a son, to see your dad out there get the ovation and you hear his name being announced,” Darrol told Newsday in 2010. “When they announce ‘No. 11, Hector Lopez,’ I still get goose bumps.”

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