July 8 – Happy Birthday Hector Lopez
When I was a boy, my uncle would take me and my brothers to at least two Yankee games every season. We’d make the four-hour drive down to the Bronx in his old Lincoln sedan early, early in the morning and arrive at the Stadium parking lot about 8:00 AM. We’d go to Jerome’s for coffee and wait for the Stadium’s ticket kiosks to open. Once my Uncle purchased the tickets we’d often jump on a subway to midtown where we’d quickly walk a few streets of Manhattan, eat a hurried breakfast-time lunch at the old Oyster Bar restaurant that used to be located in Grand Central Station and then head back to the Stadium on the subway, usually right around 11:00 AM. On one such return trip from midtown, our train made a stop at one of the stations, the doors slid open and a dark-skinned, well-built guy entered our car carrying a pair of spikes and a real nice baseball glove. He sat down across the aisle from me. Due to the facts that I was an avid baseball card collector, memorized every page of every Yankee yearbook I’d ever owned, and faithfully purchased the photo-pak of 5 x 7 black & whites sold each year at the Stadium, I immediately recognized the new passenger. It was Yankee outfielder, Hector Lopez.
I whispered to my Uncle that this guy was Lopez but he insisted that Yankee players don’t ride the subway to their games. I knew different. I just stared at Lopez during the entire ride and he kept his eyes closed as if he were taking a nap. When the train reached the 161st Street station in the Bronx, he and I got up from our seats at the same time and I ended up just inches in front of him. My Uncle would always grab my hand when we exited the train and as he pulled me toward the door that morning I built up enough courage, turned my head and said, ”Are you Hector Lopez?” He looked right at me, winked his eye and smiled.
I had not been a fan of Lopez before that, mostly because if he was playing it usually meant that my favorite Yankee, the oft-injured Mickey Mantle would not be. But that morning, I became a Lopez fan. Hector spent the last eight seasons of his twelve-year big league career in pinstripes. He was a key bench player on those great Yankee teams of the early sixties that appeared in five straight World Series, winning two of them. When Mantle was unable to play the final four games of the 1961 Fall Classic against the Reds because of an abscess, Lopez took his place and drove in 7 runs and averaged .333. He could have started in the outfield of most other big league teams back then but with the Yankees, Lopez spent his time filling in for better known, higher paid teammates and evidently riding the subway to and from Yankee Stadium. He turns 83-years-old today.
Hector shares his July 8th birthday with another Yankee who played in a utility role.