SABR

Stan Lopata

This article was written by Ralph Berger.

On a road trip in 1954 with the Philadelphia Phillies, Stan Lopata was having trouble making contact with the ball. He and his roommate on the Phillies, outfielder Johnny Wyrostek, had just finished eating breakfast. While Lopata paid the check, Wyrostek met Rogers Hornsby in the lobby of the hotel. Hornsby was by then out of baseball, having managed the Cincinnati Reds the year before. Wyrostek asked Hornsby about his buddy, Lopata said, “because I was having trouble getting my bat on the ball.” Johnny said, “What do you think about this kid?” Hornsby replied, “Well I’ve seen him on television and when he swings he misses the ball too often.” He told Wyrostek to tell Lopata, “you should get a piece of the ball every time you swing the bat – not necessarily a base hit but get a piece of it.” Wyrostek relayed the information to Lopata.1

Stan was smart enough to heed the advice of Hornsby. In order to see the ball better, he started to go into a crouch. He kept getting lower until it seemed he was almost sitting on top of the batter’s box. This crouch helped him pick up the ball better and cut down on his strikeouts. Lopata, who wore eyeglasses (he was the first catcher in the National League to do so), also had trouble picking up the ball because of the glare from the lights of the Connie Mack Stadium scoreboard. So he started using tinted eyeglasses.

Stanley Lopata was born in Delray, Michigan, a neighborhood in Detroit, on September 12, 1925, to Anthony and Agnes Lopata. Anthony was a foundry worker. Both parents were born in Poland and came to the United States in 1911. Stanley had two sisters, Wanda and Bertha, and two brothers, Casimir and Chester. Stanley grew up in Delray, playing both sandlot and American Legion baseball. He was a star player at Southwestern High School in basketball and baseball. After high school, Lopata went into the Army in December 1943. He served in the 14th Armored Division as it fought across Europe, and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart. He was discharged in late 1945. In 1946 Lopata was signed by Phillies scout Eddie Krajnik and received a hefty (at that time) bonus of $15,000 or $20.000.2 Krajnik termed Lopata a “can’t-miss” prospect.

Lopata broke into professional baseball at Terre Haute, Indiana, in the Class-B Three-I League, in 1946. He batted .292 at Terre Haute with 9 home runs, and 45 RBIs in 67 games. Notably for a 6-foot-1, 210-pound catcher, he hit 11 triples. In 1947 he moved up the ladder, to the Utica (New York) Blue Sox, of the Class-A Eastern League. In 115 games, he batted .325, with 9 homers, 20 doubles, and 88 runs batted in. His penchant for triples continued, as he legged out 13 three-base hits. At Utica, Stan played with future 1950 Phillies Whiz Kids teammates including Richie Ashburn, Granny Hamner, and Putsy Caballero. His manager there was Eddie Sawyer, who led the Blue Sox (90-48) to the Eastern League championship and later managed the Phillies to the National League pennant in 1950.

Lopata married Betty Kulczyk on October 25, 1947.  And he continued to move up the minor-league chain 1948, playing for Toronto in the Triple-A International League, the Phillies’ top farm club. In 110 games, he batted .279, with 15 home runs and 67 runs batted in. Eight of his RBIs came in one game. On September 19, after the International League season, Lopata was called up to the Phillies. He got into six games and had two hits in 15 at-bats.

In 1949, as a backup to first-string catcher Andy Seminick, Lopata appeared in 83 games. He batted .271 with 8 home runs and 27 RBIs.

The Phils were an improving team in 1949, finishing in third place with an 81-73 mark. The 1950 season began and the Phils put it together as they built up a 7½-game lead over the Boston Braves and a nine-game lead over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Then the Dodgers went on a spree, winning 13 of 17 games, while the Phils faltered. In the last week of the season, the Phillies lost five straight games and the Dodgers won three straight. The teams faced each other at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field on the last day of the season with the Phillies holding a one-game lead. If Philadelphia lost, a best-of-three playoff would determine the National League pennant.

Robin Roberts was on the mound for the Phillies against Don Newcombe of the Dodgers. Lopata did not start the game but entered it when Andy Seminick was taken out for a pinch-runner. The Dodgers threatened to win in the ninth inning but outfielder Richie Ashburn made an on-the-money throw to Lopata, who tagged out Cal Abrams 15 feet up the line from home plate, and the game went into extra innings tied 1-1. The Phillies’ Dick Sisler hit a three-run home run in the top of the 10th inning, Robin Roberts shut the Dodgers down in the bottom of the inning, and the Whiz Kids won the Phillies’ first pennant in 35 years.

Of the play that nailed Abrams, Lopata said, “Richie’s throw had Abrams out by 20 to 25 feet. In a way I was surprised they sent him in because they had nobody out and Jackie Robinson, Carl Furillo, and Gil Hodges coming up. It was [a] perfect throw from Richie. There was still only one out, but [Roberts] … reached back and got that little extra. … He reached back and got them out. When Tommy Brown popped up to Eddie Waitkus for the final out in the 10th, we just charged the mound. We were so happy, especially after what we went through the final week of the season.”3

The World Series saw the Phils’ bats go quiet as they were swept by the New York Yankees. Lopata caught one inning in Game Two and struck out as a pinch-hitter in Game Four – the last out of the Series – facing Allie Reynolds in relief of Whitey Ford.

The 1951 season for Lopata was a tough one. He was still having trouble making contact with the ball. He played in only three games with the Phillies before being sent to Baltimore in the International League, where he hit only .196 in 38 games. In 1952 Lopata was back with the Phils as a backup to catcher Smoky Burgess (Seminick had been traded to Cincinnati) and batted a solid .274 in 57 games. He increased his playing time to 81 games in 1953, but his batting average fell to.239.

Despite his problems at bat, the Phillies valued Lopata for his prowess on defense. His strong arm enabled him to cut down many runners at second base. He also was a bulwark at the plate against players trying to score. On one occasion Enos Slaughter came barreling around third base intent on scoring. Lopata got the ball at about the same time Slaughter was at the plate. Slaughter rammed into Lopata and bounced back close to six feet, called out by the umpire with an assist from Stan’s stature.

It was in 1954 that Lopata heeded the advice of Rogers Hornsby and adopted the crouch as his stance. It worked. In 86 games he batted .290, hit 14 home runs and had 42 runs batted in. He would uncoil from his crouch as the pitcher delivered the ball. He was also seeing the ball better and offered a tougher target for the pitchers. Though he was improving at the plate, he was still a backup catcher to Smoky Burgess, who had a terrific year with Phils, batting .368 in 108 games.

In 1955 Lopata batted .271 in 99 games. He hit 22 home runs and had 58 RBIs. He was named to the National League team for the All-Star Game. In his familiar role as a backup, he got to play when Roy Campanella was injured. Lopata went hitless in three trips to the plate as the National league won, 6-5, on Stan Musial’s 12th-inning home run.

Stan became the regular catcher in 1956 and had a banner year. In 146 games, he batted .267, slugged 32 home runs, and had 95 runs batted in. He had a slugging percentage of .535 and 286 total bases, scored 96 runs, and hit 33 doubles. His 32 homers set a record, since broken, for Phillies’ right-handed batters. Lopata and Robin Roberts were selected to the National League All-Star squad but neither saw action.

As good as Lopata’s 1956 season was, 1957 was a dark year. He suffered a variety of injuries that cut down on his effectiveness at bat and behind the plate. It started in spring training, where he suffered an injury to his right hand from a foul tip. In May he pulled a muscle in his leg. In June he injured his throwing shoulder. The worst injury occurred on July 11, when he twisted a knee in a rundown between third and home. “He’s a team man,” said Phillies manager Mayo Smith. “He wants to play even though he knows that as long as he does the knee will probably bother him all season long.”4 There were some repercussions about the knee injury. Roy Hamey, the Phillies’ general manager, told Lopata that the doctors had told him there was nothing wrong with the knee and that he should continue to play and nothing bad would happen Stan knew better. He wound up hitting .237 in 116 games with 18 home runs and 67 RBIs.

During the offseason Lopata had knee surgery at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. After the surgery he spent five days a week at Connie Mack Stadium rehabbing the knee. In 1958 he lifted his average to.248 in 86 games, but hit only 9 home runs with 33 runs batted in. He got off to a fine start and early in the season had six homers. But the injury bugaboo struck again when the Cardinals’ Larry Jackson beaned him in the first game of a June 8 doubleheader at St. Louis. Lopata was replaced by a pinch-runner. He recovered from the beaning but hit only three more homers that year while splitting the catching duties with Carl Sawatski.

On March 31, 1959, Lopata was traded to the Milwaukee Braves, along with infielder Ted Kazanski and utilityman Eddie O’Brien, for pitcher Gene Conley, infielder Joe Koppe, and outfielder Harry Hanebrink. With the Braves, Lopata played in only 25 games in 1959 and seven games in 1960. (Del Crandall was the regular catcher, and Joe Torre was emerging from the minors.) Lopata decided to call it a career. He was 34 years old.

In 13 seasons (853 games) he had batted .254, belted 116 homers, driven in 397 runs, scored 375 runs, and had 116 doubles and 25 triples. In 695 games behind the plate, he had a .986 fielding average. 

After baseball, Lopata, who was living in Abington, Pennsylvania, was a salesman for IBM, which at the time made tabulating cards and tapes for computers. He later worked in the concrete business in the Philadelphia area for two different companies. In time he became the vice president of sales and held that position for 19 years, overseeing production at 11 plants in Eastern Pennsylvania.

 After retiring, Lopata and his wife, Betty, moved to Mesa, Arizona. They had seven children, 16 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Lopata took up golf, wood carving, especially making Kachina dolls. He was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1988.

Lopata died of a heart ailment on June 15, 2013, at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. He was 87 years old.

Despite the injuries that hampered his baseball career, Lopata was not rueful. He said, “… The Lord gave me the ability to play baseball, I tried to make use of everything he gave me. Hard work and hustle helped me – mostly hard work [and a tip from Rogers Hornsby]. And after I changed my batting stance, I was a good-hitting catcher there for a while.”5


Sources

Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York. Stan Lopata player file.

BaseballLibrary.com

Clayton, Skip, and Jeff Moeller. 50 Phabulous Phillies (Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing Inc., 2000).

Roberts, Robin, and C. Paul Rogers III. My Life in Baseball (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2003).

Westcott, Rich. A Century of Philadelphia Sports (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

When It Was a Game. Online.

 

Notes

1 Personal Interview with author Richard Panchyk, August 2012. See baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php?p=lopatst01

2 Robin Roberts and C. Paul Rogers III, The Whiz Kids and the 1950 Pennant (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 171, reports $15,000. Lopata's obituary by John F. Morrison in the June 21, 2013, Philadelphia Daily News says it was $20,000.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

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