Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Lonely Life of a Onetime Yankee

In the midst of the attention to the outrageous salaries and the high-living shenanigans of some of today’s lionized athletes, I sometimes think back to a day in the 1960s when I rode the subway from Yankee Stadium to Brooklyn with Hector Lopez, a journeyman Yankee ball player considerably less famous than Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris & Co of those days.  

The subway car filled up at 59th Street on the Lexington Ave. Express line. As two women stood in the aisle above him, Lopez said, “Sometimes I get up to give my seat to a lady. It depends on how old she is.”

It doesn’t depend, he said, on how good a day he had at the office, which for him was Yankee Stadium. Lopez was a 27-year-old infielder-outfielder. The subway ride was one Lopez made after every game. On this particular day in May, 1960 a man next to Lopez eavesdropped on the conversation between Lopez and me with the respectful look that people get when they spot a celebrity. Nobody else recognized him.

Those subway excursions were one aspect of the unusual life of Lopez, a Panamanian earning his living in the United States. For all his exposure to crowds, it was a monastic existence. Though he rubbed shoulders with millions, he was a stranger in the city.

For day games he left at 10:00 am from his house in the Brownsville section deep in the heart of Brooklyn for a more-than-an-hour ride to the stadium. (He had not picked up the indigenous pronunciation, “Bronzeville.”) He arrived at Yankee Stadium shortly after 11:00, ready to dress in time for 11:30 am batting practice. After this game he left about 6:30 pm, arrived home at a little after 7:30. After dinner he usually watched television, sometimes went to a local movie. He usually was in bed by 10:00. On a day off he would sleep late. He hung around the house the rest of the day, watched television and went to bed.

It did not seem to disturb him that this was an unusual way to live. He said he went out more during the winter in Panama. There was a girl, Claudette Brown, whom he had known for four years. He would marry her in October. “In Panama,” he said, “I go dancing and swimming and a lot of things. But now there is time only for baseball.”

On our subway ride (23 stops) he explained that his mother had come from Panama as a domestic in the employ of a woman from San Francisco a few years earlier. When her employer died, Mrs. Lopez came to Brooklyn to live near a friend, working as domestic in hotels. When Hector was traded to the Yankees the previous year, 1959, he bought her the two-family home in which he, his mother, younger brother and uncle lived.

As we neared his home on the four-block walk from the Saratoga Ave. subway stop to his home off Riverdale Ave., a little girl called out, “Hey, Hector Lopez, hey!” He smiled and waved. He said he was known only by a few of his neighbors. He did not idle at any of the corner candy stores, a major pastime in the neighborhood that was the setting for a crime novel by Irving Shulman called “The Amboy Dukes.” He sometimes watched the kids playing ball in Betsy Head playground, but the ball players never recognized there was a big league ball player in their midst.

The neighborhood was in transition, with blacks and Puerto Ricans replacing middle-class Jews who were moving to Queens and Long Island. The house was of faded yellow brick with a stoop and porch. It was like every other house on the block. Hector did not think it was worth the $18,000 he paid for it, but “my mother wanted it.” He did not mind the subway ride because he was with his family. “And it is cheaper.” He was making about $16,000 for the season.

He self-consciously introduced his mother to me. She was an animated woman in her early 50s. She showed me into the dark living room crowded with furniture. There was a photograph of Hector in a Yankee uniform on the television set, an autographed baseball signed by all the Yankees, numerous other family photographs and a “Souvenir of Panama” pillow on the couch. There was another television set in the kitchen.  

His mother said, “Hector is a good boy. He is a quiet boy.” She was a knowledgeable baseball fan who went to games in Panama while she was pregnant because she thought it would help Hector become a ball player.
She was lyrically opinionated about the rough time he had been having with the Yankees.

He had essentially been an infielder before he became an outfielder with the Yankees. His fielding in the outfield was suspect. Leonard Shecter in the Post jocularly referred to him as “Hector (what a pair of hands) Lopez.” While she spoke, Lopez sat on the couch in his slippers next to the Panama pillow, uncomfortable as any man is when his mother is talking about him to an outsider.

Mrs. Lopez said, “Well, I see old Casey [Stengel] let you play today.” Lopez answered, “Yes, defense,” a sarcastic reference to his fielding woes.”

She said, “Sometimes I don’t know if I should root for them Yankees at all. Why Casey doesn’t let Hector player shortstop? He is a good shortstop. The first time he played in Panama he had three hits and he was at shortstop.” Hector said nothing.

She never said, “My son, the ball player.” But she was proud of him and nobody could ever convince her that Lopez couldn’t field well enough for “that Casey.”