Stan Lopata - 1956 Topps baseball card

Former Major League Catcher Stan Lopata Was One
Of National League's Best Power-Hitting Backstops

By Todd Newville

Former major leaguer Stan Lopata proved to be one of the best power-hitting catchers in the National League during the mid-1950s for the Philadelphia Phillies. He also proved to be a good listener when it came to heeding some sound advice.

If Lopata had been stubborn and hard-headed in his younger years, he might have passed on the opportunity to listen to a former second baseman who won seven batting titles during his Hall of Fame career. But, Lopata was a smart player and he knew words of wisdom when he heard them.

Especially when they came from the mouth of Rogers Hornsby.

“What he said was ‘Get a piece of the ball every time you swing the bat’,” Lopata remembered. “And, that’s what I did.”

During a road trip in 1954, Lopata and Phillies outfielder Johnny Wyrostek had just finished eating breakfast at their hotel. Lopata was busy paying the check when Wyrostek met Hornsby by chance in the hotel lobby.

Wyrostek (a career .271 hitter in 11 seasons) came to the Phillies from the Cincinnati Reds in a 1952 trade. He used to play for Hornsby, who managed the Reds for parts of two seasons in ’52 and ’53.

“He asked Rogers Hornsby about me because I was in a tough time,” Lopata said. “Johnny said, ’What do you think about this kid?’ Rogers Hornsby said ’Well, I’ve seen him on television and when he swings he misses the ball too often.’ He said 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.

“That day, I concentrated on just meeting the ball and I changed my stance myself. I got down low and got a couple of hits that day. The next day, I got a little lower in my stance at Chicago and got a few hits. In Milwaukee, I got down a little lower and got two more hits or so. The next thing you know, I’m hitting the ball really well. I could see it better.”

Stan Lopata of the Phillies was named to the National League All-Star team in both 1955 and '56.

On the heels of Hornsby’s advice, Lopata began to assume a crouched stance at the plate which allowed him to attack the ball in a more aggressive manner. Pretty soon, Lopata became one of the best hitting catchers in baseball.

Lopata (now 80) was born in Delray, Mich., a suburb of Detroit where he grew up playing sandlot and American Legion baseball. After excelling in basketball and baseball at Southwestern High School, the Phillies signed Lopata to a contract with a nice $20,000 bonus in 1946.

Philadelphia assigned Lopata (a decorated World War II veteran) to Terre Haute (Ind.) of the Class B Illinois-Iowa-Indiana League, where he hit .292 with nine homers and 45 RBI in 67 games. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Lopata legged out 11 triples that season.

Stan Lopata (as he appeared on his 1954 Bowman baseball card)
In 1947, Lopata played for the Utica (N.Y.) Blue Sox of the Class A Eastern League, where he ranked among the league leaders with a .325 batting average along with nine home runs, 20 doubles, 68 runs scored and 88 RBI in 115 games. Again, he showed a penchant for three-baggers with 13 triples as he won Eastern League MVP honors.

Utica won the Eastern League championship in ‘47 with a gaudy 90-48 record under future Philly manager Eddie Sawyer. In ‘48, Lopata played for Toronto in the International League, where he hit .279 with 15 homers and 67 RBI in 110 games. In one game, Lopata had eight RBI for the Maple Leafs.

Lopata also played six games for the Phillies late in ‘48 and hit just .133. In 1949, he appeared in 83 games and hit .271 with eight homers and 27 RBI as a reliable backup to starting catcher Andy Seminick. In ‘50, he hit .209 in 58 games.

By that time, though, Philadelphia had turned into a pennant contender. After finishing third in ’49 with an 81-73 record, the Phillies won their first National League pennant since 1915 with a 91-63 record - edging past the Brooklyn Dodgers by a mere two games.

The 1950 season went down to the wire between the Phillies and Dodgers. On Sept. 19, Philadelphia was seven-and-a-half games in front of the Boston Braves and nine ahead of Brooklyn. But, the Phils slumped badly down the stretch by losing eight of 10 games - including back-to-back doubleheaders to the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in late September.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers were busy winning 13 of their last 17 ballgames. They won the next-to-last-game of the season by a score of 7-3 over Philadelphia - closing the gap between them and the Phils to one. If Philly lost the last contest of the year at Ebbets Field, a three-game playoff would be needed to determine the pennant winner.

But, Robin Roberts, who went 20-11 in ‘50 with a league-leading five shutouts for Philadelphia, pitched a gutsy five-hitter on Oct. 1 to beat Brooklyn 4-1, giving the Phillies their first NL pennant in 35 years. He pitched 10 masterful innings to become the Phillies’ first 20-game winner since Grover Cleveland Alexander went 30-13 in 1917. Roberts was pitching his third game in five days.

Lopata didn’t start that final game but figured prominently in the outcome. He was behind the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning when Cal Abrams opened the frame with a walk. Pee Wee Reese (who had three hits) singled Abrams to second.

When Duke Snider drilled a pitch to Ashburn in center field, Abrams came streaking around third. Ashburn was playing shallow in anticipation of a sacrifice bunt. So, he quickly grabbed the ball on one bounce and uncorked a perfect throw to Lopata who tagged Abrams out to conclude a game-saving play.

The Phillies mob pitcher Robin Roberts after he hurled a five-hitter and beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-1 on Oct. 1, 1950. It was Roberts' 20th win of the year and gave Philly its first National League championship since 1915.

After walking Jackie Robinson to load the bases, Roberts got Carl Furillo and Gil Hodges to pop out to end the ninth. Then, Roberts and Eddie Waitkus singled in the 10th inning for the Phils. After Ashburn’s bunt forced Roberts out at third base, Dick Sisler (who hit .296 with 13 homers and 83 RBI during the year) won the game with a heroic three-run homer into the left field seats.

“The Dodgers were a tough lineup with Hodges, Snider, Billy Cox, Reese, Robinson, Furillo and Roy Campanella before he got hurt,“ Lopata said. “They had some really good hitters on that ball club.”

Nicknamed the “Whiz Kids,” the Phillies were a youthful yet talented bunch. Outfielder Del Ennis led the offense with a .311 average, 31 home runs, and 126 RBI. Richie Ashburn hit .303 while Seminick (.288, 24 homers, 68 RBI) and third baseman Willie “Puddin’ Head” Jones (.267, 25 homers, 88 RBI) were also vital offensive catalysts.

Stan Lopata (pictured on his 1957 Topps baseball card) was the first National League catcher to wear glasses.
While Roberts was an important part of the staff, others certainly helped give Philadelphia an impressive mound corps. Relief pitcher Jim Konstanty was voted MVP based on his 16-7 record and 2.66 ERA in a league-leading 74 appearances. He also recorded a league-high 22 saves. Lefty Curt Simmons (17-8) made a huge impact before he went into the Army in September.

“When Dick Sisler hit that home run in the 10th inning to win the pennant in Brooklyn for us, that was great,” Lopata said. “It was a great team. I still think Jim Konstanty was the greatest relief pitcher we ever saw. And, we really missed Curt when they took him in the service. We missed him when he went away to the Army.”

In the World Series, the Phillies faced the vaunted juggernaut known as the New York Yankees, winners of 12 world championships to that date. With Whitey Ford, Allie Reynolds, Vic Raschi, and Ed Lopat, the Yanks featured a formidable rotation. They also had Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, and Johnny Mize. New York went 98-56 during the regular season - winning the American League pennant by three games over the Detroit Tigers.

Since Roberts’ arm was taxed by the time the Series rolled around, Sawyer elected to start Konstanty in the first game at Shibe Park. Konstanty (in his first start all year) limited New York to just four hits and one run in eight innings. Bobby Brown doubled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jerry Coleman in the fourth inning.

But, the Yankees won that contest 1-0 behind Raschi‘s two-hit shutout. Despite losing to the Bronx Bombers in a four-game sweep, the Phillies put up a valiant effort. They lost the second and third games by one run each (2-1 and 3-2) before New York took the Series with a 5-2 victory in Game 4.

“I didn’t get too much action,” said Lopata, who caught a few innings and struck out in a pinch-hitting appearance during Game 4. “Andy Seminick did most of the catching then. But, it was just great to be in the World Series. Very few guys ever make the World Series. Even though we lost four in a row, it was a pretty good Series. You don’t forget something like that, I’ll tell you that.

“The Yankees were all right. They were good people. Some people didn’t like them, I guess, because they kept winning all the time. But, to me, they were all right. I liked playing them. I didn’t like getting beat by them, but I enjoyed playing them. It was a good Series.”

Lopata played in just three games with the Phillies in 1951. He played most of that season at Baltimore in the International League as he was having difficulties finding his stroke - hitting .196. In ’52, he was back with Philly and hit a more respectable .274 in 57 games. In ’53, he was back down to .239 over 81 games.

The Phillies, though, weren’t giving up on the big guy nicknamed “Stash,” who exhibited a strong arm throwing out enemy base stealers. Then, when Hornsby offered his five-cents worth, everything seemed to click at that point for Lopata.

Following Hornsby’s little pep talk, Lopata proceeded to record a .290 average for the 1954 season along with 14 homers and 42 RBI in 86 games. The crouched stance at the plate seemed to be working wonders for him. He was still a backup on the Phillies - to Smoky Burgess and his .368 average in 108 games.

But, in 1955, Lopata finally broke out in a big way. He earned a berth on the National League’s All-Star team thanks to hitting a solid .271 with 22 home runs and 58 RBI. Lopata replaced the injured Campanella on the NL roster and went hitless in three at-bats during the Senior Circuit’s 6-5 win over the American League at Milwaukee‘s County Stadium. Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals won that contest with a leadoff homer in the bottom of the 12th inning.

Stan Lopata (as he appeared on his 1958 Topps baseball card)

“In ‘55, I caught about five or six innings and that was the game we won in extra innings when Stan Musial hit the home run in Milwaukee to beat the American League,” Lopata remembered. “That was great.”

In 1956, Lopata again was named to the All-Star squad and hit .267 with a career-high 32 homers and 95 RBI. He also scored 96 runs and clubbed 33 doubles, which ranked second only to Hank Aaron’s 34 two-baggers. Lopata’s .535 slugging percentage ranked seventh in the National League and his 286 total bases tied for eighth on the circuit along with Milwaukee‘s Eddie Mathews.

Lopata also tied Hodges for sixth in the league in homers and he tied Mathews and Ennis for sixth in the circuit in ribbies. Only Snider (78) and Aaron (74) had more extra-base hits than Lopata’s total of 72. In addition, Lopata also ranked third in the National League behind only Pittsburgh’s Dale Long (11) and Chicago’s Dee Fondy (10) with nine sacrifice flies.

Stan Lopata (as he appeared on his 1959 Topps baseball card)
“It was unfortunate in ’56 that we didn’t play,” Lopata said of he and Roberts on their failure to get into the 1956 All-Star Game at Washington’s Griffith Stadium - a 7-3 win for the Nationals. “Robby didn’t pitch and I didn’t catch. Walter Alston, the manager for the Dodgers, even apologized after the game was over that he didn’t use us. He wanted to win and it isn’t like it is now.”

Lopata said the All-Star Game was more important to contestants during his career. Even with the current format which grants home-field advantage during the World Series to the victorious league, Lopata thinks the game still could have a little more emphasis on winning.

“They want to have each guy in the ball game which is fine,” said Lopata, who was the first National League catcher to wear glasses. “But, you should go out to win the ballgame. We took it more serious. You better believe it! Even the owners and the presidents of the leagues would come down to the clubhouse and give us a pep talk. They would say, ’Go out and beat those guys and don’t mess around!’ They wanted us to win.”

In 1957, Lopata hit just .237 in 116 games. But, he suffered a variety of injuries throughout the year. During spring training, Lopata was hit on his right hand by a foul tip. In May, he suffered a severe charley horse. In June, he injured his throwing shoulder.

But, the worst injury occurred on July 11, when he twisted his right knee during a rundown between third and home. He continued to catch and still found a way to contribute 18 homers and 67 RBI. “He’s a team man,” said Phillies manager Mayo Smith at the time. “He wants to play even though he knows that as long as he does the knee will probably bother him all season long.”

In the off-season, Lopata had knee surgery at Temple Hospital. He then spent five days a week at Connie Mack Stadium in a grueling rehabilitation effort. In 1958, he hit .246 and managed just nine homers and 33 RBI in 86 games.

On March 31, 1959, the Phils traded Lopata, infielder Ted Kazanski, and utility man Johnny O’Brien to the Milwaukee Braves for pitcher Gene Conley, shortstop Joe Koppe, and utility man Harry Hanebrink. Lopata hit .104 in ’59 and .125 in 1960 for the Braves before calling it a career.

In 13 major league seasons, Lopata hit .254 with 116 home runs, 397 RBI, 375 runs scored, 116 doubles, and 25 triples in 853 games. In 695 games behind the plate, he had a career .986 fielding percentage.

Roberts and Simmons were two of the finest pitchers that Lopata handled behind the plate. “Robby” won 20-plus games for six straight seasons in Philadelphia from 1950-55 and he led the Senior Circuit in victories four consecutive years from 1952-55.

Stan Lopata (as he appeared on his
1960 Topps baseball card)

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1976, Roberts won 286 games in his 19-year major league career. Meanwhile, Simmons won 193 games in his 20-year career. Roberts (234) ranks second only to Steve Carlton (241) in career victories for the Phillies while Simmons (115) is fifth all-time on that list.

“Robby and Curt were great,” Lopata said. “There were a few good pitchers we had, though.”

Stan Lopata takes batting practice with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960.
Ken Heintzelman, a 13-year major league veteran, went 17-10 for the Phillies in 1949 and tied for the league lead in shutouts that season with five. Russ “Monk” Meyer (another 13-year major leaguer) was 17-8 for Philadelphia in ’49 while Bob Miller (a Michigan native like Lopata) was 11-6 during the Phils’ pennant-winning 1950 campaign.

“Heintzelman was a crafty boy and I learned quite a bit from Kenny,” Lopata said. “He taught me quite a bit. Monk Meyer and Bob Miller were pretty good. Bob won like eight straight at one point for us and we played legion ball together back in Detroit.” Ken “Hawk” Silvestri was the third-string catcher for the Phillies in 1950. “He roomed with me for a bit and he taught me a lot about catching,” Lopata said. “He taught me quite a bit, too.”

In addition to the powerful Dodgers’ lineup, Musial and Willie Mays from the Giants “were great,” according to Lopata. “There were many great hitters in the league at the time. We had to pitch to them carefully.”

It’s been said by many that catching might be the most important position on the field. “I didn’t think it was the toughest position, though,” Lopata said, “because I caught all my life. I loved catching. You were always in the middle of a ball game. You run the ball game because you call the pitches and so forth. You got to think a little bit with each hitter. You’re just always in the game.”

Lopata ranks 17th on the all-time list for the Phillies with his 116 homers. His 54 combined homers from 1955-56 ranked 11th in the National League. Only Mays (87), Snider (85), Ted Kluszewski (82), Mathews (78), Wally Post (76), Ernie Banks (72), Musial (60), Hodges (59), Gus Bell (56), and Ennis (55) hit more during that period. Lopata was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1988. He also is a member of the National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame.

When he got out of baseball, Lopata first was a salesman for a company that made tabulating cards and tapes for computers. Then, he worked in the concrete business in the Philadelphia area for two different companies. Eventually, he became vice president of sales and held that position for 19 years - overseeing production at 11 plants in eastern Pennsylvania.

Stan Lopata (left) with Curt Simmons.

Stan Lopata was a strong-armed catcher who hit 116 lifetime home runs for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Lopata is now retired and lives in Mesa, Ariz., with his wife Betty. They have been married for 58 years and have seven children, 16 grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Their children are scattered in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and Florida. He enjoys golfing, woodcarving and making Kachina dolls.

“I don’t have any regrets at all,“ Lopata said. “The good Lord gave me the ability to play baseball. I tried to make use of everything He gave me. Hard work and hustle helped me become a good player - mostly hard work. And, after I changed my stance, I was a good-hitting catcher there for a while.”

He sure was.

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