Name: Edmund Lopat
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: June 21, 1918 (New York, NY)
Died: June 15, 1992 (Darien, CT)
Yankee Years: 1948-55
Primary number: 30
Yankee statistics: 113-59, 3.19 ERA, 3.72 FIP, 202 GS, 1,497 1/3 IP, 502 K, 91 CG, 20 SHO, 81 ERA-, 95 FIP-, 17.8 rWAR, 20.0 fWAR
The dynasty Yankees teams of the '40s and '50s are remembered most for their elite hitting. Hall of Famers like Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra led some powerful offenses to big years and an incredible number of World Series titles during their tenures.
The pitching staff however had several unsung heroes who aren't as well known to the general public. Long before Yankees fans dubbed Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy the "Big Three," another group of starters with the same moniker earned that crown with some impressive pitching during those dynasty years. All of those pitchers are included in the Top 100 Yankees, and the first of these men to appear is lefty starter Eddie Lopat. Nicknamed "Junkman," Lopat mixed a baffling array of pitcher into his repertoire that drove opposing hitters crazy.
Perhaps the greatest compliment he ever received came from one of baseball's most feared hitters, Ted Willams, who said "that bleeping Lopat" was the toughest pitcher he ever faced.
The long march through the minors
Edmund Walter Lopatynski was born to Polish immigrants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan on June 21, 1918. His father John owned a shoe repair shop, but that hardly interested young Eddie, who grew up on 98th and Madison adoring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as the sluggers led the Yankees to prominence at the newly-constructed Yankee Stadium in the '20s, he attended school in the Bronx at nearby DeWitt Clinton High School.
Although they didn't have a formal baseball team, Lopatynski played stickball all the time throughout his childhood and by high school age, he was a regular first baseman for other clubs around the area. He gained enough local recognition to earn tryouts with both the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1937. Although the Giants turned him down, Dodgers manager Burleigh Grimes thought enough of his abilities to sign him to a $50 per month contract for Brooklyn's Class D team in Greensburg, PA.
However, it quickly became apparent to Lopat (who changed his name to facilitate box score citation) that he was no Gehrig. He could field the position fine, but in 84 games split with Greensburg and the Jeanerette Blues of the Evangeline League in Louisiana, he hit a dismal .223 with a .311 slugging percentage, totaling just 18 extra base hits in the process. By the end of the 1937 season, he was already experimenting with pitching.
It did not take long for Lopat to discover how to throw a curve and other breaking pitches like the screwball. Nonetheless, traversing the minor leagues was a serious struggle for Lopat, who bounced around from the Dodgers to the White Sox, Indians, and Giants at various points over the next seven years. Frustrated with a losing year in 1941 and still not above Class C at age 23 while pitching for bizarre teams like the Longview Cannibals and Shreveport Sports, Lopat nearly gave in (to the hunger?). Thankfully for the Yankees' future, the former Libby Howell (his new wife), convinced him to keep the dream alive.
Lopat made strides with the Giants' Little Rock Travelers team in 1942-43, recording a 2.96 ERA over 44 games and earning praise from the Southern Association's president, former umpire Billy Evans. He urged White Sox GM Harry Grabiner to take a chance on Lopat, as baseball was struggling as a whole to find useful players during the wartime years anyway. Grabiner consented and gave Lopat a 30-day contract to open the 1944 season with the White Sox under manager Jimmy Dykes.
Over his first month in the big leagues, Lopat proved his mettle by pitching to a more than acceptable 3.23 ERA with two complete games in six starts. He was allowed to stay in the pros on a $3,600 contract, and during Chicago's next four seasons, he was easily their most reliable starter. Lopat had a 93 ERA- and 96 FIP- in 113 games for the White Sox, notching 10.5 WAR while pitching 72 complete games and seven shutouts.with a 3.18 ERA.
Bronx Boy makes good
Lopat seemed to constantly keep batters off-balance while maintaining superb control, a skill picked up from Hall of Fame teammate Ted Lyons. His arrangement and tenacity impressed Yankees GM George Weiss, who had a keen eye for talent (at least as far as only white people were concerned, sadly). Just before the 1948 season, Weiss organized a trade to bring Lopat to the defending World Series champions.
On February 24th, Lopat was dealt to the Yankees in exchange for catcher Aaron Robinson and a pair of pitchers (Bill Wight and Fred Bradley).The three players sent to the south side of Chicago combined for just six seasons on the White Sox and the Yankees did not miss them at all. With Joe DiMaggio leading the charge and Yogi Berra now the regular starter behind the plate, Lopat was ready to pitch the favorite team of his childhood to glory.
On the Yankees, Lopat teamed with fellow future All-Stars Vic Raschi and Allie Reynolds to form a imposing trio at the front of the rotation. They were all tremendously consistent, capable of pitching both in the rotation and out of the bullpen in a pinch (especially Reynolds). They combined for over 675 innings and 40 complete games in their first season together in 1948, and the pace was set. While the Yankees won "only" 94 games in '48 to finish in third place behind the World Series-winning Indians, the American League was now forced to reckon with Lopat, Raschi, or Reynolds on a near-everyday basis, a luxury which new manager Casey Stengel was ecstatic to have in 1949.
Lopat once explained to Reynolds the secret to his success despite not carrying any particularly dominating pitches in his repertoire:
Take four pitches - the fast ball, the curve, the slider and the screwball. Now throw these at different speeds and you have 12 pitches. Next, throw each of these 12 pitches with a long-armed or short-armed motion, and you have 24 pitches.
No one quite knew what was coming when it came to Lopat, and Stengel loved it. He had an easygoing demeanor off the field but was fiercely competitive on the mound. Although he was one of the first well-known managers to make a regular habit out of pulling starters for relievers, he often left Lopat in to finish what he started. Under Stengel from 1949-54, "Steady Eddie" completed just under half his 159 starts, including 20 in his All-Star 1951 campaign alone.
The Yankees won both the AL pennant and the World Series in 1949, Lopat's second season in pinstripes. They did the same thing in 1950. Then they made it three in a row in 1951. In 1952, they did the unthinkable by tying the 1936-39 Yankees' record of four straight World Series titles, and one year later, they set the standard with five consecutive championships. It's a record that will almost certainly never be broken given how modern baseball features at least three rounds of playoffs to contend with, whereas Lopat's teams just had to finish in first place during the regular season. That's not to diminish what those Yankees did though; they seemed unstoppable, and in the World Series, Lopat was as dangerous as anyone, notching a 2.60 ERA and minuscule 2.1 BB/9 in seven career starts.
Lopat reached his zenith in '51 with an All-Star season in which he led all AL starters with a 1.193 WHIP, compiled 4.1 fWAR, and finished runner-up with a 2.91 ERA, 2.7 BB/9, and four shutouts. He even hit three of his five career homers that year, one of which came against Hall of Famer Bob Feller. It was an outstanding season, and it was capped by an absolutely dominant display of pitching in the World Series.
Facing the New York Giants just after Bobby Thomson's miracle "shot heard 'round the world" won them the NL pennant over the Dodgers, Leo Durocher's crew was stopped dead in its tracks by Lopat. Had the award existed, it would have been a World Series MVP-caliber performance, as he twirled a pair of five-hitters, allowing the Giants just one earned over 18 innings in two complete games. Backed by the two Lopat-led victories, the Yankees won the series in six games.
By the next season though, Lopat's arm began to bark at him with tendinitis, as he fell well short of the 200-inning threshold for the first time in his nine-year career. He fell short again in '53, though his 2.42 ERA and 65 ERA- in 178 1/3 frames led the American League. He had one start left in his playoff career as the Yankees gunned for five titles in a row, and he pitched them to a complete game 4-2 victory in the World Series opener against the Dodgers. Lopat never pitched in another World Series.
Transition to coaching
Lopat's performance on the field dropped to mediocre at best during the next year and a half of Yankees baseball. He continued to be a valued member of the clubhouse however, mentoring another talented southpaw named Eddie, Whitey Ford. Lopat was always one of the leaders who made sure to get on young players whenever they made mistakes, but he combined this intensity with a keen willingness to show arms like Ford the finer points of pitching.
By midseason 1955, it was time to move on. Although they remained friends, Raschi and Reynolds were both gone. The new rotation featured superior starters to the 37-year-old, namely Ford, Bob Turley, and Don Larsen. So on July 30th, Weiss flipped Lopat to the Orioles for pitcher Jim McDonald, who oddly enough never actually made an appearance for the Yankees. In his first start for Baltimore, he completed the 164th and final game of his career, an 8-1 victory. Six starts later, the season ended and Lopat elected to retire following his 11th year in the majors.
The Yankees quickly asked Lopat back to manage their Triple-A team in Richmond, VA. He spent three years there and even made 21 starts with solid results in his first campaign before officially ending his playing days. Stengel then had Lopat become his pitching coach in 1960, and the team won the last of their nine pennants under the "Ol' Perfesser." A devastating seven-game loss in the World Series to the Pirates on Bill Mazeroski's homer ended Stengel's tenure though, and Lopat was one of the many coaching causalities to go with Stengel.
Former Yankees outfielder Hank Bauer hired Lopat as his pitching coach with the Kansas City Athletics in 1961, and he got his only taste of major league managing when owner Charlie Finley fired Bauer following the '62 season. The hapless team failed to see much improvement over the next year and a half though, so Lopat was fired just days before his 46th birthday with only a 90-124 record to his name.
Lopat remained active in baseball for the rest of his days, scouting for several teams, including the Yankees. He passed away at age 73 in Darien, Connecticut, a victim of pancreatic cancer. He was so well-loved that his funeral briefly reunited George Steinbrenner with Yogi Berra and commissioner Fay Vincent, who were both feuding with Steinbrenner at that time. That was the magic of "Steady Eddie."
Andrew's rank: 57
Tanya's rank: 79
Community rank: 56.83
WAR rank: 70
|NYY (8 yrs)||113||59||3.19||3.72||217||202||91||20||1497.1||1507||619||530||116||405||502||29||9||81||95||17.8||20.0|
Stats from Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs
Appel, Marty. Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees from Before the Babe to After the Boss. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.
Gittleman, Sol. Reynolds, Raschi, and Lopat: New York's Big Three and the Yankee Dynasty of 1949-53. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007.
Golenbock, Peter. Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949-1964. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975.