El Lanzador

Vicente Lopez was almost the Cuban Koufax

Afterward Lopez took to the road, packing his bags for Miami and the Florida International League, where he would pitch for the Dodgers' Class B team, the Sun Sox. Given his limited action during the Cuban League season -- he pitched a total of eleven innings -- he knew this would count as his real professional debut. The Dodgers would be watching. Lopez did not disappoint, pitching well enough to win eighteen games that season for Miami.

His most significant victory that year, historically and personally, may have come on opening day when Lopez was given the honor of christening Miami's new stadium. Built at the corner of NW 10th Avenue and 23rd Street in Allapattah, Miami Stadium was a gem of a ballpark. "I know of no more beautiful stadium in the country," declared Major League Baseball Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler. Certainly, parquet floors in the clubhouse and an elevator that carried reporters up to the press box were not standard amenities in minor-league parks. But Miami Stadium had both.

And, on opening day, it had Vicente Lopez, pitching for the hometown team against the Havana Cubans. Lopez and the Sun Sox won by a score of 6-1. "The Cubans were the best team in that league," says the pitcher, thinking back to the evening then-Miami Herald sports editor Jimmy Burns called "the greatest night in Miami's baseball history." So what if the stadium had been financed with money stolen from the Cuban Treasury by a corrupt former cabinet member turned baseball impresario (see "Rough Diamond," New Times, August 15, 1996)?

Photo courtesy charles monfort
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (at top, front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign (above)
headshot courtesy vicente lopez
A star is born: Vicente Lopez (at top, front row, seated, fifth from left) as a rookie with Almendares; later, as a poster boy for Antonio Prío's Havana mayoral campaign (above)

In 1950 Lopez returned to Miami for his second and, he hoped, his last season with the Class B Sun Sox. If he pitched anywhere as well as he had in '49, the Dodgers would have to promote him. He did not dare dream aloud, but he could almost smell the pizza baking in Brooklyn.

Opposing batters smelled only failure. Lopez tore through the Florida International League that season, winning twenty games and losing only six. Most impressive, however, was the manner in which he finished the campaign, pitching five successive shutouts, including three in the league playoffs to give Miami the championship. "I set two league records that year," beams Lopez, "17 consecutive victories and 46 scoreless innings in a row." The last two shutouts came against the Havana Cubans, perennial contenders and a team that, in the opinion of many, was only a notch below major-league caliber. To this day, it would be hard to name a pitcher who ever had a better two-year stretch for a professional team in Miami.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had lost the 1950 National League pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies by only two games, and who had only two reliable starting pitchers in their rotation, took note. That winter, a month and a half into the Cuban League season, they notified Lopez that they wanted to see him pitch a particular Sunday game, against Cienfuegos and another ascending star in the Dodgers system, Joe Black. "[Black and I] were both supposed to go to Dodger training camp the following spring," remembers Lopez.

It had been a meteoric rise. Less than three years earlier, he had pitched Central Hershey to a Cuban Amateur League title. Now Lopez appeared to be on the brink of the major leagues, only a few months away from possibly joining countrymen like Conrado Marrero and Julio Moreno in the Show.

Almendares and Cienfuegos met on December 17 at the Gran Stadium. Both Lopez and Black, a powerfully built, African-American fireballer, pitched as if the future depended on it, because theirs did. Inning after inning, they matched each other, hurling brilliantly, forcing the opposition to scratch for runs, allowing one, then two, but no more. "I pitched ten innings," says Lopez, with a mixture of pride and regret, "and left the game in a 2-2 tie." He had also, he realized, thrown his arm out in the process. Brooklyn would have to wait. (Joe Black would join the Dodgers the following year, in 1952, winning fifteen games and leading Brooklyn to the World Series.)

In the spring of 1951, Lopez, now 24 years old, reported to Fort Worth, the Dodger affiliate in the Class AA Texas League. It was a promotion, but not the one he'd wanted. Texas was not nearly as hospitable as Miami, where at least some Cubans resided. "All I knew how to say in English were baseball phrases and how to ask for food," remembers Lopez, who, truth be told, never learned to say much more than that.

Early in the year, the Cuban pitcher thought his arm had healed completely. "I beat Dallas 6-0, then I beat San Antonio 8-0," he recalls, pulling box scores from his memory. "I had my velocity back. Everything was working." Until a game against Oklahoma City. "I was winning by something like 4-0 or 5-0 in the fourth inning and then, all of a sudden, I couldn't reach home plate with my pitches." He shakes his head. "They had to take me out of the game. I didn't even qualify for the victory." He hadn't gone enough innings.

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I grew up across the street from this park and Vicente was the only good thing that park had going for it. They need to build a monument for that man he was a saint.

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