The Obit For Art Lopatka

Big-league pitcher's career shattered by a batted ball

The Chicago Sun-Times

March 16, 2007

BY LARRY FINLEY Staff Reporter

Art Lopatka's promising career as a left-handed pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies ended in April 1946 when rookie Del Ennis hit a sizzler back at the mound, striking Lopatka on his throwing hand.
Mr. Lopatka switched sports and landed a job in 1949 as the business manager for the Chicago Hornets, the local franchise in the All-American Football Conference -- which ceased to exist later that year. Mr. Lopatka then left sports and went on to a long career in sales management, which included the introduction of Velcro and glassless mirrors.

Arthur J. Lopatka Sr., of Elk Grove Village, died of congestive heart failure March 10 at the Alexian Brothers Medical Center in that suburb. He was 87.

Mr. Lopatka had three successful years with farm teams for the St. Louis Cardinals before making it to the majors in 1945. Five of his 12 victories for the Columbus Red Birds in 1944 were shutouts. The next year, he was 11-13 before being called up by the Cards.

His major league debut was Sept. 12, 1945, against the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was a double header, and the story goes that Mr. Lopatka wasn't supposed to pitch until the second game.

On game day, Cardinals manager Billy Southworth noticed the rookie had a bad case of jitters, Southworth told him, "Listen, kid, you're going to pitch the first game. You would be a nervous wreck by the time we start the second game." So he pitched a 3-2 victory.

'Never able to come back'
Mr. Lopatka was born in Chicago on May 28, 1919. He graduated from Austin High School in 1938, attended the University of Chicago on a baseball scholarship and was captain of the baseball team in 1941. He graduated in 1942 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.
He signed on with the Cardinals' organization in 1942 and played in their farm system in Downstate Decatur that year; in Lynchburg, Va., in 1943, and Columbus, Ohio, in 1944 and 1945.

After finishing 1945 at St. Louis, he was selected off waivers by the Philadelphia Phillies, where he was injured, according to his son Arthur J. Lopatka Jr.

"He was pitching batting practice, and he was hit by a line drive off the bat of Del Ennis," Arthur Lopatka Jr. said. "I guess they didn't provide the right medical service for the players because they weren't millionaires back then. The injury was on his pitching hand, so he was never able to come back."

Ennis went on to make the All-Star team that year. Mr. Lopatka was released by the Phillies in February 1948 and sued the team for $250,000 that August, charging he did not receive proper treatment for a broken finger. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

"Being traded to the Phillies gave him the opportunity to meet my mother, Irene Witomski,'' the son said. "She was a Philadelphia girl. She passed away 30 years ago."

In 1949, Mr. Lopatka was appointed business manager of the Hornets.

"The football position with the Hornets came through his connections," his son said.

"He knew a lot of people in the athletics business. And he had a degree from the University of Chicago."

'He wasn't bitter'
The Hornets started out as the Chicago Rockets from 1946 to 1948 in the All-American Football Conference. The 1949 Hornets had four wins and eight losses and was not one of the teams picked up when the AAFC merged with the National Football League in 1950. The Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Colts were merged with the NFL.
"He wasn't bitter about the team not being picked up by the NFL," said Mr. Lopatka's other son, Mark Lopatka. "It wasn't a bad experience for him. It just didn't pan out. But other teams did join the NFL as a result of what they tried to do."

Following his year in football, Mr. Lopatka began a career in management of various sales companies, including Velcro and a glassless mirror made from reflective plastic. He retired in the mid-1980s.

When Mr. Lopatka talked about his days in big-league baseball, he would fondly mention the time Joe DiMaggio bought him a drink after a game, or Ted Williams told him at practice, "'Hey, Leftie, I hope I never have to face you. You've got a good curveball,'" Mark Lopatka said.

Other survivors include Mr. Lopatka's wife, Annette; his daughter, Mara C. McDermott, five stepchildren and seven grandchildren.

Services were Wednesday, with burial in Queen of Heaven Cemetery, Hillside.