Al Luplow, RIP: Catch as catch can

Luplow holding aloft the ball he caught with a flying leap over the Fenway Park right center field fence in 1963.

Luplow holding aloft the ball he caught with a flying leap over the Fenway Park right center field fence in 1963.

Al Luplow spent only two out of seven major league seasons as a regular player, with the 1964 Indians and the 1966 Mets. But the greatest moment of his career was a) when he was a non-regular; and, b) when a mere 6,000+ fans sait in Fenway Park to see it happen.

Luplow, who died 28 December at 78 in Saginaw, Michigan, was inserted as a defensive replacement for the Indians on 27 June 1963, in the final game of a set the Red Sox were trying to sweep. Lu Clinton and Dick (Dr. Strangeglove) Stuart singled with one out in the bottom of the eighth against righthander Ted Abernathy, the tall submariner who normally threw sinking pitches and who was normally a pain in the rump roast to righthanded hitters.

The next Red Sox hitter was Dick Williams, who’d manage the 1967 edition to within one game of winning a World Series, but who was a utility man nearing the end of his career.

“[T]hat day,” Abernathy would remember two decades later, “I made a mistake to Williams and got the pitch up above the waist, and he hit it good.” Meaning, Williams caught hold of it and drove it to the back of right center field with three-run homer written all over it.

Luplow was an undistinguished player and would remain thus for what remained of his career, but those who saw him play remember a guy who played as hard-nosed as the day was long, including Williams. “Al used to play hell-bent for election,” Williams told Sports Illustrated, while he was the Padres’ manager in 1985. “He was a hustler. He’d run through a brick wall to make a play.”

Luplow shot toward the five-foot-high right center field fence, in front of the Fenway bullpens, and drew a bead on Williams’s drive. When he reached the ball, he took a leap and backhanded it just over the fence, flying with the ball behind the fence and into the bullpen—just the way Torii Hunter would, half a century later, trying but not quite catching David Ortiz’s grand slam in Game Two of an American League Championship Series.

Luplow almost landed more dangerously than Hunter would.

“After I caught the ball, I said, ‘Uh oh!’ If I’d kept going face first, I would have really hurt myself,” he remembered. “I think my football background helped me because I tucked my left shoulder and rolled, and fortunately all I did was spike myself on the right knee.”

The outfielder who looked otherwise like he might have been your friendly neighbourhood tavern bartender was out of sight of most people in the park for several moments. Then, almost like toast at the breakfast table, he popped up with his glove in the air showing the ball he’d caught so improbably.

So improbable, in fact, that the Red Sox protested the out call on the grounds that Luplow was past the fence when he caught the ball, but the umpires ruled, no, sir, that catch was an out according to the rules, since Luplow’s feet were still on the fair side of the fence when his glove snapped around the ball.

“”I was between 50 and 60 feet away,” remembered that day’s first base umpire Joe Paparella, who’d run up the line as Luplow took off for the ball. “Luplow’s feet were still in the playing territory when he caught the ball. He had possession of the ball after he fell into the bullpen, and he came back up with it. It was an out. There was no question about it.”

Luplow was a Met for 1966 . . .

Luplow was a Met for 1966 . . .

“I held up the ball,” Luplow remembered, “and the centerfielder, Willie Kirkland, reached over the fence and grabbed it from me to see if we could double somebody off. I sure wouldn’t ever do it again. I could have easily broken my neck. I must have put those guys in the bullpen in shock.”

One of those bullpen guys was Red Sox reliever Chet Nichols. “We all grabbed our gloves,” Nichols would remember, “because we figured we were going to get the ball. We were standing there waiting for it. It never occurred to us that Luplow was going to make the play. It was a fantastic catch, and seeing it from the bullpen end made it even greater.”

Red Sox manager Johnny Pesky was likewise staggered and said as much to his bullpen coach, Al Lakeman. “”I said to Lakeman, ‘Why didn’t you throw a ball up in the air? Paparella couldn’t see you, and he might have called it a home run.’ Lakeman said, ‘To tell you the truth, I didn’t think of it. We were so enthralled with the catch, we all froze’.”

“If Willie Mays or Jimmy Piersall had made that catch,” Stuart told reporters after the game, “it would go down as the greatest in history. But Al Luplow made the catch and who is Al Luplow? Just another ballplayer.”

Luplow played a few more seasons, become a regular for only the second time with the 1966 Mets, was dealt to the Pirates during 1967 and decided to call it a career after that season. The fellow who looked like a friendly tavern owner actually became one in Saginaw, Michigan.

“Every once in a while,” he said years later, “I’ll get a card, and someone will mention it—kids, you know, who’ve heard their dads talk about it. It’s nice to know they remember.”

A great-nephew whom he never got to meet, Jordan Luplow, who grew up in California, is a prospect in the Pirates’ system. The younger Luplow is considered a solid hitting prospect, more than his great-uncle had been. Whether he flies over a wall catching a ball remains to be seen. But it’s all in the family.

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