Band Of Brothers: The Alou’s
Upon arriving in the United States in the spring of 1956, without knowing a single person, ignorant of the native language, customs, and food, and unaware of racism, Felipe Alou was armed with nothing but his mind, courage, determination and talent. No Dominican had ever played in the major leagues, and there were as yet only a handful of dark-skinned Latinos playing in the US. Over the course of the next five decades, Alou would become and remain one of the most respected figures in baseball, an All-Star player, a team leader, and a successful manager. While he was admired throughout baseball, among his fellow Dominicans, who would soon be plentiful, he was a revered hero.
"Felipe was really the first," remembered Manny Mota, "the guy who cleared the way. He was an inspiration to everybody [in the Dominican Republic]. He was a good example.” Juan Marichal, like Mota a fellow Dominican, agreed. "Everybody respects Felipe Alou," he recalled. "He was the leader of most of the Latin players." Willie Mays, a teammate of all of these players, remembered, "It was like a family when they came over." These men helped define the baseball of their time, and Alou was both a leader and a friend to many of them.
Felipe Rojas Alou was born on May 12, 1935 in Bajos de Haina, San Cristóbal, on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic, a few miles from Santo Domingo. (His nickname at home is El Panqué [Sweet Bread] de Haina.) The first child born to José Rojas and Virginia Alou, he was followed by María, Mateo, Jesús, Juan and Virginia. José also had two children with a previous wife who had died young. Though José was dark-skinned and Virginia (descending from Spaniards) was white, Felipe did not give this much thought—race was not a big issue in his country.
José Rojas was a carpenter and blacksmith who built their small four-room house, and many of the other houses in the vicinity. The Rojas family had very little money, as they were often at the mercy of their neighbors’ ability to pay their bills. World War II brought further hardship, causing José to turn to fishing to feed his family. Although they did not always have food, their well-built home afforded them shelter that not everyone in their neighborhood had. Felipe swam in the nearby ocean, and was an avid fisherman—a hobby he kept up the rest of his life.
In keeping with the Latin custom, this man is known in full as Felipe Rojas Alou, with each parent contributing half of the double surname. The paternal half is normally used in everyday life, and in the Dominican people know Felipe, Mateo, and Jesús as the Rojas brothers. During Felipe’s time in the American minor leagues he began to be called (incorrectly) Felipe Alou, rhyming (again incorrectly) with "lew" rather than "low." However, he did not feel empowered enough to correct the error. Two of his brothers, Mateo and Jesús, followed him to American baseball and also, because of the error with Felipe, assumed the surname Alou during their Stateside careers. Similarly, three of Felipe’s sons played professionally, one becoming a star, and all of them used the name Alou even though it was not a part of their name at all (it being their grandmother’s maiden name, not their mother’s). For convenience, this biography will refer to the subject by the name most readers are familiar with: Felipe Alou.
Alou spent six years in local schools and went to high school in Santo Domingo, a 12-mile trip he often made on foot. He also worked on his uncle’s farm and helped his father with his carpentry business. An excellent student, he became a member of the Dominican national track team, running sprints and throwing the discus and javelin. As a senior in high school, he participated in the 1954 Central-American Games in Mexico City. Though track kept him from playing high school baseball, he did play and star for local amateur teams.
In 1954 Alou entered the University of Santo Domingo in its pre-med program, part of his parents’ dream that he become a doctor. Alou batted cleanup for the team that won the 1955 collegiate championship. He returned to Mexico City for the Pan-American Games, intending to run sprints and throw the javelin, but at the last minute was removed from the track team and placed on the baseball team. He got four hits in the final game against the United States as the Dominican Republic won the gold medal.
After the tournament Alou received many offers from the major leagues, which at first he had no intention of taking. His resolution lasted until his father and uncle both lost their jobs. As it happened, his university coach, Horacio Martínez, doubled as a bird dog scout for the New York Giants. "Rabbit" Martínez had played shortstop for Alex Pómpez, owner of the New York Cubans, and later a Giants scout. Alou signed in November 1955 for $200, which paid off his parents’ grocery bill. More importantly, he had a job. Despite his parents’ mixed feelings, "we needed somebody to start contributing some earnings to the house."
Alou began his professional career in Lake Charles, Louisiana, helping to integrate the Evangeline League. Soon after he arrived, the league voted to expel Lake Charles and Lafayette (the two clubs that had black players).
Instead, the blacks were shifted to other teams in other leagues; Alou, having just arrived in the United States, rode a bus to Cocoa, Florida to play in the Florida State League. Desperately homesick, and stung by racism for the first time in his life, he pulled it together enough to hit a league-leading .380 with 21 home runs. On September 23, far away in New York, Ozzie Virgil made his debut with the Giants, becoming the first Dominican native to play in the major leagues. (Because Virgil had gone to high school in New York city, his path to the majors was different than Alou’s.)
Alou began 1957 at Triple-A Minneapolis, but his .211 average in 24 games led to a demotion to Springfield, Massachusetts, where he recovered with a .306 average and 12 home runs. It could have been better—Alou was hitting over .380 in mid-season before injuring his right leg on a slide into home plate; he hobbled the rest of the year. Nonetheless, his season earned him an invitation to major league camp in 1958 and a raise to $750 a month. Alou spent very little of it—he kept enough to live on and sent the rest home to his family. During the offseason, the New York Giants moved to San Francisco, and their top minor-league affiliate was now in Phoenix, where Alou was ultimately assigned. Batting lead off for the first time, he hit .319 with 13 home runs in just 55 games before the Giants brought him to the big leagues.
On June 8 Alou became the second Dominican major leaguer, playing right field and leading off at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium. He singled and doubled off Cincinnati’s Brooks Lawrence in his first two at-bats, and, three days later, got his first home run off Pittsburgh’s Vernon Law. After a hot start that kept him over .300 for a month, he cooled down in July and finished at .253 with 4 home runs in 182 at-bats.
In his first few years Alou could never quite establish himself as a regular player, hampered mostly by the competition on his own team. Beginning in about 1958, a large wave of young players, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, arrived with the Giants. In just this single season, the Giants debuted Alou, Orlando Cepeda, Willie Kirkland, and Leon Wagner. Bill White had a fine rookie year in 1956, went into the Army, came back in late 1958 and had no place to play. Felipe Alou competed with all these guys, along with several others on their way; Willie McCovey and José Pagán joined the club in 1959.
Most of these players were outfielders and first basemen. Alou had the advantage of being athletic enough to play center field, but with the peerless Willie Mays on hand, that skill did not help Alou get on the field. He played as a fourth outfielder in 1959, but with McCovey hitting .372 with 29 home runs for Phoenix in late July, the Giants wanted to bring McCovey up and send Alou back down. With just a year’s seniority under his belt, the 24-year-old told the Giants he would not go back to the minors. His wife was going through a difficult pregnancy, and Alou did not believe the move to Phoenix and the return to San Francisco in September would help. Instead, he told Giants manager Bill Rigney that they would go home. The Alous checked out of their apartment and booked flights to Santo Domingo. The Giants backed down, and instead made room for McCovey by making Hank Sauer a coach.
Still, the addition of McCovey meant that either he or Orlando Cepeda had to play the outfield, and, with Willie Mays out there already, that left just one spot for Alou and several other qualified players to fight for. Over the 1959 and 1960 seasons combined, Alou hit .269 with 18 home runs in 569 at bats. In 1961, under new manager Al Dark, Alou played most of the time, got 447 at-bats, and responded with 18 home runs and a .289 average.
While Alou’s star was rising in his profession, something else became even more central to his life. "The day I joined the Giants in San Francisco was one of the most important days of my life," recalled Alou. "That was the day my new teammate Al Worthington introduced me to Jesús Christ." Alou had often read the Bible in the minor leagues because he had a Spanish-language version and it became his only reading material. But because of Worthington, and later Lindy McDaniel ("who baptized me into the new faith"), Alou became one of the more devout Christians in baseball. His devotion caused some discomfort within his own family, but they remained very close.
Felipe’s brother Mateo, generally called Matty in the States, signed with the Giants before the 1957 season and began to work his way up through the minors. He debuted in late 1960, and reached the majors full time in 1961, hitting .310 in 200 at-bats. Although his presence was great for Felipe personally, Matty also was another outfielder—by September, Dark was platooning the two Alous in right field. Meanwhile, 19-year-old brother Jesús, yet another outfielder, was hitting .336 for a Giants affiliate in the Northwest League.
Felipe finally broke through as a full-time player in 1962, winning the right field job outright and keeping it all season. In 605 at-bats, Alou hit .316 with 25 home runs. He was selected to the NL All-Star team in July, coming in for Roberto Clemente and hitting a sacrifice fly in his only plate appearance. More importantly, the Giants won the NL pennant, overcoming a four-game deficit with seven games to go to tie the Dodgers, then winning a three-game pennant playoff. In the playoff series, Alou was 4-for-12 with two doubles.
The 1962 World Series was a classic seven-game affair pitting the Giants and the New York Yankees. Alou played every inning in right field, and managed 7 hits in 29 at-bats. But he has never forgotten his last chance, in the ninth inning of the final game, with the Giants trailing 1-0. Matty led off with a bunt single, and Felipe tried to sacrifice him to second base. "I was asked to bunt, and I bunted poorly and the ball went foul. Then, with the infield charging for the bunt, I swung at a bad pitch and fouled it off for strike two. Then I struck out."
"That was the lowest point of my career. This is something I am going to die with because I failed in that situation.” Alou was not often asked to bunt, but he did not blame Dark. He believed, then and later, that he should have been practicing bunting in case he was asked. Years later, as a manager, he obsessed over his clubs being capable of bunting. After another out, Willie Mays doubled Matty to third, but they were both stranded when McCovey lined out to second base, ending the game and Series.
The Giants fell back to third place in 1963, though Alou had another fine season—20 home runs and a .281 batting average. The highlight of the year came in September when his brother Jesús was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma to join Felipe and Matty. Late in the game on September 15, Jesús and Matty replaced Mays and McCovey, creating an all-Alou outfield. The brothers repeated this two more times that month, and appeared in the box score together a few other times. This feat has never been repeated in the regular season, and Felipe has a theory as to why. "Because people don’t want to have children," he reasoned. The odds of three boys, all ballplayers, all on the same team, are quite remote.
Meanwhile, in 1963 Alou found himself embroiled in some politics with the baseball establishment. Throughout his professional career, Felipe returned home every October and played baseball in the Dominican Winter League. On his way up to the majors, he won back-to-back batting titles in 1958-59 and 1959-60. A growing list of fellow major leaguers joined Alou, including his brothers, Manny Mota, Juan Marichal, and more. The Alous and Marichal usually played for Leones del Escogido in Santo Domingo, which won five of six championships beginning with the 1955-56 season. In 1956, Escogido club president Paco Martínez Alba -- brother-in-law of Rafael Trujillo, the long-time Dominican strongman -- formed a working agreement with the Giants.
Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, leaving the country in the hands of the military. The Winter League season was shortened in 1961-62, and cancelled outright in 1962-63. The Dominican government arranged a series of games with a touring team of Cuban players who were living in the US (exiled from their own country, and their own winter league). Among those who participated were Felipe Alou and Juan Marichal. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick, deeming these games "unauthorized," fined the players $250 each.
Many of the Dominican players were upset, but it was Alou who went public. In the spring of 1963, Alou suggested that Latin players have a representative in the commissioner’s office, someone who understood Latin culture and politics, and could explain their unique set of problems. "They do not understand," Alou said, "that these are our people and we owe it to them to play for them." In December 1965, Commissioner William Eckert hired Bobby Maduro to fill exactly this position.
Alou expanded on his people’s grievances in a courageous first-person account in Sport (as told to Arnold Hano) that fall. "When the military junta ‘asked’ you to do something, you did it. If I had not played, I would have been called a Communist." Most Latin players came from very impoverished circumstances, and earning the extra money in the off-season (there were no other jobs available) helped feed huge extended families. In the US, the players were often isolated from their teammates by language, and often criticized or even disciplined for speaking Spanish amongst themselves. Alou was very complimentary of the United States, calling it a "wonderful country," but left no doubt where his heart lay. "I am a Dominican. It is my country. And I love it." Alou pulled no punches, criticizing Frick and also Alvin Dark, his own manager. In the words of writer Rob Ruck, "Nobody had ever spoken so eloquently or forcefully about Latin ballplayers, much less prescribed how baseball could and should address their unique concerns."
In early December, not long after the article in Sport appeared, the Giants traded Alou to the Milwaukee Braves as part of a seven-player trade. Whether the deal was related to Alou’s outspokenness is unclear, but his Latino teammates, including Cepeda, Marichal, and Pagán, were devastated. "I think that was one of the biggest mistakes the Giants ever made," said Marichal decades later. The Giants did have a surplus of outfielders, and needed the pitching they acquired. Jesús Alou, who many thought would surpass both his brothers, was anointed as the new Giants right fielder.
Alou spent the next six years with the Braves. Before reporting in 1964 he had injured his knee playing in the Dominican Winter League. He played through it, knowing that the Braves needed him to play center field, but he got off to a slow start hitting and fielding. In June manager Bobby Bragan (faced with an outfield surplus with the sudden emergence of Rico Carty, a rookie Dominican) asked Alou to play first base, and a few games later he tore cartilage in his knee reaching for a ground ball. He missed a month of action, and hit just .253 with nine home runs on the season. In 1965 he recovered nicely, alternating between first base and the outfield, hitting .297 with 23 home runs.
In 1966 the Braves moved to Atlanta, and Alou responded to the hot climate with his best season. Again playing first base and all three outfield positions, Alou hit .327 with 31 home runs, leading the NL with 218 hits, 122 runs scored, and 355 total bases. He lost out on the league batting title to his brother Matty (.342), who had been traded to Pittsburgh and was capitalizing on his first chance at regular playing time. Felipe returned to the All-Star Game, though he did not see any action.
The Atlanta writers named Alou the team MVP, and some of his teammates were in awe. "I’ve never seen anyone stand out head and shoulders the way Felipe did," said catcher Joe Torre. "I’ve never seen anyone hit so consistently well all season long," added Henry Aaron. Alou parried such talk: "If a team isn’t going right, what can one man do to help? I think this stuff about leading a team, I wonder if that is really possible." But it was not just his ballplaying. Gene Oliver, a white teammate who lost his first base job to Alou, said, "He is the kind of man you hope your kid will grow up to be."
Alou struggled in 1967, suffering from bone chips in his elbow and falling to .274 with just 15 home runs. He recovered to hit .317 in 1968 (a year that saw league averages plummet to .243), playing in the All-Star game again. His batting average was third highest in the league, and he tied Pete Rose for the lead with 210 hits. After three years of moving around the diamond, Alou played 156 times in center field under new manager Lum Harris.
Alou got off to a great start in 1969, hitting well over .300 through May. On June 2 he broke a finger and missed two weeks after he was hit by a pitch thrown by the Cardinals’ Chuck Taylor. During his absence the Braves acquired Tony González from San Diego, and when Alou returned the two platooned in center field. During the Braves’ successful drive for the division title, and the subsequent playoff loss to the Mets, Alou got little playing time. For the season he hit just .282 with five home runs. With an outfield surplus, Atlanta dealt the 34-year-old to Oakland for pitcher Jim Nash over the winter.
No longer a star player, in 1970 Alou was the elder statesman on a young A’s team filled with up and coming stars. He hit .271 in 154 games. Just a few days into the 1971 season, Oakland dealt Alou to the Yankees for two young pitchers, making room for Joe Rudi in left field. Alou played most of the next three years in New York, hitting .289, .278 and finally .236, moving between the outfield and first base all three seasons. He played 19 games for Montreal in September 1973, and got three at bats for Milwaukee the next April before drawing his final release. Felipe was sad, saying he would "have to get used to the life of a man who can’t play baseball."
Alou joined the Montreal Expos organization as an instructor in 1976, but suffered the tragedy of his life in 1976 when his oldest boy, Felipe Jr., an aspiring ballplayer, jumped into a shallow pool and drowned. Alou was so broken up he did not work at all that season, and could not talk about the tragedy for many years. He rejoined the Expos the next year, and spent the next seventeen years as a minor league manager (with a few stints as a major league coach). In the minors, he piloted West Palm Beach, Memphis, Denver, Wichita, and Indianapolis, earning a reputation as a serious and respected teacher of young players. He apparently was offered the job in 1985 to manage the San Francisco Giants but turned it down out of loyalty to the Expos.
In the winter months, Felipe transitioned from player to manager of his longtime team, the Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Republic. Alou managed the club to four league championships (1980-81, 1981-82; 1989-90, 1991-92). Previously, he had also won two Venezuelan titles as skipper of the Caracas Leones (1977-78, 1979-80). In the mid-1980s, he managed Caguas in the Puerto Rican Winter League as well.
The genuinely devoted Alou, who did not drink or smoke or socialize much, has been married four times and has fathered eleven children. As a young man he married María Beltré, from his hometown, and the couple had four children: Felipe Jr., María, José and Moisés. He and Beverley Martin, from Atlanta, had three girls: Christia, Cheri, and Jennifer. His third wife was Elsa Brens, from the Dominican, and the couple had Felipe José and Luis Emilio. In 1985, he married Lucie Gagnon, a French-Canadian, and had two more children, Valerie and Felipe Jr.
"People ask how a man who likes to be home with his family gets married four times," Alou said in 1995. "All the evils that go on in life, the evils of the life of a traveling ballplayer, I wasn’t immune to that. But I loved all my wives and children. … I’ve been a lucky man. I had two children in my 50’s, and God gave us other Felipes." Among his children, José and Felipe José became minor league players, and Moisés made it to the Majors.
In 1986 Alou returned to manage at Single-A West Palm Beach, and remained there for six years, an eternity for a minor-league manager. In 1992 he returned to the major leagues as the bench coach for manager Tom Runnells. After a sluggish start (17-20), general manager Dan Duquette fired Runnells and hired Alou to finish the season. The young team responded with a 70-55 record to finish a strong second to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 57-year-old Alou’s job was secure. "The biggest mistake I’ve made in my career," said Duquette, "was not recognizing his ability then to be a terrific major league manager. He’s one of the best in the game." He was the first of his countrymen to manage a big-league team.
Alou took over a Montreal club filled with young talent, including Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Delino DeShields and Wil Cordero. One of the team’s best relief pitchers was Mel Rojas, who was Felipe’s nephew (the son of his half-brother). The team’s left fielder was 25-year-old Moisés Alou, Felipe’s son. Moisés had not grown up with Felipe (his parents had divorced when Moisés was two), but they talked frequently and saw each other occasionally over the winter months. "I was the happiest kid in the world," Moisés recalled. "He was the most famous player, maybe the most famous person, on the island, and he was my father." Alou was a good young player who developed rapidly under his father’s tutelage, turning into a six-time All-Star and one of the better hitters in the National League.
The Expos finished 94-68 in 1993, just three games behind the first-place Phillies. Over the off-season, Duquette traded second baseman DeShields to Los Angeles for 21-year-old pitcher Pedro Martínez, a Dominican who joined Ken Hill and Jeff Fassero to give Alou one of the league’s best starting staffs. The fortified club soared to the best record in baseball in 1994, a great team that could hit, field, run and pitch. Unfortunately for Alou and his team, the season was ended in early August by a player’s strike, and the club was not able to continue its quest for a championship. The club’s 74-40 pace, if maintained over the full schedule, would have yielded 105 wins, the most since the 1986 Mets. Alou was named the National League Manager of the Year.
Compounding the tragedy, the team’s ownership was not willing to spend the necessary money to keep the team intact. Before the 1995 season got underway, the Expos had lost Walker, Grissom, Hill, and John Wetteland. Alou’s club fell all the way to last place in 1995, before clawing their way back to 88 wins and second place in 1996. But soon Cordero and Fassero departed, followed by Moisés Alou and Pedro Martínez. As the club continued to develop good players (Vladimir Guerrero, Rondell White, Orlando Cabrera, and Javier Vázquez arrived in the late 1990s), the club’s five straight fourth-place finishes did not harm Alou’s reputation as a manager. It was understood that Alou was doing a fine job with his youngsters, but that the team was not willing to keep them once they attained the seniority that allowed them to earn big money. After another mediocre start in 2001 (21-32), Alou finally was released as manager after nine years.
He spent 2002 as the bench coach for the Tigers (working under Luis Pujols, who had been Alou’s bench coach in Montreal). After the 2002 season Alou returned to San Francisco to manage the Giants. Under Dusty Baker, the club had reached the World Series in 2002, but after the season Baker left the club in a contract dispute, joining the Chicago Cubs. The 67-year-old Alou took over.
The Giants’ team and personality was dominated by the late-career Barry Bonds, who had set the single-season home record in 2001 and whose days were now filled with home runs, bases on balls and (ever increasingly) steroid allegations. Alou’s first club won 100 games, an improvement on the World Series team that had won 95 and the NL wild card. Unfortunately, the 2003 club was upset in playoffs by the young Florida Marlins. Bonds missed 30 games but managed to hit .341 with 45 home runs and 148 walks. The next season Bonds walked a record 232 times and won the batting title, but the club fell to 91 wins, and then to 75 wins in 2005 with Bonds hurt. Moisés Alou rejoined his father in 2005, and had two pretty good seasons with the Giants. After the 2006 season, the 71-year-old Felipe Alou was released from his job as manager.
Alou remained a beloved figure in San Francisco, and was offered a job as a special assistant to general manager Brian Sabean. "I am truly overjoyed to have Felipe remain with the Giants organization," said Sabean. "As he was during his four years as our manager, Felipe will continue to be a huge asset to the ballclub going forward." Alou has worked as a major-league scout, and minor-league instructor, helping Sabean on player evaluation. In 2010 Alou received his first championship ring after the Giants defeated the Rangers in the World Series.
In 2012 he was beginning his sixth season in this position, 57 years after signing his first contract with the Giants. He had begun his career as a stranger in a strange land, but had become one of baseball’s most respected men. A three-time All-Star turned into an award-winning manager, who helped many of the game’s greatest stars as they began their careers. But he remains most famous as the eldest in one of baseball’s greatest families, the brother and father to fellow All-Stars. Very few men have left a greater mark on baseball than Felipe Rojas Alou.
This article was written by Mark Armour
Most famous today for being the second of three baseball-playing brothers, Mateo Alou was part of the first wave of Dominicans who helped change the very culture of American baseball in the 1960s. After years of sporadic playing time, often competing with his brothers, he finally left them and became a batting champion, and one of baseball’s unique and interesting stars.
Mateo Rojas Alou was born on December 22, 1938, in Bajos de Haina, San Cristóbal, not far from Santo Domingo on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. His father, José Rojas, was a carpenter and blacksmith who built the family home and many of the others in the neighborhood. Rojas fathered two children with his first wife, who died young, then six more with Virginia Alou. Mateo was her second of four boys. Virginia was white, though Mateo and his siblings did not think of themselves as belonging to any race — they were Dominicans. They were also poor, as José’s income was dependent on the local economy and the ability of his customers to pay him. The Rojas family had a house, but they did not always have food.
The subject is known in his home country as Mateo Rojas Alou, informally Mateo Rojas, and he and his brothers are known as the Rojas brothers. Early in Felipe’s minor-league days he began to be called Felipe Alou (also mispronounced “Al-oo” instead of “Al-oh”), and the mistake was never corrected. The brothers Felipe, Mateo and Jesús are therefore all known in the US as Alou, and Mateo was often Anglicized to Matty in the States. For this article, the subject will be referred to as Mateo or Matty Alou.
Mateo later said that his father played baseball as a boy until he saw a friend die after being struck by a ball, though Felipe did not remember this. “I can say for sure my father never threw a ball to me,” Felipe recalled. The boys spent hours in the nearby ocean fishing for grouper or snapper, helping out their father in his shop, or playing ball in their yard. Their ball was often a coconut husk or half a rubber ball, their bat a tree limb, and their gloves made from strips of canvas. Unlike Felipe, who planned to be a doctor and spent a year in college, Mateo left school after eighth grade and hoped to become a sailor. In the meantime he caddied at the Santo Domingo Golf Club and played more baseball.
In 1956 the 17-year-old Mateo Alou played for Aviación Militar, the Dominican Air Force team, sponsored by General Ramfis Trujillo, the son of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Alou’s teammates included future major-league teammates Juan Marichal and Manny Mota. Although they were all members of the Air Force, they were mainly ballplayers recruited because the younger Trujillo wanted to field the best baseball team in the Caribbean. “We were soldiers,” laughed Mota. “The only thing, we have no guns.” It was still serious business — when the team lost a double-header in Manzanillo, the General launched an investigation, and accused the players of drinking (a charge Marichal denies). The entire team was put in jail for five days.
In late 1955 Felipe had signed a baseball contract with Horacio Martínez, a former Negro Leaguer who worked as a bird dog for the New York Giants scout Alejandro Pómpez. With the considerable help of Pómpez and Martínez, the Giants got a jump on the rest of baseball in the Caribbean, especially the fertile Dominican Republic, inking Marichal, Mota, and eventually all three Alou brothers. Mateo signed in the winter of 1956-57, at the age of 18.
Unlikely many blacks and Latinos of the era, Mateo Alou spent the bulk of his minor league days outside of the deep South. But even in Michigan City, Indiana, where he began his career in 1957, he and Manny Mota were turned away from a restaurant because of their skin color. During spring training in Florida one year, Mota and Alou were placed in a police lineup because a white woman said a black ballplayer had molested her. The Dominicans had not encountered much racism in their own country, but in the US they had to do so while also not understanding the language. “The ballplayers always treat us good,” Alou recalled. “The only trouble we had was in the streets, the restaurants, the hotels, all those things. We used to cry but we didn’t fight.”
Alou hit just .247 for Michigan City in full-time play in 1957. He then played winter ball at home in the Dominican League for the first time. Promoted to St. Cloud of the Northern League in 1958, he recovered to hit .321 for the first-place club and made the postseason All-Star team as an outfielder. For 1959 he reached Single-A Springfield, Massachusetts, playing with several future major leaguers, including Mota, Marichal, and Tom Haller. Springfield won the Eastern League championship, with Alou contributing a .288 average and 11 home runs to the cause.
Unlike older brother Felipe, who grew to a chiseled 6-feet and 200 pounds, or his younger brother Jesús, who was even taller, Mateo was later listed officially at 5-9 and 160 pounds as a major leaguer (though he was likely shorter and lighter, especially in the minors). Unlike his brothers, he was left-handed, and got a lot of bunt singles and infield hits. “Nobody taught me how to play ball, nobody taught me how to hit,” Alou recalled. “ But I practiced, I had good reflexes, was quick moving. Good eyes. And it came natural.”
Alou spent the 1960 season with the Tacoma Giants of the Pacific Coast League. This was another good club filled with future major-league players, and Alou hit .306 with 14 home runs as the center fielder. In September he earned a callup to San Francisco, and appeared in four games at the end of the year. In his first big league at-bat, he singled off the Dodgers’ Larry Sherry.
Alou’s rise to stardom was slow and sometimes frustrating, and he believed he was not given the opportunities he deserved. In truth, he faced some pretty stiff competition, including Willie Mays in center field (Alou’s best position) and his brother Felipe in right field. In 1961 Alou made the club and played parts of 81 games in the outfield or as a pinch-hitter, batting .310 with six home runs in 200 at-bats. He was just 23 years old and behind a few other players on his team, but after the season farm director Carl Hubbell suggested he would not trade Matty Alou for the Dodgers stars Willie Davis and Tommy Davis.
The next season he played the same role, batting .292 in 195 at-bats, and had a big part in the National League pennant chase. In the last seven games of the regular season, he played six complete games, and hit 14-for-27 (.510). In the decisive game of the three-game playoff series with the Dodgers, with the Giants trailing 4-2 in the ninth inning, Alou led off with a pinch-hit single that launched the game-winning rally. He played in six of the seven World Series games, getting four hits in 12 at-bats. In the ninth inning of the final game, with the Giants down 1-0 to the Yankees, Alou led off with a pinch-hit bunt single, advanced to third base on Willie Mays’ two-out double, but was stranded there when Willie McCovey lined out. There was talk over that winter that third-base coach Whitey Lockman should not have held Alou at third on Mays’ hit, but most observers, including Alou himself, felt that he would have been out easily at home plate.
Alou’s transition to the big leagues was aided immeasurably by the presence of so many other Latino players on the Giants. Besides his brother Felipe, his teammates included Dominicans Marichal and Mota and Puerto Ricans José Pagánand Orlando Cepeda, all of whom were very close. When he first arrived in San Francisco Mateo and Marichal lived in the home of an older woman named Blanche Johnson, who taught them to speak English, and cooked both American and Dominican food for them.
On October 24, 1962, Mateo married María Teresa Vásquez in the Dominican Republic. During the 1963 season he, Felipe, Marichal, and their three wives lived together in a house in San Francisco. “We got along very, very well together,” recalled Marichal. “Felipe is the godfather of my oldest daughter, Rosie, and I am the godfather of a daughter of his. And Mateo is the godfather of my second girl, Elsie, while I’m the godfather of his daughter [Teresa]. That is a serious obligation for a Dominican, to be a godfather.” The couples spent a lot of time together away from the park. Mateo, the former caddy, taught the others to play golf, while the wives helped each other make their way in a strange country. After the season, they all returned to their homeland for the winter baseball season.
In spring training of 1963, working hard in hopes of earning more playing time, Alou badly hurt his knee running to first base during an exhibition game in El Paso, Texas. He played through it, but struggled all summer long. Felipe, who often acted as the reserved Mateo’s spokesman with club management, urged the Giants to send his brother to a doctor. Instead, in early August, they sent him to Tacoma. He returned in September, but it was a lost year: 11 hits in 76 at-bats for a .145 batting average. The only good memory from the season came in September, when younger brother Jesús joined the Giants and helped form an all-Alou outfield late in the game on September 15. The three played in a same game a few other times, but their time as teammates was brief — after the season, Felipe was dealt to the Milwaukee Braves.
Heading into the 1964 season, Mateo had been passed by Jesús on the Giants depth chart. With Willie Mays and Willie McCovey in the outfield, and the veteran Harvey Kuenn still productive, Mateo returned to his fifth-outfielder/pinch-hitter role. Hitting just .219 on June 2, Alou was struck on the wrist by a pitch from Pittsburgh’s Bob Veale, breaking a bone, and spent five weeks home in the Dominican Republic. He hit better upon his return (.282), so well that he was used fairly regularly in September. He managed to get into 110 games, including 49 starts, and hit .264. For a man who had very little power and drew few walks, the batting average was too low for an outfielder even in the 1960s.
Even so, based on his strong second half, in 1965 new manager Herman Franks gave Alou a lot of playing time — but he did not hit. “’65 was my worst year in baseball,” recalled Alou, “because they gave me a chance and I didn’t do anything.” He hit just .231 in 324 at-bats. His most memorable game that season came on August 26 at Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field when he pitched the final two innings of an 8-0 loss. He allowed no runs and struck out three, including Willie Stargell twice. “I just threw him slow curve, slow curve,” Alou said. “And I know I would get him out again if I faced him.”
Despite his star turn on the mound, it came as no surprise when the Giants traded Alou to the Pirates on December 1, 1965. In later years the Giants were criticized for their handling of Alou, although they gave him 1,131 plate appearances and he had not contributed much since 1962. Alou welcomed the deal, later saying, “My brother didn’t tell me anything about Willie Mays. I just signed because I liked to play the game.”
Pittsburgh manager Harry Walker had coveted Alou, and had big plans for him. Walker spent many years as a hitting instructor in the game, usually trying to get everyone to choke up, and hit the ball down and to the opposite field, as Walker himself had done as a player. This approach backfired with many people, but Alou was his best and most famous success story. “The Hat” worked tirelessly with Alou, getting him to stop trying to pull the ball and instead hit nearly everything up the middle or to left field. To force this, he gave Alou a much bigger bat — 38 ounces — and asked him to stroke down on the ball and use his speed. As a pull hitter, Alou had held the bat low and swung with an uppercut. Walker had him hold the bat high and straight up, forcing him to swing downward on the ball. Walker set up a platoon in centerfield with Alou and old friend Manny Mota, giving the left-handed Alou most of the at-bats, and hit Alou in the leadoff position whenever he played.
Alou took to the new batting style extremely well. Bunting and slapping singles, Alou put up a league-leading .342 batting average, more than 100 points higher than his effort in 1965. Since Mota was also hitting very well, finishing at .332, the platoon in center field remained — Alou started 121 games, just twice against a left-handed starter, but managed 535 at-bats. Finishing second was Atlanta’s Felipe Alou at .327. Mateo still did not walk much or hit for power, but at a time when the league’s on-base percentage was .313, Alou’s .373 mark was eighth highest in the league, and tops among players who primarily hit leadoff for their teams.
Alou’s sudden fame raised a lot of questions about what had changed for him. He credited Walker’s tutelage, escaping San Francisco’s challenging Candlestick Park, and platooning with Mota, which allowed him plenty of rest. Late in the season, when it appeared that one of the Alous might win the batting title, Felipe allowed that he was rooting for his brother. “It would be a wonderful thing for Matty to win it,” said Felipe. “Wonderful for the Alous, and wonderful for baseball in the Dominican Republic. We always sort of took care of Matty because he was so small. Now look at him leading all of us in hitting!”
Alou’s next two years were nearly carbon copies of 1966. He continued to platoon with Mota, his roommate and best friend, and both men continued to hit. In 1967 Alou hit .338 (third in the league) in 550 at bats, starting just four times against left-handers, while Mota hit .321, also backing up the other outfield positions. (Walker could not easily play both of them — his left fielder was Willie Stargell, and his right fielder was Roberto Clemente.) The acquisition of Maury Wills moved Alou out of the leadoff spot in the order, and by 1968 he was often hitting third or fourth. In 1968 Alou hit .332, just three points behind Pete Rose for the batting title, in 598 at-bats. He also played in his first All-Star Game, legging out an infield single off Sam McDowell in his only at-bat.
After the 1968 season the Pirates lost Mota to the Montreal Expos in the expansion draft. Although Alou had faced lefties a bit more in 1968, the next year he became a full-time player for the first time in his career. Playing 162 games, he led the league in at-bats, hits (231), singles (183), and doubles (41), while hitting .331 at the top of the order. He played the entire All-Star Game in center field, garnering two hits and a walk in five appearances in the NL’s 9-3 win. The 30-year-old Alou, after hitting .330 or higher for four straight seasons, had become a full-fledged star and one of the more interesting players in the game. He was a leadoff hitter who did not walk much — just 42 times in 1969 — yet he was valuable because he was able to maintain his high batting average. His 698 at-bats set a new major-league record, since broken.
Although he faced occasional criticism for his defense, especially for being shy about crashing into fences, Alou had a strong and accurate throwing arm and often was among the league leaders in outfield assists, finishing first with 15 in 1970. “I play deep because this is a big park and the ball carries deep. I’m not fence shy. They said that in San Francisco. You know, sometimes everybody want you to be Willie Mays. Sometimes they say, ‘Why aren’t you like Willie Mays?’ Well, there is only one Willie Mays.”
In 1970 Alou slipped to .297, but still finished with 201 hits, fifth best in the league. The Pirates had been a good team for a few years but finally broke through and won the Eastern Division, and Alou finished 3-for-12 in the three-game loss to the Reds. During the offseason the Pirates, wanting to make room in center field for youngster Al Oliver, sent him to the Cardinals in a four-player deal. Thus, Alou missed out on the Pirates championship season of 1971. “I think of myself mostly as a Pirate,” Mateo said years later. “Because they gave me confidence. They treat me good, and I had the best years of my life there.”
Alou spent most of the next two seasons for the Cardinals and played well. He hit .315 in 1971, with 192 hits, playing center field for half the season and (after the recall of rookie José Cruz) mostly first base in the second half. In 1972 he switched between first base and right field and hit .314. In late August he was traded to the Oakland A’s, a young team on the verge of winning their first of three straight championships. He played nearly every day the rest of the season in right field, hitting .281. He played well in the ALCS (.381 with four doubles), but slumped in the World Series (just 1-for-24). Still, after just missing in 1962 Alou finally tasted the champagne of a World Series victory.
Not long after the Series, Alou was traded again, this time to the New York Yankees, reuniting with his brother Felipe. He hit well in New York, .296 in 123 games as the regular right fielder, but when the team fell out of contention they sold him back to the Cardinals, who were in contention for a division title, on September 6. (On the very same day, the club sold Felipe to the Montreal Expos.) Mateo was not thrilled with the trade, delayed reporting for a few days, and was used solely as a pinch-hitter in the waning weeks of the pennant race. After the season the Cardinals sold him to the San Diego Padres, but after hitting just .188 in 81 at-bats he drew his release in July 1974, ending his major-league career. He ended with a .307 career average over 14 seasons, with three All-Star appearances and two trips to the World Series.
The 35-year-old Alou next took his career to Japan, spending the rest of the 1974 season and two more with the Taiheiyo Club Lions in the Nippon Pro League. He hit .312 in his first half-season, then .282 and .261 his next two years. He finished with a .283 lifetime average in Japan. “I didn’t like playing there really,” Alou recalled. “I played there because I had to. I had three kids to support. It was too hard there. Too much practice, too much traveling, had to travel almost every day.”
Alou returned home. A star for 15 seasons with Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, his .327 career average is second only to Manny Mota’s .333 in league history. He won batting titles in 1966-67 (.363) and 1968-69 (.390). He later coached and managed in the league for many years. While the Alou brothers gained fame for manning the same outfield for the Giants for a parts of a few games in 1963, this was not such a big deal to the Rojas brothers — in the Winter League, for many seasons they formed the Escogido outfield, and still dominate the all-time leader boards for the club. For the 1961-62 and 1962-63 winters, when political unrest shut down the Dominican league, Mateo played winter ball in Venezuela.
Although Alou spent most of his post-playing years in his homeland, he worked for several major league organizations over the years. He scouted for the Tigers for a while in the late 1980s. He also spent many years as the Dominican scouting supervisor for the San Francisco Giants. He coached a single season (1994) for a club in the Dominican Summer League (a circuit affiliated with the US minor leagues). In 2007 he was honored at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, celebrating his induction to the Hispanic Heritage Baseball Museum Hall of Fame. Brother Felipe, then manager of the Giants, had been inducted in 2003.
Mateo remained a private person who was not often in the news in the States. His 1962 marriage to Teresa lasted the rest of his life. They raised three children — Mateo Jr., Matías, and Teresa — primarily in their homeland. Mateo died at age 72 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic on November 3, 2011, after suffering a stroke. He had stopped working for the Giants a few years earlier for health reasons. He was survived by his wife of 49 years, his three children, four grandchildren, three brothers and two sisters.
This article was written by Mark Armour
He enjoyed a 15-year career in the major leagues and today is well into his sixth decade working in baseball, but Jesús Alou is destined to be remembered as the third brother in an extraordinary baseball family. He might have accomplished less as a player than his two All-Star siblings, but those comparisons are unfair. Jesús had a fine career in his own right as part of the first great wave of Dominican players that came to the major leagues in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Jesús Alou was the 13th Dominican in the majors, though just third in his own family.
José Rojas and Virginia Alou raised six children (Felipe, María, Mateo, Jesús, Juan and Virginia) in their small home in Bajos de Haina, San Cristóbal, near Santo Domingo on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic. Rojas, a carpenter and blacksmith who built their home and others in the neighborhood, also fathered two children with a previous wife who had passed away. Though José was black and Virginia white, this was not unusual in the Dominican and the children knew little racism in their homeland—they were Dominicans. The family was poor, like most people they knew. “We all helped [our father] in the shop,” recalled Jesús, “but no money was coming in because everyone was poor around there. I was happy, though, just thinking about where my next meal might come from.”
Jesús María Rojas Alou was born on March 24, 1942. In keeping with the Latino custom, each parent contributed half of his double surname, but he is known in everyday life as Jesús Rojas in his homeland. While Felipe was playing in the US minor leagues, a team official mistakenly began identifying him as Felipe Alou, and he did not feel empowered to correct the error. When Mateo and Jesús followed him to the States, they used the Alou surname in order to associate with Felipe.
If this were not enough, many American writers and broadcasters were uncomfortable with his first name (properly pronounced “hay-SOOS”). Although there have been more than a dozen players named Jesús in the major leagues, Jesús Alou was the first, and is still the most prominent. Before his first season with the Giants, a San Francisco writer asked local religious leaders about the situation, and they all agreed that he needed a nickname, that reading “Jesus Saves Giants” in the morning paper would not do. The paper asked readers to write in with their suggestions, which many did. His Latino teammates often called him Chuchito, but the writers often called him Jay. “What,” the subject asked in 1965, “is wrong with my real name, Jesús? It is a common name in Latin America like Joe or Tom or Frank in the United States. My parents named me Jesús and I am proud of my name.” Thankfully, by the end of his career, everyone, even the writers, called him Jesús.
When Jesús was born, Felipe was nearly seven years old, while Mateo (later known mainly as “Matty” in the U.S.) was three. Unlike his older brothers, Jesús came to baseball slowly and somewhat reluctantly. “I wouldn’t even go and watch Felipe and Mateo play on the lots around our home,” he recalled. “I went fishing.” When he did play, the brothers used bats that they made on their father’s lathe. In fact, it was mainly his brothers’ success that led Frank (Chick) Genovese, who managed the other Rojas brothers on Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, to pressure Jesús to give baseball a try. Genovese’s cause was joined by Horacio Martínez, a former Negro Leaguer who worked as a bird dog for New York Giants scout Alejandro Pómpez and helped run the Escogido team. In late 1958 the 16-year-old Jesús signed to be the team’s batting practice pitcher.
At about the same time, Genovese signed Jesús for the San Francisco Giants organization, as he had done a few years earlier with Felipe and Mateo. The man who would now be known as Jesús Alou had very little organized baseball experience and the Giants’ optimism was largely based on the talents of Felipe, who had made the major leagues, and Mateo, who had hit .321 for St. Cloud the previous year. Jesús was assigned to Hastings, Nebraska, which had a team in the short-season Nebraska State League. Alou pitched just two games, allowing 11 runs in five innings, though he did manage to finish 2-for-3 as a batter. “I don’t win. I don’t lose,” Alou recalled of his summer in Nebraska. “I don’t do much of anything except brood.”
The next winter Alou hurt his arm throwing batting practice for Escogido, and thought his reluctant baseball experiment might have ended before he turned 18. He reported to the minor league camp for the Giants in 1960, and was assigned to Artesia (New Mexico), a Class-D affiliate. Manager George Genovese, the brother of Chick, wanted Alou to give up pitching and play the outfield, like his brothers. Again Alou balked, suggesting instead that he just go home. He finally agreed, and played the entire year in center field. His hitting was great (.352 with 11 home runs and 33 doubles), though his outfield play was a bit raw due to his sore arm. “It was a tougher year on Gil Garrido, our shortstop, than it was for me,” Alou remembered. “My arm was so bad that every time a ball was hit out to me Garrido had to race almost to my side to take the cutoff throw.”
Tough year or not, Garrido, a future major leaguer from Panama, hit .362 to win the batting title, while Alou led the league with 188 hits. Both were named to the league’s postseason All-Star team. After the Artesia season was over, the 18-year-old Alou played a few games with Eugene (Oregon) of the Northwest League, where he hit .350 in 20 at-bats.
Alou’s remaining years in the minor leagues were equally successful. Spending the 1961 season back in Eugene, he hit .336, led the league in hits, and was named a postseason All-Star. The next year in El Paso (Texas League), the 20-year-old Alou hit .346. Finally reaching the top rung of the ladder (Triple-A Tacoma) in 1963, Alou hit .324 with 210 hits (a total that broke Matty’s former Tacoma all-time record). He was an All-Star at every level, and had done everything he could to earn a spot with the Giants. On September 10, 1963, he finally made it, pinch-hitting against the New York Mets, grounding out against Carlton Willey to lead off the eighth. Willey then retired Mateo and Felipe for a 1-2-3 inning. The three brothers also played the outfield together briefly five days later. During his call-up, Jesús hit .250 in 24 at-bats.
As his major-league career was starting, many people believed that he would surpass both his brothers as a player. Among the believers were his brothers. “Jesús represents our family now,” said Felipe. “He has the right approach to baseball. Matty and I are, how you say it? We’re satisfied. We’re in the majors doing the best we can. But Jesús, he is a restless man. If he can’t be supreme, he doesn’t want to be at all. He has to be the greatest.” As evidence, people could point to his performance with Escogido, where the three brothers had formed the outfield over several winters. As early as 1961, Alejandro Pómpez had said, “Jesús Alou hits the curve ball twice as good as most kids who have been around much longer. The day will come when he’ll outshine both Felipe and Matty.
Jesús had already outgrown both of his brothers, reaching 6’2” and 190 pounds by the time of his debut. George Genovese, who had managed Jesús a few times in the minors, was optimistic. “He has live hands and a fast bat and he attacks the ball with great aggressiveness,” he said. “When he puts on another 15 pounds, he will have more power than Felipe.” Added manager Al Dark, “We think young Alou is one of the finest players our farm system has developed in recent years.”
Thoughts of an all-Alou outfield in San Francisco were unrealistic, however. The team already had star performers in center field (Willie Mays), left field (Willie McCovey), and first base (Orlando Cepeda). Felipe Alou had established himself as a good player in right field, while Matty Alou was behind Harvey Kuenn among the extra outfielders. After the season, the Giants partly dealt with the logjam by trading Felipe to the Braves. They announced that Jesús, and not Matty, would get first crack at the right-field job.
The biggest flaw in Jesús’s game, then and later, was his inability to take a walk. Even in the 1960s this was remarked upon, though more as a curiosity than a flaw. In 1963 baseball increased the dimension of the strike zone from the bottom of the knee to the top of the shoulders, which did not affect Jesús at all. As a Tacoma writer remarked, “Jesús has a personal strike zone which far exceeds anything considered by rulesmakers.” Teammate Juan Marichal remembered, “One time. . . a pitch [came in] about level with Jesus’s head. Jesus swung at it and hit a home run to right field. He was that type of hitter.” But the Giants were ready to live with his approach. “He swings at quite a few bad balls,” admitted farm director Carl Hubbell, “but I call him one of those ‘they shall not pass’ hitters. If he can reach a ball, he’ll swing.”
Alou played fairly regularly in 1964, hitting .274 but with little power (three home runs) or plate discipline (13 walks). On July 10 he enjoyed the game of his career, when he went 6-for-6 with a home run in a Giant victory in Chicago’s Wrigley Field. His season ended abruptly on September 4 when he was spiked at second base by New York’s Ron Hunt, resulting in 91 stitches in his foot, ankle, and calf. He came back the next year to play 143 games, batting .298 with nine home runs. At a time when the league hit just .249, his average was impressive, but his 13 walks gave him only a .317 on-base percentage, just over the league average. With Alou’s skill set, he was going to have to hit .320 to be a star, and most observers believed that he would. He turned just 23 in 1965.
Alou reported in 1966 determined to improve his batting eye. “I know pitchers are getting me to swing at bad pitches,” he admitted. “I try to cut it down this year. Sometimes maybe I forget, but I am going to cut it way down, I think.” Instead, he took a step back, and when he was hitting just .232 with two walks in nearly full-time play on June 13, he was optioned to Phoenix for two weeks, ostensibly because of a sore arm. He hit better upon his return, and got his average up to .259. It was a big year for the other Alou brothers: Matty, traded to the Pirates the previous winter, hit .342 to capture the league batting title; and Felipe, playing for the Braves, finished second at .327 while also clubbing 31 home runs. The talk of Jesús being the best of the Alou brothers had quieted down.
After the 1966 season, Jesús allowed that he wanted to be traded, reasoning that his brothers had found success after leaving San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, whose cold winds created difficulties for both hitters and outfielders. During the winter meetings, the Giants reportedly talked to other clubs about Alou, but held on to him.
In 1967 Alou played more or less full-time, and returned to his 1965 levels of hitting: .292 in 510 at bats, though again with little power (five home runs) and few walks (14). Oddly, the Giants used Alou as their primary leadoff hitter. As manager Herman Franks explained, Alou’s swinging and missing at so many bad pitches made him a bad hit-and-run guy, so he didn’t like him up with men on base. “So,” said Franks, “the leadoff position is where he can do the least harm and definitely the most good.” Alou hit .308 as the leadoff batter, and hit .337 when leading off innings.
The 26-year-old Alou played left and right fields for the Giants in 1968, starting 97 games and playing parts of 23 others. He regressed a bit from his 1967 comeback, hitting just .263 with no home runs and nine walks in 436 plate appearances. This turned out to be his final go-round with the Giants, as on October 15 Alou was selected by the Montreal Expos in an expansion draft to stock the two new National League teams.
Montreal reportedly turned down several trade offers for Alou, including one from the Astros for Mike Cuellar. After several weeks of speculation, on January 22 the Expos dealt Alou and Donn Clendenon to the Astros for outfielder Rusty Staub. Six weeks later Clendenon announced that he would retire rather than report to Houston, nullifying the trade for a few weeks. Eventually the Expos substituted two pitchers and some money to get the deal done. Houston manager Harry Walker coveted Alou, as he wanted more speed in the outfield. Walker had long fancied himself a hitting guru, and his biggest success story had been Matty Alou, who became a consistent .330 hitter after joining up with Walker in Pittsburgh in 1966.
Jesús Alou began the 1969 season as the Astros’ right fielder and leadoff hitter, and stroked three hits in his first game. He then went into a long slump that lasted most of the year, though his season was partly saved by a .328 final month. On June 10, while playing left field, Alou was involved in a brutal collision with shortstop Héctor Torres. His teammate’s forehead hit Alou’s face and caused him to swallow his tongue. Pirates trainer Tony Bartirome may have saved the unconscious Alou’s life when he pried open his mouth, inserted a rubber tube and breathed into it, which opened his air passage enough so that Alou could resume breathing. Alou and Torres were each carried off the field and rushed to the hospital—both players suffered concussions while Alou fractured his jaw. He missed six weeks of action. For the season, he hit just .248.
Alou was not a regular to start the 1970 season, but his consistent hitting eventually got him an everyday role. He ended up hitting .306 in 115 games, with a career-high 21 walks. “To me, hitting .300 is not all that big an issue,” he said late in the year. “What is important for me as the leadoff hitter is to get on base. I think I’ve been good, actually, ever since I came out of the hospital last year.” Once again he excelled as a leadoff hitter—he hit .392 leading off games, and hit .328 when leading off an inning. In 1971, he started even hotter, hitting over .350 into June, before slowly dropping off. A bad September left him at .279 for the season.
Through it all, baseball people liked having Jesús Alou around. Jim Bouton, an Astros teammate in 1969 and 1970, described him in his second book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally. “We called him J. or Jesus, never hay-soos. . . J. is one of the most delicate, sensitive, nicest men I have ever met. He’d walk a mile out of his way to drop a coin in some beggar’s cup.” Bouton then went on to describe how Alou’s sensitivity made him a comic foil for practical joker Doug Rader’s most disgusting antics.
“Alou is popular with his teammates because of his inherent good nature and philosophical way of looking at things,” said another writer in 1971. “And Alou is interesting to watch during a game.” He drew much comment throughout his career for all his mannerisms in the batter’s box—he held the bat vertical directly behind his right ear, then repeatedly rotated his neck. “People write letters asking why I jerk my neck,” Alou said. “I can’t answer except to say it’s not a back problem. It’s just a mental problem.” Early in his career Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale thought Alou might be trying to steal the catcher’s signs, and subsequently knocked Alou down with a pitch. Yet the habit remained.
Alou also had a very self-deprecating sense of humor. Late in his career he failed to reach a fly ball in the outfield, and observed, “Ten years ago, I would have overrun it.” When reminiscing about his years in the game, he would often recall moments when he forgot how many outs there were or the time he overran a base. Despite his relatively modest accomplishments, he stayed in the game a long time because his managers and teammates liked him so much. He was quiet and dignified, and often could be seen reading a Bible at his locker.
As Jimmy Wynn recounted in his autobiography, though, Harry Walker’s inveterate tinkering with hitters and their approach at the plate managed to infuriate even “The J. Alou” — as Jesús jocularly referred to himself. “The Hat” went so far as to break Alou’s bat in order to make sure that his player used a Harry Walker model. Another clubhouse incident a few days later finally set Alou off, and Wynn later wrote, “We are laughing in shock over the discovery that he is capable of anger at this level.”
With the emergence of Bob Watson and Cesar Cedeño, and the presence of Wynn, Alou no longer had a regular job after the 1971 season. He hit .312 in 1972 as a reserve outfielder and pinch-hitter, but just .236 in the same role the following season. On July 31, 1973, his contract was sold to the Oakland Athletics.
The A’s had won the World Series in 1972 and would repeat the next two seasons. Alou played 20 games over the last two months of the 1973 season, mainly in left field, and hit .306. When regular center fielder Bill North sprained his ankle that September, it opened the door for Jesús to play in the postseason. He hit 2-for-6 in the ALCS, but just 3-for-19 in the World Series. The next year he stayed with the A’s the entire year and got 232 plate appearances, mainly as a designated hitter, hitting .262. He hit just twice in the postseason, including a pinch single in the first game of the ALCS. Matty Alou had helped win a World Series for the A’s in 1972, and now Jesús had won back-to-back with the same club.
The next spring Alou was released. “Maybe I’m overrating myself,” he said. “I think this team needs a guy who does the type of job I can do.” He was soon picked up by the New York Mets. “I was offered more money to play with my brother, Matty, in Japan,” Alou said, “but I prefer to play in the United States.” Alou served as a reserve outfielder and pinch-hitter, hitting .265 in 108 plate appearances.
In March 1976 he was released again, and this time he headed back to the Dominican, where he remained for two years. Besides playing winter ball in his homeland, he and a friend tried to start a business. “We were going to start a watch-assembly plant in the Dominican Republic,” he recalled. “We would buy the parts in other countries and assemble the watches there. But the government down there didn’t like the idea.” After two years away, Alou returned to the major leagues with the Astros in 1978, and hit .324 in a reserve role. When he returned the next year, the 37-year-old took on the added role of batting coach. He hit .256 this time around in just 43 at bats, though his relatively high walk total (6) gave him a respectable .349 on base percentage.
After the 1979 season Alou drew his release, and his major-league career was over. He finished with a respectable .280 batting average, but his walk rate of just 3 per 100 plate appearances was the lowest in the 20th century for someone who played 1,000 games. He played parts of 15 seasons in the majors, and won two World Series. In the Dominican, he starred for many years for Escogido with his two brothers. He was Rookie of the Year in 1960-61. His lifetime stats at home were .302 with 20 homers and 339 RBIs in 20 seasons (12 for Escogido and 8 for archrival Licey). He played in five Caribbean Series (1973, 1974, 1977, 1978, and 1980), hitting .351 with two homers and 13 RBIs. One of his highlights in a Dominican uniform came during the 1973 edition in Caracas, Venezuela, when he was 12 for 24 (.500) as Licey won the tournament.
Jesús Alou married Angela Hanley in the late 1960s, and the couple raised five children—Angela, Jesús Jr., María de Jesús, Claudia, and Jeimy—in the Dominican Republic. After his playing career ended, Alou moved back home and remained there, still fishing and swimming in the nearby waters in the summer. He lived not far from where he grew up, and not far from the homes of his brothers and sisters. “I guess we look much richer to the people here than we really are,” he once observed.
Although he did some managing in the Dominican winter league, Alou turned to scouting when his pitching coach with Escogido, Bob Gebhard, became an executive with the Montreal Expos. Jesús said, “I imagine he saw me working with kids. Even when I was a player, I liked to work with kids.” In typical form, he added, “I have very high blood pressure. I don’t think I can stand managing.”
He continued to work for American baseball, moving from the Expos to the Marlins. Since 2002, he has been the Dominican scouting director for the Boston Red Sox. He has also served as director of the team’s Dominican Summer League operations, much the same role as he had held with the Marlins’ Dominican academy.
Jesús came back to San Francisco in 2003 for Opening Day, joined by his two brothers, one of whom (Felipe) was now managing the Giants. They had all accomplished so much in the game, forty years after playing in the same outfield. “I have never dreamed anything in baseball,” Jesús said. “Everything has been a surprise. Every day is a new surprise. Felipe being manager in San Francisco makes me proud. It’s another surprise.”
Dominicans have come to play a huge role in American baseball, following in the giant footsteps of Felipe, Mateo, and Jesús Alou. Late in his career, Jesús was asked to compare the skills of the three Alous. “Felipe is a very tough guy in baseball,” he said, “tougher than all of us. Matty was smaller and had to take more advantage of his ability, the guy who does more thinking. Me, I wasn’t as tough as Felipe or as thinking as Matty. One thing we had in common: we didn’t like to strike out too much, maybe because we used to play with rubber balls in our backyard. As long as a guy didn’t strike out, he could keep batting, and we all liked to bat.” The brothers played over 5,000 major-league games between them.
Jesús Alou spent many years in the game as a player, and is still involved in finding players for the Major Leagues. He was a vital part of a great baseball family, and his legacy will live on.