He Ain’t Heavy, He’s the Left Fielder

It’s hard to believe that Kent Tekulve and Omar Moreno came from the same family.

At least that’s what one winning baseball team, with a little help from the pop group, the Pointer Sisters, would have everyone believe.

As the Pittsburgh Pirates made an unlikely title run in 1979, the team adopted the song “We are Family” as their theme music.  Although none of the eventual World Champs was related, the song reinforced the notion of the closeness and camaraderie of teammates.  The Pirates even had a man lovingly referred to as “Pops” sitting at the head of the table, Hall of Fame first baseman Willie Stargell.

The 1963 San Francisco Giants had no such catchy team melody, nor a World Series trophy to punctuate their cohesion.  They did, however, have something that the 1979 Pirates did not – actual family.  And on one remarkable day that season, the Giants demonstrated the power of family as never before, or since, in Major League Baseball history.

Felipe Alou was the quintessential big brother – tall, strong, and handsome.  In fact, there was something regal about him.  On a baseball diamond, he carried himself with grace, confidence, and an extraordinary level of dignity.  However, his game was an intense blend of controlled fury and relentless competitive hunger.

Felipe Alou, the man, was a consummate sportsman.  Felipe Alou, the player, came after opponents with daggers and had enough power and athleticism in his arsenal to inspire fear.

He reached the big leagues in 1958 with the Giants, and in his most productive bookend years in San Francisco – 1962 and 1963 – he averaged 22 home runs, 90 RBI’s, and 10 steals a season.  And his arm was strong enough to record 16 outfield assists in that span as well.

Physically, Matty Alou was the antithesis of Felipe, two years his senior.  Diminutive and wiry, he had to tailor his game accordingly, utilizing slap hitting and speed to be effective.  While his style of play was less dynamic than his older brother’s, Matty carved out a niche of his own and joined Felipe in San Francisco, debuting with the Giants in 1960.

Once paired with his brother as a teammate, Matty proved a perfect complement.  He hit .310 in his rookie season, and his slashing style and quickness provided a nice contrast to Felipe’s booming bat – like intricate sketching amidst broad, vivid brush strokes.

However, the notion of a pair of brothers both making it to the big leagues, while impressive, wasn’t groundbreaking.  The Covelski brothers, Stan and Harry, had both pitched in the majors in the 1910’s, and Stan became a big enough star to eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  The Deans, Dizzy and Paul, followed suit twenty years later, pitching the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Championship in 1934 as part of the famed “Gas House Gang.”

The renowned DiMaggio’s, though, raised the standard of sibling accomplishment in the majors to an entirely new level.

Joe DiMaggio became an icon for the famed New York Yankees of the 1930’s and 40’s. 

His bespectacled little brother Dom starred for the rival Boston Red Sox, eventually as well known for his heady, flawless play as for his surname. 

And oldest brother, Vince, reached the majors as well – albeit, in journeyman fashion, bouncing around to five different teams during an uneven playing career. However, even he had a flash of stardom, belting 21 homers and driving in 100 runs for Pittsburgh in 1941. 

Between them, the DiMaggio boys were selected to 22 All-star teams.  Joe ended up a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Dom garnered support in many circles urging his induction, though it never came.

So, when Felipe and Matty Alou enjoyed big league success, they stepped into rather large footsteps in the lexicon of baseball playing brothers.  Not that it mattered.  Playing at the game’s highest level was reward enough, because the arduous journey from their humble beginnings in the Dominican Republic to the pristine fields of America was the culmination of a shared dream.

Still, the Alou family was primed to make history.  Because when a third Alou sibling debuted in the majors, it set the stage for something extraordinary to happen – something that even the three DiMaggio brothers had not accomplished.

Like Vince DiMaggio, Jesus Alou hadn’t the overall excellence of his brothers’ games.  However, he was skilled enough in his own right to attract Major League interest.  And Jesus had ability.  He just didn’t have quite as much of it as his older brothers.

As with most who chase successful older siblings, Jesus couldn’t catch up to Felipe and Matty, let alone surpass them.  And this perpetual deficit was made all the more difficult on the youngest Alou because it had to play out in the unrelenting spotlight of professional sports.

So, while Felipe and Matty were becoming big league stars – Felipe went to three All-star games and Matty went to a pair of them – Jesus trailed behind with modest playing totals, hitting .280 over 15 seasons with 32 career homers and 31 career stolen bases.  He had managed to follow his brothers all the way to the majors, an impressive achievement in its own right.

Even more remarkable was the landing spot for Jesus when he arrived in the big leagues – San Francisco.  In 1963, the three Alou brothers were reunited by fate – and the Giants’ progressive scouting in Latin America – as Major Leaguers and teammates.

Felipe, as always, was the leader.  Matty continued working diligently to establish his own identity.  And Jesus spent his days looking to his big brothers for guidance.  It was just as it had been back home in Santo Domingo, except now the familiar dynamic took place in the considerable shadows of San Francisco legends Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal.  And it was especially meaningful for them to not only play alongside each other but also with Marichal, the first Dominican superstar in the majors.

And the 1963 Giants were a fearsome ballclub.  They were the defending National League champions.  And they had chased the New York Yankees all the way to the final out of the 1962 World Series before McCovey’s ferocious liner was caught just as the Series-tying and winning runs were circling the bases.

Their roster included no fewer than five eventual Hall of Famers, and it was a scary blend of power hitting and power pitching.  However, in 1963, they couldn’t muscle their way past their hated rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who rode the pitching brilliance of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale to the pennant.

San Francisco’s disappointing season, though, was tempered by one historic day in mid-September.

On the 15th during a game in Pittsburgh, the Giants’ considerable offense took out its frustration on the hapless Pirates.  En route to a 13-5 blowout, San Francisco manager Alvin Dark juggled his lineup to produce one of the great moments in the game.

In the bottom of the sixth inning, he moved Felipe – who had started the game in right field – to left and brought Jesus in to play right.  Two innings later, Dark shifted Felipe again – moving him to center – and brought Matty in to play left.

As Pirate hitters stepped up to the plate and peered into the outfield, they saw the three Alou brothers – the pride of Santo Domingo in the Dominican – standing side-by-side, sharing the same exclusive expanse of turf at the highest level the game had to offer.  And for that one moment on that one Pennsylvania autumn afternoon, the cohesive concepts of teamwork and family melted into one another as had never been seen before – three Major League siblings playing defense together in the same outfield.  It was a remarkable snapshot, and one that hasn’t been captured again in big league history.

But it didn’t last.  Given the nomadic underpinnings of the game – particularly on the business side of things – players necessarily are subject to scattering winds, even brothers.  The Alou’s never took the field together as Major League teammates again.

Felipe was traded to Atlanta after the 1963 season.  Matty was dispatched to the Pirates before the 1966 season.  And Jesus drifted to the Houston Astros in 1969.

Individually, however, they continued to excel, especially in 1966. That season, Matty won the National League batting title in his first year in Pittsburgh, hitting .342. 

In Atlanta, Felipe hit .327 for the Braves, finishing as runner-up to Matty for the batting crown and punctuated his terrific season by launching a career-high 31 homers.

In the end, though, Jesus finally trumped his big brothers, winning consecutive World Series rings as a key reserve with the Oakland A’s in 1973 and 1974.

After their playing days were over, Felipe remained the most visible, spending decades more in the game serving as a batting instructor and bench coach for the Montreal Expos.  In 1992, he became the first Dominican-born manager in Major League history when he was hired to skipper the team.

To further cement the family’s indelible impact on the league, one of Felipe’s best players on that 1992 Montreal squad was his son, Moises.  So, as father managed son, the tandem was on the way to the pinnacle of the sport in 1994.

By August of that season, the Expos had the best record in baseball and started to take on the look of a champion.  Outfielder Marquis Grissom provided the speed, his outfield mates – Moises and Larry Walker – supplied the power, and Pedro Martinez and Ken Hill dominated from the pitcher’s mound.  With Felipe’s steady hand on the wheel, Montreal was poised for something great.

Only, it never happened.

As Major League players and owners squabbled over their riches, they managed to do something that hadn’t happened since 1904 – caused the cancellation of the World Series.  A devastating player’s strike wiped out the final month of the season.  And when the Commissioner’s Office pulled the plug on the entire post season, Montreal’s exhilarating title run came crashing down in irreparable fragments.

As it had been after the 1963 season, change separated the Alou’s.  Moises became a casualty of Montreal’s ever-diminishing payroll and left the Expos after the 1996 season as a free agent.  His father stayed in Quebec, managing the team despite the front office’s best efforts to strip the ball club of talent – either trading or failing to pay the team’s best players.

In 2001, ownership rewarded Felipe’s dutiful and honorable service to the franchise by firing the most successful manager in team history.

However, Felipe carried on with the grace and class that had been his trademark as a player.  And karma seemed to reward such dignified behavior.

In 2003, he returned to his big league roots as the manager of the San Francisco Giants.  To mark the occasion, the team honored its new skipper by inviting Matty and Jesus to join Felipe in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the home opener.

Two seasons later, the mercurial gusts of the game brought Moises to the Giants to reunite with his father.  The Alou lineage had come full circle.  Moises, who was a bona fide star by then, donned the same uniform worn by his father and two uncles forty years earlier. 

And he did so as the most accomplished player in his immensely talented family.  In a 17-year Major League career, Moises was a 6-time All-star, hit 332 home runs, and compiled a .303 lifetime batting average.

The story of the Alou’s and their impressive sporting journey underscores not only the reach and allure of the game but also the drive and kinship forged by brothers, fathers, and sons. Sadly, one of baseball’s most celebrated families recently suffered a tremendous loss.

On November 3, Matty Alou passed away from diabetes complications at the age of 72.

The middle brother of the illustrious Alou trio was gone.  However, diminutive Matty, who had scrapped his way to the big leagues with quick feet and quicker wrists, left his family with a lifetime of memories.  Perhaps, none more cherished and vivid as the moment he took the field with his two brothers and made baseball history.

The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates may have claimed to be family in some symbolic, tangential way.  Felipe, Matty, Jesus, and Moises Alou demonstrated it for real.  And they did so with a grace and humility that brought honor to them all.

And there’s isn’t a pop song in the world that could do such a bond justice.