alou: my baseball journey

Reviewed by Dave Buchanan

15 august 2018       archive

As an Expos fan, back in the 90s, I loved Felipe Alou. He was the coolest manager: wise and patient with a wry sense of humor and a fierce competitiveness. He seemed the kind of manager that players loved to play for. What I didn't realize back then was how distinguished a playing career he had had (17 years in the majors, for six different teams, often among league leaders in hits and batting average) and what a trailbreaker he was in Major League Baseball, as the first Dominican player and, later, the first Dominican manager (14 years, with the Expos and Giants). And while I knew that Felipe's brothers Matty and Jesús also played in the majors, I wasn't aware that they played on the San Francisco Giants together for a while, even manning all three outfield positions. And I certainly wasn't aware of the extent and depth of the racism Latino players had to deal with in the 1950s and 60s.

Felipe Alou's autobiography, Alou: My Baseball Journey, with Peter Kerasotis, tells his extraordinary story, which is about a lot more than baseball: overcoming adversity, appreciating family, and fighting injustice.

Alou grew up poor but happy in the Dominican Republic, living with his parents and three brothers in a 15 by 15-foot shack, with no electricity and no plumbing—and no racism. A terrific all-round athlete and an excellent student who seemed destined for medical school, Felipe fell into baseball almost by accident and quickly demonstrated the talent to get noticed by scouts and given a ticket to America.

When the young Alou arrived in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1956, to play class C ball, he was unprepared for the torrent of racism he encountered in a so-called "advanced" nation. It was a segregated world, on and off the diamond, where Blacks and Latinos couldn't eat at the same restaurants as their white team mates or use the same bathrooms and water fountains. In Baton Rouge, he wasn't allowed to enter the stadium through the players' entrance. Alou describes the every-day abuse: he was called "nigger" and "monkey." He quickly discovered that Latinos were at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, excluded from both the white and the black communities. It was an isolating and humiliating experience.

Alou's talent carried him to the big leagues, but his character played a big role in making him stick. Early on, even in Lake Charles, he showed the courage to fight racial injustice, a quality that helped make him a leader throughout his career. He talks about his friendship with another Latino player, Roberto Clemente, who helped inspire Alou to stand up for what was right. Alou saw how the media hassled Clemente for being outspoken. Reporters would mock the Puerto Rican star's heavily accented English, try to make him and other Latino players sound dumb, as part of a linguistic double standard. Alou wasn't as bold in his defiance as some of his compatriots like Orlando Cepeda, but Alou certainly took notice.

Playing for the Giants, he turned into an everyday player and eventually a star, but he also saw how Latino players were treated differently, told not to speak Spanish, subjected to an unofficial quota system, and prohibited from playing winter ball in their own countries. Despite the cautionary lesson of Clemente, Alou finally spoke out in an extraordinary article published in Sport magazine in September, 1963, and which is reprinted in full in the book. The piece outlines what Latino players had to endure; it's a remarkable piece of first-person sports writing, stunning in its honesty and anger. Not surprisingly, a couple of weeks after the article was published, Alou got traded from the Giants to Milwaukee.

The book isn't all politics though. Alou shares lots of pure baseball stories, especially about his years playing on those Giants teams of the early 1960s, which boasted a lineup studded with future hall of famers Willie Mays, Cepeda, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal, and which came close to winning a World Series in 1962. And, of course, the family factor is perhaps the most unique aspect of Alou's story. Felipe recognizes how lucky he was to get to play in the majors with his siblings, on a couple of occasions even batting in consecutive order with them, making possible, after a not especially productive half inning, the statement "Three Alous up and three Alous down."

The last part of the book focuses on Alou's lengthy coaching and managing career, mostly in the Montreal system, where, once again, he ran up against racism, though of a more subtle kind than that he experienced as a player. Alou paid his dues in the minors and had success at every level but was passed over for major league jobs for years. When his chance finally came with the Expos in 1992, at age 56, replacing 35-year-old Tom Runnells part way through the season, Alou became the first manager from the Dominican Republic in the bigs, though even then the Expos were careful to attach the word "interim" to that title.

Like all Expos fans, Alou speculates at length about the "what-if" of 1994, when the best Expos team ever, with the likes of Pedro Martinez, Larry Walker, John Wetteland, and another Alou, son Moisés, had their World Series dream destroyed by a labour dispute that cancelled the season. That was the beginning of the end for professional baseball in Montreal. Not surprisingly, Alou offers a scathing assessment of how owners Claude Brochu and, later, Jeffrey Loria, handled the team when baseball returned. Every Expos fan knows how those two villains broke Montrealers' hearts by selling off a series of promising young players—Martinez, Walker, Wetteland, but also Cliff Floyd, Marquis Grissom, Rondell White, David Segui, and others, effectively turning the Expos into a development team for the league's big spenders.

Although Alou is generally not one to hold a grudge (he even finds a way to forgive the blatant racism of his one-time Giants' manager Alvin Dark), his bitterness towards Brochu, in particular, is striking, in part, it seems, because Brochu tried to offer a revisionist history of the Expos' demise in his book My Turn at Bat. This rankles Alou to this day, you can tell, and I liked how Alou doesn't hold back. (Like Alou, I've clearly got issues about this Expos thing.) Alou waited a long time to tell his story (he was 82 when the book came out), but we're fortunate that co-writer Peter Kerasotis stuck with this project: the result is an entertaining and inspiring story.

Alou: My Baseball Journey. By Felipe Alou with Peter Kerasotis. University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

Copyright © 2018 by Dave Buchanan

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