|The "old days" of the Rox - Stearns History Museum image|
Wednesday, May 11, 2016
"Middle brother" Matty Alou played for St. Cloud Rox
- George Santayana
Forrest Witt was the middle brother of the famous Witt family of Morris. Three Witt boys graced the various sports venues. They had such innate skills. Matty Alou was the middle of the Alou brothers. Such was the talent of those three Alou boys, along with Moises of the next generation, we might be talking about the first family of baseball. Had they not come here from a foreign country, they might well have such status.
Baseball has Norman Rockwell-esque origins. Mickey Mantle fits the mold that we expected in the middle 20th Century. There was in fact a famous Rockwell painting that showed three umpires, one of whom had a hand extended to feel for raindrops coming down. "Can we get the game in today?"
The Alou boys gave us a glimpse of what major league baseball would become. It would become a rainbow proposition in terms of national origin and skin color. We think nothing of it today. When I was a kid, we might snicker at a non-Anglo-sounding name. We can feel shame about how we made light of Bombo Rivera's name that way. Rivera was a 1970s Minnesota Twin. The '70s were still in the Dark Ages of sorts, as demonstrated by a Star Tribune headline: "Bombo, Twins bomb Seattle."
We have come light years in terms of enlightenment. I read a book that sought levity from the name "Scipio Spinks." The proper respect is today established. Now we need to get past the North Carolina "bathroom law."
I fondly remember the three Alou boys from my youth. Matty Alou's first name was not Matthew. It was Mateo. "Matty" was a means of Anglicizing. He was part of the first wave of Dominicans who helped change the very culture of American baseball in the 1960s. Mateo was born not far from Santo Domingo on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic.
Showing his talents here in MN
I'm focusing on Mateo in this post because of a Minnesota element in his career. This hitting whiz spent part of his development in St. Cloud MN. As a kid I heard about the St. Cloud "Rox." They were a big deal for quite some time. They played in a rather impressive ballpark for this level. And let's emphasize it was not the lowest level of minor league ball. Matty Alou was "promoted" to St. Cloud of the Northern League, after first playing in Michigan City. "Promoted!"
Congrats to St. Cloud for having such an impressive vehicle for our national pastime. I wonder why that old incarnation of the Rox had to fade away. Today there is a "Rox" team in St. Cloud but it's no different from the other summer college teams like in Alexandria and Willmar. The current team started out as the "River Bats." I wonder if there was some resistance in the granite city to reviving the old "sacred" Rox name. Orlando Cepeda, Gaylord Perry and Lou Brock also played for the Rox.
The mother of the Alou boys, Virginia, was white. This mattered not at all, to anyone. The boys simply thought of themselves as Dominicans. What an ideal. Coming to the U.S. would force them to watch their backs in terms of racism. Jim Crow laws, while an abomination on the face of it, were doomed to being phased out because, how could they be enforced when the old dichotomy of white/black broke down? Southerners thought of "black" as being descendants of slaves. The Alou boys were dark-skinned but not black, but who cares?
Matty played for the Dominican Air Force baseball team in 1956. The team was sponsored by General Ramfis Trujillo, son of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Matty played with Juan Marichal and Manny Mota. Remember the scene from the movie "Airplane" where the character imagines the P.A. announcer saying "pinch-hitting for Pedro Borbon, Manny Mota?" This was another example of how we once made light of non-Anglo names, though it's not as bad as the Star Tribune headline I cited earlier.
The San Francisco Giants got an early advantage recruiting players from the Caribbean. All three Alou boys donned Giants caps along with Marichal and Mota. Matty was lucky: he spent most of his minor league career outside of the Deep South. In St. Cloud there was no threat of pernicious racism. St. Cloud in those days was a bastion of Germans and Catholics. That old image lives today but I think it's largely stereotype.
Matty had batted only .247 for Michigan City. St. Cloud was good for him. In the granite city he batted .321 in 1958. The Rox took first place. Matty made the post-season all-star team as an outfielder.
In '59 this up-and-comer played for Class A Springfield, Massachusetts. Marichal and Mota were there too, along with catcher Tom Haller. Alou batted .288. He always had a gift for a good batting average. He batted left-handed unlike his brothers. He got a lot of bunt singles and infield hits.
Alou played with Tacoma in 1960. He manned center field and batted .306. September saw him get a shot at the majors. The stage was set for a distinguished major league career. He singled in his first major league at-bat, off Larry Sherry. In '61 he had impact, batting .310 in 81 games.
Distinguishing himself in the clutch
In '62 he batted .292 in 195 at-bats. But he was a major player in the stretch drive, specifically at the very end: the last seven games. Matty had 14 hits in 27 at-bats. The Giants had a playoff series with the Dodgers. In the deciding game 3, things looked bleak with San Francisco trailing 4-2 in the ninth. Alou led off with a pinch-hit single. The game-winning rally developed from that. He went on to get four hits in the World Series.
The Giants trailed the Yankees 1-0 in the ninth inning of the last game. Alou led off with a pinch-hit bunt single. Willie Mays doubled. But Alou only got as far as third. Willie McCovey lined out for the last out. The hot stove league saw much discussion over whether Whitey Lockman, the Giants' third base coach, should have had Matty attempt to score on Mays' double. This is an excruciating decision. Alou himself felt there was a good chance he'd be thrown out. My view? You have to consider there were two outs. No chance of a sacrifice fly or run-scoring grounder. McCovey would have to hit safely. Teams often screw up trying to execute a throw from the outfield to retire a baserunner who would have to be tagged. I would say: "go for it." You look bad if the defensive team makes the play. But the odds are more than negligible that the defensive team could not pull it off. I'd have sent Matty careening around third base. We'll never know.
Matty went through all the common highs and lows as his big league career developed. Mostly it was highs. Most fans associate him with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was an awesome hitter.
Here's a novelty: On August 26 of 1965 at Forbes Field, Matty pitched two innings, allowing no runs and striking out three. He struck out Willie Stargell twice! "I just threw him a slow curve," Matty would say.
Pirates manager Harry Walker brought Matty along nicely. Walker worked to get Matty to pull the ball less. Matty was given a heavier bat to swing. He was spectacular in 1966. And in '69 he was a full-time player and responded with a .331 average at the top of the Pirates' order. He was a leadoff hitter who did not walk much. He had a staggering 698 at-bats.
Avoiding needless risks with body
One purported negative was his reputation for not wanting to crash into fences when playing defense. I say "hats off" to Matty for that tic. He preserved his body.
Matty kept on excelling even as he switched teams. He would have looked terrific as a Minnesota Twin. Eventually Matty took his baseball to Japan.
He had a lifelong marriage to Teresa. They raised three children. Matty left us for that baseball diamond in the sky in 2011 in Santo Domingo. We hope he never forgot that development year here in Minnesota, in St. Cloud, where he certainly didn't have to deal with Jim Crow. Although you get some favoritism if you're Catholic!
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - firstname.lastname@example.org