Monday, September 10, 2012

#430 - Matty Alou

This was always one of my favorite cards in the set. First off, Matty is sweating up a storm – it’s just dripping from his chin – so he must have just scored and is returning to the dugout. Second, while this is a non-Traded traded card the Topps guys left it alone and I think the pinstripes actually look pretty good with the gold (brown?) and yellow colors Topps opted for on Padres cards. Third, this is Matty’s last card and in fact represents the last time all three Alou brothers would have cards in the same set. And you gotta give Matty some props: if you discount his last few at bats with San Diego in ’74 he went down swinging, putting up a nearly .300 average his final full season. The pinstripes look good on him; a whole lot better than the horribly-airbrushed ones did on his ’73 card. Matty spent the year with NY split between the outfield and first before he and his brother Felipe were sort of unceremoniously dumped the same week in September, with Matty returning to St. Louis. So the over-the-shoulder glance is sort of an appropriate pose as he looks back at his Yankee season and his career, at least in the States.

Matty Alou was signed by the Giants out of the Dominican Republic in ’57 and had sort of a tough summer in D ball, hitting only .247. In ’58 he moved up to C ball and his average moved up as well, to .321. The next two seasons he did the double jump, to A ball in ’59 and Triple A in ’60, where both years he had double-digit homers, pretty good RBI totals, and hit .288 with a .366 OBA the first year and .306 with a .353 the second. After a few at bats for the Giants in ’60 he came up to start the next season and hit awfully well his first couple seasons but with Willie Mays, Harvey Kuenn, Felipe Alou, and either Orlando Cepeda or Willie McCovey ahead of him couldn’t crack the lineup. But he got a bunch of post-season time, first starting the winning-series rally against the Dodgers and then hitting .333 against the Yankees. Then in ’63 he banged up his knee pretty badly in spring training and barely played either up top or in Triple A, where he was assigned for about a month. Ironically that was the year when the three Alou’s all started a game for San Francisco, making history. He would suffer a broken hand in ’64 and though in that season and in ’65 he got an increasing number of at bats, his average wasn’t making anyone too happy, and after the latter season he was traded to Pittsburgh for Ozzie Virgil and Joe Gibbon.

Alou’s move to the Pirates was super successful. The manager back then, Harry “The Hat” Walker had been a batting champion when he played and could be a very effective teacher. His magic worked extremely well on Matty, up until then a strict pull hitter who tried to muscle his hits to right field. Harry had Matty use a heavier bat with no knob which he choked up pretty high. He also had him wait for the pitch a bit longer and really shortened his stroke so that Matty became a punch guy with most of his hits thereafter being to the left side of the field. Finally Matty had a habit – I do not know if this one came from Walker or not – of hitting off his front foot, which was really odd since he began his stance with that foot in the air, like Mel Ott. But it all worked as he immediately took over center field and his first season won the NL batting title with his .342 average. He then lost only a few points off that mark in ’68 when pretty much everyone else’s average fell hard. He was an All-Star that season and the next one when he led the NL in hits and doubles. ’70 would then be his only Pirate season of hitting below .300 and after the season Pittsburgh decided Al Oliver was deserving of a full-time spot and sent Matty and George Brunet to the Cards for Nelson Briles and Vic Davalillo.

Pretty poor timing for Alou, as Pittsburgh went on to win the Series in ’71. But Matty turned in some nice numbers for the Cards including the best power numbers of his career as he put in some time in the third spot instead of his normal leadoff position. In ’72 for St. Louis he played as much first base as outfield since his arm was beginning to wear down and the Cards too had some young guys that needed time in the field. Late that August he lucked out by being sent to Oakland for Bill Voss and he hit pretty well down the stretch and then about 100 points higher in the playoffs. Plus he got back the ring he missed out on in ’71. After the season he came to NY for Rob Gardner and Rich McKinney, two hot prospects that never really made it, and re-united with his brother. After his short bit with the Padres in ’74 his MLB career was done. Matty hit .307 with a .345 OBA – he wasn’t much of a walker – and 236 doubles among his 1,777 hits. He hit .232 in 21 post-season games and also stole 156 bases and ranks in the top 100 for assists from center field.

Alou didn’t waste too much time in furthering his baseball career, signing a contract to play in Japan before he was formally cut loose by San Diego. The team he played for was Taiheiyo and he replaced Frank Howard on the roster, joining Don Buford, another recent exile. Matty played through ’76 when his manager was, believe it or not, Leo Durocher. He finished over there with a .283 average in his three seasons and then returned to the DR where he did local scouting for a bunch of years, mostly for the Giants, but also – at least – for Detroit (from ’87 to ’89). He also did some work for his old winter ball team, Escogigo, for whom most of the top three record spots are held by him and/or one of his brothers. He passed away at home last November, after suffering a stroke brought about by diabetes. He was 72.

Matty has room for one star bullet and it covers his ’72 playoff hitting, which was awfully good. Neither he nor his brothers have the parenthetical name, though the surname by which they were known back home was Rojas, not Alou. He has a SABR bio, though the folks at baseball-reference don't recognize that.

I love to get some dirt involved in this exercise:

1. Alou and Willie McCovey ’60 to ’65 Giants;
2. McCovey and Al “Dirt” Gallagher ‘’70 to ’72 Giants;
3. Gallagher and Dick Lange ’73 Angels.

Al Gallagher – affectionately called Dirt because his uniform was always a mess – was a colorful third baseman in the early Seventies who closed things up with the Angels and really should have had a card in this set.

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