Cooperstown Confidential: From the Uptons to the Alous

The recent trade that made Justin Upton a member of the Atlanta Braves has raised curiosity in one of baseball’s curiousities: brothers as teammates. In joining the Braves as their everyday left fielder, Justin will play alongside his older brother, B.J. Upton, who will play center field after signing a five-year, free agent contract. On paper, the additions of the Uptons, particularly Justin, makes the Braves a better team, boosting their right-handed power and their range in left field.

Brothers playing as teammates is not as rare as we might initially think. Over the past 50 years of baseball history, there have been a number of instances where brothers have been teammates, including the following: Scott Hairston and Jerry Hairston Jr. in San Diego; Pedro Martinez and Ramon Martinez with the Dodgers; Tony Gwynn and Chris Gwynn with the Padres; Roberto Alomar and Sandy Alomar, Jr. with three different teams (the Padres, Indians, and White Sox); Cal Ripken, Jr. and Billy Ripken with the Orioles; Phil Niekro and Joe Niekro with both the Braves and Yankees; Gaylord Perry and Jim Perry with the Indians; Dick Allen and Hank Allen with the White Sox; and Hank Aaron and Tommie Aaron in Atlanta. There have been others, too, including the Bretts, the Conigliaros, the Laroches, the Reuschels and the Weavers.

There are some pretty famous names among those groupings. Hank Aaron, Roberto Alomar, Tony Gwynn, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Cal Ripken are all members of the Hall of Fame. Pedro Martinez will join them in Cooperstown one day. Dick Allen might make the Hall of Fame eventually. Jim Perry won 215 games during a distinguished career. And Sandy Alomar was a fine defensive catcher and a noted leader during his playing days.

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Yet, none of these players are the first to come to mind when I think of brothers who have played as teammates. The first brothers whom I recall are not a pair, but rather a threesome of brothers. Fifty years ago, the Alou brothers did something that had never occurred in the history of the major leagues.

Felipe was the first to join the Giants, coming up as a 23-year-old rookie out of the Dominican Republic in 1958. Matty, as a 21-year-old, arrived for a four-game cup of coffee in September of 1960. And then in September of 1963, the Giants put themselves in position to make unusual history when they promoted 21-year-old Jesus from Triple-A Tacoma.

Jesus was not as intense as Felipe, and not as quiet as Matty. Felipe had already established himself as an accomplished right-handed power hitter with plus speed and good defensive chops, while Matty was a rangy outfielder with a strong arm but a questionable left-handed bat who had not yet produced positive results. The Giants held out hope that Jesus might be the best player of the three. “Jesus was the fastest man in the (Pacific) Coast League this year and also its best young player,” Tacoma general manager Rosy Ryan told sportswriter Jack McDonald. “He’s a better baserunner than either of his two older brothers. He has a real strong arm and it’s accurate. Nobody will go from first to third on him on a single.”

As a hitter, the righty-swinging Jesus looked like more of a project. “Jesus is not a power hitter,” Ryan said of the young outfielder, who had batted .326 for Tacoma. “He won’t crash any 40 homers a season, or even 15. Like Harvey Kuenn, he hits the ball where it is pitched.” The consummate free swinger, Jesus liked to swing at pitches no matter where they went; he showed little interest in taking a base on balls.

While Alou’s hitting style evoked the comparison to Kuenn, his batting stance looked like nothing that had ever been seen before. Standing straight up and down, Alou held his bat completely perpendicular to the ground, just behind his right ear. As he waited for the next pitch, he rotated his neck repeatedly, almost twitching it as if the movement was uncontrollable. It was a nervous tic that drew laughs from other teams, especially Yankees outfielder Roger Maris. When Maris first watched Alou, he paraded through the clubhouse doing a parody of Jesus’ unorthodox movements.

On Sept. 10, the Giants put Jesus’ intriguing talents to their first test. In the top of the eighth inning, the Mets led the Giants, 3-0, at the Polo Grounds. Hoping to muster a late rally, Giants manager Alvin Dark inserted Jesus Alouas a pinch-hitter for Jose Pagan and watched him ground out to shortstop. Dark then called on Matty Alou to pinch-hit for Gaylord Perry. Matty soon struck out. Felipe Alou, the Giants’ starting left fielder and leadoff man, then came up and grounded back to pitcher Carl Willey. For the first time in history, three brothers appeared in the same batting order—and they did so consecutively to boot.

Five days later, the Alous made their second collective appearance, this time in a different way. Playing in Forbes Field, the Giants built an 8-3 lead over the Pirates. In the bottom of the seventh, Dark began to rest some of his regulars. He took Willie McCovey out of right field, replacing him with Jesus Alou. And then in the bottom of the eighth, Dark removed Willie Mays from center field. Felipe Alou, who had started the game in left field, slid over to center. Dark then placed Matty Alou in left field. So for the first time ever, three brothers manned a major league outfield simultaneously.

After the game, a reporter asked Felipe if the three brothers had ever played together in the same outfield. “Yes, two years (ago) in the Dominican Republic,” Felipe explained to The Sporting News. “Only not this way. Matty played center, Jesus (played) left, and I played right.”

The new Alou outfield alignment made headlines, but no one thought that it represented a picture of the Giants’ outfield of the future. With Mays still in the prime of his career, and with McCovey having to play the outfield because of Orlando Cepeda’s presence at first base, there figured to be little chance for all three Alous to make permanent homes in San Francisco’s outfield.

With a glut of major league caliber outfielders (Jose Cardenal and Jim Ray Hart were also in the pipeline), the Giants broke one of the links in the Alou chain that winter, when they traded Felipe to the Milwaukee Braves. Matty would depart after the 1965 season, traded to Pittsburgh, where he would blossom under Harry Walker and become a batting champion.

That left Jesus, the youngest of the brothers, as the only Alou in San Francisco. His time with the Giants would produce a small controversy, one for which he bore no responsibility. Some broadcasters, not realizing that the Spanish name “Jesus“ is pronounced as (hey-ZOOS), refused to call him by his name out of fear that they would be religiously disrespectful to Christ Jesus. So they came up with a nickname, referring to him as “Jay“ instead. The reference even carried over to print publications, despite the fact that Alou preferred to be called by his given name.

Jesus would remain a Giant through the 1968 season, when he was left unprotected in the expansion draft and taken by the Montreal Expos. But he never did play for Montreal: The Expos sent him to the Astros as part of the complicated Rusty Staub deal.

With Jesus in Houston, Felipe in Atlanta, and Matty in Pittsburgh, the Alous might have thought they would never again play together. Well, the three of them would never again become teammates, but two of them did enjoy a reunion. That would occur in 1973, 10 years after their initial go-round.

During the first week of the 1971 season, the Yankees acquired Felipe Alou from the A’s for journeyman pitchers Rob Gardner and Ron Klimkowski. Seeking a right-handed bat, the Yankees used Felipe as a combination first baseman/outfielder. Now 36, Felipe no longer had much power, but still hit .289 with a .334 on-base percentage.

After the 1972 season, the Yankees made a wintertime deal, sending Gardner (yet again!) and infielder Rich McKinney to the A’s for Matty Alou. In making the trade, the Yankees would reunite Matty with elder brother Felipe.

The Yankees made Matty their starting right fielder. They were now using Felipe at first base, where he played in a platoon role with Ron Blomberg and Mike Hegan.

As a Yankees fan in the early 1970s, I collected the baseball cards of the Alou brothers that spring. Facially, Felipe and Matty looked somewhat alike; that created some confusion for some Yankees fans. But for me, it was easy to tell them apart. Felipe wore glasses; Matty did not. Felipe was tall and batted right-handed. Matty was short and batted from the left side.

But what of youngest brother Jesus? He started the 1973 season with the Astros, where he played sparingly as a pinch-hitter and platoon outfielder. By now it was obvious that Jesus would not exceed the talent levels of Felipe or Matty. He had hit .300 only twice in his career, had never reached double figures in home runs, and had never drawn more than 21 walks in a season. The speed that he showed in the Pacific Coast League did not materialize in terms of stolen bases. Jesus was certainly deserving of a major league roster spot, but he was clearly a role player, a pinch-hitter, a backup.

On July 31, the non-contending Astros sent the 31-year-old Jesus to the defending world champion A’s in a waiver trade. With a stacked outfield that already featured Joe Rudi, Billy North and Reggie Jackson, the A’s planned to use Jesus as a backup outfielder and occasional DH.

A few days after the trade, Jesus would enjoy a reunion of sorts. It happened Aug. 10 through Aug. 12, when Jesus and the A’s came to New York for a series at the old Yankee Stadium. Prior to the Friday night opener of the series, photographers made sure to snap shots of the three brothers together. One of those photographs would become the basis for an SSPC baseball card in 1975. Jesus, Felipe and Matty all played that night, with Jesus appearing as a pinch-hitter while Felipe and Matty made the Yankees’ starting lineup.

That summer in New York, Matty hit and fielded well, but the Yankees used him strangely. A singles hitter with some speed and no power, Alou usually batted third instead of leadoff. Meanwhile, Felipe struggled, his play falling off even further after the power decline of 1972.

Still, Felipe managed to have an impact on the Yankee clubhouse. When a reporter asked manager Ralph Houk who was the leader of the team, “The Major” provided this response: “I’d say Felipe.” Even at the age of 38, Felipe put forth a quality effort each day.

“Felipe plays every day like a pro,” Houk told Yankee beat writer Jim Ogle. “Have you ever seen him make a mistake? I’m talking about judgment, not errors. Everyone makes errors, but Felipe doesn’t do the wrong thing very often. Have you ever watched Felipe go down the line, then take the turn at first base on a hit to the outfield? If there is even the slightest bobble, he’s on his way to second.”

Due to a lack of hitting, Houk eventually had to replace Felipe, and he did so with Matty, who moved to first base despite being only 5-foot-9. (As the saying goes, Matty could have used a phone book to stand on at first base.) Felipe eventually made some starts in right field, mostly against left-handed pitching, as he platooned with veteran Johnny Callison. But Felipe just couldn’t hit anymore. He had lost his batting touch, his average falling into the .230s.

When the Yankees fell out of contention that summer, the front office felt it was time to move out some of the team’s over-the-hill veterans. So the Yankees released Callison, whose poor play had drawn the ire of George Steinbrenner. A few weeks later, the Yankees decided to cut ties with both of the aging Alous. On Sept. 4, the Yankees announced two separate but related transactions. They sold Matty to the Padres. They also sold Felipe on waivers to the Expos. It was only fitting that the brothers would depart New York on the same day.

Both Felipe and Matty would finish their big league careers in 1974. Felipe played a few games with Milwaukee before drawing his release. Matty spent half of the summer as a backup in San Diego before also receiving his release.

After playing for the A’s and the Mets, Jesus found himself out of the major leagues in 1976 and ‘77, but he fought his way back to the Astros in 1978, hitting a career-best .324 in a part-time role. He returned to Houston for the 1979 season before seeing his career end.

While Jesus settled for a career as a role player, his two brothers left larger legacies. Felipe was known as one of the game’s toughest players, respected by teammates and opponents alike. He was a five-tool talent who actually fulfilled all five of the tools. At his best, he was a legitimate power hitter with enough speed to steal a base, and a versatile defender capable of playing all three outfield positions. He was not quite at the level of a Hall of Fame player, but he was just a couple of notches below that line, and there is no shame in that.

A quiet professional, Matty was not quite the player that Felipe was, but he was awfully fun to watch. He used an unorthodox style at the plate, in which he swung a heavy bat and liked to hit off his front foot. He had absolutely no power and didn’t walk very much, but he could lace singles from foul line to foul line. In his prime, he batted for averages in the .330 to .340 range, which, coupled with his base stealing ability and his range in center field, made him a useful player.

As a clan, the Alou brothers spanned a period that touched parts of three decades in the major leagues. Beginning with Felipe in 1958 and ending with Jesus in 1979, the Alous covered a 20-year stretch of baseball history. During that span, they combined for five All-Star Game selections, a batting title, and three world championships. That would be a nice legacy for the Upton brothers to match.

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Comments

  1. charles said...

    Oh, the way Jesus Alou would stretch before he came up to the plate to hit.  Does somebody have a picture of that?!

  2. Murray Passarieu said...

    I’m a Pirates fan so Paul and Lloyd Waner will always be my favorite brother teammates, but I’m really rooting for the Uptons.  I’m hoping them being together will allow both to reach their potential finally.  That would be a great story!

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