There’s always a degree of sadness that comes with hearing about the death of a former major leaguer.
That’s especially the case when the death involves a player that I remember watching.
And when death hits one of my favorite players, the feeling of loss is far more pronounced.
So it is with a real feeling of melancholy that I’m enduring the news of the passing of Alou, who died Thursday at the age of 72.
Alou became one of my favorite players, particularly toward the tail-end of his career. With his small size and unusual hitting style, Alou became a fascinating figure to follow.
The unorthodox batting approach of the five-foot, nine-inch Alou—his swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and hitting off of his front foot while using a remarkably heavy bat—had drawn criticism for much of his career. Alou strode with his right foot first, kept his bat back as long as possible, and then flicked his wrists.
This was the style taught to him by Harry Walker, the Pirates’ manager who completely reworked Alou’s approach at the plate after he had struggled during his years in San Francisco. By accepting the advice of “The Hat,” Alou often blooped balls into short left field or down the left-field line for soft singles and doubles, padding his batting average in the process.
Steve Carlton, at the time with the Cardinals, once called Alou “the worst .300 hitter I’ve seen.” Ted Williams, the greatest and most scientific hitter in the game’s history, once offered the following critique of Alou to The Sporting News: “He violates every hitting principle I ever taught.”
Yet, by bunting, chopping down on the ball, and spraying line drives to all fields, Alou won the National League batting title with a .342 average in 1966, and followed that up with marks of .338, .332 and .331 over the next three years. It was simply a remarkable stretch for the man who handled the bat like it was a Stradivarius.
By the time the early 1970s rolled around, Alou was no longer as dangerous a hitter. Yet he still performed well in other ways. The 160-pound Alou was regarded as the best bunter in the National League, was capable of executing the hit-and-run, and still owned enough foot speed to reach double figures in stolen bases.
He also became a contributor to a world championship team; in the middle of the 1972 season, the A’s acquired Alou from the St. Louis Cardinals. Becoming Oakland’s regular right fielder, and allowing Reggie Jackson to move to center field full time, Alou helped the A’s win the American League West on their way to a World Series title over the Reds.
In a cost-cutting maneuver, the penurious Charlie Finley traded Alou and his expensive salary to the Yankees during the winter. Alou played part of the ‘73 season as New York’s principal right fielder, but when the Yankees fell out of the pennant race in September, they jettisoned both Alou and his brother, Felipe. The Yankees sent Felipe to Milwaukee while discarding Matty to St. Louis.
Employed mostly as a pinch-hitter by the Cardinals, Alou rapped out three hits in 11 at-bats. After the season, the Cards sold him to San Diego, where he finished out his major league career with an uncharacteristically poor batting mark of .198. Not satisfied that he was done as a professional hitter, Alou took his act to Japan, where he played for three additional seasons before finally retiring.
So why did I like Alou so much? After all, he was hardly a Hall of Famer. He never drew many walks or hit many home runs, so most of his value was tied up in his batting average. And by the end of his career, he could no longer throw.
I guess my fondness for Alou had to do with his physique and his style. A little guy, he defied the old-time wisdom that only bigger players could be good players. In his early years, he played center field with range and grace. He also hit with such unconventional methods, defying the critics who claimed that he broke too many of the fundamental rules of hitting.
There was something fun about watching a hitter like Alou cutting and slashing aggressively, spraying hits to all field, and going from first to third with a combination of fleet speed and fluidity.
Alou also happened to play for my three favorite teams: the Pirates, A’s, and Yankees. He did most of his damage with the Pirates, but he also played a subtle role in helping solidify Oakland’s outfield during its first world championship run, and he played respectably in his abbreviated season with the Yankees. In my mind, he did all three uniforms proud.
Given his style and his team affiliations, Matty Alou was my kind of player. I’m regretful that I never had the chance to meet him, but I’m glad that I collected some of his baseball cards and appreciate that I was lucky enough to see him play, at least briefly, towards the latter stages of his career.
Thanks, Matty, for all of those good memories.