This One Time Yankee Should Be Enshrined in Cooperstown
by Lincoln Mitchell
January 2, 2021
A year or so ago, while doing research for my next book, I interviewed a man who had grown up in Springfield, Massachusetts in the 1940s and 1950s. As a youth he had frequently helped his Greek immigrant father who ran a shoeshine stand at the bus station. Because the Giants had a minor league team in Springfield, he became a fan of that team. He told me that his favorite Giants player back then had been Felipe Alou because he was the biggest tipper on the team.
Felipe Alou hit .306 with 12 home runs during his one season at Single A Springfield and by 1958 had made it to the big leagues. More than a decade later, Alou was traded to the Yankees where he spent two and a half years as a productive outfielder and pinch hitter, slashing .271/.311/.382 on Yankees teams that were a few years away from being very good. Alou, whose best years were with the Giants and the Braves, retired following the 1974 season. Of all the former Yankees who have been snubbed by Hall of Fame voters, a group that includes Thurman Munson and Graig Nettles, the most intriguing and perhaps egregious case is that of Felipe Alou.
Over the course of his career, Alou was a very good player. His 42.3 WAR, three All-Star game appearances, .286 batting average, 206 home runs and solid defense make him a clear member of the Hall of Very Good, but his numbers alone do not make him a Hall of Famer. Moreover, there is no great moment in his career that might change that. He only played in the post-season twice and his most famous moment as a player is probably his inability to get a sacrifice bunt down in the bottom of the ninth of game seven of the 1962 World Series with the Giants trailing the Yankees 1-0. His failure to do that, and move the tying run-his brother Matty-over to second for Chuck Hiller, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey haunted him for decades.
Players like Alou need something more than just numbers to make it to the Hall of Fame. This is where Alou’s candidacy becomes interesting. After retiring as a player, Alou stayed in the game and managed for fourteen years, ten with the Montreal Expos and for with the Giants. Only 57 men have managed more than the 2,055 games Alou managed in the big leagues. The closest Alou ever came to a championship was in 1994 when his Expos had the best record in baseball before the strike that cancelled the rest of the season and the post-season began. Alou was awarded Manager of the Year for his work with that Expos team for his efforts.
Alou’s managerial career was, like his playing career, good but not quite impressive enough to merit Hall of Fame induction. However, there is a third leg of the stool of Alou’s candidacy-his enormously important role in baseball history. Alou was the first player raised in the Dominican Republic to play in the Major Leagues. Ozzie Virgil, also a Giant had been born in the Dominican Republic, but grew up in New York City. There is no single Latino ballplayer who played a uniquely groundbreaking role in baseball history comparable to that of Jackie Robinson. Rather, there were a handful of players like Orestes Minoso, Roberto Clemente and Alou who together, along with others including, years later, Fernando Valenzuela, were extremely important parts of the history of Latinos in baseball.
Felipe Alou was not just the first player to have grown up in the Dominican Republic to play in the big leagues, but he was an advocate for Latinos at a time when they faced prejudice in the media, in front offices and frequently in their own clubhouses. His November 1963 article in Sport Magazine, co-authored with Arnold Hano called “Latin-American Ballplayers Need a Bill of Rights” is a powerful expression of the challenges that Alou and is cohort faced and an important document for understanding baseball history. Alou paved the way not only for the first wave of Dominican ballplayers, many of whom ended up on the Giants with him-among them were his brothers Jesus and Matty, who played for the Yankees the year after Felipe left the team, and a neighbor of the Alou family back in the Dominican Republic named Juan Marichal-but for generations of Dominican ballplayers who have had a huge impact on the game in recent decades.
The entire narrative of Alou’s career demonstrates that he was a very good ballplayer, pretty good manager and a player of great historical significance. Together, that is a Hall of Fame resume. To put it more starkly, Alou was a better player than Harold Baines, who was recently inducted by a committee, and a much more central figure for anybody trying to learn the story of baseball. I’m not sure Alou should get extra credit for being a good tipper, but it doesn’t hurt. Oh, and in case you’re wondering what happened to the kid from the shoeshine stand-he moved to California in 1969. Eighteen years later, in 1987, he was elected mayor of San Francisco.