Friday, November 04, 2011

Matty Alou: Rest In Peace

In 1965, San Francisco Giants center fielder Matty Alou batted .231 with 75 hits. 

In 1966, Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Matty Alou batted .342 with 183 hits, winning the National League batting championship.

Over the next four years, all with the Pirates, Alou demonstrated remarkable consistency at the plate, batting  .338 (185 hits), .332 (186 hits), .331 (231 hits, which led the league), and .297 (201 hits).

How did this remarkable transformation of Alou as a hitter happen? 

After the Pirates traded for Alou following the 1965 season (for Ozzie Virgil and Joe Gibbon), manager Harry "The Hat" Walker, a former NL batting champion himself, worked with Alou in spring training to completely transform his approach at the plate.

Like Walker, Alou was a left-hand hitter, and Walker taught him to choke up on the bat, chop down at pitches, and slap them through the left side of the hard infield ("the Alabaster Plaster " Pirates' play-by-play announcer Bob Prince called it) at Forbes Field.

At the same time, another famous opposite-field hitter, Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, The Great One, took the diminutive Spanish-speaking Alou under his wing. Clemente's mentoring and encouragement of Alou was critical to Alou's success as a hitter.

Pirates' outfielders Matty Alou, Manny Mota, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. "To say, "they could hit" is  an understatement.
During his five years with the Pirates, Alou hit just eight home runs, but he amassed 986 hits. As a leadoff hitter, he set the table for the likes of Clemente, Willie Stargell and Donn Clendenen. What an outfield that Pirates team had for those five years -- Alou in center between Clemente and Stargell, Hall of Famers both, with pinch hitter extraordinaire Manny Mota coming off the bench.

After the 1970 season, with up-and-coming players like Al Oliver and Gene Clines pushing for playing time, the Pirates traded Alou to the St. Louis Cardinals for backup outfielder Vic Davalillo and pitcher Nellie Briles, who would be instrumental in helping the Pirates win the 1971 World Series.

In the national media today, Alou's incredible five-year run with the Pirates tends to be overshadowed by the fact that he was one of a trio of Alou brothers (with Jesus and Felipe) who not only played in the majors at the same time, but played in the same outfield with the Giants.

As Matty Alou's obituary in The New York Times notes of the Alou brothers:

"They each went on to successful big-league careers, and together they played more than 5,000 games, more than any set of family members in baseball history. They also had more than 5,000 hits, more than the DiMaggios — Joe, Vince and Dom — though not quite as many as Lloyd and Paul Waner."

Hall of Famers Lloyd and Paul Waner -- Little Poison and Big Poison -- played together with the Pirates, of course, during the 1920s and '30s. 

Interestingly, while with the Pirates, Alou hardly ever struck out. He didn't walk much, but he didn't strike out much, either. In 1970, he struck out just 18 times in a league-leading 677 at-bats. The year before, 1969, he struck out just 35 times in a remarkable league-leading 746 plate appearances and 698 at-bats.  He led the league with 231 hits and 41 doubles, and he added six triples for good measure. Matty Alou was a fine ballplayer and a great Pirate.

Matty Alou died yesterday at his home in Santo Domingo, The Dominican Republic. He was 72. Rest in peace, Matty Alou.


Larry Rosenthal said...

Outstanding post - thanks.

Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls said...

Thanks, Larry, for the encouragement. Appreciate it.