Obituary: Jesús Alou (1942-2023)

RIP to Jesús Alou, the youngest of the three Alou Brothers and part of an extensive baseball family. He died on March 10 at the age of 80, just two weeks before his birthday. Alou played for the San Francisco Giants (1963-68), Houston Astros (1969-73, 1978-79), Oakland Athletics (1973-74) and New York Mets (1975).

Jesús Maria Rojas Alou was born on March 24, 1942, in Bajos de Hania, Dominican Republic. Older brother Felipe was born in 1935, and Matty (Mateo) was born in 1938. As noted by Alou’s SABR biography written by Mark Armour, there were six Alou siblings in total, including Maria, Juan and Virginia. Their last name is Rojas, as their parents are Jose Rojas and Virginia Alou. However, Felipe became known by the last name of “Alou” when he first reached professional ball in the United States, and the other two brothers just went with it as well. All three brothers attended Santo Domingo High School, albeit at different times. They all played baseball in the Dominican Republic right as the country was being recognized as a hotbed of baseball talent, and the Giants — still in New York — signed Felipe and Matty. Jesús was more interested in school or fishing until his brothers were signed by the Giants. “Seeing my brothers go to the United States made me wonder what the U.S. was like,” he said in a 1966 interview.

By 1959, Felipe was in his second season with the San Francisco Giants, and Matty was hitting well in his route through the Giants’ minor league organization. Jesús, though he was just 17 years old, was signed as well. (Other reports stated he was 16 when he was signed, and Jesús put his age at 15.) According to a 1962 article in the Tulsa Daily World, Giants scout Horacio Martinez signed him for a modest bonus of $4,000. The Giants were hoping that baseball talent ran in the family. The team was correct, but not in the way it originally thought. The youngest Alou was brought to Class-D Hastings as a pitcher, though the pitching experiment didn’t last too long. In 5 innings, he allowed 8 hits and 12 walks and gave up 11 earned runs. But he hit well in his limited chances. Starting in 1960, he was moved into the outfield, like his older brothers. A sore arm contributed to the end of his pitching career, but given the way he hit in the minors, it is hard to argue with the results.

Jesus Alou examines potential bats while playing for the El Paso Sun Kings. Looking on is team equipment manager Frank Burke. Source: El Paso Herald Post, March 20, 1963.

Alou was one of the hitting stars of the Sophomore League, with teams throughout New Mexico and Texas, in 1960. He batted .352 for the Artesia Giants, losing the batting title to teammate Gil Garrido by 10 points, but he did lead the league with 33 doubles and 188 hits. He also homered 11 times. After the end of the league’s season, he was promoted to Class-B Eugene of the Northwest League and hit .350 in 6 games. He returned to Eugene for all of 1961 and batted .336 with 31 doubles and 10 homers. As Jesús advanced in the minors, Felipe had become a starting right fielder, and Matty was seeing regular time in the outfield as well. It was thought to be just a matter of time before their brother joined them in San Francisco. Eugene manager Richie Klaus noted that the youngest Alou tended to swing at balls outside of the strike zone instead of taking walks. “He’ll hit a lot of those bad pitches for safeties,” he said. “That’s one of the things which makes him dangerous up there.”

Alou missed a month of the season while playing for El Paso in 1962, but he still managed 35 doubles, 10 triples and 11 home runs, to go with a .343 batting average. He also stole 24 bases, showing both more power and more speed than his brothers. After a full season with Triple-A Tacoma, in which he batted .324, Alou was promoted to the majors in September of 1963. He debuted as a pinch-hitter on September 10 against the New York Mets, grounding out against pitcher Carl Willey. Matty batted after him as a pinch-hitter and struck out, and Felipe hit a comebacker to Willey to end the inning. So not only did all three Alou brothers play in the same game, they all batted in the same inning. Jesús started in right field in the very next game and singled off Al Jackson for his first major-league hit. The long-awaited All-Alou Outfield happened in the late innings of the game in Pittsburgh on September 15. The Giants won by a score of 13-5, so manager Al Dark took outfielders Willie Mays and Willie McCovey out of the game and brought in Jesús and Matty. They played together over the final two innings of the game, but only one fly ball was hit into the outfield. It was misplayed by Jesús for his first error. By the end of the season, he had a .250 batting average in 16 games, with 5 runs driven in and 3 runs scored.

The game with all three Alous in the outfield highlighted the problem that San Francisco had. There were just too many good outfielders on the team, and Felipe was the odd man out. He was part of a 6-player trade in December of 1963 between the Giants and Milwaukee Brewers. The Giants got back catcher Del Crandall and pitchers Bob Hendley and Bob Shaw, and they opened up a hole in the outfield that Dark expected Jesús to fill. “Jesús will not hit as high as Felipe and doesn’t have his power, but he has a great arm and he runs good,” Dark said. “He can field as well as Felipe and we think he’ll hit .270 or .275 his first year.”

Jesús Alou did just that — be batted .274 in 115 games in 1964. He was injured early in the season with a bad ankle and then was spiked by Ron Hunt in early September, knocking him out for the rest of the year. “Sometimes I think I am not Jesús Alou unless I am hurt someplace,” the injury-prone outfielder complained. But he, brother Matty and Harvey Kuenn filled in for the departed Felipe. (The Giants acquired veteran Duke Snider for insurance in case Alou didn’t make the grade, but he hit .210 in his final season.) The biggest problem concerning the youngest Alou wasn’t even his problem — it was how others viewed his given first name. Obviously, Jesús is a common first name in Latin America. In the United States in 1964, it was a minor scandal in San Francisco. Long-time San Francisco Examiner columnist Prescott Sullivan wrote a column in March about how the team’s new right fielder needed a new first name. His concern came from a headline by a competing newspaper that said, “JESUS ALOU SAVES GIANTS.” He deduced that the original headline likely read “JESUS SAVES GIANTS” before some editor stepped in.

Jesus, Matty and Felipe Alou. Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 4, 2011.

“It is a grand name, a wonderful name and Jesus Alou wears it proudly,” Sullivan wrote. “But here in the United States, where it is sacred to Jesus Christ, the Lord Saviour, one finds extreme difficulty in associating it with just plain people.” He suggested “Jay” or “Jess” or “Chi Chi” and got quotes from several religious leaders who agreed Alou needed a new name. Giants Broadcasters Russ Hodges and Lon Simmons adopted the nickname of “Jay,” and the Sacramento Bee started using “Chi Chi” or “Chuchito.” Several columnists, including Charles McCabe and Max Norris, blasted the whole inane controversy. “In a so-called Christian country, why should anyone object to naming children after the fountainhead of their faith?” Norris wondered. Though even Norris wasn’t satisfied when Hodges and Simmons began calling Alou “Jesús,” using the correct Spanish pronunciation, because he wanted to hear the American “Jee-sus” version used. It was all a sign of changing demographics in baseball and the realization that there are other cultures in the world besides the American culture.

The whole episode died down quickly. Alou, for his part, did things like go 6-for-6 with a homer and 5 singles against the Cubs on July 10. By the end of the season, “Jay Alou” or “Chi Chi Alou” were largely things of the past, though his teammates frequently called him “Jay” out of fondness.

Alou was healthy for most of 1965 and played in a career-high 143 games. He slashed .298/.317/.398 and reached career bests with 162 hits, 9 home runs, 76 runs scored, and 52 RBIs. His biggest weakness was that he walked just 13 times in 567 plate appearances. He was among the top hitters in the National League for much of the season and hit particularly well in September when the Giants made a late-season pennant push. But his unwillingness to take walks became a problem in time.

By 1966, Jesús was the last Alou on the team, as Matty was traded to Pittsburgh in December of 1965. His batting average slipped to .259, as he was put into Matty’s old role of backup outfielder. “I was happy to see Matty leave because he wasn’t doing much with the Giants,” Jesús said. “I know how he must have felt with the job he had because I think I have his job now.”

Alou saw more regular playing time in 1967 and ’68. He hit .292 and .263 respectively, though injuries continued to knock him out for a week or two at a time. “I just wish that I could play every day, in every game, and get a hit every game. It seems something is always happening to me,” he said. His lack of plate discipline was becoming more problematic. He walked a total of 23 times in 970 plate appearances over those two seasons. “Some managers had told their pitchers they would be fined if they threw a strike to J. Alou. When a guy seems determined to swing at anything, why throw him a pitch he can cream,” a syndicated report stated in early 1968.

The Montreal Expos drafted Alou in the team’s inaugural expansion draft on October 14, 1968. He remained an Expo for a little over 3 months before he was traded to the Houston Astros, along with Donn Clendenon, for Rusty Staub. Clendenon refused to report to the Astros, so the Expos sent cash and pitchers Jack Billingham and Skip Guinn instead to complete the trade — which is why Clendenon was available to be traded to the New York Mets in the summer of 1969 and help lead that team to the World Series. Alou, meanwhile, remained with the Astros for four seasons and change. He got off to a rocky start with his new team, batting .206 going into the game against Pittsburgh on June 10, 1969. He chased a pop fly off the bat of Al Oliver and collided violently with shortstop Hector Torres. Oliver raced around the bases for a 3-run, inside-the-park homer, but Alou was laid out on the field in a life-threatening situation. He had swallowed his tongue and was struggling to breathe, fading in and out of consciousness. Astros trainer Jim Ewell and Pirates trainer Tony Bartirome pried open his jaw, and Bartirome inserted a rubber tube into Alou’s throat so that he could breathe. Alou missed more than a month of the season with a concussion and broken jaw. Incredibly, he hit a solid .285 when he returned in July and ended the year with a .248 batting average.

One of the reasons that the Astros acquired Alou in the first place is that manager Harry Walker had worked with Matty in Pittsburgh and help him win the 1966 NL batting title. He thought he could do the game with Jesús, though it took a year for the results to really show. Under Walker, the younger Alou switched from a 37-ounce bat to 33 ounces. “I’m waiting more on the ball now,” Alou said, “and he taught me how to handle the pitch that jams me.”

Alou scores from third base when Cardinals pitcher Steve Carlton held the bell during an argument at first base. Umpire Harry Wendlestedt makes and call while catcher Tim McCarver protests. Source: Fresno Bee, August 13, 1967.

In 117 games in 1970, Alou slashed .306/.335/.384, with 27 doubles and a career-high 21 walks. He struck out just 15 times, too. “He’s more of a free swinger than Roberto Clemente, and Jay hits the bad pitch better than Clemente,” said Astros pitching coach Jim Owens. “Clemente misses it a lot. Jay never strikes out.” Owens said that he once threw a brushback pitch at Alou, and he still managed to hit the ball.

Alou ran into the same problem in Houston that he once had in San Francisco. The team had a bevy of outfielders with Cesar Cedeno, Jim Wynn and Bob Watson, all of whom hit with more power than Alou. Though Alou played in 122 games in 1971 and hit a respectable .279, he didn’t really have a set position, splitting time in left and right field. In 1972, his role was reduced even further, to pinch-hitter and reserve outfielder. He hit .312 in the role but had fewer than 100 at-bats in 52 games. His 1973 season started off with more of the same, but Houston traded him to the Oakland A’s on July 31. Alou said he expected the deal, because of the new 5- and 10-year trade stipulation that had been recently agreed upon by the owners and the MLB Players Association. A player who had spent 10 years in the majors and five with the same team could veto trades he didn’t like. Houston moved Alou before he qualified. It ended up working well for the veteran outfielder. With Houston, he had hit .236 over the first half of the ’73 season. With Oakland, he batted .306 in 36 games. More importantly, he had joined a club at the height of its success, and he ended up as a part of two World Series-winning teams with the A’s in 1973 and 1974. Further, since the American League had adopted the designated hitter, he was able to gain more playing time. In 96 games with the A’s in 1974, he batted .268 with 2 home runs, playing mostly as a DH.

Alou played in both of the World Series, against the Mets in 1973 and Dodgers in 1974. He got into all seven games of the ’73 Series due to an ankle injury to center fielder Bill North, and he had 3 hits and 3 RBIs. He was limited to 1 at-bat in the ’74 AL Championship Series and 1 in the World Series. His bat, though, played a pretty large role. Ray Fosse borrowed it and hit a 3-run homer in the ALCS against Baltimore to help the A’s clinch the AL pennant.

The Athletics released Alou in the spring of 1975, and he caught on with the New York Mets. He was 33 years old and had come to terms with his role in the majors. “I can be on the bench for two months and I know I can go up and get a hit. Playing every day is a different story because it has been so long that even I don’t know if I can do it,” he said. Alou played in 62 games for the Mets in 1973 and had 27 hits for a .265 batting average. Let go a year later, Alou could have reached the end of his major-league career. He played a little in Mexico in 1976 and hit over .300 for Lycey of the Dominican Winter League the following year. In a surprise move, the Astros re-signed him in November of 1977. Though out of the majors for two years, he returned to his old role of pinch-hitter/corner outfielder with a great season, slashing .324/.345/.417. “I feel better now than I did when I was young,” Alou said. “With experience on one’s side, there’s no reason a player should retire at 37 or 38.”

Alou spent one more season with the Astros, as a player-coach, in 1979. He batted .256 in the role and then played briefly for Coatzacoalcos of the Mexican League in 1980. By then, Felipe Alou had begun his managerial career in the minors, and Matty was starting his own career as an instructor. Jesús Alou, the last active Alou brother, retired from professional baseball after the 1980 season at the age of 38.

Over 15 seasons, Alou had a slash line of .280/.305/.353. His 1,216 hits include 170 doubles, 26 triples and 32 home runs, and he scored 448 runs while driving in 377 runs. Alou walked 138 times — by comparison, Juan Soto walked 135 times in 2022 alone — but he only struck out 267 times, or once per every 16.3 at-bats.

The Alou family’s contributions to baseball go much further than the three brothers, or course. A cousin, Jose Sosa, pitched for Houston in the 1970s, and Jesús’ nephews include stars Moises Alou and Mel Rojas and former Mets manager Luis Rojas. Alou himself remained active in baseball, managing in the Dominican Republic and working as a major-league scout. He worked his way up to the Dominican scouting director for the Marlins and then the Red Sox. In all his roles, he helped bring new generations of Dominican ballplayers to professional baseball.

In a 1989 interview, Alou noted the importance of the first generation of talent that came to the majors from his home country. “It takes pioneers, people to go up there and do things right for other people. Not only to get the organizations to look back down here, but also to inspire little kids,” he said. “Why, so many talented Dominicans have signed, so many, that there are not enough visas.”

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