By Bruce Markusen
This is the only Topps card that shows Matty Alou as a Yankee. Upon first look, most fans are struck by the enormity of the Yankees’ “NY” logo. But it’s not the actual Yankee logo; it’s been airbrushed onto the photograph, along with the Yankee pinstripes and the navy blue cap. The artist who did the airbrushing simply overestimated the size of the interlocking “NY.”
In the actual photograph that Topps used, Alou is wearing the colors of the A’s, with the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum providing the backdrop. Alou spent the latter half of the 1972 season with the A’s, and played a subtle role in helping Oakland win its first world championship, before being purged by Charlie Finley in a cost-cutting maneuver. Without any photos of Alou in Yankee pinstripes, the people at Topps opted for the old airbrushing route.
All these memories of this card come back to me with the news of Alou’s death. He passed away on Thursday at the age of 72, apparently from the effects of diabetes. This is particularly hard news for me because Matty Alou was one of my favorite players. Though he only played part of one season with the Yankees, he was a guy who left me with a boatload of memories from various points throughout his career.
Why did I like Alou so much? I think part of it has to do with his unconventional hitting style. He used a very unorthodox style at the plate–he swung a heavy bat, often hit off his front foot, and blooped a lot of singles to the opposite field–all of which made him intriguing. Ted Williams, the most scientific hitter in history, used to say that Alou broke every rule of batting, but somehow managed to succeed. And unlike Williams, Alou was an extremely aggressive hitter who didn’t walk all that much. But the man could hit singles with the best of them. Alou batted for a very high average, which coupled with his base stealing ability and the speed that allowed him to go first to third, made him a useful player.
Alou began his career with the Giants, where he had the privilege to play in the same outfield with his older brother Felipe and his younger brother Jesus. But Matty never found his way in San Francisco. It was not until he was traded to the Pirates, where he worked with manager Harry “The Hat” Walker on his hitting. The Hat completely retooled Alou’s approach, and to his credit, Alou openly accepted the advice.
The results were undeniable. In 1966, Alou batted .342 to lead the National League. In his next three seasons, he batted .338, .332, and .331. That represents one of the great four-year stretches a hitter has ever experienced. Alou was also a very good center fielder with range and a plus arm, making him a fairly complete package in Pittsburgh. All that he lacked was power.
By the time that Alou joined the Yankees in 1973, he was no longer the same player. Injuries robbed him of his arm strength, while slowing bat speed erased his abilities as a .330 hitter. But the Yankees felt he could help fill a void in right field. The Yankees were set in the other outfield spots–Roy White played left and Bobby Murcer starred in center–but right field had become a problem. Alou stabilized the position somewhat, though he lacked the arm or the ideal amount of power that once expects from a right fielder. He also made 40 appearances at first base, something he had done previously with the Cardinals. At five feet, nine inches, Alou looked odd playing first base; he could have used a phone book to stand on first base and corral high throws from Gene Michael and Graig Nettles.
Alou hit well for the Yankees, batting .296 with an on-base percentage of nearly .340. If the Yankees remained in contention, Alou would have lasted the entire season in New York. But the Yankees fell out of the pennant race, convincing them to try a late-season youth movement. So they sold Felipe Alou to the Brewers and sold 34-year-old Matty to the Cardinals, ridding themselves of two expensive contracts in the process. And that was it for Matty Alou in pinstripes.
As it turned out, Alou did not have much left in his hitting tank. He batted only .198 for the Padres in 1974, but he did not want to call it quits. So he headed to the Japanese Leagues, where he put in three seasons before retiring.
Alou was still playing in the Far East by the time the Yankees became good again and won back-to-pennants in 1976 and ‘77. Like so many of my favorite old players, like Johnny Callison and Walt “No-Neck” Williams and Jim Ray Hart, he did not last long enough to see the glory years in pinstripes.
But at least fun players like Matty Alou made those lean years of the early 1970s a little more bearable for a Yankee fan like me. For that, I will be ever grateful to Matty Alou. Rest in peace, Matty.