2020 Tony Gwynn Award: Felipe Alou
Jose Rojas promised only one thing to the reporter sitting in his living room in the Dominican Republic more than 60 years ago, and it had nothing to do with a bat or a glove. He didn’t know if his sons Felipe, Mateo or Jesus Maria would attain stardom in the major leagues.
Rojas was absolutely certain, however, about the quality of the men he was sending to the United States. History will show that Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou validated their father’s promise.
“The only thing I’m certain about is that I’m sending three men to the world—three men—and that they will not make me look bad,” said the late patriarch of one of Major League Baseball’s greatest families.
Because the New York Giants didn’t understand how surnames are written in the Dominican Republic and throughout most of Latin America, Rojas’ boys earned their fame under their mother’s maiden name, Alou. The eldest of the three, Felipe Rojas Alou, became one of the great leaders in baseball, an icon who rates with Roberto Clemente of Puerto Rico among the most respected Latin American figures in sports history.
Because of Felipe Alou’s lifetime contributions to the game, Baseball America is honoring the 85-year-old with its Tony Gwynn Award. He’s the sixth recipient, following Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., Augie Garrido, Tom Kotchman, Jerry Weinstein and Keith Lieppman.
The Tony Gwynn Award celebrates a lifetime of making an impact in the game, sometimes behind the scenes, without the publicity of prominent managers, coaches or general managers.
Alou wasn’t behind the scenes very much. He was a three-time all-star during a 17-year playing career with the Giants, Braves, Yankees, Athletics, Expos and Brewers. He amassed 2,101 hits and 206 home runs.
After his playing career, Alou waited patiently as a minor league manager and coach before getting his shot as a major league manager in 1992 at 57 years old with the Expos. He spent a decade in Montreal before serving as the Giants’ manager for four years.
Alou led the Giants to 100 wins and the National League West title in 2003. He also was the NL Manager of the Year in the strike-shortened 1994 season with an Expos squad that many considered a legitimate World Series contender.
He’s still listed as a special assistant to the GM with the Giants, but medical issues have kept him from being as involved as he would prefer.
“I’ve had open-heart surgery,” he said. “And I’ve had knee-replacement surgery, but I’m aware of everything that happens in baseball.”
The native of Bajos de Haina spends most of his time at his South Florida home. He enjoys attending spring training in Arizona, but he doesn’t know if that will be possible next spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alou followed Ozzie Virgil, who debuted in 1956 with the New York Giants, as the second native of the Dominican Republic to reach the majors.
Few people know that Alou was actually a track athlete before he signed with the Giants. He threw the javelin and competed in the pentathlon at the 1954 Central American Games in Mexico. A year later, he returned to Mexico with the Dominican Republic’s baseball team to win a gold medal at the Pan-American Games.
“It was the first gold medal that the Dominican won in any Pan-Am Games,” he said proudly of the team that edged the U.S. “Because of my production in the Pan-Am Games that’s when the Giants signed me, right after the Pan-Am Games in 1955, to play my first professional games in 1956.”
He reached the majors two years later, debuting on June 8, 1958, on the first Giants team to play in San Francisco.
He and eventual Hall of Famer Juan Marichal helped establish Dominican star power on a winning team with the NL champion 1962 Giants. They were both selected for the 1962 All-Star Game in Washington D.C., marking the first time players from the Dominican were selected for the Midsummer Classic.
He was named an all-star again in 1966, finishing that season with a league-leading 218 hits and 355 total bases for the Braves while finishing fifth in the NL MVP race. Alou returned to the All-Star Game in 1968, when he led the NL with 210 hits. He had three at-bats over three games in 1974 with the Brewers before retiring at age 39.
“There were some bad raps that we had to work through and put out of our way, that we were hot dogs, that we didn’t play hard, all of that stuff,” Alou said. “I’m proud that at the end of the day, that rap is no longer with the Latin player.”
He began his managerial career in the minors in 1977. He also won four Dominican League championships as a manager and two more Venezuelan League titles before becoming the first Dominican manager in the majors early in the 1992 season with the Expos.
While becoming the second and third Dominicans enshrined in Cooperstown, Martinez and Guerrero both thanked Alou for the impact he had on their careers. Alou went 1,033-1,021 as a manager, finishing first in his division twice and second four times. He opened the door for other Latinos to become big league managers, including fellow Dominicans Tony Peña, Manny Acta and even his son Luis Rojas with the 2020 Mets.
Twenty-eight years after Alou’s major league managerial debut, there are four Latino managers in the majors—his son plus Alex Cora of the Red Sox, Dave Martinez of the Nationals and Charlie Montoyo of the Blue Jays.
Alou was in his sixth season as a minor league manager in 1987 when former Dodgers GM Al Campanis infamously claimed that Blacks didn’t have the capabilities to manage in the majors. Alou helped dispel that notion. The last three World Series-winning managers have been people of color—Cora, Martinez and the Dodgers’ Dave Roberts.
“I’m very proud of my legacy and my length of service both as a coach and manager in the major leagues and as a minor league manager, as a scout,” Alou said. “I never had an official title of scout, but I have served as a scout, recommended players here and there in winter ball.
“All of that to me adds to a legacy and a long road to the end that we came here, including me, to add some flavor to the game, to add some aggressiveness to the game. Because there was a time when a man, even like Roberto Clemente, was accused of being a guy who didn’t want to play every day, a hypochondriac.
“(Some claimed) this guy if he had a bad nail he wouldn’t play. And then all of a sudden that player got 3,000 hits. I don’t know how a guy who didn’t want to play every day gets 3,000 hits.”
As Alou recalled how Clemente dealt with unfair criticism, it was easy to remember how even the greatest Latino superstars had to deal with unfair stereotypes. Some of those double-standards still exist, but tremendous progress has been made.
“Also, remember, somebody (Campanis) said that a Black didn’t have the qualities, whatever, to be a leader, to be a manager,” Alou said. “Well, we put ourselves together with the Blacks and Latinos, because . . . 99% of Latino baseball players are Black. So all of all of that stuff is behind us. People have accepted us as a very important part of the industry of baseball.”
The Giants’ Dominican academy is named after Alou, the son of a man who never owned a glove or a baseball uniform. Felipe Rojas Alou lived up to his father’s expectations. He dismisses any talk of wanting a place in Cooperstown. He prefers to think of the legacy he has left through his sons.
He points out that Luis Rojas and Moises Alou aren’t his only children leaving their marks on baseball. Moises’ brother Jose is a scout with the Giants. Another son, Felipe Jose, who reached Triple-A, runs the Orioles’ Dominican academy.
“When you represent so many people, I wouldn’t say you’re under pressure, but you are kind of (under pressure) to keep the name clean,” he said. “You have to make sure that you don’t say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.
“You got to be an example not only for your children (but) for the children of other people as a manager that I was for a long time in the big leagues and also in the minor leagues. You got to set an example not only for your family, but for the family of other people, to all their children.”
It all goes back to Jose Rojas’ expectations. Alou has shared those expectations with his kids.
“All of them have heard it,” he said. “Matty, Jay Alou and I, when we left, there was a sportswriter who went to my home and he asked my dad exactly what you are asking me, that if he was proud. He said, ‘Well, I don’t know if they’re going to be good players, but I know that I’m sending three men to the world. Three men.”
Jose Rojas’ men made a positive difference in the world, and Felipe Rojas Alou’s sons Jose, Moises, Felipe Jose and Luis are doing the same now. That’s Felipe Alou’s ultimate legacy.
Jose De Jesus Oritz is the editor for OurEsquina.com, a site devoted to celebrating the Latino story in sports.