Posted: Friday September 1, 2006 12:52PM; Updated: Friday September 1, 2006 12:53PM
By Jason Turbow, Special to SI.com
They asked us if we were looking for dishwashing jobs. We said we just wanted to eat, but they wouldn't let us in.
-- Felipe Alou
Alou was never supposed to go to Louisiana, was never intended to suffer the callousness of exclusion. But with Alou's position as one of his country's top track athletes, it was only natural for a Dominican official to assume that Alou's visa application for Melbourne referred to the city in Australia, home of the upcoming Olympic Games, and not the city of the same name in Florida, home of the Giants' spring camp.
By the time the misfiled paperwork was corrected, Alou was more than a month late and in no shape to catch up with the higher-level club in Carolina to which he had originally been assigned. So he was sent to lower-level Lake Charles. Adapting to a new country without being able to speak the language is always difficult, but this was a different world.
"When I first got to Florida, every time we went to town somebody took us in a car and told us, 'Don't go to this place, do go to that place,'" he said. "This was told only to the Latin players -- not to the blacks, because the blacks already knew what they were up against."
Being unable to order a meal in the majority of a city's restaurants because of your skin color is one thing; being unable to order a meal in the rest of them because you can't recognize a word on the menu is quite another. And when Alou followed his teammates onto a bus after a game one day, only to discover that it was the start of a five-day road trip for which he didn't have so much as a change of clothes, it served only to typify his dilemma.
It took a month for Alou to be transferred out of Lake Charles, and less than two seasons later he was in the big leagues, far from the politics of segregation, in one of the country's most liberal cities. It was still the 1950s, however, and even San Francisco had its troubles.
The Giants' clubhouse in Alou's early years was, in many respects, the model for what was to come. From 1958 to '62 the San Francisco locker room hosted no fewer than nine Latino players. In 1962 the Giants earned a trip to the World Series. Then, as now, however, there was no such thing as majority rule, at least when the majority was made up of minorities.
It started on the road, where the Giants' black and Latin players faced discrimination in every city they visited. In Pittsburgh, Alou and Cepeda -- wearing brand-new suits -- found it in a downtown restaurant.
"They asked us if we were looking for dishwashing jobs," said Alou. "We said we just wanted to eat, but they wouldn't let us in."
In Chicago they waited an hour without service before giving up and leaving. In Houston, Cepeda went to see Cleopatra -- the box-office smash of 1963, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton -- but was forced to return to his room, defeated, after the theater refused to sell him a ticket.
Felipe Alou leaps for a Hank Aaron home run ball on Aug. 5, 1961, his fourth season with the Giants.
The undercurrent of exclusion ran deeper than that. In every hotel the Giants stayed in, the players of color were assigned to the same floor. Even within the organization, Alou was never paired with a white roommate. It was the reception he received within his own clubhouse, however, that proved to be the most shocking.
With 11 Latino players in camp in spring training in 1961, Giants manager Alvin Dark decreed that Spanish could no longer be spoken in the clubhouse.
This was the same man who once told Newsday, "You can't make most Negro and Spanish players have the pride in their team that you can get from white players."
By modern standards the statement was ludicrous, but looking at the Giants' roster of the 1960s, it was nothing short of dastardly, especially when it came to Alou, among the proudest men in the game.
Which is why it's surprising that, with 45 years of perspective, Alou not only fails to harbor a grudge, he also sees Dark in an entirely gracious light.
"Alvin Dark, who's the man who was accused of being a racist -- he's the one who integrated the clubhouse -- and that was before his ban on speaking Spanish," said Alou.
Dark's effort to get his team to communicate in a common tongue could be seen as an attempt to unify the group; his ordering the lockers of Latin and African-American players to be spaced evenly among those of the Caucasians left little to doubt.
Call it hard-headedness, call it outright insubordination or call it pride: Alou and his mates continued to speak to one another in Spanish, and the edict quietly faded away. It was one step in Alou's ongoing struggle against institutional bigotry.
Another came in November 1962, when Alou, home for the winter, played with the Dominican national team in a series against a squad from Cuba. The outfielder, by this time a big-league All-Star, had been asked to participate by Dominican president Rafael Bonelli in an effort to stem the growing unrest that had gripped the country since the assassination of longtime dictator Rafael Trujillo the previous year. But when word of the event reached the office of Major League Baseball, commissioner Ford Frick was livid and threatened $250 fines for anyone who competed against the Castro regime.
"Frick, who never understood the Latins and their problems, had no concept of the political consequences of the three-game series, nor did he have any idea that once the games had been set up, there was no way the Dominican people would have permitted big leaguers from their country not to compete," Alou wrote in his 1967 biography.
Alou played anyway and refused to pay the fine. Frick banned Alou from playing in 1963 until his fine was paid. To the outfielder the money was superficial, but the incident suggested a deeper problem within his sport. Alou responded by requesting a Latin-American envoy in Frick's office, "because the commissioner does not know our problems," and penning an article in SPORT magazine titled "Latin-American Ballplayers Need a Bill of Rights."
When Alou showed up for spring training, his uniform was withheld and only then did he cough up the $250. By paying the fine, Alou might have lost the battle, but he eventually won the war when, in 1965, William Eckert took over for Frick and created a position within the commissioner's office to ensure the welfare of Latin American players.