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Diamond Heirs
Michael Farber
June 19, 1995
It was Felipe Alou's destiny to become a baseball star, and then the game became his family's legacy
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June 19, 1995

Diamond Heirs

It was Felipe Alou's destiny to become a baseball star, and then the game became his family's legacy

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When those or any other Alou stories differ slightly, there is no point trying to reconcile them. No family sees with one pair of eyes. No family speaks with one voice.

"I can say for sure my father never threw a ball to me," Felipe says. "In America a father can't wait to throw a ball to his child, but it's not the same in the Dominican Republic. Moises learned to play in the Mota [youth] League. They knew he could be a baseball player; I didn't. My father never came to the States to see me play. The only time he was off the island was in 1964, when I took him to Caracas for interleague play between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. He flew home the second day because he was afraid the three or four cows he'd left with a neighbor weren't being tended properly.

"My father did three things for me: He bought me a pair of spikes when I was 14, though later he cut off the cleats and wore those shoes to work in his shop because he didn't have any other shoes. He gave me permission to sign my contract. And he was behind me till the day he died."

Felipe, the first Dominican manager in the major leagues, left Montreal for that sad and quick journey home to bury his father last August, but he denied Moises permission to attend his grandfather's funeral. "This team can win without one Alou," he told his son, "but it can't win without two." The night after Don Abundio died, Moises hit a home run to help the Expos beat the St. Louis Cardinals.

"You know, life is funny," Jesus Alou said as he drove away from the cemetery after a visit there one morning last February. "Whatever happened to this family was destiny. It was never forced to go in any direction. It was destiny."

Felipe Alou dozed fitfully as the bus rumbled east through the Louisiana night. He was sitting in the back of the vehicle because, in 1956, nine years after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers, this was still where you sat if you were black and traveling by public conveyance from Lake Charles, La., to Cocoa Beach, Fla. Alou, who was about to turn 21, had only recently discovered he was black. Don Abundio was black. Doha Virginia, whose father had emigrated from Spain, was white. Felipe had never thought much about his skin color until Jim Crow did the thinking for him. In his first professional baseball season in the States, he had had just nine at bats in five games before officials of his Lake Charles team realized that discrimination laws in other Evangeline League cities prohibited Alou and two other blacks on the team from playing there. That was why Alou was shoehorned into the rear of a bus on his way to the Florida State League.

He didn't know anything about Cocoa Beach except that it was in Florida. And he didn't know much about Florida other than that it contained Miami, where he could use the other half of the round-trip plane ticket the Giants had given him and forget this crazy country. For three days on the bus he lived on water and the peanuts he bought at rest stops. For three days he lined up to drink from the proper fountains and use the correct toilets. For three days he thought about quitting baseball. But when the bus stopped at five o'clock one Friday morning in May at a bench in the middle of nowhere, which the driver assured him was Cocoa Beach, Alou got off. I le began hiking toward some distant buildings, toward the Alou baseball destiny.

During his summer in Cocoa Beach, Felipe Alou would set down stories of baseball and race in precise weekly letters to his family, and he would embellish and add grace notes to the tales when he was home during the winters. To his brothers, who didn't know much about baseball in the U.S., Felipe's stories were fabulous. For a penny the brothers could buy two Spanish-language baseball cards and read about Ralph Branca or Allie Reynolds or the great Cleveland Indian pitching staff of the early 1950s, but Matty says that back when the boys were growing up, their knowledge of the big leagues was so vague that they weren't even sure these men were paid to play.

"Every year Felipe's stories were a big part of the homecoming," Jesus says. "He would tell us the things he did, the good steps and the bad steps he took, the bad experiences with racism. That never scared me. To me it sounded like an adventure, just part of the trip. We didn't know about the world."

They had grown up in Haina, which is about seven miles from Santo Domingo but only a 350-foot line drive from the Caribbean through a thicket of underbrush. The boys used machetes to hack out a path to the promontory they called Goat Point, after the half-wild goats that lived there. When the brothers weren't fishing for grouper and snapper or skipping stones into the sea, they were home helping their father in his carpentry shop or playing ball in the yard. Sometimes the ball was a coconut husk they tossed underhand, though more often they used half a rubber ball. They stitched first baseman's mitts from thin strips of canvas and cut bats from tree limbs, lathing them in the shop. The backyard rules were simple: You batted until you struck out. Felipe hit 206 home runs in the major leagues, but in a sense he and his brothers never left the yard. The three of them combined to play 25 big league seasons with at least 400 at bats, but only Felipe struck out as many as 60 times in a season, and he did it in just three of his 17 seasons. In fact, in 1970, Matty struck out only 18 times in 677 at bats.

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