"But back then, no parent in this country believed baseball was a serious thing," says Virginia Alou, who turned 80 in May. "That was not work."
Doña Virginia had plans for all six of her children—Felipe, Maria, Matty, Jesus, Virginia and Juan: She wanted them to be professionals, and baseball was only a game. Matty quit school after the eighth grade and longed to go to sea, but the others were studious. Jesus took secretarial courses at night and might be the only scout able to take shorthand. Felipe spent a year at the University of Santo Domingo. Although he starred in track as well as baseball, he was going to be a doctor.
But this family destiny kept tugging him in another direction. Felipe went to the Pan American Games in Mexico City in 1955 to run the sprints and throw the javelin. He wasn't even on the Dominican baseball team until the eve of the Games, when the leftfielder slugged one of Trujillo's security people and was sent home. Felipe, who was drafted to take his place, wound up batting cleanup and playing first base and outfield and had four hits in the final game as the Dominican Republic beat the U.S. for the gold medal. He had promised his parents he would return to school, but Horacio Martinez, the baseball coach at the University of Santo Domingo and a Giant scout, said Felipe would make a fine big leaguer. The Giants bet a $200 signing bonus on it in 1955.
"We owed 200 pesos to Bienvenido Ortiz, the grocer," Felipe says. "That was $200 at the time. Beans, rice, dried cod—he would put it on the account. After I got the money, we paid that debt. When I signed, the family was able to eat better."
Baseball quickly became the family business. Matty forgot the sea and decided to follow in his brother's footsteps, signing with the Giants two years after Felipe. He was grateful his brother had cleared the way, because when he took the bus from the spring training complex in Sanford, Fla., to play Class D ball in Michigan City, Ind., he knew precisely which rest rooms were meant for him.
Felipe made the Giants during the 1958 season, the second Dominican-born player in the major leagues (the Giants had called up Ozzie Virgil two years earlier, but Virgil had grown up in New York). Felipe batted .275 his second full year, but when a sports-writer praised him, he said, "Wait till you see my brother." Matty arrived in the majors in 1960 and hit .310 his second year. When the writer repeated Felipe's compliment to Matty, he said, "Oh, no, Felipe was talking about our younger brother Jesus." Jesus was called up by the Giants in September 1963 and hit .298 two years later.
On Sept. 10, 1963, San Francisco was playing the New York Mets at the Polo Grounds. Felipe was the regular Giant rightfielder. Matty and Jesus entered the game as pinch hitters and stayed in to play centerfield and left, respectively. For the only time in the annals of baseball, three brothers were playing in the same major league game.
"We weren't aware we were making history," Jesus says. "I don't even remember it exactly. It was like my second or third day in the majors. There was a thrill, but it was the thrill of the game, of finally getting to all these beautiful ballparks filled with all these people. We had played hundreds of games together for Escogido [of the Dominican Winter League]."
In a sport drunk on its own history, that September day made the Alous unforgettable collectively. But they were also memorable individually. Hundreds of players passed through the majors between 1958, when Felipe arrived, and '79, when Jesus retired. But if you are old enough to remember weekday World Series games, you can close your eyes and still picture the Alou brothers in their batting stances: Felipe, bat held high before his short, violent stroke; little Matty, waving a 36-inch, 36-ounce bat that seemed almost as big as he was, chopping opposite-field singles, guiding the ball as if he were playing tennis; Jesus, tall and limber, with a head that swiveled on his neck like a doll's and with a long, looping swing.
Felipe batted .327 and led the National League with 218 hits and 122 runs for the Atlanta Braves in 1966. Matty won the batting title that season by hitting .342 for Pittsburgh, the start of an eight-year run during which he averaged .320. Jesus had 27 doubles and hit .306 with the Houston Astros in 1970. The brothers finished with 5,094 hits among them, 241 more than Joe, Dom and Vince DiMaggio (but 517 fewer than Paul and Lloyd Waner).