Felipe Alou retraces his epic baseball journey in new memoir

Alou: My Baseball Journey

Felipe Alou, with Peter Kerasotis

293 pages

University of Nebraska Press, 2018

 

What a job resume! Anyone who’s ever applied for a job worries about those time gaps. As in: where were you were working from this date to that date?

Felipe Alou had none of those problems. Since signing as a player with the New York Giants in 1955, he stayed employed constantly through 2018. Best of all, all these jobs were in professional baseball.

That’s only one sense of Alou’s baseball journey.  The talented outfield prospect came out of poverty in the Dominican Republic, making his minor league debut in 1956. Alou inaugural season was overshadowed by the racism of the Deep South, however.  Fans peppered him with racist taunts, all “in that lilting Louisiana accent—a syrupy drawl, the sound and cadence of which have never left my ears.”

Alou’s eloquence runs through his memoir. He tells of early friendships with Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey. Cepeda and Roberto Clemente are praised as Alou’s batting muses. McCovey, meanwhile, encouraged Alou to stop buying and wearing cheap shoes for off the field. This author is grateful for many allies, and he shares the reasons why.

On September 10, 1963, Alou made major league history with brothers Jesus and Matty. The Giants outfield featured three brothers playing side by side. After two innings together with no consequence, reporters asked Felipe how he felt being one of three Alous on the field. “But mostly what I felt was an overwhelming sense of responsibility to look out for my younger brothers,” Alou recalled. “I was more concerned for them than anything else.”

Felipe Alou is a fine storyteller. He relates the tense relationship he endured with then-racist Alvin Dark, the Giants manager. Amazingly, they became friends after Alou’s career, thanks to their shared Christian faith.

The biggest surprise for me in the book was a revelation about son Moises Alou. Felipe got to manage his son with the Expos. Father Alou reveals a tidbit about Moises as a rookie: one of his son’s superstitions was to pee on his hands before a game, in hopes of gripping a bat better. Anyone getting an in-person autograph from Moises during those first years might think twice over their success.

One sentence in the book jumped out at me in the book. “…I believe it’s criminal to charge fans money to see pitchers hit.” Alou makes a strong case for why the National League should allow designated hitters, too. Noting that Alou spent his entire managerial career in the National League makes his feelings even more compelling.

Peter Kerasotis gets applause as an all-star co-author. Book projects require such assisting writers to be part hypnotist, part traffic cop and part cheerleader. Kerasotis extracted details aplenty from Alou, gleaning personal feelings to frame each notable moment. Alou’s book maintains a clear narrative path, moving through seasons with chronological ease.

Alou, now available in a new edition with an afterword by Bruce Bochy, is a worthwhile addition to baseball bookshelves.  Read Alou, and you’ll be thinking that you own exhibit A in the case to get him overdue Hall of Fame consideration.

 

 

Wes Westrum recalled his Minnesota roots: Celebrating a decade of Baseball by the Letters via its first-ever blog post!

(From March 10, 2010 edition of Baseball By The Letters)

 

Westrum Wes 1951 Bowman
Westrum died in 2002. His rookie card comes from the 1951 Bowman set. 

Wes Westrum’s baseball heyday came in New York. He logged a decade catching for the Giants, racking up two All-Star team nods and a 1954 World Championship ring. Westrum returned to the Big Apple as a Mets coach, becoming manager when Casey Stengel fractured his hip and was forced to retire.

All those New York headlines could never match the drama of Westrum’s Minnesota roots. I grew in admiration for any Minnesota native developing as a major leaguer after reading Stew Thornley’s fine Baseball in Minnesota: A Definitive History Thornley has documented the rise of Westrum and his Minnesotan counterparts in Minnesotans in Baseball

Before he died at age 79 in 2002, Westrum sent an epic description of his evolution as a baseball player. (I asked about his place in Minnesota baseball history, along with memories of other native sons. Mentioning that my wife was born in Redwood Falls may have helped increase my chances at a response!)

Westrum wrote:

“Spent all my youth in all the sports. My father died at an early age (37). Baseball was the quickest way to help the family. I was a better football player and had a scholarship to Minnesota. Played pro baseball while in high school so I couldn’t go. Played basketball at Bemidji State Teachers one year before Uncle Sam got me.

Caught Paul Giel in his first game with the New York Giants. Great competitor and wonderful fellow. I was Jerry Koosman’s coach and manager with the New York Mets. Great person.

Russ Rolandson from Alexandria was with us in 1947 with Minneapolis Millers. He was a catcher from the College of Hamline.

Bill Dickey of the Yankees was my idol growing up in the small town of Clearbrook, Minnesota. The people of Clearbrook took up a small collection of $65 to send me to the Crookston (MN) Pirates in my junior year of high school. I made the (minor league) team.

Lots of fond memories of those days. Best always, ‘Wes’ Westrum”

The local hero did return. Westrum passed away in Clearbrook, Minnesota May 28, 2002. Did his friends and neighbors realize they were investing $65 in an all-star career? Clearbrook did in 1990, opening the Wes Westrum Baseball Museum.

One grateful catcher never forgot one hometown’s kindness.

MLB.com raises eyebrows with quiz: ‘Can you guess which star’s autograph this is? Are those letters or squiggles?’

Bryant signing autographs 2
Kris Bryant, in a 2018 minor league rehab stint, signs quickly for a crowd, giving them his abbreviated signature. (Photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann)

The April 8 quiz of the day on MLB.com is worth pondering. Eric Chesterton brought up a couple of interesting questions about the penmanship of today’s major leaguers.

Chesterton praises MLB stars for penning nearly identical signatures every time. However, he adds, “But the ability to generate identical signatures every time doesn’t mean those signatures are ever legible.”

Check out Chesterton’s 20 autographed baseballs. See what you think.

I think I might be writing thank-you letters to current players who take the time to spell it all out for me. Legible signatures are an endangered species.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frank ‘The Original One’ Thomas Still Signing TTM Autographs at Age 91

Frank Thomas 1954 Bowman
Bowman seemed to use the player contract signature of Frank Thomas in 1954, as hinted by the middle initial inclusion. More than 60 years later, Thomas maintains that same proud penmanship!

While we’re waiting for Major League Baseball to resume, let it be known that Baseball By the Letters is back!

First of all, here’s an update from “The Original One.” Yes, THAT Frank Thomas. The three-time All-Star, now age 91, briefed me with a fun weekend phone conversation.

Through-the-mail autograph collectors haven’t forgotten Thomas. “I’m getting 6 to 10 letters a day,” he said. Thomas said that nearly every autograph request comes with his requested $5 donation. “I think I’m getting third- and fourth generation requests. I signed for kids who became parents. Their kids write me, too. It’s like a continuing cycle.”

Thomas uses autograph donations to support two charities benefiting kids with cancer. Famed Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly encountered Thomas at a golf tournament in the 1990s. He invited Thomas to go with him on a hospital visit to a kids’ cancer ward. Since then, Thomas has kept up a correspondence with young cancer survivors he’s met. Of course, letters from young patients who’ve become healthy adults give Thomas tons of satisfaction.

Anyone enclosing an extra card for Thomas in an autograph request letter should be pleased to know that Thomas shares autograph cards at hospital visits with any young patient who wants one.

Collectors who listen to sports radio have found Thomas as a guest throughout the years. His insights about baseball make him sound like he’s ready to take the field for the 2020 season.

If there is a season, “It scares me,” Thomas said. “What if one player gets the virus? Then, there goes the whole team. Owners are trying to keep TV revenue for this year. However, I don’t think players will be eager to take the risk.”

Concerning lost player wages, Thomas added: “I’d always have my salary spread over the whole year. That way, I’d have something to feed the kids with.”

Since the start of his career in 1951, Thomas always considered autographs part of his job. “I never went to movies on the road,” he said. “I always thought movies would hurt my eyes. So, I brought bags of fan mail with me.”

That same attitude translated to in-person signings, too. “My wife sat in the car with all the kids for two hours after home games at Forbes Field,” Thomas (father of eight) remembered. “They knew that I pledged to sign an autograph for anyone who asked (as long as everyone lined up). I’d stay at the ballpark until the last fan who asked got his autograph.”

These days, Thomas sells autographed photos to help his charities, too. For $10, Thomas offers a photo of himself with 18 ex-Pirates, or a picture of the Sports Illustrated cover that made him the first-ever Pirate to appear on the magazine.

For $12, Thomas will sign and send a photo showing all of his baseball cards through the years. The rarest photo he offers is a “back to back to back to back” shot from 1961. On June 8, 1961, Cincinnati Reds pitchers gave up four consecutive homers to four Milwaukee Braves: Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, Joe Adcock, then Thomas. The autographed version costs $22.

To get an autograph, send your donation and a SASE to Frank Thomas, 4202 Lenox Oval, Pittsburgh, PA 15237-1659.

Would Charlie Brown respond to your TTM autograph request?

Think twice about the letter you’re sending to a current or former player.

Is it the same “form letter” you created long ago, one that used to get you a good response, only okay now?

Do you think it doesn’t matter what you write, or that no one ever reads the letters? The player will either sign, or not sign?

Please, reconsider. Each letter costs $1.10 in postage now. Plus paper and envelopes, not counting the card or photo you might enclose.

Tell those letter recipients WHY. Why do you want an answer?

The late Virgil Trucks once told me: “In the letters, they try to tell me all about my career. They tell me things they think I don’t know, but I do.” Translated, the wise Tiger hurler meant that he wasn’t impressed by letters filled with his stats.

Years ago at a hobby show, Al Kaline spoke with me a minute. He was impressed when I said I could note all the places where he received mail. I began: care of the Hall of Fame, c/o the Tigers, c/o the TV station where he broadcasts. 

Kaline sighed and nodded. Then he raised his eyebrows.

“Don’t forget about my home address,” he groaned.  “I get so many fan letters there that our property tax statement got lost. We keep the fan mail in bushel baskets, and the tax statement got lost in a pile of all the autograph requests.”

Players, current or retired, still have expectations about a letter. Why should you deserve a response?

Here’s some initial ideas:

  1. Tell the reason for writing. For instance, the autograph will help you complete a set. Even a team set. That neutralizes the fear of, “You want MY autograph to sell on eBay?” Players have set goals. They might relate to helping you meet a goal, too.
  2. Tell why this card is special. (No. Don’t list its book value.) Just tell how you got it, or how it made you feel. What do you like most about the card photo?
  3. Tell why this player matters. Did you see him play in person? Was he the first game you saw on your big-screen TV? Did your older brother or dad like that player, too? Do you remember him from the minors?

I think 2 to 3 extra sentences would make your case. Don’t fib. Do be yourself. The truth shall set you free, and get you more autographs (quite possibly).

Even mail-starved Charlie Brown may be skeptical about some of the standard “fill in the blank” letters that some collectors rehash. You want a personal gift from someone in baseball? Try being personal yourself. 

 

 

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