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Alou swung big bat for late ‘60s Buccos

Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

Colleague Brett Barnett visited the topic of Pirates batting championships last week, and it brought a couple of things to mind. First, which current Pirate would be the best bet to walk off with a National League batting crown? And second, who might be the least appreciated – and least likely — Pirate to lead the hit parade in the past 60 years?

A little background might help set the stage for this brief discussion. As Barnett noted, the Pirates boast 12 players who won at least one batting championship, starting with Ed Swartwood in 1883. Since 1960, a half-dozen Buccos have worn the crown: Dick Groat, Roberto Clemente, Matty Alou, Bill Madlock, Dave Parker and Freddy Sanchez. Clemente did it four times while Parker and Madlock each won a pair of titles while wearing the black and gold.

As for today’s roster, the consensus choice likely would be Bryan Reynolds, who hovered among the league leaders during a splendid rookie campaign a year ago. The remarkably consistent Reynolds entered the lineup for the first time on April 20, going 1 for 2, and with the exception of two days in mid-May, he woke up every morning with at least a .300 batting average. The lowest his average dipped all season was .296 on May 12.

Reynolds seriously challenged for the batting title until the final two weeks of the season, during which he went just 7 for 45 and saw his average decline from .330 to .314. During that stretch, he managed an OPS of just .469, and that took him from a .912 OPS to an .880 mark at season’s end. Still, you couldn’t find a single Pirate fan who would complain about Reynolds’ season, particularly because virtually nothing was expected of him at the start of the season. In fact, he didn’t even make the club out of spring training, and it took Starling Marte’s collision with Erik Gonzalez to earn the former Vanderbilt star a promotion from Indianapolis toward the end of April.

One of the things I was most looking forward to this year was seeing whether Reynolds could come close to duplicating his performance from last season. I did not expect him to hit .330 for most of the year, but I was hoping he would continue to be a high-average guy with a good on-base percentage and maybe an uptick in the power numbers as he gained strength. But given what’s going on today, it’s questionable that the Pirates will even get 80 games in the books this season, and it’s hard to judge a player based on 80 games.

If Reynolds does come out and perform well – and somehow becomes the 13th Pirate to win a batting championship — it wouldn’t be all that surprising, given what he did in 2019. So who was the most surprising – and perhaps least appreciated – Pirate to take home a batting title in the last 60 years? For my money, it’s Alou, with Sanchez a close second.

Alou, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound center fielder, came to the Pirates in December of 1965, as the club looked to plug a hole created by the retirement of Bill Virdon, one of the top defensive center fielders in baseball. At age 27, Alou had come through the San Francisco Giants system along with older brother Felipe and younger brother Jesus. Although considered to be a fine defensive outfielder with a strong arm for a center fielder, he had the misfortune of being stuck behind the player many consider to be the greatest of all time – Willie Howard Mays Jr.

In parts of six seasons in San Francisco, Alou batted .260 in 1,048 at-bats and logged a .642 career OPS. He wasn’t bad; in fact, he hit .310 in 200 at-bats as a 22-year-old in 1961 and the next year he finished at .292 for a club that won the NL title and nearly beat the Yankees in the World Series. But that would be his last good year in San Francisco, and after hitting .231 in 1965, the Giants shipped him east for left-handed pitcher Joe Gibbon and catcher Ozzie Virgil.

Pirates manager Harry “The Hat” Walker, who knew a little bit about hitting, seemed happy to get Alou, whom he envisioned battling with holdover Manny Mota to fill Virdon’s old spot. “We need a leadoff man badly and Alou can be just the man we want,” Walker – himself a former NL batting champion — told Pittsburgh Press reporter Les Biederman. “He has good speed, is a good defensive outfielder and can handle a bat.”

Walker said that Alou should not be judged on his .231 batting average, saying that Candlestick Park “was the worst park for him with the high grass and the wind blowing in. Alou was a victim of the elements in San Francisco. With us, he can spray his hits for all fields.”

Walker proved to be prescient. Heeding his manager’s advice to radically alter his batting stance and his overall approach to hitting, Alou saw his career take off after coming to Pittsburgh.

Wielding a big bat – literally; it was reputed to weigh 38 ounces – and either chopping down on the ball to take advantage of his speed or spraying the ball all over the field, Alou took home the batting title in his very first season in Pittsburgh. In 535 at-bats, Alou collected 183 hits and finished with an average of .342 to edge teammate Mota by 10 points in the NL batting chase. Alou’s older brother, Felipe, incidentally finished third with a .327 mark.

Alou was no one-hit wonder, either. In his first four seasons with the Pirates, Alou batted at least .331, and in his final season in Pittsburgh he finished at .297 with 201 hits. In 1968, the so-called Year of the Pitcher, Alou hit .332 and in 1969, he hit .331 with a league-leading 231 hits and an NL-best 41 doubles. That would be his last go-round with the Bucs, though, as they dealt him to St. Louis that offseason in a deal that brought Nellie Briles and Vic Davalillo – two key members of the 1971 World Series championship team.

Alou’s big league career continued for four more years, and he hit everywhere he went until his final campaign in 1974. Playing for the Cardinals, Oakland, the Yankees and St. Louis again, Alou put together seasons of .315, .307, .295, .296 and .273 before dropping off to .198 in 81 at-bats with the Padres in 1974. For his 15-year career, Alou finished with a batting average of .307 and 1,777 hits. He had no power numbers and his OPS was nothing to write home about. But he made a lot of contact – walking just 311 times and striking out 377 times in his 5,787 at-bats.

Not everyone was enamored of Alou’s approach. As Mike DiGiovanna reported in the Los Angeles Times after Alou’s death in November of 2011, Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton called Alou “the worst .300 hitter I’ve ever seen” and added that Ted Williams once told The Sporting News that Alou “violates every hitting principle I ever taught.”

Perhaps, but he was a fun guy to watch swing the bat – and an easy guy to pull for.