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Jesus in a pack of cards

By Neal Zagarella

When Jesus died, I thought of my baseball cards, my seventh summer and the Montreal Expos. 1969 was the inaugural year of Canada’s first Major League Baseball team and the first season in which I collected trading cards. The first card picturing a Montreal Expo, number twenty-two in the 1969 Topps set, featured a word I was not allowed to say around my house. Like all of us in my very Catholic neighborhood, I was taught from the cradle to not take the Lord’s name in vain. The ‘in vain’ part turned the Lord’s name into a swear word. I knew I shouldn’t shout it at the television during a sporting event, as my Dad sometimes did. I certainly knew I couldn’t use it as my own name.

Jesus Alou, the youngest of three ball playing Alou brothers, followed no such rules, laws or commandments, and neither apparently, did his parents.

Alou died this past March after a life devoted to baseball. His first name, as I later learned, is pronounced hay-soos.

God may be everywhere, but I can say with confidence that there was no one named Jesus, of any pronunciation, in the whole of the homogeneous hometown in which I was brought up. There was also no one in my community who looked like the Dominican born Jesus. There was a Jesus in Major League Baseball, however, and he played for the Montreal Expos. I found that out from my baseball cards. I had no idea at the time that his name was pronounced hay-soos, or that he never even played a game for Montreal. What I did know was that he was on a baseball card. That made him a ball player, and to the six-year-old boy that I was, that meant he was a hero.

The people I looked up to in my town, the Doctor, the mailman, the police and firemen, (are you spotting a trend here?), were male and invariably white. The teachers at school were women, but also white. On television Captain Kangaroo was white, as was Andy Griffith, Colonel Hogan, Dick Van Dyke and Herman Munster. Snap, Crackle, Pop and Captain Crunch made for a whites only breakfast table. My little world was much like the title of the old Procol Harum song, crackling out of my older siblings’ transistor radio, A Whiter Shade Of Pale. Everyone, it seemed, was named Bill or Bob or Mary or Sue.

A different, vastly more diverse world existed inside a pack of baseball cards. In 1969 a nickel, procured from my parents, bought five baseball cards and a pink stick of bubble gum. As I popped the gum into my mouth, I might find a familiar white face like Carl Yastrzemski of the Red Sox, but I was also likely to find a black-skinned star like Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. Best of all I could marvel at an array of characters named Adolfo, Orlando and Vada. Boog, Chico and Clete. Tito, Claude, Jim Ray and Camilo. Names I never heard in my home town, skin tones far more varied than I experienced at school.

One of my favorites was Zoilo Versalles. No Zoilo’s in my school, I can assure you. None in the whole town. Baseball’s Zoilo was a shortstop and a former American League Most Valuable Player. His skin color, like Alou’s, was brown. And he had a baseball card which meant he was a hero. You may not know any Zoilos, but because of baseball cards, I do.

I also know Jesus Alou and his brothers Felipe and Matty. I met them all through my card collection when I was six. I knew them still when Jesus died this year as I was about to turn sixty.

Jesus, Felipe and Matty Alou were signed and developed by the San Francisco Giants, part of the first wave of big league ballplayers from the Dominican Republic. On September 10, 1963 Jesus made his major league debut, pinch hitting and batting in the same inning as his older siblings. Five days later Jesus and his brother Matty were used as late inning defensive replacements in right and left field, joining older brother Felipe who was manning center. It is the first and only time an entire major league outfield was composed solely by siblings.

Though Jesus is a common name in Latin America, the baseball press did not know initially how to handle the younger Alou’s name. Many writers and broadcasters referred to him simply as Jay. The San Francisco Examiner asked its readers for nickname suggestions. Jesus persevered, dealing with not just the controversy over his name, but also language and skin color barriers.

The Giants were a team deep in talent. Future Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda was entrenched at first base, while two more players ticketed for Cooperstown, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, were fixtures in center and left field. That left the three Alou brothers to fight over right field. Eventually Felipe and Matty were dealt away, but San Francisco had two twenty-three year old outfield prospects, Bobby Bonds and Ken Henderson, also in need of playing time. The Giants made Jesus available in the October 1968 expansion draft and Montreal plucked him as their seventh draft pick. In January, before the team had even played an exhibition game, Alou was dealt by the Expos along with first baseman Donn Clendenon to the Houston Astros for Rusty Staub. That explains why his 1969 Topps card has Jesus listed as an Expo. The chocolate and orange piping around the neck of his uniform is the giveaway that he is pictured wearing Giant garb from the previous season.

New Astros manager Harry Walker was thrilled to acquire Jesus in 1969. During Walker’s time as Pirate manager he had worked to change Alou’s brother Matty from a pull hitter into a slap and run contact hitter. The results were spectacular. Matty Alou, a .260 career hitter, batted .342 his first season under Walker, winning the National League batting title. What followed for Matty was seven more productive seasons as one of baseball’s best lead off hitters. He would go on to bat over .300 in six seasons and never bat below .295 in a full year. He retired with a lifetime average of .307, forty-seven points higher than the mark he had before coming to Pittsburgh. Walker hoped to have similar results with Matty’s younger brother Jesus.

The manager’s dream was never realized. Jesus would play parts of seven seasons with Houston, and would be an important bench contributor for two Oakland A’s championship teams, but never become an all-star like his brother Felipe and Matty.

He did have an afterlife in baseball which included scouting stints with the Expos and the Florida Marlins. For the last two decades of his life he worked for the Red Sox as Dominican scouting director.

For me it was baseball cards that opened up a world for me, introduced me to people like the Alou brothers and Zoilo Versalles. No one looked like Reggie Smith or George Scott in my neighborhood, but they could be heroes to me because they played for the Red Sox. I could root for them. They were my guys. I wanted their cards in my collection.

Conversely, Mel Stottlemyre of the New York Yankees, was not one of my favorites though he looked like he could have been my post man or a teacher at my school. He wore Yankee Pinstripes. Who needed him?

I’ve lived with Jesus Alou all my life, just as I’ve lived the Zoilos and the Boogs, the Willies, Chicos, and Orlandos. When they age I notice. When they die I mourn. They are, in a real sense, old friends. We all have them. Maybe it’s an old ballplayer. Maybe it’s David Crosby or Sidney Poitier or Aretha Franklin or Prince. Gardeners that met us when our soil was young, planted seeds there, and nurtured them through the decades of their lives and ours. Without ever saying hello to them, it means something to say good-bye.

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