Matty Alou, one of baseball’s best hitters in the 1960s and ’70s, had one of his most productive seasons of his 15-year big-league career with the Cardinals.
Alou died Nov. 3, 2011, at age 72. Most of his obituaries focused on his years with his first major-league team, the Giants, and his time with the Pirates, with whom he won a National League batting crown, hitting .342 in 1966.
Often overlooked is Alou’s splendid 1971 season with the Cardinals. Alou had career highs of 74 RBI and seven home runs with the 1971 Cardinals and hit .315 in 149 games.
A left-handed batter, Alou was adept at hitting the ball to all fields.
“Matty and Stan Musial handle the bat better than anyone I’ve ever seen,” Cardinals hitting coach Ken Boyer told The Sporting News in August 1971. “Like Stan, Matty has a great level swing, and, like Stan, he can handle just about any kind of pitch.
“Alou uses bats of at least 10 different weights,” Boyer said. “He studies the pitchers and the defense as well as anybody because he’s always looking for some way to beat you.”
The Cardinals acquired Alou and pitcher George Brunet from the Pirates for pitcher Nelson Briles and outfielder Vic Davalillo on Jan. 29, 1971.
In announcing the deal, Cardinals general manager Bing Devine said he and manager Red Schoendienst agreed Alou, 33, would bat leadoff and play center field. Left fielder Lou Brock would move from the leadoff spot to bat No. 3 in the order and second baseman Ted Sizemore, acquired from the Dodgers, would bat between Alou and Brock.
“Guys like Alou and Sizemore make things happen,” Devine said to The Sporting News. “They ought to help make the Cardinals a much more exciting team.”
Alou said his goal was to hit .335 for the 1971 Cardinals. “I like to hit in St. Louis. It’s a good park for hitters. The ball comes off the AstroTurf good and the ground in front of the plate is hard.”
The Cardinals batted Alou, Sizemore and Brock in the top three spots of the order for the first 14 games of the 1971 season and went 8-6.
Then Schoendienst returned Brock to the leadoff spot and moved Alou to the No. 2 position. But Alou was a free swinger and Brock’s ability to steal bases was comprimised when Alou would foul off or hit, rather than take, pitches.
It was when Schoendienst moved Sizemore to No. 2 in the batting order and Alou to No. 3 that the Cardinals’ offense clicked. Asked to explain why he had so many more RBI with the Cardinals than he had with the Pirates, Alou said to The Sporting News, “It makes a lot of difference hitting behind Lou Brock instead of (Pirates catcher) Jerry May and the pitcher.”
Alou hit .332 in 78 games from the No. 2 spot and .294 in 46 games from the No. 3 position.
Though he began the 1971 season as St. Louis’ center fielder, Alou moved to right field after Jose Cardenal was traded to the Brewers, and then took over first base for Joe Hague when the Cardinals inserted Luis Melendez as the right fielder.
Alou hit .313 in 73 games as the center fielder, .364 in 20 games as the right fielder and .305 in 58 games as the first baseman.
In 1972, Alou played first base and right field for the Cardinals and hit .314 in 108 games. But Alou, 5 feet 9, wasn’t an ideal first baseman. The Cardinals wanted to move Joe Torre from third base to first base. Out of contention for a postseason spot, the Cardinals traded Alou to the Athletics on Aug. 27, 1972, for outfielder Bill Voss and a minor leaguer.
Speaking to reporters about how he enjoyed his time with the Cardinals, Alou called Schoendienst the “best man I ever played for. He kept everybody loose.”
Alou was reacquired by the Cardinals for the stretch run on Sept. 6, 1973, in a cash deal with the Yankees. He hit .273 in 11 games. After the season, the Cardinals sold his contract to the Padres.
Alou’s career statistics as a Cardinal: .314 batting average, 322 hits in 268 games, 30 stolen bases.
Matty Alou and his brothers Felipe and Jesus all were big-league outfielders. Asked in October 1971 who was the best ballplayer of the three, Felipe told The Sporting News, “I have the most ability. Matty is the best hitter. He has more guts and confidence than Jesus (Alou) and I put together. But Jesus is the most professional of all three.”