Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.
Matty Alou was the second of three ball-playing Alou brothers, all outfielders, all signed by the Giants at a time when they were swimming in outfielders and first basemen. In addition to Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou, in the early 1960s the Giants also employed Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Willie Kirkland, Harvey Kuenn, Manny Mota, and Jose Cardenal—nine players essentially competing for left field, right field and first base. Centerfield, the province of Willie Mays, was unavailable.
Of the Alous, Matty had the least power and was ultimately the least valued by the Giants. He came up briefly in 1960, and hit around .300 in 1961 and 1962, mainly backing up Felipe in right field. In 1963 Jesus came up in September and all three brothers played together in the outfield a few times. After the season the Giants traded Felipe to the Braves to help relieve some of the outfield logjam.
Matty spent the next two seasons backing up the three outfield positions, but his hitting deteriorated enough — .246 with 3 home runs over the two years — that his major league career was in jeopardy. Alou had very little power and did not walk much, so even in the 1960s he had to hit .300 to be of much use, especially playing a corner outfield position. After the 1965 season, the Giants traded him to the Pirates.
Manny Mota grew up about 10 miles from the Alous in the Dominican Republic – he and Matty were both born in 1938, and both signed with the Giants in 1957. Mota was caught in the same logjam in San Francisco as everyone else, and he was fortunate to be traded after the 1962 season to Houston, and then a few months later to the Pirates. In 1964 and 1965 Mota platooned in centerfield with Bill Virdon, and backed up the other outfield spots as well. He hit .278 over the two seasons – he was nothing like a star, but his career seemed on firmer ground than that of his friend Matty Alou.
After the 1965 season, Virdon retired and the Pirates promptly acquired Alou from the Giants. “I may alternate Alou and Manny Mota in centerfield,” said manager Harry “The Hat” Walker, “or give the job to the man who gets off to the best start. Alou is a good centerfielder and can handle a bat.”
In fact, Alou had played very little centerfield due to the presence of Willie Mays, and had not really hit well either. But Walker believed Alou could be a better hitter–in fact, a much better hitter. He thought Alou tried to pull every pitch rather than taking advantage of his speed. As a left-handed hitter, Walker wanted Alou to hit the ball to left field, either on the ground or on a line. He also wanted Alou to bunt for hits.
“Try it my way,” Walker told Alou. “You don’t have the power to become a pull-hitter and you’ll lose hits trying.” Walker claimed Alou could raise his average (which was just .231 in 1965) 50 points just be adopting this new approach.
Matty gave it a try in spring training and the hits started coming. “I never hit to left field in my life,” said Alou, “but now I like it.” He also drew raves for his work in centerfield.
Ultimately Walker settled on a straight platoon, with the left-handed hitting Alou starting against right-handed pitchers and therefore getting most of the starts, and Mota starting against lefties and backing up the other outfielders. Of course, since the other outfielders were Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente he might not be called upon much.
Other than hitting from different sides of the plate, Alou and Mota were remarkably similar players. Neither had much power or walked often, instead hitting singles and an occasional double, bunting for hits, running the bases, and employing speed in centerfield. Both were difficult to strike out, and put the ball in play almost every time they were sent up to bat. Both were quick outfielders. Both were small men – Alou was listed at 5-9, 160 pounds, and Mota at 5-10, 160. The two were also good friends, having played in the Dominican Winter League for many years. And now they were sharing a job.
The platoon was a sensation right out of the gate. At the end of May Alou was hitting .329, which ordinarily would have been enough to force more playing time. However, Mota was hitting .370 and deserved to play more himself. The platoon lived on.
On June 7, Alou and Mota both took a routine eye test and had bad reactions to the eye drops. This turned out to be the only game on the season that neither man started in center. Clemente assumed the role and went 3-for-5 with a home run.
At the end of June, Alou (.328), Clemente (.328) and Stargell (.326) occupied the top 3 spots in the NL batting race. Remarkably, Mota was hitting .327 at the time but did not have enough plate appearances to qualify.
At this point Alou got hotter – his average never dipped below .330 again all year. So did Mota, who hit .393 in July and .359 in August. Both of them hit well enough to play full-time, obviously, but neither ever could win the job.
Since the story stays pretty much the same, let’s skip to the end. For the 1966 season:
- Alou started 121 games in centerfield and hit .342 and won the NL batting title, beating out his brother Felipe on the final weekend. Although 119 of his starts were against righties, be ended up hitting .450 (18-for-40) against lefties. Batting exclusively leadoff, his .383 on-base-percentage compared favorably to the league’s .313. Walker had promised he could raise his average 50 points, but he raised it 111
- Mota started 40 games in centerfield and another 30 at other positions. He also pinch hit or substituted in another 46 games. He hit .332 in 322 at bats, which would have placed him second to Alou had he qualified.
- Because Mota hit much better when he was playing centerfield than he did playing other positions, Pittsburgh centerfielders in aggregate hit .346, with 238 hits on the 1966 season.
The platoon was a sensation and remarked upon regularly in the national press. In the off-season it was thought that the Pirates might break up the tandem in order to acquire a pitcher. The club had won 92 games and finished just three behind the Dodgers for the pennant. But Walker liked his center fielders.
In 1967, believe it or not, the Alou and Mota pretty much did it all over again. Again being deployed in a strict platoon, Alou hit .338 with remarkably similar numbers throughout his stat line. Mota, again playing other positions on occasion, hit .321. For the season, the 1967 Pirates centerfielders hit .341 with 236 hits — nearly identical to the previous season.
The next year, the Year of the Pitcher, saw Mota finally unable to keep up the spectacular pace. While Alou kept going (.332) and finally made the All-Star team as a platoon player, Mota dropped to .281. This was no disgrace – the league hit just .243 – but it was the first time there was true separation between the pair.
After the 1969 season the National League held an expansion draft to stock the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres, and Mota was taken by Montreal with the second pick in the draft. After two spectacular seasons, and one good one, the remarkable platoon of Matty Alou and Manny Mota had come to an end.
The Pirates didn’t really replace Mota, they just gave Alou the job full time. He was a small man, and, at age 30, he had never been a full-time player. Plus he had never been asked to left-handers on a regular basis.
Could Matty Alou survive without his platoon partner?
In 1969, Alou hit .331 and led the league in at bats (698, a new major league record), hits (231), and doubles (41).
Who needs a platoon?