How Felipe Alou became baseball's first Dominican-born manager

Felipe Alou made history 25 years ago when he took the helm of the Montreal Expos, becoming Major League Baseball’s first Dominican manager. But it almost didn't happen.

Alou's ascension through Expos' system set example for other Latino players, history professor says

Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou at RFK Stadium in Washington in 1999. Alou became the Expos manager 25 years ago today. (Khue Bui/Associated Press)

Twenty-five years ago today, Felipe Alou made history when he took the helm of the Montreal Expos, becoming Major League Baseball's first Dominican manager.

But it almost didn't happen.

His predecessor, Tom Runnells, had success managing in the minor leagues but was decidedly unpopular in the Expos clubhouse.

Alou, the Expos bench coach and formerly a minor league manager, was trying to help Runnells gain the trust and respect of his players.

When Alou was approached to take over the team, he turned it down, saying he wanted the organization to give Runnells another shot.

Dan Duquette, the team's general manager at the time, told Alou if he didn't take the job, it would go to someone else. That got Alou's attention. He accepted.

"I wasn't going to let someone take my place," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

Had the experience, needed a chance

Alou's promotion was a long time coming — 45 years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier and 25 years after MLB officially determined 10 per cent of its players were Latino, said Adrian Burgos, Jr., a history professor and editor in chief of La Vida Baseball, a website that celebrates Latino baseball.

He was a pioneering player, and I don't think people place him in that context enough.- Adrian Burgos, Jr.

Even today, only 17 Latinos have served as a major league manager, a figure that includes those hired on an interim basis.

Alou was the third Latino manager in the history of the league, and his background made him perfect for the job, Burgos explained.  As a dark-skinned player coming up in the 60s, Alou knew what it meant to be black in America, and was well acquainted with racist Jim Crow laws.

He played for a multicultural team, the San Francisco Giants, so he knew how to handle diverse clubhouses.

And he was known to speak his mind, once signing his name to an article titled "Latin-American Ballplayers Need a Bill of Rights," calling for baseball to hire someone who knew Latino culture and could deal with the players' specific concerns.

The experience was there, Burgos said, but he just never got a chance, until that meeting with Duquette.

A players' manager

Alou served as manager for seven full seasons. He was a calming influence for his players, especially on younger stars such as Pedro Martinez and Larry Walker, who likely benefited from his guiding presence.

Walker went on to win league MVP honours with Colorado and Martinez was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.

Burgos said the players he's spoken to enjoyed playing for Alou because he was a straight shooter — he'd tell players where they stood with him, and would always defend them to media and management.
Pitcher Pedro Martinez, a one-time Expo, reunites with Montreal Expos manager Felipe Alou before a 1999 game in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"The way he carried himself, players respected. They knew he was going to be fair with them, and that he was going to push and encourage," he said.

Alou was named manager of the year in 1994, that fateful season when the Expos were running away with the NL East and could have won it all, until a strike brought those dreams to a bitter end.

In the following years, the team started dealing its young talent to cut payroll, ultimately denying Alou the chance to repeat that feat.

Alou was fired May 31, 2001, having been at the helm for 1,408 Expos games, 691 of them wins. Both those marks are team records.

He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015.

'He was their Clemente'

Even before he made history as a manager, his playing days made him a legend in his home country.

"He was a pioneering player, and I don't think people place him in that context enough," Burgos said.

"For Dominicans, he was their Clemente," referring to outfielder Roberto Clemente, who is revered in his native Puerto Rico.
In this Sept. 10, 1963 file photo, Felipe Alou, far right, poses with his brothers and fellow San Francisco Giants outfielders Jesus Alou and Matty Alou. (Associated Press)

Alou was a pioneer for Dominican stars, black stars and Latino managers. His impact extends well beyond his already impressive playing and managing stats.  

"Felipe was a fantastic ballplayer. He paid his dues, worked through the system and he got his shot. For other [Latino] guys, that made the possibility more real that they, too, could get a shot at managing."

Alou eventually went on to manage the Giants, and is still on the team's payroll today, at 82 years old, as a special assistant to the general manager.

With files from Frédéric Daigle of The Canadian Press