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Felipe Alou; Peter Kerasotis
My last name is not Alou.
Baseball has given me so much, but this is the one thing it took away from me — my last name.
My father's name was José Rojas, and from his loins came five Major League Baseball players. I was the first and the first to go from the Dominican Republic's verdant land to Major League Baseball in the United States. Latin players were rare then, back in 1956, and the Latin tradition of placing the mother's maiden name after the family name wasn't well known. Somebody must have seen my paperwork when I arrived in Louisiana for my first baseball stop, saw that my name is Felipe Rojas Alou, and thus issued me my first jersey, which read "f. alou." At the time I didn't know enough English to explain the correction, so the name Alou stuck.
This never bothered my father, who had bestowed the name of his father on me. What did bother my father, and especially my mother, Virginia, is that I never became a doctor. It's what they wanted for me and also what I wanted for myself. It was what I was studying to become at the University of Santo Domingo when a scout for Major League Baseball's New York Giants noticed my athletic skills.
That I was even starting my education at a university was an accomplishment for the Rojas family. Like most Dominicans, especially Dominicans of that era who lived under the oppressive regime of the dictator, Rafael Trujillo, we were poor. I know it's a cliché for people to say they grew up not knowing they were poor. But believe me, we knew. Our home was the size of an average bedroom in the United States — fifteen by fifteen feet — some of it with an uneven cement floor, and the rest, particularly our kitchen floor, was dirt. My father built the home in 1934, the year before I was born in that house. It was painted blue with faint red trim, situated along the southern coast of the Dominican Republic in what is known as Kilometer 12, or Highway Sánchez. As the firstborn in my family, and as more siblings came into the world, six of us total, I grew up sleeping in a small bed with my brother Matty and sister Maria. We tore the sheets by pulling them at night and sewed them back together the next morning. What was worse is that it wasn't uncommon for one or both of them to wet the bed. So later, as more children came — Jesús, Juan, and Virginia — I slept on a thin mat on the cement part of the floor, no pillow, and was glad to do so.
An early event that drove home not only how poor we were but also the ways of the world arrived when I was about nine years old and my father got a little bit ahead with money. Back then U.S. dollars were the island's main currency, and my dad had been paid $11 for some work — a $10 bill and a $1 bill. My parents kept the money in their bedroom, hidden behind a picture of the Virgin Mary. To this day it's not uncommon in the Dominican Republic to see people traveling with a horse and buggy, selling fruits and vegetables. One day a woman passed by, and my father bought some tomatoes and green vegetables, using the $1 bill. Or so he thought. He actually gave the woman the $10 bill. Everything seemed normal. She even gave him change as if he had handed her a $1 bill. A little later my father searched for the $10 bill and couldn't find it. Panic set in. My mother called him careless, and an angry argument ensued. Soon they were both crying. We never saw the woman in the cart again. That's when I learned about life.
And then there was learning about death. I soon discovered that death, even the death of children, is a part of life. My father was a carpenter and blacksmith. As a carpenter he often built caskets. People would bring him wood to make a casket for a loved one. That was sobering enough to witness, but to see the tiny caskets he made, the size of my siblings and me, was heartrending. So many children died during that time because their parents didn't have enough money for medical care or the means of transportation to get them to a hospital. Or they got to the hospital too late. Even today there is a children's hospital in Santo Domingo where you see poor women outside, trying to get in to save their children's lives.
We were not immune from these types of tragedies. All of my siblings and I came into this world in that small fifteen-by-fifteen-foot house that had no electricity, running water, or any type of plumbing, and all with the same midwife — a big, stout lady, full of confidence, who wore a long, flowing dress. Her name was Bartolina, and from her hands came three Major League Baseball players, an engineer, and a veterinarian. It got so that whenever I saw Bartolina, I knew I was getting another sibling.
One day, though, about two weeks after Bartolina delivered a girl into our family, born between Matty and Jesús when I was around eight years old, I awoke to the sound of my mother sobbing. We knew the baby had suddenly started losing weight. Now she was dead in her crib. I can still see her sweet, serene face and recall how beautiful she was. I can also still see my mother's face, stricken with grief, looking at that precious baby with such profound sadness, weeping, tears rolling down her cheeks.
As a boy it triggered within me a desire to be a doctor, particularly one who would help people who didn't have enough money. None of the families where I lived could afford medical treatment, and if by chance you could, such treatment was usually too far away and the wait too long to do any good. Instead, we relied on island remedies and superstition. One time Matty fell out of a tree and broke his arm. A man came and massaged it and — supposedly — healed him. My mother knew all the herbs, teas, and various natural remedies to apply to an ailment. And if one of us kids was running a fever, we had a tin basin my mother would fill with cold water and put us in.
In spite of those hardships my upbringing was idyllic in many ways. There were a lot of relatives. My father had two sons before marrying my mother — Francisco, the oldest, and Joaquin Rojas. As for my mother, the family history is that my father helped my grandfather Alou build a well, and through that a friendship developed between my father and mother. When my father went to ask for her hand in marriage, the fear was that my grandfather would say no because my father was a Dominican and my grandfather was a Spaniard who had emigrated from the island of Majorca. At the same time the thought that my grandfather would say no because my father was black and my mother was white was not even a consideration. Interracial marriages were, and still are, common in the Dominican Republic. Years later, people made a fuss about Derek Jeter being an interracial player in the Major Leagues when he broke in as a rookie with the New York Yankees in 1996. But I was an interracial player in the Major Leagues in 1958.
My mother had seven siblings. I was the first grandchild and thus the first nephew born into her family when I entered the world at eleven pounds on May 12, 1935. I'm told all the Alou brothers and sisters used to fight over who would hold me. On my father's side of the family, I never knew my grandfather, but I do remember my grandmother. She was quite a lady. She smoked a pipe, and I vividly recall how she would take that pipe and a fishing pole and disappear for hours, almost always returning with some grouper for us to eat.
In the distance we could always hear the gentle sounds of the Caribbean Sea, lapping against the shore. My father was a great fisherman, and I would often eagerly rise at 3 a.m. so I could go with him to the shoreline and try to catch enough fish to feed our family for that day. My father's fishing pole was bamboo, probably not much to look at today, but it was a prized possession and a serious sin if any of us kids thought to take it.
One day I took it.
About two miles from our home there was a rocky spot where the men fished. Although I was only around twelve years old, nobody noticed me as I rooted around the rocks to find some leftover dead baitfish the men discarded as unusable. My father's bamboo pole had a wire string and a large hook. I put a small dead fish on it and dropped it into the ocean and waited. After a while I got a bite and a fairly strong tug from a crevalle jack, a ravenous predatory fish that often feeds along reefs and shorelines. For a second the strong pull almost jerked the pole out of my hands. My heart leaped with panic. Evidently, my struggle was noticeable because one of my father's friends saw me and instinctively knew I shouldn't be there — and definitely not with my father's fishing pole. The fish wriggled away, which I was thankful for, because I might have lost that bamboo pole entirely. I, however, was not off the hook.
"Hey, what are you doing?" my father's friend demanded. "I'm going to let your father know you were here." From leaping with panic one second, my heart sank the next.
The waiting, anticipating my punishment, was worse than the whipping itself. I returned home and put the bamboo pole back exactly the way I found it. One day went by, then another. Maybe the man hadn't told my father, or, better yet, maybe he wouldn't. On the third day my father approached me, telling me he knew what I had done. I knew what the consequences had to be. He gave me three good lashes. That was my father. Mom would spank, but Dad would go for his symbol of authority, that thick cowhide belt, which he would hang on a nail when he came home from work. Dad was about five feet ten, a muscular and powerful man, and an extremely fast runner. Even into our teenage years, if he came after my brothers or me for some type of disciplinary reason, it was futile to try to outrun him.
Another whipping I received came from more innocent reasons. All these decades later, I can't even tell the story without laughing. Between the ages of ten and twelve, I along with two of my cousins and two of our friends had this ritual of going to the ocean naked. Anytime it would rain people would shut their doors to prevent water from coming in. That's when we would sneak out of our homes, strip off our clothes, and head down a worn pathway that cut through the brush toward the beautiful, but sometimes treacherous, Caribbean Sea. We would cling to the rocks to keep the waves from pulling us into the churning sea, feeling the saltwater splash over us while fresh rainwater fell on us from overhead. It felt so good — good enough for us to disregard that we were forbidden from going to the ocean alone, much less to shamelessly walk around naked.
We obviously had no telephones or any way of knowing what the weather would be like from day to day. Instead, we were always studying the clouds, something I still do today, and without a word we knew when the rain came it was time to discard our clothes and meet for our naked jaunt to the sea. We did it countless times, and we weren't careless. We had the timing down perfect, always making it back home, past all the homes with the doors still closed, before the rain stopped.
One day, though, our timing was off — way off. Just as we arrived at the ocean, the clouds parted, the sun emerged, and we were a long way from our homes, about a mile. It was the worst feeling. The trek back was agonizing, and we made it with our hands folded in front of our naked bodies, covering our crotches, like surrendering prisoners. As we passed house after house, all the doors were now open. I would have to pass them all naked because my house was the last one. As the other boys made it to their homes, I could hear their cries as they were getting their whippings, their yelps ringing in my ears as I trudged onward, like a condemned man, heading for the same fate.
Mostly I avoided whippings. My brother Jesús was another story, though. He got the most whippings, mostly because he had a quick temper and a bad habit of taking meat right out of the pot where it was still cooking over an open fire. He loved meat and always seemed to have a ravenous appetite. He would brazenly reach in bare-handed and take some, eating it before anyone could stop him and well before it was time to sit down for a meal. Out of the three Alou brothers who played Major League Baseball, Jesús was the one who grew the tallest and filled out the most: six feet two and about 195 pounds during his playing days.
I can remember only two times when I was not hungry enough to eat supper with my family. Once was another time when I sneaked off with my father's fishing pole, and with a friend I went down to the ocean. This time I caught a four-pound grouper. Of course, I couldn't bring it home, because this would expose me to the sin of taking my father's bamboo pole and ensure another whipping. So we went to my grandmother's house, where I knew I could sneak away with matches and a pan. My friend and I retreated into the woods, where we built a fire and cooked that grouper, eating as much of it as our bellies could contain. The other time I didn't have an appetite was when a cockfighting rooster I had, and had grown fond of, got killed by a passing truck. Not wanting to waste anything, my mother cooked it. When I saw my once proud rooster on a supper plate, I couldn't bring myself to take even a bite of him.
The worst day of my childhood was the day when we had no food to eat. As a parent now I can't imagine the stress my father and mother must have felt every day of our youth. Usually, though, there was enough for that day's sustenance. And although we didn't have much, I can assure you that if you came to my home, you were going to eat — boiled yucca, plantain, rice and beans, fish, avocado slices. Mango season was a highlight. It wasn't uncommon that by noon our house was a magnet for people, sitting around outside, talking, laughing, eating. I got to manage Vladimir Guerrero years later and got to know his family, and they were the same way: simple, generous, salt of the earth.
Everything back then seemed simple — simple and natural. Black coffee, rich in flavor, was a staple and something we drank almost as soon as we stopped feeding on our mother's breast milk. Coffee and dark, dense bread were often our breakfast. Creamy, sweet goat milk was readily available, too. Lunch was the main meal, and a main dish was fish with another island staple, rice and beans. Dinner was usually more fish along with boiled plantains; my mother could save a penny by not frying them in peanut oil, even though they tasted better that way. Chicken was an occasional dish. I never tasted steak until I became a professional baseball player in the United States.
Fruit was usually plentiful — grapefruit, orange, mango, papaya, soursop, coconut. I became adept at climbing coconut trees and, later, especially skilled at throwing rocks and knocking those tasty coconuts off their high perch. I'm convinced that my desire to nail a coconut hard enough with a rock built up not only my arm strength for baseball but also my accuracy. If I didn't hit a coconut hard enough to knock it off its perch, I would at least put a dent in it with enough rocks, deep enough that it would surrender its sweet water. When that happened we would stand beneath those coconut trees with our heads tilted back, like freshly hatched birds in a nest, catching the dripping nectar in our mouths.
Coconuts dropping from trees could be dangerous, too, if you weren't careful. Once, a coconut fell on my mother's arm, breaking it. At the time we didn't know it was broken. We only knew that my mother's arm gave her trouble the rest of her life. It wasn't until years later, when my brothers and I became Major League players and could afford to have an X-ray done, that we learned she had suffered a break.
One of the more dangerous things we did for food was hunt for crabs in the caves along the shoreline. You had to be careful in those caverns not to get trapped by a sudden strong wave or the rising tide. We were forbidden from going there, but Matty, Jesús, and I couldn't resist scavenging those caves for crabs. I can't tell you how many bites on my fingers I endured. One time when Matty was a little boy, a giant crab got hold of his forearm and wouldn't let go. Matty ran all the way home that way, yelling and yelping. Mostly, though, he was a very tough kid, a fearless boy who grew up to be the most fearless man I ever knew. He was a small guy — he only grew to be maybe five feet nine, probably shorter — but he would go up against anybody. And he was an excellent marksman, too. We used to fashion slingshots from any kind of twig that formed a V, attach some rubber from an old tire inner tube to it, and launch rocks at anything that moved or didn't move. Matty was good at both. He could hit a stationary object from a good distance as well as birds in flight. I admired his skill.