There is an old statement among Latin American players that goes “You can’t walk your way off the island”. Players who were short on patience but were known instead for a great ability to make contact with a pitched ball often felt they needed to impress with their hitting skills in order to be offered a contract.
Nowhere was that statement proven to be more true than on the 1967 Topps National League Batting Leaders card in which all three players pictured were from the Dominican Republic. While Roberto Clemente was already a superstar, Latin-American players were really just beginning to gain a foothold in baseball and this card helped to accentuate that trend. The three players featured are two of the three Alou brothers (Matty and Felipe) and Rico “Beeg Boy” Carty. Each of them have their own interesting stories.
Matty Alou had always been a decent hitter for average but never quite became a regular in the crowded Giants outfield which featured Willie Mays in center and a large grouping of other talented players. Alou never quite was able to establish himself and was shipped off to join the Pittsburgh Pirates between the 1965 and 1966 seasons. When Alou got to Pittsburgh, he was installed as the leadoff hitter and promptly went on a four-year tear with a batting average over .330 each of his first four seasons with the team.
Today, the sabrmetricians would complain he did not walk enough, yet if you are batting over .330 even without power you are getting on base at a pretty decent clip. Those seasons with the Pirates helped to establish Alou as a star and I always enjoyed how he came to the plate holding his bat in an unusual manner and flicking balls all over the playing field. If Alou had been given those lessons he learned from batting champ Harry “The Hat” Walker when he moved to Pittsburgh far earlier in his career he may have made his way to enshrinement in Cooperstown. Matty’s rookie card came in the 1961 Topps set.
The middle player on this card is Matty’s older brother, Felipe. Felipe did have a longer more successful career as a both a player and later as a manager. In 1966, Felipe was batting leadoff for the Atlanta Braves and belted more than 30 homers to go along with the high batting average. The other two Braves with more than 30 homers that season were Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Joe Torre.
Felipe Alou’s career as both a player and a manager is one which he just seemed to miss getting a World Championship ring. In 1962, as a Giant, the team lost 1-0 in World Series Game 7. As a manager, his best team was the 1994 Montreal Expos, who were stopped not by any other team but by the baseball strike which began that August. Felipe’s rookie card was in the 1959 Topps set while his most valuable regular issue card is the 1961 Topps, which was in the final series.
Rico Carty had a real start and stop career and even lost a year to a case of tuberculosis. I don’t know about you, but anyone who can return to full effectiveness after a full season on the disabled list with that type of illness is worth our respect. Carty came back so well that in 1970, he led the National League in batting average with a .366 mark and got off to such a great start that in the first season since 1957 with fans allowed to vote for the All-Star team, he made the lineup as a write-in vote.
Perhaps based on the early years of his career we should not have been surprised but Carty ended his career as a veteran designated hitter for several teams after the American League adopted that rule for the 1973 season.
Carty was a player truly born to hit and was even well-known at the time for his quirk of carrying his wallet in his back pocket while playing. I guess he never was truly hit “in the wallet” during his playing days. Carty’s rookie card was a semi-high series card in the 1964 Topps set.
Forty-seven years later, we can still appreciate the importance of the 1967 NL Batting Leaders card. At the time, we saw the rising tide these talented Dominican hitters represented and seeing them honored on a leaders card that spring presaged the influx of more great players from Latin America which continues to this day.