The Pioneering Felipe Alou (Latino Christian Athlete Edition)

The Fellowship of Christians Athletes, founded in 1954, was the single most important organization driving the blending of sports and Christianity in the years after World War II. From its beginning, the FCA was integratedno small matter, considering that in its founding year, Brown v. Board of Education had just been decided. But for most of its first few decades, white athletes and coaches were the FCA's most prominent faces.

Still, the FCA was more than willing (eager, in fact) to showcase non-white athletes. Thus Felipe Alou was splashed on the cover of the August 1962 issue of the FCA's magazine, The Christian Athlete. 

Felipe Alou was not the first Latino athlete associated with the FCA. That honor goes to Primo Villanueva, a Mexican American and a UCLA football star who briefly connected with the organization in 1955. Alou, however, was the first to receive extensive publicity.

Alou played his first Major League Baseball game for the San Francisco Giants on June 8, 1958, becoming the second player from the Dominican Republic to make it to the big leagues. But the Christian Athlete was more interested in the momentous event that occurred the day before Alou's MLB debut. On that day, as Alou put it, "I got down on my knees and gave myself to the Lord."

In his conversion account, Alou said his decision was inspired by Roque Martinez, a schoolmate from the Dominican Republic. Martinez became a born-again Christian in 1954. He gave Alou a Spanish Bible in 1956 and continually urged Alou to give his life to Christ. When Alou was called up the Giants in 1958, Roque sent Alou a telegram with a message stating that he prayed for two things: that Alou would make it to the major leagues, and that he would become a born-again Christian. Alou made sure both prayers were answered.

Along with Roque Martinez, Alou's 1962 story featured Al Worthington, an Alabama-born relief pitcher for the Giants. Worthington had gone through a conversion experience of his own at a Billy Graham revival earlier in 1958. According to Alou, Worthington provided him with religious guidance and helped him grow in his faith. (Worthington later became a baseball coach at Liberty University.)

There are a number of fascinating threads to explore in Alou's conversion story and FCA involvement. I won't be able to get into all of them in this short post. But I do want to highlight one: the religion that Alou converted from. Like most Latinos, Alou grew up in a Catholic family. But in his view he did not become a Christian until his born again experience in 1958. To signify his new religious identity, he was later "baptized into the new faith" by Lindy McDaniel, a well-traveled relief pitcher who doubled as a Church of Christ minister.

Alou's evangelical Protestant faith caused friction among his Catholic family members; he wrote in 1962 that he "experienced ridicule and misunderstanding" back home in the Dominican Republic. His conversion also had the potential to create tension within the FCA. Unlike almost every other Christian organization in existence at the time, the FCA included both Catholics and Protestants. This was a point of pride for the Protestant-dominated FCA. Although Catholic involvement was limited and was mostly a projection rather than an on-the-ground reality, it was an important part of the FCA's conception of itself. I've spoken with one early FCA leader who told me he knew of some Protestant athletes at the time who refused to join the FCA precisely because it welcomed Catholics. Apparently, the FCA was willing to let those Protestant athletes go rather than exclude Catholics

While the FCA welcomed Catholics, only a handful of Catholic leaders worked with the FCA. Most were suspicious of the organization and saw little need for an institution led by non-Catholics. Still, a few Catholic clergy did cooperate. It would be interesting to know how they reacted to Catholic-to-Protestant conversion stories like Alou's. In my dissertation I've uncovered a few sources that show Catholic/Protestant tension within the FCA. But none of them mention Alou. If Catholics were concerned, they could take solace later that decade when FCA stalwart Brooks Robinson, third basemen for the Baltimore Orioles, converted from Methodism to Catholicism. Alou was a great player, but getting Robinson, an eighteen-time All-Star, was an on-the-field upgrade (and who knows, maybe third base was a position of need for Catholics).

Alou continued his pioneering ways for the rest of his long career in baseball. Along with being one of the first Dominican-born players in the majors and one of the first Latinos involved with the FCA, in the early 1960s he became an important advocate for Latino athletes, speaking up to demand better treatment from Major League Baseball. After his playing days endedand after toiling as a coach and manager in the minor leagues for twenty-five yearshe became the first Dominican-born big-league manager, taking charge of the Montreal Expos in 1992.

As for the FCA, Latino involvement has expanded since Alou's 1962 Christian Athlete cover story. Prominent baseball players like Mariano Rivera, Albert Pujols, and  Adrián González (among others) have worked with the organization in recent years. This should be no surprise when considering professional baseball's shifting demographics. When Alou debuted with the San Francisco Giants in 1958, Latinos comprised about six percent of MLB rosters; today, they make up over twenty-seven percent of the league.