Hall of Famer Alston batted once in majors, but managed 23 years
Perhaps no one was ever more in need of a politician's introduction than Walter Alston back on Nov. 24, 1953, when he was hired to manage the Brooklyn Dodgers.Skip to next paragraph
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The banner headline in the New York Post that day read: ''Dodgers pick new pilot - it's a guy named Alston!'' Walter, a first baseman, had played in the big leagues all right. You can look it up. It consisted of one time at bat in 1936 (a strikeout) against pitcher Lon Warneke of the St. Louis Cardinals.
What makes this all so relevant is that earlier this month a special Veterans' Committee of 18 members voted Alston into baseball's Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y.
For the record, Walter managed the Dodgers for 23 consecutive years during which they won seven pennants and four world championships. He is also one of only six managers to win more than 2,000 games in the big leagues.
But outside of a few close friends, his employer, and some of his players, I have to wonder how many people really know Walter Alston. He is as rustic as a log cabin; walks the same whether the plow is there or not; has yet to visit his first nightclub; and on occasion can be as droll as Herb Shriner. Even after all these years, Walter still lives in Darrtown, Ohio, a place so small on the map that most people mistake it for an ink spot.
The thing you have to remember about Alston is that the Dodgers just didn't pull his name out of a hat in 1953. They knew about him because he had started managing in the St. Louis Cardinals' chain back in 1940, and later was uniformly successful with Dodger farm teams from New Hampshire to Montreal.
As an even younger man, Alston had taught high school in the same rural area for 14 years, specializing in biology, physical education, and industrial arts and sciences. He also coached basketball, and before that was captain of his high school team for three years, an honor generally reserved for seniors.
Whether he was managing in the minors or the big leagues, Walter never seemed to be in a hurry. But when he decided to make a move, it was usually the right one, whether he was sending up a pinch-hitter or bringing in a relief pitcher from the bullpen.
''When I became a member of the Dodgers' coaching staff in 1973, the first thing I noticed about Alston was how well he ran a ball game,'' explained Monty Basgall, who's still with the club. ''He didn't miss anything. He was two innings ahead of everybody else with his strategy. He never panicked and he had great patience.
''Although people were always saying that Alston was too conservative, there were lots of times when he threw the book away and won with what he did,'' Basgall continued. ''And he knew just how to handle those big egos on the Dodgers so that they invariably remained happy and productive.''
To the New York and Los Angeles press, at least during his managing days, Alston was always polite but noncommittal. Everything he said was always along the lines of: ''Well, it's too early to tell yet,'' or ''Let's wait and see how things work out.'' After a while, most reporters gave up trying to interview him.
But Alston was always aware of what was going on, of which players needed discipline and which could be left on their own. And when he blasted a star player or fined him for being late to the ballpark or missing a sign, it was always done behind closed doors, man to man.
One time during spring training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., several years after he'd retired, I asked Alston to comment on the old theory that managers never win games, although they can sometimes prevent losses.
Remember now, this is an extremely modest man whose biggest boast is that he used to jump center pretty well in high school basketball for a kid barely six-feet tall.
''Of course managers win ball games,'' Walter told me, in the same voice that he might have given a stranger the time of day. ''The toughest thing about managing is knowing your personnel and what it can give you under all conditions. I've won plenty of games by knowing when to take out my pitcher; whom to replace him with; or how to place my infield or outfield to defend properly against the opposing hitter. You pick up things over the years about certain players; you file them away; and then you use them when they mean something. I always liked Casey Stengel as a manager because he seemed to have a grasp of so many things.''
Asked if he had any idea in 1953 that the late Walter O'Malley was going to hire him to replace Charlie Dressen as manager of the Dodgers, Alston replied:
''To tell you the truth, I didn't. Oh, I had read in the newspapers that Dressen was asking for a long-term contract and that his wife had sent some fiery letter to the Dodgers demanding something or other. But I figured it was just another off-season baseball story and that the matter would be settled. The day Mr. O'Malley gave me a one-year contract for $24,000 to manage in the big leagues is a day I'll always remember, because it was twice what I was getting with Montreal. But the fact is I would have signed for any figure.''
This may surprise you, but part of Alston's salary increase went to upgrade his choice in motorcycles.