Los Angeles — Back in the fall of 1953, when the old Brooklyn Dodgers hired baseball unknown Walter Alston as their manager, the man his friends called Smokey signed the greatest one-year contract in major league history. It lasted through 23 consecutive seasons and produced seven National League pennants and four World Series championships, three of those coming after the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
Just to put that achievement in perspective, the managers in this year's playoffs - Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams, Jim Frey, and Dick Howser - represent a particularly experienced and successful group, yet all four together are just about able to match Alston's record.
In fact, only three managers in baseball history have won more World Series - Connie Mack with the famed Philadelphia Athletics of long ago, and Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel, who had the advantage of managing people named Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, etc., with all those New York Yankee powerhouses.
Alston, who retired as Dodger manager in 1976 and passed on this week at his home in Darrtown, Ohio, never let things get out of perspective. When writers asked him if he planned to celebrate after being elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in 1983, Walter grinned and said: ''I think I already have.'' The reply fit Alston's middle-America pitchfork image like a latex bathing suit.
Once, when Tony Kubek asked Stengel on a nationwide telecast to name the best of modern-day managers, the Old Perfesser screwed his face into a glob of putty and said: ''I like that fella with the Dodgers. He wins with young players, old players, infielders that hit both ways, and with a giant who either strikes out or hits it over the Empire State Building. (he was referring to 6 ft. 7 in. Frank Howard.) ''He (Alston) also wins in a small park, a big park, and one that's got a volleyball net in left field.'' What Casey was talking about was the Coliseum, where the team played before building Dodger Stadium. The Coliseum was so ill-suited for baseball that if a hitter could get the ball well up in the air and 251 ft. down the left field line, he had a Chinese home run.
''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 is still the team's infield coach. ''Walter never missed anything that was going on. He was always two innings ahead of everybody else with his strategy. He never panicked, and he had great patience.
''Although people were always saying Alston was too conservative, there were lots of times when he threw the book away and won with whatever he decided to do ,'' Basgall added. ''And he knew just how to handle those big egos on the Dodgers so they remained happy and productive. But if someone wasn't doing his job, Walter didn't hesitate to blast him or take his money, only it was always done behind closed doors, man to man. He didn't believe in letting the press in on anything like that.''
Of course as a young man, Alston always hoped to become a big league regular. Originally signed by the St. Louis Cardinals farm chain as a third baseman, Walter (after hitting 35 home runs for Huntington as a first baseman), was called up to the parent club near the end of the 1936 season. But with three first basemen like Johnny Mize, Rip Collins, and Dick Siebert on the roster, it didn't seem likely that Walter would get a chance to play.
However, one day, after Collins and Siebert had been used as pinch-hitters and Mize got thrown out of the game for arguing balls and strikes, Alston finally got his opportunity. Walter didn't exactly make the most of it. After booting two ground balls, he struck out in what was to prove to be his only major league at bat.
One time during spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., several years after he had retired, I asked Alston to comment on the theory that managers never win ball games.
Remember now, this was an extremely modest individual whose biggest boast was that he used to jump center pretty well in high school for a kid not yet 6 ft. tall.
''Of course managers win ball games,'' Walter told me in the same voice he might have used to give 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 set my infield or outfield to defend properly against the opposing hitter. You pick up things over the years about certain opposing players which you file away mentally and only use when they mean something. I always liked Casey Stengel as a manager because he seemed to have a grasp of so many things.''
As for the 23 one-year contracts Smokey signed with the Dodgers (he picked up the nickname, by the way, as a hard-throwing teen-age pitcher), Walter told me he dealt originally with former General Manager Buzzie Bavasi.
''At first Bavasi used to call me sometime after the season, offer me a new contract and I'd sign,'' Alston explained. ''This went on for years. Then one season I guess he forgot, because I know he got a telephone call from the National League office saying that if I wasn't signed within 48 hours, I wouldn't be eligible to sit in the dugout at the start of the season.
''After Buzzie left the club, Mr. O'Malley's son, Peter, became my contact. You know, those one-year contracts never bothered me, because all they ever meant to me was that I could quit if I was dissatisfied and that the Dodgers could fire me if they were dissatisfied. But mostly I was just grateful for the chance to manage, and believe me, I would have signed for any figure.''
Walter Alston, in case you haven't figured it out, never did anything for show.