Walter Alston Biography
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Walter Alston survived the tough business of baseball despite his jovial demeanor and calm attitude. He was never given anything more than a one-year contract by Dodger ownership, which seemed like harsh treatment considering the fact that he led the franchise to World Series titles in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles. Behind his quiet exterior, Alston hid a fiery competitive spirit, and he is one of a handful of managers to win more than 2,000 games. He helped establish “the Dodger Way”, which translated into winning seasons in 19 of 23 seasons from 1954 to 1976.
Best Season: 1963
Many would select the 1955 Brooklyn team, which won the only modern championship in that city, but they were really no different or better than many other Brooklyn teams. The ’63 Dodgers were the best pitching team in baseball, played great defense and “small-ball.” Koufax (25-5, 1.88) and Drysdale (19-17, 2.63) were the workhorses on the hill, with Johnny Podres (14 wins) and Bob Miller (10 wins, 2.89 ERA) rounding out the rotation. Ron Perranoski provided bullpen support (21 saves, 1.67). Maury Wills led the offensive attack from the leadoff spot, pilfering 40 bases and batting .302. The rest of the lineup was solid but unspectacular, with the exception of center fielder Tommy Davis (.326) and right fielder Frank Howard (28 homers). The key word on offense was balance: two switch-hitters, three lefties and three righties played regularly. The Dodgers outperformed their pythagorean projection by seven games and then swept the Yankees in the World Series, allowing just four runs to the Bombers.
When Brooklyn owner Walter O’Malley hired Alston to be his manager in November, 1953, a sportswriter quipped, “The Dodgers do not need a manager, and that is why they got Alston.” Despite a cold reception, Brooklyn warmed to Alston, who guided the team to their only World Series title in the burrough. Later, in Los Angeles, Alston added two more championships.
Walter Emmons Alston was born in Venice, Ohio, on the frist day of December, 1911, the son of a farmer who had once played semipro ball. Walter played baseball at Darrtown High School, where his speedy fastball earned him the nickname “Smokey.” After high school, the lanky Alston attended Miami (Ohio) University, where he majored in industrial arts and physical education. He graduated from Miami in 1935, after starring on their baseball and basketball squads. With his parents earning a modest income during the Great Depression, Alston relied on his wits to meet his college tuition. He played pool in local taverns and pool halls, winning money to pay for his classes and books.
Alston signed with the St. Louis Cardinals after graduation and spent 13 years in the minor leagues, earning his one major league chance at the end of the 1936 campaign, after he led the Mid-Atlantic League with 35 home runs. On September 27, 1936, after Cardinals’ star first baseman Johnny Mize was ejected from the game, Alston was put in the lineup by manager Frankie Frisch. Alston was nervous in three innings he made an error and struck out in his only at-bat. The next spring, he was back in the Cardinals minor league system, blocked at first base by Johnny Mize and other prospects.
In 1940, Alston’s fortunes changed forever when he was offered the chance to play and manage at Portsmouth in the Mid-Atlantic League. That year he led the loop with 28 homers, but the team could only manage a sixth place finish. The next two seasons, in 1941 and 1942, serving as player/manager, Alston led the Mid-Atlantic homers and RBI both years, earning a promotion to Rochester, where he surrendered his managerial cap and performed as a player only. In 1944, the Cardinals released Alston, but Branch Rickey, formerly the Cardinals GM and now the president of Brooklyn Dodgers, hired Alston to play and manage in the Dodgers’ system. With the Dodgers, Alston guided St. Paul to the Junior World Series championship in 1949, and the next year found him in Montreal Brooklyn’s top farm club.
The quiet, unflappable Alston spent four seasons in Montreal, grooming several Brooklyn stars for the big club. When the Dodgers’ managerial position was open after the ’53 campaign, O’Malley surprised the press and fans by hiring Alston, who was not highly regarded by most experts outside of the Brooklyn system.
Since his predecessor, Charlie Dressen, had been axed because he demanded a multi-year contract, Alston made sure to never balk at his one-year deals. He worked under that arrangement for 23 seasons, never knowing if he might be sent packing following the season. But his success quickly gave him comfort, as he won a World Series title in his second season, fulfilling Brooklyn’s fans’ dream.
Building a winning machine, Alston paced the Dodgers to 88 or more wins in 13 of his 23 years at the helm. He suffered just four losing seasons, and posted a career .558 percentage. Alston won World Series titles in ’55, 1959, 1963, and 1965, relying on power and pitching in the 1950s, pitching and speed in the 1960s, and youth and pitching in the 1970s, when he won his final pennant, in 1974. He was named Manager of the Year six times, and garnered a record seven wins as manager of the NL All-Star squad.
Future Managers who Played for Alston
Tommy Lasorda, Bill Russell, Bobby Valentine, Dusty Baker, Davey Lopes, Maury Wills, Jeff Torborg, Don Zimmer, Jim Lefebvre, Phil Regan, Frank Howard, Gil Hodges, Norm Sherry, Bob Lillis, Roger Craig, Bob Kennedy, Charlie Manuel, Dick Williams
Major League Debut
September 27, 1936 … After Cardinals’ star first baseman Johnny Mize was ejected from the game, Alston was put in the lineup by manager Frankie Frisch. Alston was nervous � in three innings he made an error and struck out in his only at-bat. The next spring, he was back in the Cardinals minor league system, blocked at first base by Johnny Mize and other prospects. This was Alston’s only appearance as a big league player.
Nine Other Players Who Debuted in 1936
#21 (1936), #24 (1958-1976)
Alston won his 2,000th game on July 17, 1976, at Dodger Stadium, against the Chicago Cubs. Coming back from a first-inning 4-0 deficit, the Dodgers won on a two-run single by pitcher Rick Rhoden in the fourth inning. Alston became the sixth manager to win 2,000 games.
In 1957, Alston used 100 different lineups as the Dodgers failed to repeat as National League champions.
Chuck Dressen, who lost the famous 1951 Playoff, and lost the World Series to the Yankees in 1952 and 1953. Dressen then had the audacity to ask for a multi-year deal, and Walter O’Malley axed him.
His coach, Tommy Lasorda, in 1977. Lasorda was in many ways the opposite of Alston. Lasorda craved the spotlight and loved to hold court with the media and Hollywood celebrities who frequented games at Dodger Stadium. He was a visible, vocal, “rah-rah” type leader, who wore his emotions on his sleeve. Lasorda managed the Dodgers through 1996, giving the organization two managers in 42 seasons. Since the 1997 season, the Dodgers have had four different managers.
Best Strength as a Player
Loyalty, both to his players and the organization.
Largest Weakness as a Player
On occasion, such as in his reluctance to make Maury Wills an everyday player, Alston was blinded by loyalty to his veteran players.