THE WALTER ALSTON ESTATE COLLECTION
Walter Alston displayed a quiet, professional demeanor throughout his 23-year tenure in Major League Baseball. As the longtime manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1954 to 1976, he established himself as a level-headed voice of reason for folks in the front office as well as his charges in the field.
Dodgers’ six-time Gold Glove Award-winning first baseman Wes Parker, who spent his entire nine-year (1964 to ’72) career in L.A. with Alston at the helm, had this to say about his former skipper:
“Walt was a very calm man, self-contained and sure of himself, like Teddy Roosevelt’s famous saying: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ People would ask, ‘What made him so great?’ One of the things was his timing. He always had his finger on the pulse of the team. Walt was not a micromanager. He was a loose manager, yet he had control. He’d write your name in the lineup and turn you loose.
“I once heard Casey Stengel say the secret to managing is to keep the 10 guys who hate you away from the 15 guys who don’t. And there’s a truth to that. I think Walt did a good job of keeping players comfortable and happy.”
Alston defined the term “homespun.” A native of Venice, Ohio, he spent much of his childhood growing up on a farm in nearby Morning Sun. As a teenager, his family moved to Darrtown, Ohio, where he attended Milford Township High School and starred on the baseball team as a pitcher. In fact, he threw a fastball with such velocity that he quickly earned the nickname “Smokey.” After graduating high school in 1929 and marrying his longtime girlfriend Lela Vaugh Alexander the following year, Alston attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Lettering in both basketball and baseball for three years, Alston graduated with a degree in industrial arts and physical education, and then chose to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1935.
He played minor league baseball for the Greenwood Chiefs and Huntington Red Birds in 1935 and ’36, respectively. In 1936, in fact, he belted 35 home runs in 120 games for the Red Birds and was brought up late in the year, albeit for just the proverbial cup of coffee. His only major league game on record occurred with the Cardinals on Sept. 27, 1936, versus the Chicago Cubs when he substituted at first base for Johnny Mize who had just been ejected from the game. Batting against Lon Warneke, Alston struck out and also committed one error in two fielding chances at first base. And that was it. He returned to the minor leagues following his brief call up.
In 1940, when it became apparent he wasn’t in the Cardinals future plans as a player, Alston was given the opportunity to play and manage in their farm system. He was released by St. Louis in 1944, but was spotted by the keen eye of former Cardinals General Manager and now Brooklyn President Branch Rickey who signed him to play and manage the Trenton Packers in the Dodgers’ minor league system. He continued to play and manage in the Dodgers’ farm system before settling in as manager of the St. Paul Saints in 1948, a team he led to an 86-68 record and third-place finish in Class AAA. A year later, under Alston’s guidance, the Saints finished in first place with a record of 93-60.
From 1950 to ’53, Alston managed another Dodgers’ AAA affiliate, the Montreal Royals of the International League. The team won between 86 and 95 games during each season of Alston’s tenure including International League pennants in both 1951 and ’52.
Following the 1953 season, Brooklyn Dodgers’ Skipper Charlie Dressen insisted on a multi-year contract to continue as Dodger manager. Brooklyn Owner Walter O’Malley balked at the demand and to everyone’s surprise chose the little known Alston to pilot the club.
Alston led the Dodgers to a second place finish in 1954, then won the pennant and Brooklyn’s only World Series Championship in 1955, defeating the mighty New York Yankees in seven games. He followed that with another pennant in 1956 thus securing his position as Dodgers’ field boss, and continued his ritual of extending his stay as manager on a one-year contract basis.
The unflappable homespun Ohioan managed the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers for 23 straight seasons. During that span Alston’s Dodger teams suffered only four losing campaigns despite franchise relocation and competing in three different home parks.
His teams won 90 or more games in 10 different years. Under Alston’s watchful eye, the Dodgers earned seven National League pennants and four World Series titles. On July 17, 1976, Alston became only the sixth manager in MLB history to win 2,000 games. Just before the end of that season he retired as Dodger skipper with 2,040 wins (currently ninth all-time). The Dodgers retired his uniform number 24 the year after he stepped down as manager, making him just the fourth Dodger ever to receive that honor. He ranks 12th in winning percentage (.558) amongst managers with at least 1,000 career wins, was named National League Manager of the Year six times, and led National League All-Star teams to seven victories in the Mid-Summer Classic.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983 but was unable to attend his own induction ceremony due to a heart attack he suffered earlier that year. Alston died in an Oxford, Ohio hospital on Oct. 1, 1984, from further complications from the earlier heart attack. He was 72 years old.