Before guiding the Dodgers to four World Series titles and seven National League pennants, Hall of Fame skipper, Walter Alston, honed his managerial skills with the Montreal Royals.
Born in Venice, Ohio on December 1, 1911, the legendary bench boss enjoyed a brief, uneventful stint in the big leagues as a player. His only major league at bat came with the St. Louis Cardinals on the last day of the 1936 season, after the club’s regular first baseman Johnny Mize had been ejected. A 6-foot-2, 195-pound infielder, Alston struck out against Cubs pitcher Lou Warneke. In the field, he committed an error on one of the two fielding chances he handled to finish his career with a .500 fielding percentage.
But his paltry big league stats shouldn’t diminish his fine minor league career that saw him hit .295 and belt 176 homers in 13 seasons. In 1940, he became a player/manager for the Cardinals’ Class C affiliate in Portsmouth, Ohio, and he would continue in similar roles over the next few seasons until he moved to the Dodgers organization in 1944. After four seasons as a player/manager in the Dodgers chain, Alston became manager of the St. Paul Saints, the Dodgers’ Triple-A, American Association affiliate in 1948.
Following another season in St. Paul, Alston and Montreal Royals dugout boss Clay Hopper switched managerial posts in the Dodgers system. In contrast to Hopper’s outspoken and animated style, Alston was calm and professional, which according to William Brown, in his book Baseball’s Fabulous Montreal Royals, didn’t endear him to Montreal fans. The city demanded more flair from their managers and fans found it difficult to embrace the quiet and studious Alston, who worked as a schoolteacher in the off-season.
But what he lacked in charisma, he made up for with wins. In his four seasons with the Royals from 1950 to 1953, Alston’s teams won two pennants, two Governor’s Cups, one Junior World Series and would never finish a season worse than 19 games over .500.
“He was the perfect manager for the Montreal club because he knew how to win and he knew how to teach young players to win,” wrote Tommy Lasorda, in his 1985 autobiography, The Artful Dodger.
Lasorda played for Alston with the Royals from 1950 to 1953 and would later coach on the legendary skipper’s big league staff.
“If you couldn’t play baseball for Walter Alston, you couldn’t play for anybody. He was as tough as any man I’ve ever known, and honest and fair,” wrote Lasorda. “In all the years, I played for him and worked for him, I never saw him belittle or embarrass a player or try to kill a player’s confidence.”
In contrast to Alston’s calm personality, however, Lasorda writes that Alston preferred a loud and loose team, and Lasorda wasn’t above playing practical jokes on his manager. One day when Alston was pitching batting practice for the Royals, Lasorda pulled a classic practical joke.
“One very hot summer’s day, we were in Syracuse to play the Chiefs. Their ball park, MacArthur Park, had a big clock on the right field fence,” recounted Lasorda in his book. “Walt was throwing and I was shagging flies – in right field. And every few pitches, when he had his back to me, I’d go over to that clock and turn its hands back a minute or two. He was sweltering. He’d throw a few pitches, turn around to look at the clock, shake his head in disbelief, wipe the sweat from his brow, and throw some more. After 45 minutes, he walked into the dugout and plopped down on the bench. ‘Boy,’ he said to Clyde King, then a pitcher with the club, ‘that was the longest 30 minutes of my life.’’’
King then told Alston what Lasorda was doing with the clock.
“It was impossible to believe that Walt was exhausted after the way he shot out of the dugout after me,” recounted Lasorda. “He chased me around the field until neither of us could run anymore.”
In 1953, Alson’s final season with the Royals, he managed a team that consisted of future big league managers – Lasorda, Dick Williams and Roy Hartsfield – to a Junior World Series title.
His success in Montreal earned him the manager’s job with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954. After managing Brooklyn to their only World Series title in 1955, he led the Dodgers to three more championships (1959, 1963, 1965) in Los Angeles. In all, he piloted the Dodgers for 23 seasons, on 23 one-year contracts. When he retired after the 1976 campaign, he had recorded 2,040 wins, which now ranks him ninth on the all-time list. For his efforts, he was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. Alston passed away on October 1 the following year.