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AL DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS

March 04, 1974
March 04, 1974

Table of Contents
March 4, 1974

Hoosiers
Dark
Sanders
College Basketball
Track & Field
Jimbo
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

AL DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS

In a single bound, one of baseball's managers-in-exile vaults up from limbo to field boss of the champion Oakland A's

What are you doing, Alvin—besides playing golf?" Charles O. Finley said to Alvin R. Dark on the occasion of an Oakland-to-Miami telephone call Feb. 1. They had been talking about managers: Charlie's—the Oakland Athletics'—need for one; Alvin's desire to be one again. Charlie was soliciting opinions on the men available. Charlie would name a manager and Alvin would give an opinion. It was not unusual. Over the years since Finley had fired Alvin from the job, they had become phone pals.

This is an article from the March 4, 1974 issue Original Layout

"Nothing. Getting fat," Alvin Dark said to Charlie Finley. "No one's here knocking my door down wanting me to manage."

"Alvin, how much you weigh?" asked Finley.

"Two-ten, two-fifteen."

"You must be fat. Would a fat old man be scared to manage a team that has won World Championships back to back?"

"It would bother anybody," said Alvin Dark. "It's a tough spot to put a man in. No matter what he does, he'll probably be wrong. The first time he loses a close game the second-guessers will have a field day. So to answer your question—I'd love to."

Charlie Finley laughed. "I can't make a decision yet," he said. "There's a lot to be ironed out." His manager of record was Dick Williams, though Williams had announced his intention to jump ship and manage the Yankees. Finley had pulled a contract on Williams, showing two years due. Hard words were passed. Litigation was under way.

"I'll be here," said Alvin Dark. "I'm not going anywhere, except to church. And to the golf course." The Darks' town house is hard by the 8th green of the east course at the Country Club of Miami.

When he hung up, Alvin Dark told his wife Jackie that if he did not know better he would say Mr. Finley had come dangerously close to offering him a job.

On Feb. 18 Charlie Finley called Alvin Dark again. Finley had been putting his house in order, with the help of a federal court judge who ruled that Williams had breached his contract. Dark had been putting his short irons in order for the Gleason Inverrary golf tournament. As a participant in the celebrity pro-am, he had played 36 holes that day and was limping slightly when he went to the phone. His left knee, which had stood the rigors of football at LSU and 25 years of playing and managing in the big leagues, is the only part of him that acts his age, which is 52. His hair is still curly and his eyes are still brown.

"You still interested?" Charlie Finley said to Alvin Dark.

"I sure am," said Alvin Dark.

"Time's running out. We start spring training Friday. How soon could you be ready to come out here?"

"Thirty minutes ago. Are you offering me the job?"

"I'd like to look you in the eyeballs first."

"I'll bring my wardrobe."

Alvin Dark filled three suitcases to go to Oakland. He said he wanted to be ready in case he had to go from there to Mesa, where the Athletics train. Jackie told him his suits were at the cleaners. "Ship 'em," said Dark.

On his flight to the Coast he stopped in Houston, where he visited briefly with his mother and two daughters and son by his first marriage, and got a first look at his 10-month-old grandson. "I picked him up and he didn't cry—he knew it was grandpa," said Dark. When he got to San Francisco he checked in at the Hilton and awaited Finley's call. Finley was in an arbitration hearing over salary disputes with two players, Reggie Jackson and Joe Rudi. In Miami, Jackie Dark heard on a newscast that Irv Noren, an Oakland coach, had the inside track to manage the Athletics in 1974. Satchel Paige's name was also mentioned. Dark did not hear the report.

It was not until 10:30 p.m.—seven hours later—that Finley came to Dark's room. "You are fat," said Finley. He laughed. "You are fat." The first three minutes were devoted to Dark's waistline, and then they talked baseball for two hours. They talked about players and about strategies, about the effectiveness of the squeeze play ("Who are the best bunters on this team?" asked Dark), and about hitting-and-running, a favorite ploy of Dark's. Finley, who is also the A's general manager, answered as best he could.

"I'm only offering a one-year contract," Finley said at last.

"I'd take a day-to-day if you wanted me to."

"How much money do you want?"

"You decide."

The contract, Dark would say later, "was better than I've ever had in baseball." It called for a salary in line with what he had been making not to manage the Cleveland Indians the past 2½ years ($60,000), plus performance clauses: a bonus if the A's win their division, a bonus if they win the pennant, a bonus if they win the World Series.

("The thing about Charlie Finley is that he is basically a very generous man," Alvin Dark had said to a friend in attempting to assess Finley's unique character some weeks before. "He'll do anything for you—just don't demand it." In 1966, when Dark first managed the A's and they finished seventh in what was then a 10-team American League—the best they had done under Finley till then—he gave Dark a Cadillac.)

At a press conference in Oakland the day after their Hilton meeting, Finley presented Dark as his new manager and said, "Yes, he was hired by me in 1966.... Yes, he was fired in 1967.... Yes, I hired him again.... Yes, he expects to be fired again some day." He said bygones were bygones. "Finley doesn't hold grudges," Dark said, "and who am I to hold one?" "We have decided to get married again," said Finley. A newscaster who does not know Finley as well as Dark does reported the event by saying, "The only thing worse than being hired by Charlie Finley is being hired by him a second time."

But if the reunion strained credibility, it should not have. It was, first of all, almost inevitable that Charlie Finley would sooner or later hire someone he had previously fired. In 13 years of picturesque ownership of the A's, Finley has gone through managers as though they were salted peanuts. Dark is his 12th; Dark was also his sixth. In August of 1967 Finley fired Dark for not backing him in the fining and suspending of Pitcher Lew Krausse after an incident involving drinking on a team flight.

There was an emotional seven-hour meeting of the two in a Washington hotel room. Dark was fired, rehired with a two-year contract and then fired again when Finley learned that Dark knew of a players' statement accusing the owner of undermining morale by using informers to spy on the team. The statement called for Finley to "give his fine coaching staff and excellent manager the authority they deserve." After Dark was fired, First Baseman Ken Harrelson was quoted as calling Finley "a menace to baseball," and was himself given an unconditional release. Valuable players are not given unconditional releases. If baseball was astounded, Harrelson was delighted. He got $75,000 to sign on with Boston.

Despite the rift, however, there was no lasting bitterness between Finley and Dark. "I'd have done the same thing in his position," Dark said recently, "and I think he would have done what I did if he were in mine. We were victims of circumstance." Unbeknown to most, the two became closer after the firing. Dark moved on to Cleveland in 1968, but he was only a direct-dial away. Respected managers like Eddie Stanky and Gene Mauch had told Finley there was no better mind in baseball than Dark's, and Finley is not shy. Dark estimates they talked "more than 50 times" by long distance over the years.

"People think Charlie's dumb because he asks so many crazy questions," Dark says of Finley. "He's not dumb. He's brilliant. He asks questions because he wants to know, and he's not ashamed to ask. I didn't like the softball uniforms, either, or the donkeys on the field, but you think about all the things he's pushed—night games for the World Series, the designated pinch hitter, inter-league play—and you begin to realize what a positive influence he has been. Some owners wouldn't admit it, but they all copy him. Look at the uniforms. Look at the colored gloves and white shoes."

Dark says he came to realize long ago that managing in the big leagues is not a divine right. "A manager is foolish to think he's indispensable. Owners have a perfect right to fire them. It's not the manager's 15 million dollars that's on the line. If you're looking for job security, drive a mail truck. Managers always get fired."

Having made this accommodation to the system, Dark's own famous temper—he has been known to leave a locker room a shambles after a loss—was always well in hand when it came time to depart a job gone sour. As a Boston Braves-New York Giants star infielder in the 1940s and '50s, he was known as the smartest player on the field, and as a manager prodigy he led the San Francisco Giants to a pennant in 1962. He was fired in 1964. A New York newspaperman had charged him with racist remarks in an interview. Jackie Robinson, among others, came to Dark's defense, but the damage was done. And by then Giant Owner Horace Stoneham had other grievances. A devout Baptist and lay preacher, Dark was unashamed to speak out on religious matters, and he had achieved a kind of piety that rankled Stoneham, who could not get his manager to drink with him. When Stoneham, as Bill Veeck put it, found "a flaw in that faultless character of his" (Dark had fallen in love with the airline stewardess who is now his wife), Stoneham became disenchanted. "I can understand that," Dark says. "It is hard to forgive a man who doesn't practice what he preaches. But I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Stoneham. He was good to me as a player, and he gave me my chance to manage." When he was fired, Dark made no fuss. "It's your ball club, Mr. Stoneham," he said.

Neither did Dark have harsh words when Vernon Stouffer let him loose with 2½ years to go on his Cleveland contract. The team was bad, attendance was down. And his mistake, says Dark, was that he "went to war" with his antagonists there—the Cleveland press and General Manager Gabe Paul. "I got worse instead of better," he says.

The time since, says Dark, has been spent in a painstaking personal and spiritual re-evaluation—and, since last October, no set income. He "reassessed my commitment to the Christian life, and where I had failed in it, and my faith in Jesus Christ." Some months ago he wrote letters of apology to those he felt he had offended in Cleveland, including Gabe Paul, who had moved on to the Yankees.

When subsequent managerial jobs opened and he got no call, Dark was convinced baseball had written him off. But the effect was not what you would expect, says Jackie Dark. "In the last year we've never been happier."

There is now in Dark a "deeper, calmer strength," says a Miami newsman who knows him well. "Oh, he's still a fiery competitor—try him on the golf course some day. But I don't think he'll ever have any trouble getting along with anyone again."

In that respect, Dark himself says he feels "absolutely no pressure in taking this job. I've put my life in stronger hands than my own." While he waited for his meeting with Finley in the Hilton, Dark memorized a verse from Deuteronomy: "Be strong and of a good courage, fear not nor be afraid of them: for the Lord thy God...will not fail thee, nor forsake thee."

"Of course," Dark says, smiling, "we haven't made any errors yet, and we haven't lost any tough games."

Dark sees no immediate need for a lot of team meetings and consultations with the champions. "I believe a man's actions drown out his words. We'll get acquainted."

He already is well acquainted with some A's. Infielders Sal Bando, Campy Campaneris and Dick Green and Pitchers Catfish Hunter and Blue Moon Odom were on his 1967 team. Gene Tenace, Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers were in the organization, and Reggie Jackson had been signed off the Arizona State campus in 1966. "Even then we knew he was going to be great," says Dark of Jackson. "Mr. Finley did a great job of going out and signing young talent. My dream then was to take a club built from scratch to the championship. We were on our way in 1966, but they wound up doing it without me."

After the Coast announcement ceremony Dark left for Mesa, with a side trip to Bellflower, Calif., where he addressed a meeting of the Pacific Baptist Bible Fellowship. Dark spoke of his triumphs and his troubles. "Before it was over," he said, "we were all crying. You've never seen emotion until you've seen all those Baptist preachers crying."

Later Dark checked in at a motel near the Los Angeles airport and discovered he had left Miami with little cash and only a gas company credit card. The hotel manager was a baseball fan, however, and recognized the name. He offered to take a check for the room.

"You can put your dinner on it, too, if you wish," said the manager.

"That'd be just fine," said Dark. He ordered liver, a salad—without dressing—and a glass of iced tea. He explained to the waitress that he was on a very strict diet.

PHOTOFirst day back in an A's uniform, Dark samples the sun at Oakland's Mesa, Ariz. spring camp.PHOTOIn the evening, Dark, who says he has "put my life in stronger hands," reads Scripture.PHOTODark gets reacquainted with Campaneris.