Walter Emmons Alston is a strong man of slow movements and long silences. At 62 his body is still thick and muscular, and although he moves a little stiffly, it is the stiffness of controlled strength, not old age and lost dignity. His handsome face is tanned, creased and robust-looking. He has direct, almost unblinking, blue eyes and a smile that is quick, broad, affable and disarming. His hair is the color of silver. Looking at Walter Alston one thinks immediately of Ike or an older Charles Atlas, or Gary Cooper in High Noon. One is tempted to say, "He is the strong, silent type," implying with that phrase a host of virtues—patience, understanding, courage, wisdom, honesty—that have nothing at all in common with physical strength and reticence. These are not virtues but characteristics.
Unquestionably Alston has aged well. He possesses a certain dignity of appearance he did not have 20 years ago. His blue eyes were not so direct as they were vacant, and his smile was not so affable as it was uncomprehending when, in the fall of '53, he was chosen to succeed Charlie Dressen as the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dressen was a fiery, loquacious, at times brilliant little man who began most of his sentences with "I" and ended them with "me." He had managed the Dodgers to a second-place finish in the National League in 1951, and to pennants in '52 and '53. Dressen fielded some of the most talented players in baseball—Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Preacher Roe, Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Carl Furillo and Duke Snider—yet they did not win a World Series. The blame was Dressen's, according to the fans, the press and the front office. He had a tendency to overmanage a team of players so talented they did not need managing, it was believed. Furthermore, the Dodgers of those years were a varied and complex group of men whose sensibilities were chafed by their manager's habit of telling them how to play a game they felt they had already mastered. They would prefer as manager a man who would put each game in motion by handing in a lineup card at home plate and then sit back in the dugout with a benign grin—an interested but no longer involved observer. For the Dodgers of the '50s that manager was best who managed least. Once they found such a man the team would rise by the power of its natural and collective talents to the top of the baseball world. The Dodger front office could find no one better suited to the team's needs than Walter Alston; he was hired to replace Dressen. A New York sportswriter wrote at the time, "The Dodgers do not need a manager and that is why they got Alston."
Alston had been a minor league manager of some distinction and an ex-major league player of no distinction. In his only major league at bat he had struck out. However, he had been a manager for 13 years, and during his previous six seasons he had won three Triple A pennants. In his first year with the Dodgers, Alston led his team (or misled it, according to the press, fans and players alike) to a second-place finish. There were rumbles of discontent from every corner of Brooklyn. Sportswriters found him uncommunicative (when asked by one to summarize the Dodgers' early spring training showing, Alston said, "We lost the first three and won the next seven"); the fans found him colorless after Dressen's entertaining, if sometimes maddening, flamboyance; and the players felt "he didn't know the game as well as he might have," according to Jim Gilliam, then an infielder and today a coach under Alston. Alston had difficulties with Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson, and, in general, "there was an awful lot of bitterness between Walt and those old Dodgers," according to Maury Wills.
The following year, however, the gamble was rewarded with the team's first World Series championship. Alston was hailed as the silent architect of that masterpiece, and with it came the grudging respect of his players. Robinson said, "He let me know he was going to do the bossing whether I liked it or not. It made him gain stature in my eyes."
March 10, 1974
During the 18 years since, Alston has gained stature in the eyes of many others, and he has done it seemingly without effort. "Walt hasn't changed a bit since I first knew him in '48," says Danny Ozark, once a coach under Alston and now the manager of the Phillies. "He's the same man he always was." If Alston hasn't changed over the years, what certainly has changed is the public's conception of him. They now see his slow movements and long silences as concealing shades of meaning never noticed before. In the '50s, Alston's Brooklyn players construed them differently. A Dodger of those years says, "Alston often admitted to us that he didn't know what to do in certain situations, so he would just leave the players on their own. He let them hit-and-run or steal whenever they wanted to. The only time he flashed a sign was when the situation was obvious, say, when a pitcher had to bunt a runner over. After a while some of the players made fun of him. He would stand at one end of the dugout, one foot on the top step, and do nothing for the entire game but toss little pebbles onto the field. He wouldn't say anything or do anything for nine innings—except toss pebbles. They used to call him 'The Pebble Thrower.' "
Today, many of Alston's Los Angeles players interpret his silences as a sign of wisdom in allowing his veterans to play their own game.
"A veteran player doesn't want a manager who is always giving him pep talks," says Pitcher Al Downing. "You rebel against a manager trying to psych you up. It's an insult to your intelligence. It's as if he's trying to hustle you into performing better than you are. You are what you are. Alston respects that. He leaves you alone. He doesn't say much to his players."
"Walt treats his players like men," adds Dixie Walker, at present a Dodger hitting coach. "If he feels a player isn't doing his best he doesn't fine him or cuss him out or sit down and talk with him. He just won't play him anymore."
"Walt is a great handler of men," says Ozark. "He puts each of them in a category—feisty, quiet-type, take-charge guy—so he'll know how to handle them. But generally, if he's having trouble with a particular player he'll ask one of his coaches to talk to him. He'll say something like, 'You can handle him better'n I can, Danny.' "
Over the years, Alston has become known as an expert at delegating authority to his coaches. One L.A. pitcher says, "If we tell the pitching coach we don't want to run on a certain day, he doesn't have to check with Walt to see if it's O.K. He makes his own decision."
Alston himself admits he relies on his coaches for considerable help. He says, "Sometimes I'll be sitting on the bench and a situation will come up and a coach will say, 'Walt, you wanna use a pinch runner here,' and I'll see I mighta missed it, so I'll say, 'Yeah, that's a good idea.' It doesn't hurt my pride when something like that happens. I'm not afraid to learn from my coaches."
Originally Alston was hired because it was felt his approach was right for a particular group of players. That belief, vindicated by the 1955 World Series victory, has grown into conviction, widely held, that Alston's style would contribute to the success of any team. The brilliant and often temperamental baseball minds of the Dressens and Durochers produce no more victories than do the less brilliant but still adequate minds of men like Alston, it is said. Certainly one needs a modicum of baseball knowledge to manage well, but an excess produces no additional return. Brilliance, with its capricious outbursts, is often a burden to the front office and disruptive to a team's composure; witness Durocher's problems with the Cubs. Alston's modest and unassuming nature tends to defuse tensions. Indeed, there is no locker room in baseball more placid than that of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Alston's tendency is to let an event evolve to its natural conclusion without his interference. Whether this is a conscious or unconscious aspect of his nature it is impossible to say. But Dodger management values this quality highly—far more than managerial brilliance—and so, for the past 20 years Alston has been rehired to consecutive one-year contracts. Only two other men, Connie Mack and John McGraw, have managed the same team longer than Alston has managed the Dodgers.
Alston's teams have won six National League pennants and four World Series—including back-to-back pennants in the Koufax-Drysdale years of 1965-66. There have been lean years, too—a seventh-place finish in '58, a sixth in '64, an eighth in '67 and a seventh in '68—but, all in all, the Dodgers have been more than modestly successful. With each success Alston's reputation has grown. Today, the man who was once considered dour and colorless is viewed as a sage and patient patriarch. Alston did not consciously cultivate this image, but over the years he has come to value it.
He is no longer uncommunicative with the press. After each game, win or lose, Alston returns to his office near the locker room and answers reporters' questions. Still in uniform, he sits in his swivel chair behind his desk—the reporters standing fanned out before him—and answers each question carefully. At times he will take off his cap and, holding it by the bill, scratch his head in contemplation. "Danged if I know," he will respond to a question that has stumped him. He never speaks rashly or in anger, and only rarely with humor. He turns to each new questioner slowly and stares directly into his eyes before answering, thus achieving a pause in which he can formulate answers. When he feels it is time to end a session, he stands and begins to undress. He undresses methodically, until finally he stands naked and unself-conscious before the reporters, a physically imposing man of 6'3" and 220 pounds. The hair on his massive chest is white and his skin is the color of light coffee. Still answering questions, Alston now dresses in street clothes—flared slacks and a Ban-Lon jersey—and when he is finished the interview is over.
Alston does not mind answering questions about the mechanics of a recently completed game ("Why did you bring in Brewer instead of Richert to pitch to that last batter?") but he would much rather talk about the other things in his life: his pheasant hunting, his skeet shooting, his billiard playing, his woodworking, his Honda 150 and 175 motorcycles, his children and grandchildren. As he holds up a photograph of his young grandson astride a five-gaited horse, his face breaks into a broad grin, his teeth like pickets in a fence. One senses with Alston that he is always willing to contribute to the writing of his biography, which he knows will deal with him as one of the game's great managers.
There are some questions Alston is not particularly comfortable with, questions dealing with, say, his philosophy of managing ("I do it the way I have to, right or wrong. I can't do it Durocher's way and he can't do it mine"); his handling of players ("I just adjust myself to their queer spots"); or his reason for managing so long ("Well, I played baseball all those years and I just enjoy being with the guys, kidding around and all").
There are other questions, those dealing with certain problems Alston has had with players, that he would prefer not to answer. He will defuse those questions by denying that such problems existed. Of Dick Allen he will say, "I never had any trouble with him. Oh, he might not show up on time, but as long as he did his job during the game it was all right with me. Of course, you couldn't have everyone following their own private schedule. It would cause trouble. The one thing I'd like to stress here is that it really tees me off when a guy is more concerned with his own records than with the overall success of the team."
A player who brings unpleasant tensions into the placid Dodger clubhouse is likely to be quickly and quietly traded. Many such players have been black. Alston has traded away Maury Wills, Tommy Davis, Frank Robinson, Dick Allen and Willie Davis and he has had really hot run-ins with such stars as Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson.
"Alston prejudiced?" snorts Wills, who was traded to Pittsburgh in 1966. "The man could never be prejudiced. The thought never occurred to him." Frank Robinson, traded to the Angels after a year with L.A., says, "It is just not in the man." Allen, traded after a year to the White Sox, says, "Walter Alston always treated me like a man."
"Alston's problems with Allen had nothing to do with the color of Richie's skin," says Bobby Valentine, who was an Allen confidant when both were with the Dodgers. "He just couldn't understand anyone as complex as Richie. One day Richie was sitting on the bench before a game and Alston walked over to him and said, 'Richie, you got your first baseman's glove? I want you to play first tonight.' Richie gave Walter a big grin and said, 'Sure, man, I'll dance for you.' Alston just stared at him in bewilderment. He didn't know what Richie meant. After a while he decided Richie must have been putting him on. He scratched his name from the lineup card just before game time."
Tommy Davis, who played under Alston during the '60s, says, "He's a straight guy, know what I mean? Really straight. I respect the man. I just don't understand him. He's had 20 years to become a great manager, and he's had some great teams. Yet he's never been a great manager. He's just good enough to get by. He's been lucky always to have coaches around him—Dressen, Reese, Durocher—who could give him advice. Something from those guys had to rub off on him. You'll be sitting by him in the dugout and a coach will say to Walt, 'What do we do now, Walt?' And he'll say, 'I don't know.' And the coach will say, 'We got a man who can hit-and-run.' And Walt will take off his cap and scratch his head and say, 'Yeah, we do, don't we?'
"Whenever situations come up that need a decision, Walt runs away. Once I asked him to stick up for me with the front office and he said, 'Well, I don't know. You better go talk to Buzzie [Bavasi, the general manager] yourself.' Why should the front office get rid of a man like that? He wins a few games, you can pay him $50,000 a year for years, and he never causes anybody headaches. You'll never see him in hot water with the front office. If Durocher had managed the Dodgers for 20 years he would own the club by now. I still like Walt, even though he no longer wanted me as a player. One year when I was hurt he accused me of faking it. I told him I wouldn't do that to him. He said, 'I don't want to talk about it.' I tried to explain that I really was hurt, but he wouldn't listen. He just kept saying he'd call Buzzie and take my money if I didn't shut up. He fined me $100 for every word I said. I was actually crying in front of that man, and all he wanted was for me to go away."
Alston has not had trouble with all his black players. In fact, he has been very close to Roy Campanella, on whom he relied heavily during his first years in Brooklyn, and Jim Gilliam, who stayed on as a coach. Gilliam is prized by Alston for his loyalty, and he says of Jim, "He was always ready to sacrifice his own career for the good of the team." The blacks Alston has had difficulty with are complicated and keenly intelligent men. Their complexity springs in good part from their being black in a predominantly white society.
"Walter and I never did hit it off," says Joe Black, the Dodger relief pitcher of the '50s who is now a vice-president of The Greyhound Corporation. "He never took time out to understand me. He just put us all in the same bag—me, Robby, Newk, Campy, Junior. He'd never met blacks like Robby and me, who had gone to college. We had never been a part of his world. He got along better with the unquestioning blacks like Campy and Junior, men who had only grade-school educations. Once during a team meeting he told Jackie, who had been complaining about Walt to the press, that if he had any complaints to make them to his face. Jackie just shrugged and said, 'If I did say anything to you it wouldn't do any good. You wouldn't understand.' Walt's response was to challenge Jackie to a fight which would let 'the best man win.' And they would have fought if the players hadn't stepped between them. Still, Walt is not a prejudiced man. He just doesn't understand intricate personalities—white or black."
Alston has also had problems with his younger players. "When I first came up to the Dodgers," says Valentine, traded in the winter of '72 to the Angels, "Alston didn't say a word to me for a month and a half. I never once got a word of encouragement from the man. It was unbearable sometimes. I'd get three hits in a game and then be out of the lineup for three days, and nothing would be said. I used to stay awake at night imagining I'd done all kinds of things wrong. He never directly lets you know what he wants or thinks of you. He tries to avoid confrontations, not because it is a way of smoothing things out, but because he doesn't know what to do in a crisis. He just hopes the crisis will go away. He never commits himself strongly to anyone or anything, except maybe the proper image of Walter Alston. He doesn't want any player who doesn't contribute to that image. He doesn't want too many stars on his team, either. Too many stars make you forget the manager's name."
Before the close of the 1973 season it was announced that Walter Alston had been signed to his 21st consecutive one-year contract as manager of the Dodgers. Alston had managed the 1973 club to a second-place finish in the National League West. For more than half the year, led largely by a group of young players, the Dodgers had held first place.
"I followed them closely." says a former Dodger. "Those kids like Ron Cey carried the team for a while. Then by July the pressure started to get to them. They got tired mentally and physically and started looking for guidance. Walt didn't do anything for them but keep playing them every day. He wore them out, and they fell apart. A guy like Dressen would have talked to them or rested them a few games or told them to go out and get drunk—anything to snap them out of the slump. But Walt doesn't do things like that. He doesn't say anything. Of course, now he doesn't have to. His reputation is so firmly established he doesn't even have to win. All he has to do is stay close each year."