Day 4 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: On top of Ol’ Smokey

Walter Alston: The Rise of a Manager from
the Minors to the Baseball Hall of Fame”

The author:
Alan H. Levy

The publishing info:
McFarland
216 pages
$35
Released Feb. 12, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At L.A.’s The Last BookStore
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org

The review in 90 feet or less

In Tom Callahan’s glorious 2020 book, “Gods at Play: An Eyewitness Account of Great Moments” (W. W. Norton & Company, 304 pages, $26.95,” landing just before the 2002 MLB regular season finished), the sportswriter gracefully reflects on many of his experiences tied to baseball’s greatest moments and people.

Like a visit with Walter Alston.

The “famously colorless manager” of the Dodgers, as Callahan starts, “screeched up on a deafening motorcycle, handed me a stuffed pheasant fresh from the taxidermist, and said, ‘Hold onto this will you?’ … ‘Hop on.’ And we zoomed away.”

Alston was going to pull a prank on a friend – he would put this upholstered bird on a branch way up in a tree, coax a pal to blast it with his shotgun, and everyone would have a great laugh when it exploded. Weeb Eubank, best known as the coach of the New York Jets’ 1969 championship coach and a fellow graduate of the University of Miami at Ohio, was Alston’s accomplice.

How’s that for Midwest side-splitting humor?

When the writer and manager had time to talk, Alston told him: “Baseball is as simple or as complicated as you want it to be … Did you ever play catch with your father?”

“I did,” Callahan answers.

“When fathers and sons stop playing catch, baseball will no longer be our national pastime,” Alston replies.

Think about that.

As the conversation continues, it reminded us not so much about how Walter Emmons Alston of Venice, Ohio became the Dodgers’ Hall of Fame-certified manager starting at age 42 in 1954 and lasting through age 64 in 1976 – 2,040 wins in 23 seasons, a .558 winning percentage (third best of those with 2,000 wins), four World Series titles (’55, ’59, ’63 and ’65) and seven NL pennants.

He did all that on top of having just one official tantalizing MLB at-bat etched onto his permanent record.

This Moonlight Graham moment was a late 1936 September call-up with the St. Louis Cardinals, in the last few innings of the last game of the season. One at bat. A box score and summary exists.

He would spend 13 seasons in the Cardinals’ farm system, but for this moment, a 24-year-old Alston was a big boy, rushed into the game as a defensive replacement for future Hall of Famer Johnny Mize at first base in the eighth inning. That could have been it. But when Mize’s place in the lineup came around — two outs in the bottom of the ninth, tying run on — Mighty Alston struck out against the Cubs’ Lon Warneke, “The Arkansas Hummingbird.”

As Callahan recounts, it allowed Alston’s dad, Emmons, to eventually tell him: “You were a major leaguer, Walter. You are a major leaguer. And I’m proud of you.”

Stories like this bring us back to baseball. Books like this one by Levy, a professor of American history at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, give us more excavation opportunities to learn more about those in the game we thought we already knew plenty.

In our collection of more than 200 Dodger-related books and bios, two autobiographies of Alston exist. One that he did with Jack Tobin just before his final season of 1976, “A Year At A Time,” was a reference to having a series of one-year contracts with Dodgers management. Ten years earlier, Alston did a book for Doubleday called “Alston and His Dodgers” with Si Burick.

One reviewer said of Alston’s last book: “Walter Alston is a small town man who was a genuinely nice guy. Leo Durocher is famously (mis)quoted as having said `Nice guys finish last.’ Well, in this case, nice guys write bland autobiographies.”

Such a think line between grand and bland.

That said, don’t go looking for party streamers, skyrockets and blaring revelations of scandal here, either. The subdued subject matter doesn’t allow it (although, does anyone else recall once hearing about a time Steve Garvey dropped Alston off so he could meet up with a female diapason … is that accurate? Anyone?)

Able to somehow squeeze out a dozen chapters, Levy sets a tone from the first line of the introduction when he tells us: “Walter Alston was one of the most successful managers in the history of baseball.”

Mesmerized yet? Go on …

Alston was an All-Star marksman in skeet shooting, a cunning billiards player and had a history as a boxer. He played baseball and basketball in high school. A Branch Rickey hire through his heralded Cardinal farm system and a solid enough commodity that the O’Malley regime saw his value after Rickey unceremoniously left the company.

Somehow, ended up leading the franchise through three major incarnations — winning Brooklyn’s first and only World Series in 1955 and then making the move to L.A. and another title to end the decade; the Koufax-Drysdale teams of the ’60s that relied on pitching, bunts and steals, and then the reload of the ’70s NL dominant teams that did some damage before Alston handed it all off to Tommy Lasorda.

The point re-emphasized here time and again is quiet and unassuming, humbled and strategic and even less even-tempered shouldn’t have been mistaken for hands-off, uncaring or lacking intelligence.

This man born in 1911 on a farm near the township of Darrtown, Ohio was brought up in a “sense of calm solidity and happy acceptance subsumed (in) everything,” just like John Wooden or Paul Brown, who happened to be cut from the same jib and reared in the same type of environment of values.

Alston’s acceptance of a series of one-year contracts was part of that value system. Let me prove my worth, time and time again. And he did.

It was enough to inspire Levy to ratchet up the comparsions.

As far back as Plato’s Republic … the deceptively simple dictum that the greatest justice comes forth in a society in which each person does his job, that others should not try to act or interfere in the job of anyone else … Alston’s Dodgers embodied that outwardly simple maxim as well as any organization in sports.”

Pardon his French, but Levy then adds more heady connections to Alexis de Tocqueville, Descartes and other thing Cartesian in the grand attempt to tell us about a guy whose nickname was “Smokey,” given to him by his dad while acting as his catcher and encouraging him to “put some smoke on it.”

Alston was more than an historical arrow on a timeline, integral in the progress of Jackie Robinson as well as other Black players who came after him in the organization, then overseeing a team that melded into the glitz of Los Angeles by having its star players and Hall of Fame broadcaster become the public face.

(Remember when “The Munsters” or “Mr. Ed” would film episodes featuring the Dodgers? It was always Alston’s coach, Leo Durocher, who acted as the team’s decision maker even though Alston was in fact the skipper of this ship, but wanted no part of that Hollywood stuff).

Again, we want to go back to more on Alston’s one plate-appearance career.

Levy research shows how this particular Cardinals-Cubs game held a financial incentive for how the teams would finish the 1936 season behind the New York Giants in the standings. The Cardinals had been in a tailspin at the end of the season and the Cubs were trying to finish a sweep to pull into a tie.

Alston got into the game after “Big Cat” Mize was ejected while at the plate in the sixth inning. Frankie Frisch, the team manager, used himself at the pinch hitter to finish Mize’s plate appearance and then “had no choice” but to send Alston out to play first.

Alston botched a pop up, and got yelled at by Dizzy Dean from the mound for it. The box score records Alston’s error.

In the ninth, Alston may have been struck out on three pitches, but the second ball he hit long and loud but foul, fading just outside the foul pole. As the Cubs won that game, they got to share second-place money with the Cardinals.

Alston was back at the Cardinals’ spring training in ’37, but would never break into the roster. And “Branch Rickey has pretty much made up his mind that Alston would never make it to the majors as a player,” Levy writes, citing Alston’s own book written with Burick, noted here.

Alston instead was being groomed for better things. It didn’t hurt that he was an off-season high school teacher in Ohio, focusing on science, mechanical drawing and wood working.

“Alston understood that a teacher, a coach, a manager has to wield authority,” Levy writes. “But he or she best does so with a sense of full command over the subject matter at hand with little to no sense of self-gratification. Alston’s students never challenged him or hazed him. He was too genuine a human being to invite any sniping.”

Named to replace Charlie Dressen with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954, Alston’s experience in the team’s minor-league system played in his favor as he already managed about two dozen of the players on the big-league roster. Those in the press had angled for having a player-manager role for Jackie Robinson (age 34) or Pee Wee Reese (age 35). There were other internal candidates (Billy Herman, Cookie Lavagetto or Bobby Bragan, who would go onto be MLB managers) and those from the outside who wanted the job (the aforementioned Frisch, Lefty O’Doul, Rogers Hornsby, Bill Terry or Gabby Hartnett).

Not surprising, when the Dodgers’ Buzzie Bavasi called Alston to talk about the job, Alston had been out all day bagging rabbits and birds. He thought they wanted him as a bench coach.

But Alston, as the choice by owner Walter O’Malley, led to one Brooklyn writer surmising: “The Dodgers do not need a manager, and that is why they got Alston.” That was in response to the famous headlines asking “Who He?”

Read his Hall of Fame plaque if there’s any questions about that today.

(We also didn’t realize that Alston wasn’t able to go to Cooperstown for his Hall induction in 1983, having suffered a major heart attack earlier that year. That led to his death in October of ’84. Nor did we realize that Alston’s No. 24 was retired the year he retired – not waiting until he was named to the Hall of Fame.)

There are few fresh voices brought in to tell us this Alston story, even though many are around to do. Levy instead dials up quotes from Jim Murray and Vin Scully in the capping chapter to sum up Alston based on his memorial service. That’s where Murray said Alston was “a man you’d most like to be next to you in a lifeboat or a foxhole. … (he was) one of the most unafraid men I have ever known. Almost everyone has the smell of fear, the hint of panic, the look of swallowed hysteria at one time or another. Alston’s throat was always flat.” Scully called him as the type who “could ride shotgun on a stage (coach) through Indian territory” in the Old West.

In summation, Levy (left) declares that Alston “was a man genuinely devoid of inner turmoils. He encountered none in his upbringing, much less the images that cynics ever since Sinclair Lewis have attempted to raise about small-town America. Alston was a frank man, a friendly man, one who could occasionally get angry, always with reason, but he didn’t let such feelings linger.”

And, as his dad said, he was a major leaguer.

How it goes in the scorebook

As a matter of fact. Nothing more, or less. About what you might accept from a SABR biography research project. Meaning, they serve as solid foundation, but they’re often less colorful and compelling until they’re in the hands of a real wordsmith.

Which brings us to a review blurb that Mark Armour, the SABR board president and author of six baseball books including “Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball” wrote for the back cover: “The author sets out to shine a light on Alston as a person and manager, and succeeds.”

Nothing blinding. Just energy efficient.

In this case, you can judge a book by its unassuming cover.

And it works just fine.

Levy, whose previous works for McFarland cover boxer Floyd Patterson (2008), Yankees manager Joe McCarthy (2005), Hall of Famer Rube Waddell (2000) and pro football’s battles with Jim Crow (2003), is well versed in writing about American music and politics. With Alston, here’s a less-than-dynamic but cut-to-the-accurate account of the man’s life and why, in Hollywood, he was best equipped as a strong, silent type despite his major role in developing decades of team success. If only John Wayne could have played him in a film bio that we’d be watching these days on Turner Classic Movies.

More to explore

== The SABR bioproject on Alston by Bill Johnson concludes: Widely acclaimed sportswriter Jim Murray wrote a column–it appeared in the Hamilton (Ohio) Journal-News, among many outlets—about Alston following the manager’s retirement. “I don’t know whether you’re Republican or Democrat or Catholic or Protestant and I’ve known you for 18 years.” He continued, “You were as Middle-Western as a pitchfork. Black players who have a sure instinct for the closet bigot recognized immediately you didn’t know what prejudice was…There was no ‘side’ to Walter Alston. What you saw was what you got.”

== Three significant profiles about Alston from the Sports Illustrated files: Robert Creamer did “The Trouble With Walter” in 1963; Jack Mann’s in October, 1966 is headlined “The Name of the Man is Alston” and Pat Jordan’s profile on Alston for March, 1974 is headlined “Strong, Silent, Enduring.

== From an obituary on Don Sutton, he said during his own 1998 Hall of Fame induction speech: “I wish Walter Alston could be here. When I joined the Dodgers in ‘66, I joined the man as a manager who was an extension of my relationship with my dad, in more ways than one. He once told me I was the second-most stubborn person he’d ever met. I asked him who was first. He said, ‘I am. And it might do you well to remember that.’”

== Author Levy’s bio from Slippery Rock University, and a 2017 story about him winning the President’s Award for Scholarly and Creative Achievement based on his two-volume bio about politician Bella Abzug.

== The Alston Topps baseball card list (all of them as a manager). Behold the backside of his first card, from 1956, when all it had was his minor-league playing stats — a lifetime .295 average to boot:

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