It has been often written and said in baseball circles that ballplayers judged with having less than distinguished playing careers make the best managers. Perhaps the ultimate example of that theory and belief is Walter Alston, whose player record consists of one Major League appearance that resulted in an error and a strikeout in just three innings. While his career as a player was brief, his managerial record of winning over two-thousand games, seven pennants, and four World Series is one of the top marks in baseball history.
As a youngster growing up in Ohio, Alston earned his nickname of "Smokey" due to his exceptional fastball while a high school pitcher. He went on to attend the Miami University where he captained the baseball and basketball teams. Alston earned his degree in 1932, taught for a few years, and then signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1935. After leading the Mid-Atlantic League with thirty-five home runs in 1936 he was called up to the big league club and made his lone appearance for the Redbirds on September 27, 1936, when St. Louis first baseman Johnny Mize was ejected. Alston was sent back to the minor leagues the next season and never returned to the majors.
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 Portsmouth in the Mid-Atlantic League where he guided them to a sixth place finish. After two more years as Player/Manager for Portsmouth, Alston was promoted to Rochester as a player only. He was released by St. Louis in 1944, but was signed by former Cardinals General Manager and now Brooklyn President Branch Rickey to play and manage in the Dodger minor league system. He led St. Paul to the Junior World Series Championship in 1949 and was immediately promoted to the Dodgers top minor league job in Montreal. Alston spent four seasons with Montreal and managed many players that went on to help win pennants for the big league club.
Following the 1953 season, Brooklyn 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. Walt 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 Yankees in seven games. He followed that with another pennant in 1956 securing his position as Dodger field boss, and continued his ritual of extending his stay as manager on a one year contract basis.
Upon the Dodgers move to Los Angeles in 1958, Alston oversaw the rebuilding of the Dodgers as former Brooklyn stars faded away and were replaced with a new breed that included Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills and others. The Dodgers won their first pennant in Los Angeles in 1959, defeating the Milwaukee Braves in a playoff, and then went on to beat the Chicago White Sox in six games to capture the World Series. In 1962 he presided over a Dodger collapse that saw Los Angeles get caught and tied for first place by the Giants, and then lose the pennant to San Francisco in a playoff, blowing a 4-2 ninth inning league in the third and deciding game. It was here the Alston's patient, by the book, loyalty to his players managerial style was put to the extreme test, as calls went out for his dismissal, and even players questioned his leadership, saying the Dodgers may not have lost the 1962 pennant had they been guided by someone more fiery, such as former Dodger and Giant manager, and current LA coach Leo Durocher.
Alston's response was predictable and he wasn't going to change. "Look at misfortune the same way you look at success…Don't panic! Do your best and forget the consequences", he said prior to the start of the 1963 season. Once again his philosophy and approach paid off. The Dodgers fought off the surging Cardinals, won the pennant and faced the Yankees in the 1963 World Series. With Koufax, Drysdale and Johnny Podres leading the way with their excellent pitching, Los Angeles swept the mighty Bronx Bombers four straight. After slipping to seventh place in 1964, the Dodgers eked out the 1965 NL pennant and faced off against the powerful Minnesota Twins in the Fall Classic. The Series went to a seventh and deciding game and Alston was faced with one of the most difficult and controversial decisions in World Series history. He had to choose a starting pitcher for the biggest game of the year, and had to decide either on twenty-three game winner Don Drysdale, on his full three days rest, or twenty-six game winner Sandy Koufax, on a short rest of two days. Walt waited until just before game time before announcing in his trademark quiet way that "it will be the lefthander" (meaning Koufax). Sandy justified his Skipper's confidence, and somewhat of a gamble, by shutting out the Twins, 2-0, to win the Series.
The Dodgers repeated their pennant success in 1966, but were surprisingly swept in four games by the Orioles, as they fell victim to the same dominant pitching they had inflicted on the Yankees in 1963. The Dodgers then began another transition as their stars of the sixties were replaced by a new group of young Dodgers, such as Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, and others. Sprinkled in were some veterans such as Jimmy Wynn and Mike Marshall. The result was a 1974 pennant, Alston's seventh at the helm. He had now won League Championships with three diverse clubs, a veteran power and pitching team in the 50's, a club based on pitching and speed in the 60's, and a youthful team blessed with hitting and pitching balance in the 70's.
On July 17, 1976, Walt Alston became only the sixth manager in Major League history to win 2,000 games. Just before the end of that season he retired as Dodger skipper with 2,040 wins (currently seventh all-time). He ranks 17th in winning percentage (.558), was named National League Manager of the Year six times, and led NL All-Star teams to seven victories. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1983 by the Committee on Baseball Veterans and passed away in 1984, in Ohio, at the age of seventy-two.