The task of trying to make the case for the most successful manager in Dodgers history may not seem to be the most difficult job. Walter Alston managed the Dodgers to 2040 wins, seven pennants, and four World Series wins in 23 seasons in charge. However, The Quiet Man from Darrtown still manages to be a forgotten man in Dodgers history at times.
When Alston was a manager, he was overshadowed by some of the greatest names in Dodgers history: Robinson, Snyder, Drysdale, Koufax, Hodges, Wills, Gilliam, Podres. Alston was the manager when the Dodgers unveiled the seemingly eternal infield of Garvey, Lopes, Russell, and Cey.
Alston did not have a distinctive style as a manager. He just tried to win with with the players he had. He knew that his philosophy was not as important as winning. He surrounded himself with good coaches and was blessed with a Dodgers farm system that seemed to churn out talent on demand.
But, Alston’s successor, Tommy Lasorda, is etched in the minds of Dodgers fans today as THE manager of the Dodgers. Alston stepped down as Dodgers manager with four games left in the 1976 season. And, he was rarely seen again in Los Angeles before he passed away in 1984.
Walter O’Malley and Buzzie Bavasi tabbed Alston to be the Dodgers manager after the 1953 season. Incumbent manager Chuck Dressen had asked for a multiyear contract. O’Malley refused to give a manager anything but a one-year deal. Dressen, somewhat of an egomaniac, was fired.
So, Alston made the jump up from managing Montreal of the International League to managing the defending National League champs in 1954. The Dodgers had won 105 games in 1953, but they would slide down into second in Alston’s first year on the job with a 92-62 record. On August 5, 1954, Alston gave young lefty Tommy Lasorda his first action in the big leagues, putting him in as a reliever in the fifth inning of a game the Dodgers were already trailing 8-2 to the Cardinals. By the time Lasorda left, the Cardinals led 11-4.
In 1955, Alston was the toast of Brooklyn as he steered the Dodgers to their first ever World Series championship, a seven-game win over the Yankees. The Dodgers had clinched the NL pennant on September 8, the earliest date for ever for a full season.
Another pennant followed in 1956, although it wasn’t clinched until the final day of the season. The Dodgers would lose to the Yankees in seven games this time.
The last year in Brooklyn in 1957 and the first year in 1958 were subpar years for the Dodgers. In their inaugural year in Los Angeles, the Dodgers were 71-83 and finished in seventh place, their worst showing since 1944.
In 1959, the Dodgers turned it all around, and with much of the same personnel as the 1958 squad. The one key acquisition was outfielder Wally Moon, who proved to be the only constant in an outfield that was often a revolving door among players like Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Norm Larker, Don Demeter, and Ron Fairly.
The Dodgers starting pitching, which would be its backbone in the 1960s, was shaky. Alston went to his bullpen the second most of any manager in the NL in 1959.
The Dodgers shortstops, Don Zimmer (37 OPS+) and Bob Lillis (42 OPS+) were so bad that the Dodgers felt that rookie Maury Wills (55 OPS+) was an offensive force.
Somehow, Alston dragged a bunch of overachieving players into a tie at the end of the regular season with the star-filled Braves (Aaron, Mathews, Spahn, Burdette). The Giants (Mays, Cepeda, McCovey) led most of the season before a pitching meltdown dropped them to third.
The Dodgers and Braves finished with just 86 wins, one of the lowest totals ever for a first place. However, because of the tiebreaker playoff, which the Dodgers won in two games, the Dodgers finished with 88 regular season wins, tying the 1945 Tigers for fewest wins by a league champ in a full 154 game season. (The 2006 Cardinals now have the fewest wins of a pennant winner in a full season, 83.)
In the World Series, Alston relied on his bullpen again, mostly in the form of Larry Sherry who won two and saved the two others in a six-game win over the White Sox.
Three years later, Alston would experience his biggest failure. With the team now playing in Chavez Ravine, the Dodgers looked to be the class of the NL. Wills was stealing bases at an unprecedented rate. Tommy Davis won two jewels of the Triple Crown with a .346 batting average and 153 RBIs.
Don Drysdale would go 25-7. Johnny Podres was the only other starter to stay healthy the whole year. Koufax was slowed down by a circulatory problem. Alston relied on three relievers: Ron Perranoski (70 games, 107 1/3 IP), Ed Roebuck (64 games, 119 1/3 IP), and Sherry (58 games and 90 IP). The back end of the rotation was filled with the often wild Stan Williams (98 walks in 185 2/3 IP) and youngsters Joe Moeller and Pete Richert.
The Dodgers led by 5 1/2 games over the Giants on August 9. Then, they dropped five straight games. On September 22, the Dodgers inched out to a four game lead over the Giants with seven to play. The Dodgers would lose six of the last seven and the Giants and Dodgers finished the season in a tie.
The 1962 edition of a Dodgers-Giants playoff was not a pretty affair. The Giants won the first game at Candlestick 8-0 as Koufax tried to come back, but was not up to the task. The Dodgers tied the series the next day back at home with an ugly 8-7 win that took 4:18 to play before a crowd of a little over 25,000 at Dodger Stadium. (The crowd was small because it was a Tuesday afternoon game in extremely hot and smoggy conditions. And, a lot of fans had given up on the season).
It all came down to Game 165 on October 3, 1962. Juan Marichal would face Johnny Podres. The Dodgers went ahead 3-2 in the sixth on a 2-run homer by Tommy Davis. Wills tacked on an insurance run in the seventh when he stole third and scored on a throwing error.
Roebuck relieved Podres in the sixth and was still on in the mound to start the ninth, despite feeling sick from the heavy smog in the area. (1962 predates me, but anyone alive then can tell you that the early 1960s was the heyday of Los Angeles air pollution. It was really awful.)
But, Roebuck had pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and Alston thought he could finish off the game. But, Roebuck gave up a single to Matty Alou and then got Harvey Kuenn to ground into a force out. Pinch hitter Willie McCovey walked. Felipe Alou walked to load the bases with one out for Willie Mays.
At this point, you would think that Alston would have gone to his bullpen. He could have brought in Sherry. However, Sherry had been hit hard in his last three outings. Perranoski wasn’t an option as Mays destroyed lefties.
The pitcher the Dodgers players wanted to see on the mound was Drysdale. But, Drysdale had pitched the day before. However, Drysdale wanted the ball. Alston did not even get Drysdale warmed up.
Roebuck gave up an infield single to Mays that made the score 4-3. Now Alston went to his pen. With the bases still loaded and Orlando Cepeda up, Williams came in. Cepeda hit a sacrifice fly to right to tie the game and send Felipe Alou to third. But, there were two outs. Ed Bailey came up. Williams threw a wild pitch that moved Mays to second, but Alou held at third. Bailey was intentionally walked.
Jim Davenport now stood in the way. Williams walked him on five pitches to push across the go-ahead run. Alston came with the hook for Williams. Perranoski took over. Jose Pagan hit a grounder to rookie second baseman Larry Burright, who booted it to allow Mays to score to make it 6-4 Giants. Pinch hitter Bob Nieman struck out to stop the bleeding.
Giants manager Alvin Dark turned to his ace starter, Billy Pierce, to pitch the ninth. The Dodgers went out in order.
The postgame scene in the Dodgers clubhouse was ugly. Players screamed at Alston about how he coughed up the game by not using Drysdale. Third base coach Leo Durocher publicly second guessed Alston. All Alston would say was that he didn’t want to use Drysdale because he would need a starter for the World Series. The Dodgers players countered that it wouldn’t make a difference if the Dodgers weren’t in the World Series.
Some players may have even wanted to take a swing at Alston. That wouldn't have been advised. Alston might have been a quiet man, but he was also a strong man and not afraid to fight.
Alston was teetering on the brink of firing at the end of the season. But, O’Malley gave Alston another one-year deal. O’Malley preferred the quiet and noncontroversial Alston to the headaches that someone like Durocher would have given him as manager.
In 1963, thanks to some otherworldly pitching by Koufax, the Dodgers held off a late charge by the Cardinals to win the pennant by six games. The Dodgers would then sweep the Yankees in the World Series, holding the Bombers to just four runs. The sins of 1962 were absolved.
The Dodgers would make it back to the World Series in 1965. With Koufax pitching on a higher plain than anyone else, the Dodgers won 15 of their final 16 games to pass the Giants and win the pennant by two games. The Dodgers scored just 608 runs, eighth worst in the league. But, the team ERA was 2.81, best in the league.
The World Series against the Twins went to a seventh game. Alston was faced with the dilemma of whom to start in Game 7: Koufax or Drysdale. Alston would say that he started Koufax because he felt that Drysdale would be more effective out of the pen if needed. But, it was hard not to start the guy with a 2.04 ERA and 382 Ks for the season. Koufax went the distance in a 2-0 win to give the Dodgers (and Alston) their fourth World Series.
The 1966 Dodgers would not win the pennant until the final day of the season in Philadelphia. Alston had to work Koufax and Drysdale hard. The offense, which was below average the year before, had not improved. A young Orioles team dominated the Dodgers in the World Series, limiting the Dodgers to just two runs and shutting them out for the last 33 innings.
After that loss, the Dodgers core came apart. Koufax retired. Wills was traded to the Pirates after a dispute over a postseason trip to Japan. The Dodgers slid to seventh place in 1967 and into eighth in 1968. The switch to divisional play in 1969 pushed the Dodgers into fourth place.
In 1970, the Dodgers started to bring up some of the most heralded prospects in organizational history. Players like Bill Russell (then an outfielder), Steve Garvey (a third baseman), and Bill Buckner (playing in left field) were starting to get playing time. The Dodgers improved to second place, although 14 1/2 games behind the Reds.
Alston was being portrayed as a manager who was old and out of touch with his players. Players found him aloof. In 1970, Alston was 59 years old. Reds manager Sparky Anderson was 36. At AAA Spokane, 42-year old Tommy Lasorda managed the team to a 94-52 record. Had Alston's time passed?
The Dodgers just missed out on the NL West title in 1971, falling one game short of the Giants. In 1972, the Dodgers again finished second, although 10 1/2 games back of the Reds. In 1973, Lasorda became the Dodgers third base coach and tacit heir apparent to Alston. The Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey infield was now in place. All four players had played for Lasorda in the minors.
In 1974, GM Al Campanis decided to supplement the young core of the team with the acquisition of two key veterans: center fielder Jim Wynn and reliever Mike Marshall.
Marshall was a known quantity as a durable reliever and only cost the Dodgers aging outfielder Willie Davis. Wynn was more of a risk as he had three subpar years in Houston prior to being acquired for Claude Osteen.
Few years had as many things go right for the Dodgers as 1974. Garvey had an MVP season (or one that looked line one to the voters of that era). Wynn hit 32 homers and drew 108 walks to add some much needed power to the lineup. Marshall won the Cy Young Award as Alston used him an astounding 106 times in relief for 208 1/3 innings pitched. (By comparison, the only pitcher on the 2009 Dodgers who pitched more innings than Marshall's 1974 total was Randy Wolf with 214.)
The Dodgers won 102 games in 1974, edging out the Reds by four games. The Dodgers then won their first ever NLCS in four games over the Pirates. In the World Series, the edge went to Oakland, who won in five games, three of them decided by one run.
In 1975, the Reds returned to the top of the NL West in style, winning 108 games and beating out the Dodgers by 20 games. Wynn and Marshall could not repeat their success. Wynn would be traded in the offseason and Marshall in June of 1976, both to the Braves.
By 1976, other teams were starting to inquire about Lasorda's availability to manage. It's not known for certain if Alston quit, or if he was pushed out of the job. He announced his retirement with four games left in the season. Lasorda was to be his successor. Alston didn't stick around for the last four games, not caring much to see Lasorda, whom he didn't get along with very well, take over the job that had defined him for the past 23 years. Alston's years of success quickly faded from people's memory as the larger than life Lasorda made people believe that he was the only Dodgers manager who ever mattered.
Alston's seven league titles are more than managers like Sparky Anderson (5), Joe Torre (6), Tony La Russa (5), Tommy Lasorda (4), Miller Huggins (6), and Bobby Cox (5). The only managers with more are Joe McCarthy and Connie Mack with 9 each and John McGraw and Casey Stengel with 10 each.
Even if you think that the manager has almost no effect on the game, Walter Alston has to be given credit for his ability to survive and adapt. He started off as an unknown manager leading established veterans in Brooklyn. He guided a group of aging veterans, young hitters, and a few castoffs to a World Series title in 1959. He survived an insurrection among his players and coaches after the 1962 debacle. He rode Sandy Koufax's arm to three World Series appearances (and two wins) in a four year span. He mixed together young and old stars to interrupt the Big Red Machine's domination of the NL West in the 1970s.
Walter Alston was not a celebrity when he managed the Dodgers. He just did his job. He expected the players to do their jobs. He doesn't get honored with bobbleheads or commemorative plaques like Lasorda. His legacy is four World Series trophies. And most of us would like to see the Dodgers have four more of those before they have to take home another Tommy Lasorda commemorative giveaway.