Forty-three years ago today, the Dodgers retired the uniform number 24 of manager Walt Alston.
Alston was the fourth Dodger to have his number retired, joining the trio of Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Sandy Koufax, who were so honored on June 4, 1972.
The Dodgers have an unwritten policy of only retiring numbers of Hall of Famers — except for Jim Gilliam, a long beloved player and coach who died just before the 1978 World Series — but Alston’s number was retired six years before he was inducted to Cooperstown so perhaps that policy isn’t as absolute as we think.
It was obvious Alston would make the Hall of Fame, so it’s understandable the Dodgers jumped the gun a bit. He’s one of only 11 managers ever with 2,000 wins, and his 2,040 victories ranked fifth all-time when he retired. Before Alston, the Dodgers won zero championships. With him, they won four World Series and seven pennants.
Getting called up
Alston’s major league playing career consisted of one at-bat, a strikeout against Lon Warneke, and played first base in the final two innings of the final game of the 1936 season for the St. Louis Cardinals. He played for 13 seasons in the minors, including seven years as player-manager. The final four such seasons were with the Dodgers, beginning in Trenton in the Interstate League in 1944.
Alston managed a number of Dodgers stars in his 10 years in the minors, including Don Newcombe, Jim Gilliam, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, and Johnny Podres. Alston won five minor league titles in four different cities — Nashua, Pueblo, St. Paul, and Montreal.
That minor league success didn’t mean Alston was all that heralded. His New York Times obituary in 1984 mentions one headline of his hiring as Dodgers manager as, “Alston (Who’s He?) New Dodger Manager.”
When Alston was hired to replace Chuck Dressen before the 1954 season, there was talk of Pee Wee Reese, the longtime team captain and shortstop about to enter his age-35 season, as the manager-in-waiting.
“There is nobody looking down Alston’s neck — in the front office or anywhere else,” owner Walter O’Malley told The Sporting News. “There is no shadow of Reese or anyone over Alston. He has been chosen as the manager and I hope he will remain as manager for a long time.”
O’Malley’s words proved true, albeit 23 one-year contracts at a time.
The bus incident
Alston was known as “The Quiet Man,” not showy at all. But one moment of outward expression stood out in Alston’s career, after a loss in Pittsburgh. There is some debate when it actually happened. Some accounts mention Brooklyn, but it appears to have taken place in 1963, after the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.
Dave Anderson recalled the incident for the New York Times in 1984:
‘’It was getaway day for both teams,’’ Don Drysdale recalled. ‘’We were on this old city bus that was just about making it on that long hill on the road to the airport. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we saw the Pirates go by us in two air- conditioned buses. That’s when the griping really started.’
After a few minutes of listening to that griping in his front-row aisle seat on the right side, where every manager usually sits, Walt Alston leaned over and told the driver to stop the bus. When it had pulled to the side of the road, the manager hopped out of his seat, turned and faced his team.
‘’I’m tired of listening to you spoiled crybabies,’’ Walt Alston said, an edge to his voice that the Dodgers had seldom heard. ‘’If anybody doesn’t like this bus, they can step outside with me and we’ll settle it.’’
Walt Alston stood there for a few moments, waiting. None of his players moved. After he sat down, the bus continued to the airport in virtual silence. Walt Alston was about 50 years old then, but still strong and sturdy. None of his young players were about to challenge either his authority or his strength.
Vin Scully recounted the tale in 2016 and added a detail about the club’s traveling secretary, though he mentioned the team as “Brooklyn”. Either way, it’s a great story:
The Dodgers were blessed with uncommon stability at the helm in the dugout, with Alston and Tommy Lasorda combining for 43 consecutive seasons managing the team. To put that in perspective, 23 other managers have managed at least 20 total seasons, and only three of them lasted that long with one team. The Dodgers had two of them back to back.
Alston remains the gold standard for Dodgers managers. Though he isn’t as famous as Lasorda, Alston has him beat in wins (2,040 to 1,599), winning percentage (.558 to .526), pennants (seven to four), and World Series wins (four to two). And on this day 43 years ago, the Dodgers made sure nobody would wear Alston’s number 24 ever again.