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November 24, 1953: Brooklyn Dodgers hire Walt Alston as manager

Walt Alston, when he was hired as Brooklyn Dodgers manager on November 24, 1953 (wearing No. 20), along with team owner Walter O’Malley.
Walt Alston, when he was hired as Brooklyn Dodgers manager on November 24, 1953 (wearing No. 20), along with team owner Walter O’Malley.

Seventy years ago today the Dodgers hired their winningest manager in franchise history. Walter Alston won 2,040 games, seven pennants, and four World Series in his 23 years at the helm in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.

The Dodgers in 1953 were on top of the National League, having won the previous two pennants and four in the last seven years. So it was a bit of a shock that Brooklyn was even in the market for a new manager. Chuck Dressen managed the Dodgers for three seasons, won 298 games, and two pennants, and wanted a three-year contract.

When the Dodgers would not agree to any sort of multi-year contract — Dressen said he wanted three but would have settled for the security of a two-year deal — Dressen quit at the end of his contract after the 1953 season.

From the Associated Press on October 15 on Dressen’s departing press conference, ten days after the end of the World Series:

“Charley can sign a contract with me right this minute if he agrees to a one-year term,” [Dodgers owner Walter] O’Malley stated, with Dressen at his elbow. “Unless he agrees to sign for one year, however, the Dodgers will have a new manager next year.”

O’Malley went on to explain that as long as he is head of the Dodger organization there will never be a change from the policy of one-year contracts.

That vow from O’Malley proved true, well beyond his tenure as president of the team. His son Peter took over in 1970, while Alston was still managing. Alston famously signed 23 one-year deals with the Dodgers despite all the success. His successor Tommy Lasorda won pennants in his first two seasons and a World Series in his fifth season, but it wasn’t until October 1983 that the O’Malley-led Dodgers signed a manager for more than one year, after Lasorda had already managed seven seasons.

With Dressen gone, the Dodgers turned to Alston, a former first baseman who struck out in his only major league at-bat, with the Cardinals in 1936. He managed 13 years in the minors, including the previous 10 for the Dodgers. He won league titles with St. Paul in 1948 and with Triple-A Montreal in 1951 and 1953.

Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Jim Gilliam, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, Johnny Podres, Sandy Amoros, Don Hoak, George Shuba, Joe Black, and Tommy Lasorda, all of whom played for the 1954 Dodgers, were all managed by Alston at some point in the minors.

On November 24, 1953, the Dodgers hired Alston to manage. He was a week shy of his 42nd birthday, and only seven years older than Pee Wee Reese, the club’s shortstop dating back to 1940. Reese by this point was already a household name, an All-Star in each of his nine seasons (interrupted only by serving in the ... for three years during World War II), a veteran of five World Series and well on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Reese was so beloved both by fans and within the clubhouse that reports at the time linked him to the managerial opening. He reportedly declined the role of player-manager for the 1954 season, but that didn’t stop the rumors that Alston was only a placeholder as manager until Reese eventually took over.

Walter O’Malley tried to squash the speculation during Alston’s press conference.

“Reese is a fine, understanding, and wonderful person. We think the world of him. He will always have a job with us,” O’Malley said, per the Associated Press. “If Reese wants to manage when his playing career is over, we will give him an opportunity to manage in our minor league organization. He may start out on top, but it would have to be with another big league club.”

Reese would play five years for Alston, including the club’s first year in Los Angeles, and made his 10th and final All-Star Game in 1954. He never managed.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Los Angeles Dodgers
Walt Alston’s number 24 is retired by the Dodgers, and on display at Dodger Stadium.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

During that introductory press conference at Ebbets Field, O’Malley tried to lessen the pressure on his new manager.

“Walter, the job is yours. No one will be breathing down your neck. It is not essential that you win unless you lose because of your shortcomings. I would like to think you will be a manager for a great many years,” O’Malley said, per the Associated Press. “There will be times we lose games because of player failure. I assure you, you will not be made the goat.”

That’s not exactly how it played out, even though Alston won a World Series in his second season on the job and the first championship in franchise history. Alston also won, surprisingly so, in the Dodgers’ second year in Los Angeles.

Despite bringing unprecedented success to the franchise, the wolves were out at times for Alston, especially after the Dodgers blew the pennant to the Giants in 1962. That hung over his head for most of the 1963 season, including rumors that coach Leo Durocher might take over for Alston. Amid all the sniping came the bus incident coming out of Pittsburgh, when Alston laid down the law, challenging anyone on the team to literally meet him outside if they had any issues.

Nobody challenged Alston, who seemed to project a presence much larger than his listed 6’2, 210-pound frame.

“He’s never had a rhubarb with a player,” Dodgers farm director Fresco Thompson told The Bayonne Times at the time of the hire. “But he can lick anybody in the house and doesn’t hesitate to tell an offender so. He’s said to trouble-makers, ‘Now I’ve tried to thread you right. I’ve been rough on you. I’ve taken your money. Now the next time you do anything like this, either you’re going to lick me or I’m going to lick you.’ That settled that. Take a look at the size of him.”

The Dodgers won the World Series again in 1963, and again in 1965, and the rumors of his demise mostly went away.

Alston managed for 23 seasons, all on one-year contracts, and served as the bridge from Brooklyn and the early dynasty in Los Angeles to the next wave of success and The Infield in the 1970s. Alston was succeeded at the end of the 1976 season by Lasorda, who like Alston managed many of the then-current Dodgers players in the minors. Lasorda managed until retiring after a heart attack during the 1996 season, ending a nearly 43-year run of unprecedented stability between the two at the helm of the Dodgers.

Though Alston was wearing No. 20 during his introductory press conference in 1953, he wore number 24 for his entire career, a number that is now retired by the team. Number 20 is also retired to honor Don Sutton, who pitched 11 years for Alston.

Alston won seven pennants and four World Series, his standing in franchise lore long-since cemented. And it all began 70 years ago today.