Today is a very special day for the Dodgers – it’s Walter Alston‘s birthday. At 23 years, Alston is the longest-tenured Dodgers manager (a record which will probably never be broken), and is the third-longest tenured of any manager, right behind John McGraw and Connie Mack. They just don’t make ’em like ol’ Smokey anymore.
As the story goes for many of the great managers from the days gone by, Walter Alston was not a great player. He earned the nickname “Smokey” as a high school pitcher, but he first came up to the majors as a shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. He made his major league debut in 1936. Alston played in just one game, and he struck out in his only at bat.
Alston began his Dodgers career as a minor league player/manager in 1944. In 1953 he was handed the reigns of the big club. Since he had managed in the Dodgers’ farms for nearly a decade, he already had knowledge and experience of managing almost every one of the Dodgers in the Brooklyn clubhouse.
Alston quickly earned a reputation as a conservative and soft-spoken manager, which earned him a new nickname, “The Quiet Man”. His first team, the 1954 Dodgers, took second place in the NL, setting the stage for Brooklyn’s only World Series championship the following year.
The Dodgers then moved to Los Angeles, where Alston led the club to World Championships in 1959, ’63 and ’65. The Dodgers made it to the Fall Classic again in 1966, but were swept over four games.
Walter Alston not only managed the legendary Boys of Summer, he also led the team as the next generation of Dodgers greats emerged (my Dodgers), “The Infield” of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes and Bill Russell.
In 1974 the Dodgers returned to the World Series, but lost to the Oakland Athletics. In 1975 the Dodgers slipped and finished in second place, which looks semi-respectable on the surface, but the reality was the Dodgers ended the season 20 games behind the Cincinnati Reds.
In 1976 they finished second again. This time they were only 10 games back, but the Big Red Machine was clearly building a dynasty on the ashes of the Dodgers. The grumbling from the press box and the stands in Chavez Ravine (my young voice included) was getting louder. After 23 years at the helm, Walter Alston retired at the end of the ’76 season.
The Dodgers retired Alston’s number (24) the following year, and he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. He passed away the following year. In 1999 Ohio named a state highway The Walter “Smokey” Alston Memorial Highway in his honor. In 2010 he was elected into the International League Hall of Fame.
Walter Alston put up a managerial record of 2,040 wins and 1,613 losses, a .588 winning percentage. He led the Dodgers to seven NL pennants and four World Series Championships. Not too bad.
Happy birthday, Smokey.