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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Bob's Books - A Year at a Time by Walter Alston with Jack Tobin

Walter Alston managed the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers for twenty three seasons, beginning in 1954. He replaced the popular Chuck Dressen, who had demanded a multi-year contract after three consecutive first place finishes. (1951 was actually a tie for first). Team owner Walter O’Malley thanked Dressen for his services and pushed him out the door. The headline in the New York Daily News after the introductory press conference read, “ALSTON (WHO’S HE) TO MANAGE DODGERS.”

Alston brought Brooklyn its only World Series title in 1955 and would finish with a total of seven national league championships and four World Series wins. In 23 years. The Dodgers have won two World Series in the thirty-six years since he retired. And one of those was largely composed of players he had in his final season of 1976. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983; a year before he passed away.

Walter Alston is a small town man who was a genuinely nice guy. Leo Durocher is famously (mis)quoted as having said ‘Nice guys finish last.’ Well, in this case, nice guys write bland autobiographies. Alston writes about his life in Darrtown, OH (where he lived his entire life) almost as much as he does about managing the Dodgers. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but not as much as you might think.  He offers some insights into his pennant seasons in Brooklyn, but not a lot of them.

As a player, Alston played 13 seasons in the Cardinals minor league chain. He did get to bat once in the majors; for the Cards in 1936. He struck out! But he spent several years as a player – manager in the minors, which prepared him for his future career. Alston was a Dodgers rarity: he was a Rickey man whom Walter O’Malley took into the fold. As poorly as Harold Parrott thinks about the Irishman, (see my review of his book, The Lords of Baseball, for a very negative view of O’Malley), Alston thinks well of the long time owner.
The skipper does talk about Lou Johnson bailing out the 1965 season, and how unbelievable Sandy Koufax was even as the lefty’s arm was disintegrating from arthritis. But there’s just not as much information on his Dodgers teams as you would expect. Alston mentions that he believes if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Unfortunately, that makes for a rather boring book.

Tommy Lasorda had a heart attack partway through the 1996 season and had to retire. For forty-two and a half seasons, only two men managed the Dodgers. And both are in the Hall of Fame.  Since Lasorda stepped down, the Dodgers have had seven managers, none of who made it to the World Series.
Walter Alston was a symbol of the stability of the Dodger organization for parts of three decades. This book takes us through 1974, so he had two more years left as a manager. So, there is no discussion of Tommy Lasorda’s taking over the team after the 1976 season. Though I doubt Alston would have written anything negative, anyways.

Walter Alston was a Hall of Fame manager and a very good man.  I am a fan. This just isn’t a very interesting biography.

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