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Original Issue

The trouble with Walter

Burdened with an overrated team and a Miltown personality, the Dodger manager has become a target of opportunity for every critic

Walter Alston, the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, last week was like a wounded moose besieged by wolves. When he reached a clearing where he could show his strength (the memory of three pennants and two world championships), the wolves pulled back and waited. When he was in trouble (the deep snow of defeat), the wolves closed in, yapping, snapping at his flanks.

Before one Dodger game a writer was talking to Duke Snider, who had played under Alston for nine seasons before being traded away this spring. The writer said something in a low voice. "No," Snider replied pleasantly, "Alston's a good manager. He does a good job." The writer said yes, but you should have seen what he pulled the other night. Snider listened but said again, "He's a good manager. I couldn't fault him."

In a hotel lobby one afternoon, when a Dodger game had been rained out, another writer joined a group of Los Angeles players. "Got to write a rainy day story," he said. "Anything new? Did the manager get fired this morning?" He smiled at his own macabre humor. One of the players looked at him and said gravely, "What do you mean, was the manager fired?" The writer spoke again, a bit lamely this time, "I just thought the manager might have been fired." The player said, "Why should he be fired?" The writer said, "I just thought."

Another day, after a Los Angeles defeat, yet another writer approached Alston in the Dodger clubhouse and murmured something in a questioning tone. Alston, tying his tie, suddenly raised his voice, which is normally calm and placid, like the man himself. "No," he said angrily, "there's nothing I would have done different. I did everything that could be done. I did everything that was humanly possible to win that game. My conscience is clear. And you can stick that in your lousy paper." He fixed his tie. "I don't care what you print in your lousy paper." The writer mumbled something apologetically. "I don't give a damn," Alston said. "I did everything that could be done. I can manage this team as well as anyone can, maybe better. I don't care what you think."

Walter Alston became manager of the Dodgers in Brooklyn in November 1953. In nine seasons he won three pennants and two world championships, was second three times and finished in the first division eight times. He was the first manager in the Dodgers' history to win the World Series (where Wilbert Robinson, Leo Durocher, Burt Shotton and Charley Dressen had failed). He was the first manager ever to defeat Casey Stengel in a World Series. He was the first manager ever to take a team from seventh place one season to a pennant and a world championship the next. He was voted major league Manager of the Year in 1955 and again in 1959. His managerial record is one of the best in baseball history, bettered only by a handful of men, all of whom are enshrined in the litany of baseball's saints.

Yet throughout his career in the majors Alston has been jeered, booed, mocked, hooted, taunted, derided, maligned, criticized, satirized, ridiculed, hung in effigy and generally made out to be an incompetent boob holding his job only because of the incredible patience or shortsightedness of the Dodger front office.

Alston's dismal public image is partly a result of the undeniable fact that he is an utterly colorless man. He is neither volatile like Durocher, quotable like Stengel, photogenic like Hutchinson, friendly like Lopez, egocentric like Dressen nor a raconteur like Tebbetts. He is a small-town boy in a glittering city, and he shows it. He seldom offers an opinion, keeps his own counsel and goes home to Ohio in the winter. He manages for the long haul rather than for the present moment and therefore plays a conservative game; he never panics, but neither does he ever rise to heights of excitement. When his team wins he gives credit to his players; when it loses he blames them ("We're not hitting. We're not getting good pitching"). This is absolute logic, but unpopular. He is tough to interview because his answers are obvious ("Why did you put Roebuck in for Miller?" "I thought he'd do better").

He is dull copy, particularly for a town like Los Angeles, which dotes on such extremists as Leo Durocher and Bo Belinsky. And so the critics pick at him. The situation recalls Mark Antony's comment on fame—the evil Walter does lives after the game; the good is oft interred in the box scores.

The critics have picked at him mostly because of an assumption held by Los Angeles fans and too many sportswriters that the current Dodgers are the greatest collection of ballplayers in the history of the world and should win the pennant every season by 20 games. This myth is helped along by the Dodger management, which has to peddle the surplus ballplayers produced by the big Dodger farm system. The better the reputation, the better the price.

But the fact is the Dodgers, despite their reputation, are not a very good ball club. They are good, about as good as any other club in the league, and they have plenty of depth, which is why they finish at or near the top each year. But they are not very good. They are not superior. Compare the present team with the Dodgers of a decade ago, the Reese-Robinson-Campanella-Hodges-Snider-Furillo Dodgers. The pitching is comparable, but beyond that there is little for the current team to boast about. Roseboro, the catcher, is nothing next to Campanella. Skowron at first base is neither the hitter nor the fielder Hodges was. Oliver at second can't be mentioned in the same breath with Robinson. Maury Wills, for all his brilliant base running, is not the ballplayer Pee Wee Reese was. Neither Gilliam nor McMullen at third can rank with Billy Cox. Tommy Davis in left is the one really superb player on the present club, but neither Ron Fairly nor Wally Moon nor Willie Davis can compare to Duke Snider, and Frank Howard has to prove that his current hitting boom is real to rate over Carl Furillo.

In other words, when the Dodgers lose it is the players who lose, not the manager. This opinion is shared by most of the Dodgers themselves who, whatever their shortcomings, have more class and know more about baseball than the fans and the critics who have been howling at Alston.