And he still consults his coaches, because he knows that he doesn't know it all, because nobody does. "If he wanted nothing but fungo hitters, he could get coaches a lot cheaper," says Jim Gilliam, the greatest mediocrity in baseball history. Gilliam has been with Alston since 1951 at Montreal, longer consecutively than anyone except Alston's wife, Lela, who knows about the snickers because she knows everything Walter knows, except baseball, which she leaves to him because she knows he'll be all right. She knows he always has been all right. She has seen him defeat the monster of rage that dwells within him. Nobody could impress Lela by killing a dragon.
Walter Emmons Alston is alleged to have said of a certain ballplayer that if he went out to fight a bear with his hands Alston would bet on the man. If he did say that, he was wrong, because the ballplayer turned out to be a paper tiger. But if the man were Walter Alston, the bear would be in trouble. He can keep his head when all about him are losing theirs and blaming it on him. But he could also tell Jackie Robinson that he would meet him any time he wanted to, and anywhere—in here, in front of the other players, or outside where it would be just you and me. Robinson, a man of fierce pride, hates Alston to this day, so vehemently that he can barely disguise his feelings when he is being paid important money by a national television network to be objective at a microphone. Part of the reason for Robinson's hatred is that Alston, in front of other men, invited him outside and he didn't go. A man with no guts can forget a thing like that, but Robinson had guts.
Walter Alston can curse like a poet and tremble in quiet rage at the mention of one player who denounced him to the press—after he had been discharged from Alston's command and was a discreet distance away. Alston had given the player his patience and, in fact, his pity, and had stretched a point of his immaculate ethics to keep him in the game he loved (and once cried softly about in a bar one night when he was drunk and desperate). In Brooklyn, in 1954, Alston was scared, and he's man enough to admit that, too. He was scared mostly of the big newspapers and their little men, because he thought he was just a big hick. He had put his teaching degree aside, after his one-strikeout career in the big league ("I swung"), and left Darrtown, Ohio, to go manage in the tank towns because he loved the game, too. So much that if the player had asked him, instead of ridiculing him in the night, "that goddam schoolteacher" could have taught him a dignified way to love baseball and a dignified way to fail at it. "If you see him," Alston said recently, his blacksmith forearms trembling on the breakfast table, "tell him what I said. Will you please do that for me? Because I can't. If I ever talk to that man, you'll know I'm sick."
The man cried because he had an arm that hurt so badly he couldn't comb his hair, but he was no more a physical coward than Alston. He cried from fear: fear that they wouldn't let him play any more, fear of facing the fact that while he had the tools for better jobs than baseball, he hadn't learned to use them and now it might be too late. Alston doesn't go into bars ("I just don't like the taste of the stuff, and you can't tell me you liked your first one, anymore than I liked the first one of these cigarettes"), but if he had been there that night he could have helped the man. And he would have, because he has known fear, too
Alston was not near the bullpen in whatever bush town it was on the trip north from his first Dodger spring training camp in 1954, so he didn't hear Robinson tell Roy Campanella (or was it the other way around?) that, "We'll just have to carry him on our shoulders to a pennant." But he knew the players were talking and laughing at his conservative ways. The press corps laughed with the players when Alston said things like, "It's too early to tell." They're still laughing. Not so many of them, though, as in 1957, the year Alston began to feel secure.
One day that year he made a move in a late inning and it won the game, or seemed to. Now the Press came to salute him. He could have sat quietly and become a genius in the papers that had made a fool of him, but he could not. "I'd like to take credit," he said, "but I have to tell you that wasn't the reason I made the move." Sure he had to. The real Walter Alston was standing up. It is the only posture in which he can feel comfortable.
"Percentage is my game," he says, while the news wires hum with nonsense about the go-to-hell style of the dashing Dodgers, a reckless abandon that survives critical analysis only because there is precious little critical analysis in Baseball Journalism, U.S.A. "I make an unorthodox move only when it seems percentage to be unorthodox. It's like setting up a hitter: if you've given him just enough fast balls, the changeup is percentage."
They laugh at his percentage. Once in Brooklyn, with Willie Mays at bat and the game on the bases, he relieved the young Drysdale with the veteran Clem Labine, but experience wasn't the only reason. In those beautiful, dead days Allan Roth was the Dodger statistician, and he knew all things. Mays, he reported, was something like .585 off Drysdale and only .562 off Labine. Percentage. It fractured everyone in the press box when Willie hit a screamer that almost turned the second baseman around, and the inning was over. Percentage had prevailed again.
Even Alston allowed himself a laugh when he was told the comparative figures, which, of course, he already knew. He won the game, by the way, 4-3. He's still playing his hand the same funny way, and he's still winning.
"I know Roseboro's idea," he says. "There might come a time to use it, but I doubt it. It's not percentage."