Walter Emmons Alston is a strong man of slow movements and long silences. At 62 his body is still thick and muscular, and although he moves a little stiffly, it is the stiffness of controlled strength, not old age and lost dignity. His handsome face is tanned, creased and robust-looking. He has direct, almost unblinking, blue eyes and a smile that is quick, broad, affable and disarming. His hair is the color of silver. Looking at Walter Alston one thinks immediately of Ike or an older Charles Atlas, or Gary Cooper in High Noon. One is tempted to say, "He is the strong, silent type," implying with that phrase a host of virtues—patience, understanding, courage, wisdom, honesty—that have nothing at all in common with physical strength and reticence. These are not virtues but characteristics.
Unquestionably Alston has aged well. He possesses a certain dignity of appearance he did not have 20 years ago. His blue eyes were not so direct as they were vacant, and his smile was not so affable as it was uncomprehending when, in the fall of '53, he was chosen to succeed Charlie Dressen as the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dressen was a fiery, loquacious, at times brilliant little man who began most of his sentences with "I" and ended them with "me." He had managed the Dodgers to a second-place finish in the National League in 1951, and to pennants in '52 and '53. Dressen fielded some of the most talented players in baseball—Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Preacher Roe, Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Billy Cox, Carl Furillo and Duke Snider—yet they did not win a World Series. The blame was Dressen's, according to the fans, the press and the front office. He had a tendency to overmanage a team of players so talented they did not need managing, it was believed. Furthermore, the Dodgers of those years were a varied and complex group of men whose sensibilities were chafed by their manager's habit of telling them how to play a game they felt they had already mastered. They would prefer as manager a man who would put each game in motion by handing in a lineup card at home plate and then sit back in the dugout with a benign grin—an interested but no longer involved observer. For the Dodgers of the '50s that manager was best who managed least. Once they found such a man the team would rise by the power of its natural and collective talents to the top of the baseball world. The Dodger front office could find no one better suited to the team's needs than Walter Alston; he was hired to replace Dressen. A New York sportswriter wrote at the time, "The Dodgers do not need a manager and that is why they got Alston."
Alston had been a minor league manager of some distinction and an ex-major league player of no distinction. In his only major league at bat he had struck out. However, he had been a manager for 13 years, and during his previous six seasons he had won three Triple A pennants. In his first year with the Dodgers, Alston led his team (or misled it, according to the press, fans and players alike) to a second-place finish. There were rumbles of discontent from every corner of Brooklyn. Sportswriters found him uncommunicative (when asked by one to summarize the Dodgers' early spring training showing, Alston said, "We lost the first three and won the next seven"); the fans found him colorless after Dressen's entertaining, if sometimes maddening, flamboyance; and the players felt "he didn't know the game as well as he might have," according to Jim Gilliam, then an infielder and today a coach under Alston. Alston had difficulties with Don Newcombe and Jackie Robinson, and, in general, "there was an awful lot of bitterness between Walt and those old Dodgers," according to Maury Wills.
The following year, however, the gamble was rewarded with the team's first World Series championship. Alston was hailed as the silent architect of that masterpiece, and with it came the grudging respect of his players. Robinson said, "He let me know he was going to do the bossing whether I liked it or not. It made him gain stature in my eyes."
During the 18 years since, Alston has gained stature in the eyes of many others, and he has done it seemingly without effort. "Walt hasn't changed a bit since I first knew him in '48," says Danny Ozark, once a coach under Alston and now the manager of the Phillies. "He's the same man he always was." If Alston hasn't changed over the years, what certainly has changed is the public's conception of him. They now see his slow movements and long silences as concealing shades of meaning never noticed before. In the '50s, Alston's Brooklyn players construed them differently. A Dodger of those years says, " Alston often admitted to us that he didn't know what to do in certain situations, so he would just leave the players on their own. He let them hit-and-run or steal whenever they wanted to. The only time he flashed a sign was when the situation was obvious, say, when a pitcher had to bunt a runner over. After a while some of the players made fun of him. He would stand at one end of the dugout, one foot on the top step, and do nothing for the entire game but toss little pebbles onto the field. He wouldn't say anything or do anything for nine innings—except toss pebbles. They used to call him 'The Pebble Thrower.' "
Today, many of Alston's Los Angeles players interpret his silences as a sign of wisdom in allowing his veterans to play their own game.
"A veteran player doesn't want a manager who is always giving him pep talks," says Pitcher Al Downing. "You rebel against a manager trying to psych you up. It's an insult to your intelligence. It's as if he's trying to hustle you into performing better than you are. You are what you are. Alston respects that. He leaves you alone. He doesn't say much to his players."
"Walt treats his players like men," adds Dixie Walker, at present a Dodger hitting coach. "If he feels a player isn't doing his best he doesn't fine him or cuss him out or sit down and talk with him. He just won't play him anymore."
"Walt is a great handler of men," says Ozark. "He puts each of them in a category—feisty, quiet-type, take-charge guy—so he'll know how to handle them. But generally, if he's having trouble with a particular player he'll ask one of his coaches to talk to him. He'll say something like, 'You can handle him better'n I can, Danny.' "
Over the years, Alston has become known as an expert at delegating authority to his coaches. One L.A. pitcher says, "If we tell the pitching coach we don't want to run on a certain day, he doesn't have to check with Walt to see if it's O.K. He makes his own decision."