By Alex Hider
By 1940, Walter Alston was just about done with baseball. His dreams of becoming a big-league regular were crushed in 1936, when he struck out and committed two errors in a meaningless late-season appearance with the St. Louis Cardinals. He never again played in the majors.
Having already drunk his cup of coffee in the big leagues, Alston spent the next two seasons bouncing around the Cardinals’ farm system with limited success. One of his best seasons came in 1938 with the Class C Portsmouth Red Birds where he smacked 28 home runs and helped lead the team to their only Mid-Atlantic League Pennant.
But Alston could sense that his playing career was coming to an end. During the offseason, he taught and coached basketball at Milton-Union High School near Dayton. By 1940, Alston was so resigned to his new career that he skipped spring training and a chance to move up to Class B Columbus, Ga. in order to continue teaching.
The 1940 Red Birds were a sad bunch. With the country still trying to pull itself out of the Great Depression, the team struggled to attract fans to the stadium now known as Branch Rickey Park. That season would mark the team’s last in Portsmouth.
The play on the field wasn’t much better. By mid-June, the Red Birds found themselves in last place, nearly 20 games out of first place. After watching the Red Birds play against the Dayton Wings, Cardinal general manager and McDermott native Branch Rickey put it nicely when he said the team “Wasn’t as bad as he thought.”
Alston proved to be one of the Red Birds’ few bright spots. Playing at first base, he quickly became a fan favorite in Portsmouth, not only for his home run power but his love for the game. A 1940 Portsmouth Times article noted “the little things, such as his eagerness to run out on a field with a jacket for the pitcher who gets on base.” Rickey quickly took notice.
On June 23, the Red Birds lost to the Akron Yankees to fall to 11 games under .500. The loss was Portsmouth’s eighth in their last nine games. With the Red Birds scheduled to play in Dayton the next day, Alston left the team early to spend the night at his home in nearby Oxford.
Alston arrived in Dayton the next day to shocking news: Rickey had relegated player/manager Dutch Dorman to Class D Coolemee, N.C. the night before, and hired Alston in his place. He was now in charge of the Portsmouth Red Birds.
With little time to process the situation, Alston responded. He led the Red Birds to a 3-1 victory over Dayton in his first game as a manager, smacking a double and scoring a run.
Though Alston wasn’t able to pull the Red Birds out of the cellar 1940, he managed the team to a winning record (43-41) for the final two-thirds of the season. Rickey was so impressed that he kept Alston as the team’s player/manager after he moved the Red Birds to Springfield, Ohio in 1941.
1940 proved to be the break that Alston was looking for. After spending the next three seasons playing and managing in the Cardinals farm system, he followed Rickey to the Dodgers organization in 1944. He spent the next 10 seasons managing the team’s minor league clubs before replacing Charlie Dressen as Brooklyn’s manager in 1954.
In his second season as manager, Alston led Brooklyn to its only World Series championship, as the Dodgers defeated the Yankees in seven games. After the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, he stayed with the team and led them to three more World Series championships.
Alston won seven National League Pennants in his 22-year career. and upon his retirement he was the fifth-winningest coach in baseball history. He coached the likes of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Don Drysdale, Steve Garvey and Sandy Koufax. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1983.
And it all began in Portsmouth.
Reach Alex Hider at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931 or on Twitter @PDTSportsWriter