Saturday, November 15, 2014

Alvin Dark, 1922-2014


When I was a kid, there was a book called Benchwarmer's Sports Trivia, by Bob Alexander. (He's still alive, and published a book about the Wild West this year.) One of the questions was, "Who is the only man to hit a home run off Sandy Koufax and catch a touchdown pass from Y.A. Tittle?"

Some men had done one or the other. Alvin Dark is the only one who did both. Until now, Dark, Koufax and Tittle were all still alive, although Tittle is in the throes of Alzheimer's disease.

Alvin Ralph Dark was born on January 7, 1922, in Comanche, Oklahoma, about halfway between Oklahoma City and Dallas. He grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, about halfway between Baton Rouge and Houston. He attended Southwestern Louisiana University (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, later attended by another New York baseball star, Ron Guidry) before transferring to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where he played football and caught the aforementioned touchdown pass from Tittle. In 1945, he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles.

But the NFL didn't pay much in those days, and Dark was better at baseball anyway. He signed with the Boston Braves, and made his major league debut on July 14, 1946, at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. Wearing Number 23, he came in as a defensive replacement at shortstop in the 9th inning, and didn't come to bat. The Pirates won, 5-2.

After spending most of 1946 and 1947 in the minor leagues, he was called back up in 1948, was given Number 2, and was made the Braves' starting shortstop. It was their last great season in Boston. He batted .322 to win the National League Rookie of the Year award, and finished 3rd in the Most Valuable Player voting behind Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals and his Braves teammate, pitcher Johnny Sain -- possible splitting the Braves vote to throw the award to Stan the Man. But the Braves won the Pennant, their 1st in 34 years. They lost the World Series to the Cleveland Indians, however.

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The Braves couldn't sustain their success, and, needing to save money, they traded Dark and their starting 2nd baseman, former Brooklyn Dodger star Eddie Stanky, to, of all teams, the Dodgers' arch-rivals, the New York Giants, where Stanky's former manager Leo Durocher was running things. In return, the Braves got Sid Gordon, who'd finished 4th behind Dark in the '48 MVP race, and 3 guys you don't need to know about.

Wearing his now-familiar Number 19, Dark was able to thrive under Leo the Lip, playing in 3 All-Star Games in 4 seasons. In 1951 he batted .303, his 1st season over .300, and hit a League-leading 41 doubles. The Giants won the Pennant in a dubious stretch run and Playoff victory over the Dodgers, and Dark played in the game where Bobby Thomson hit the home run that meant, as broadcaster Russ Hodges said over and over again, "The Giants win the Pennant!" But they lost the World Series to the Yankees.

Dark led the NL in at-bats in 1953 and 1954, and in the latter year, the Giants won the Pennant again. This time, Dark was in the field in Game 1 of the World Series against the Indians, when Willie Mays made the most famous catch in baseball history; and in the dugout when Dusty Rhodes hit the pinch-hit home run that won the game in the 10th inning. The Giants swept the Indians, and Dark had his World Series ring on his 3rd try.

Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton likes to tell a story about a game he went to after his family moved from Rochelle Park, New Jersey, where they'd been Giants fans, to Chicago Heights, Illinois. They waited for the Giants to come to Wrigley Field to play the Chicago Cubs, and Jim and his brother went to the game. They got seats behind the visitors' dugout, on the 1st base side, and, in a time-honored tradition, the older brother Pete held the younger brother Jim by his ankles, dangling him over the dugout roof, so he could see in, pen in one hand, program in the other, so he could get autographs.

Jim saw Dark, and said, "Hey, Al, my name's Jim, I'm not a Cub fan, I'm a Giant fan, I'm from New Jersey, can you sign my program, please?" After a minute, Pete pulled Jim back up, saw that he didn't get an autograph, and asked him what happened. Jim said Dark said, "Take a hike, son."

Pete wasn't furious that a player had so coldly dismissed his brother. He was thrilled that a real live major league ballplayer had spoken to his brother: "No kidding? Alvin Dark told you to take a hike?" When they got home, their mother asked them what happened. Rather than tell her who won, or about anything that happened in the actual game, Pete said, "Alvin Dark told Jim to take a hike!" After that, whenever someone in the Bouton family wanted to get rid of somebody, even if it was one of the parents, it would be, "Take a hike, Jim," "Take a hike, Mom," or, "Take a hike, Dad."

Asked about the incident years later, Dark denied it: "That's not true. I didn't even know Bouton when he was a kid."

Think of it this way: How many of those 1950s Giants are remembered today? Willie Mays is, and so is Bobby Thomson, and so is Dusty Rhodes. Monte Irvin, maybe Sal Maglie. That's about it. But Dark is remembered, because Jim Bouton told the story in Ball Four. People generally don't know what kind of player Dark was, but they remember that he played for the Giants in New York, and that he told Jim Bouton as a boy, "Take a hike, son."

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He should be remembered: While not as celebrated as the other New York shortstops of the time, Phil "the Scooter" Rizzuto of the Yankees and Harold "Pee Wee" Reese of the Giants, Alvin "Al" "Blackie" or "the Swamp Fox" Dark was a better hitter than either one. He would hit .300 a total of 4 times, and, in a time when shortstops simply didn't hit much -- Ernie Banks was about to offer the first real change of that idea -- he was the 1st NL shortstop to hit 20 home runs more than once. (Playing in the Polo Grounds with its short foul lines helped.) At the time he retired, only Banks (already) and early Giant Travis Jackson had hit more home runs as an NL shortstop than Dark's 126. He was a good fielder, too, as he led the NL in putouts and double plays 3 times each.

He was traded to the Cardinals in 1956, and to the Cubs in 1958, remaining a starting shortstop until 1959. He was with the Milwaukee Braves in 1960 when, after the season, the Giants, now in San Francisco, reacquired him, and offered him their manager's job. At just 39 years of age, he would be a manager for the 1st time.

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The 1961 Giants won 85 games to finish 3rd in the NL. The next year, there was a classic Giants vs. Dodgers Pennant race, and, although it was on the opposite coast and it began much later, there was yet another Dodger drop and yet another Giant surge, and yet another best-2-out-of-3 playoff for the Pennant that wasn't decided until the 9th inning of the last game. It was decided at the Dodgers' home field this time, the brand-new Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, and it wasn't nearly as dramatic -- the key play was a bases-loaded walk -- but the Giants again won the Pennant, finishing with 103 wins in their 165 games.

And, again, they lost the World Series to the Yankees. They traded wins, the Yankees winning the odd-numbered games and the Giants the even-numbered ones, until the Yankees won Game 7, 1-0.

The Dodgers won 3 of the next 4 Pennants, with the Giants getting close but falling short of the Cardinals in 1964 and the Dodgers in 1965 and 1966. The 1964 season should have been the Giants' big chance, with Sandy Koufax's injury opening the door to 5 teams finishing within 5 games of 1st, and the Dodgers not being one of them.

But the Giants weren't in the right frame of mind that season. In an interview with the Long Island paper Newsday, Dark -- a Southerner, remember -- lamented the large number of black and Hispanic players on his team. He had Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Juan Marichal, and the brothers Felipe, Mateo ("Matty") and Jesus Alou. It wasn't baseball that was ahead of the curve in signing Jackie Robinson in 1947, it was Branch Rickey; in so many ways, baseball was behind the times. And, in this year of the Civil Rights Act, the Mississippi Freedom Summer and Martin Luther King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize -- with civil rights for Hispanics hardly even on anyone's radar -- Dark said of black and Hispanic players, "They are just not able to perform up to the white player when it comes to mental alertness."

In a multicultural metropolitan area like San Francisco, this was like sticking your finger in a light bulb socket. The uproar was huge. Dark responded that he had been severely misquoted. Mays, who had been Dark's teammate and whom Dark had named team Captain, came to his defense, and helped calm things down. Robinson himself came to the defense of his former Giant opponent: "I have found Dark to be a gentleman and, above all, unbiased. Our relationship has not only been on the ballfield but off it." Dark lasted through the season, but the Giants fell short, 3 games back but in 4th place, and owner Horace Stoneham fired him on the last day of the season.

Dark knew he'd blown it. One by one, he found the players he'd offended, and apologized to them. Cepeda and Marichal accepted his apology. The Alou brothers did not.

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Charlie Finley, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, hired him as a coach for the Kansas City Athletics, and promoted him to manager in 1966. But in August 1967, with Finley preparing to move the team to Oakland and just beginning to build the 1970s A's dynasty -- Reggie Jackson made his debut that season, and Catfish Hunter and Sal Bando were already up -- he and Dark had a disagreement over player discipline, and Dark was fired.

He was immediately picked up by Cleveland, and the Indians finished 3rd in 1968, their best finish between 1959 and 1994. But owner Vernon Stouffer made the mistake of giving Dark the general manager's job as well, and since World War II that has never worked, as the 2 jobs are too much for any 1 man, partly because of the field manager's need to have the best players available and the GM's desire to reduce costs, contradicting each other. The Indians started losing again, and Dark was fired in 1971.

After Dick Williams had had enough of Finley after winning back-to-back World Series in Oakland, Finley hired Dark back for the 1974 season. He became the 3rd manager, after Joe McCarthy (1929 Cubs and 1932 Yankees) and Yogi Berra (1964 Yankees and 1973 Mets) to win Pennants in both Leagues, and the 2nd after Yogi and Durocher (1941 Dodgers and 1954 Giants), and still the last to this day, ever to do it with 2 teams in the same metro area. The A's faced his old rivals, the Dodgers, in the World Series, and won. He had now won a title as a player and as a manager.

But he was not especially popular in Oakland. He had recently rediscovered religion, and proselytized to his players, and they didn't like it. They also didn't think he was very smart: Bando complained, "He couldn't manage a meat market." It was remarked that, having already won 3 American League Western Division titles and 2 World Series, the 1974 A's essentially managed themselves. The fact that they often fought with each other (including literally, with fists and wrestling matches) seems to contradict this; clearly, Dark had something to do with the title. But while they won a 5th straight AL West title in 1975, they lost the Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox, and Finley fired Dark again.

His last managing job was with the San Diego Padres in 1977, managing half the season. He was fired in spring training in 1978, for insisting that a rookie be the team's starting shortstop, because of his fielding. The kid couldn't hit a lick, but Dark, who knew the shortstop position as well as any man alive, was sure the kid was ready for the majors. The Padres never did give the kid a fair chance, and ended up trading him to St. Louis for the more established shortstop, Garry Templeton. Templeton helped the Padres win the Pennant in 1984, but the kid grew up, and became a Cardinal icon. He was Ozzie Smith. Dark was right to stand up for him, and lost his last job in baseball because of it. He was 994-954 as a major league manager.

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In 1980, Dark wrote a memoir with Sports Illustrated wright John Underwood, titled When in Doubt, Fire the Manager. He focused mostly on his career as manager, especially under Charlie Finley, and how his conversion to Christianity affected how he chose to manage his teams. He also remarked in it, "The Lord taught me to love everyone, but I learned to love the sportswriters last."

Dark gave an interview for Major League Baseball Productions in the late 1990s, and quotes from that interview were used in films like 100 Years of the World Series and various YES Network Yankeeography installments. But he developed Alzheimer's disease, and died this Thursday in South Carolina, at the age of 92.


With Dark's death, there are 4 men who played in the Bobby Thomson Game, 63 years ago, who are still alive: Giants Willie Mays and Monte Irvin, and the 2 men who pitched for Dodgers that day, Don Newcombe and Ralph Branca.

Still alive from the game where Mays made The Catch and Dusty Rhodes hit the pinch-hit walkoff home run, 60 years later, are 4 men: Mays, Irvin, and Indians Al Rosen and Rudy Regalado.

Dark is no longer among them. The Pearly Gates are that way. Take a hike, son.

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