The Giants, heading into just their fourth season in San Francisco in 1961, had quite a shopping list as they searched for their third manager since moving West. The names included legends such as Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra. They eventually passed up on the legends and other notable names, and turned to the scrappy Alvin Dark, a tough, hardball-playing shortstop who toiled for the New York Giants from 1950-56. Dark would get the Giants to the World Series one year later.
The news today that Alvin Dark had died at the age of 92 in Easley, S.C., jolted me. My exposure to baseball began in 1958 when the Giants arrived, and I remember following just about every at bat, every game, every series of the epic 1962 season. A remarkable pennant race between the Giants and Dodgers went down to the last day of the regular season, when the Giants tied the Dodgers for first place to force a three-game playoff. The Dark-led Giants took two-of-three to win the pennant. And just like that, Alvin Dark was a San Francisco baseball hero for beating the hated Dodgers. That was no fluke. In the third game of the 1951 playoff against the Dodgers, Dark’s single in the bottom of the ninth started the Giants shocking comeback from a 4-1 deficit that ended with Bobby Thomson’s pennant-winning home run.
Dark’s success should not have been a surprise. He was an exceptional athlete, a star football player at LSU who was talented enough to be drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1945. He chose baseball and was rookie of the year with the Boston Braves in 1948 when he hit .328. He was traded to the Giants in 1950. He hit .417 in the Giants loss to the Yankees in the 1951 World Series. He hit .412 in the Giants World Series sweep of Cleveland in 1954. He played with four other teams after leaving the Giants, and finished with a .289 batting average and three All-Star appearances. The Giants let Dark go after 1964, and he went on to manage four teams, including the World Series champion Athletics in 1974. Dark the manager had 994 wins with a winning percentage of .526.
But Dark’s measure as a ballplayer wasn’t about stats. He was all-out competitive, and that football mentality he carried from his college days was never more on display than the day he went one-on-one against Jackie Robinson.
Early in the 1955 season, the Dodgers were upset that menacing Giants pitcher Sal “The Barber” Maglie had given some of the batters a close shave. Robinson responded with a bunt to the right side, and he delivered a punishing blow to Giants second baseman Davey Williams, who was covering first base. Dark charged from his shortstop position to confront Robinson but was restrained. In the next inning, Dark crashed into Robinson while advancing to third base, jarring the ball loose.
That fiery attitude on the diamond marked his time with the Giants.
After losing the first two of a four-game series against the Dodgers in September 1961, Dark revealed that he had fined seven players a total of $1,000 for missing a curfew in St. Louis two weeks earlier. Dark also revealed he had a sense of humor, and told the players to stay out as long as they want to see if that might change their luck against the Dodgers. It didn’t, as the Dodgers swept.
Dark tried another way to shake up his team in 1961, which seems startling in today’s era of pitch counts and specialty relievers. Dark was frustrated at the inability of his top starter trio of Juan Marichal, Jack Sanford and Mike McCormick to throw complete games, so he instituted a no-bullpen rule. The starters were told they had to go the distance. Sanford and McCormick delivered complete games, and Marichal, pitching with a sore finger and bruised foot, managed to throw two shutouts. Finally, Dark called off the experiment.
During the tense Giants-Dodgers 1962 battle, the Dodgers were aghast to discover a huge pile of sand had been placed at first base at Candlestick Park as a means of slowing the Dodgers running game. An upset Dodgers manager Walter Alston referred all questions to Dark, “the guy who put it there.” In a denial that would have made Richard Nixon envious, Dark theorized that the strong Candlestick winds had picked up this mound of sand and delivered it right there at first base.
Remembering these colorful moments brings joy to me, but in deciding to write this piece, I also knew I would have to address the painful part. Dark was quoted in a 1964 interview as saying “the Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team” didn’t have the same ‘mental alertness” as white players. Latin players from that time said he asked them not to speak Spanish in the clubhouse out of some belief it would hurt team unity.
Time has a way of healing, and Giants slugger Orlando Cepeda, one of the Latin players of that time, said upon learning of Dark’s death that his former manager apologized for his words and ignorance of Latin players everytime their paths would cross. Even Jackie Robinson would express respect for Dark in later years, saying of his clash in that 1955 incident, “I admired Al for what he did after I had run down Williams.” Willie Mays, who played for Dark, called him a ‘mentor” and “a very nice man” as news of his death spread. Dark had Mays’ safety in mind in 1962, when he talked his star into wearing a batting helmet for the first time instead of the protective liner he always wore under his baseball cap. The move worked immediately as Mays homered in his first at bat in 1962. Still, Dark acknowledged in later years that the episode of those unfortunate comments would be part of his obituary.
So much time has passed now.
The words of Cepeda and Mays are good enough for me to toss those unfortunate comments into the waste bin of the times when many others of that era were saying the same thing with much more venom.
So I’m going back to where I was when I first heard word today of Alvin Dark’s passing. We lost a good Giant. We lost a good baseball man. And I hope Giants fans everywhere take a few moments today to appreciate that.