The life and career of Alvin Dark, who passed away yesterday at age 92, provides an object lesson in the importance of timing. Had he been born twenty years earlier, he would likely be in the Hall of Fame; twenty years later, he might never have believed or said the things that caused him so much trouble.
A one-time football player at LSU, Dark got a late start on his baseball career due to his service in World War II. He was 26 when he won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1948, batting .322 and anchoring the Boston infield at shortstop as the Braves took the NL pennant. (Dark finished third in the MVP voting, behind Stan Musial and Johnny Sain.) He was traded to the Giants with his roommate and best friend Eddie Stanky in 1949; over the next five years, he made three All-Star teams, hit .296, and averaged 17 home runs a season. He hit 23 homers in 1953, which was then the National League record for a shortstop.
Dark was at the center of several controversial episodes in his tenure as a player and manager. In an April 1955 game at Ebbets Field, Jackie Robinson took exception to Sal Maglie’s close pitches, particularly when Maglie knocked down Roy Campanella to lead off the fourth. Robinson, the next hitter, bunted down the first base line, trying to get Maglie to field the ball or cover first so he could run him over. (This was one of the ways players retaliated in the first half of the 20th century, rather than charging the mound.) Maglie refused to cover, and second baseman Davey Williams had to make the play and take the hit from the charging Robinson. (Williams stayed in the game, but may have suffered a spinal injury in the collision; the 1955 season was the last for the 28-year-old.) In the next inning, Giants captain Dark hit a double to left and didn’t hesitate rounding second, taking dead aim at Robinson at third base. Robinson got the throw in plenty of time and reared back to tag Dark in the face, but the ball slipped out of his hand and Dark was safe on the E-5. Robinson said later he admired Dark for the play; Dark, for his part, called Robinson “a Hitler.”
The incident took on an uglier shade years later, when Dark – then in his fourth year managing the San Francisco Giants, a team featuring Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and the Alou brothers – was the subject of an article by Stan Isaacs in the New York area paper Newsday. Isaacs quoted Dark as saying, “We have trouble because we have so many Negro and Spanish-speaking players on this team. They are just not able to perform up to the white ballplayers when it comes to mental alertness. You can’t make most Negro and Spanish-speaking players have the pride in their team that you get from white players.”
Dark protested vehemently that his actual comments had been taken out of context, but they were not out of character for a southerner raised in the 1930s. Jackie Robinson made a public statement in Dark’s defense, but the stain of the remark would cling to Dark for the rest of his career. One further source of friction that emerged later was the claim that Dark had ordered his players not to speak Spanish in the clubhouse. He was let go as Giants manager at the end of the season.
In 1966, Charles O. Finley hired Dark to manage the Kansas City A’s, perennial AL doormats. In his first season, he led them to their highest win total since moving from Philadelphia. In his second, his players rebelled against Finley’s interference, and issued a statement in August saying, “We players feel that if Mr. Finley would give his fine coaching staff and excellent manager the authority they deserve these problems would not exist.” Finley responded by firing Dark, who thought he was about to receive a new two-year contract.
He was hired as manager by the Cleveland Indians, and in 1968 led them to 86 wins and a third-place finish. The Indians players were impressed by Dark as a tactician, but some felt he was overcontrolling. Fireballer Sam McDowell credits Dark with setting him free as a pitcher, though McDowell’s agent told Terry Pluto that Dark wanted a contract clause that prevented McDowell from throwing a curveball unless Dark called for it. After one season, Dark was given the job of general manager as well as manager, and the dual roles hurt him in dealing with players; it’s tough to motivate a player day to day when you’re also negotiating his salary. Dark was dismissed from both positions in 1971.
In 1974, Finley rehired him after a public feud with manager Dick Williams, who’d won consecutive World Series titles for the owner. The A’s players knew Williams was on their side in battling Finley, and had considerable doubts about Dark, especially considering his alleged comments about players of color. Those concerns were not alleviated when he told Reggie Jackson why he’d used Jackson as a DH while recovering from injury, but had not done so with third baseman Sal Bando: “The one thing you’ve got to understand is that black boys heal quicker than white boys.”
Dark, who had become a born-again Christian, quoted the Bible often in his return as A’s manager. This also did not endear him to his rambunctious team. Sal Bando was vocal in his view of the manager as Finley’s puppet, once yelling, “You couldn’t manage a meat market.” He repeated the phrase, affectionately, at season’s end after the A’s had won their third straight World Series.
The A’s let Dark go after the 1975 season, following their ALCS loss to Boston. He got one more crack at managing, with the Padres in 1977, when he replaced John McNamara. He was hired for 1978, but the Padres took the unusual step of dismissing him during spring training, seventeen days before their opener. Ballard Smith, the team’s vice president, cited his inability “to communicate effectively with his players, coaching staff, and those of us in the front office.” In his brief time in camp, Dark anointed defensive wiz Ozzie Smith as the Padres’ starting shortstop; Smith mentioned Dark as one of his mentors during his Hall of Fame induction speech.
It was Dark’s misfortune to be in the wrong lane at several social crossroads: a late starter because of the war, but generally equal or superior to his Hall of Fame New York counterparts at shortstop, Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto; a southerner with hidebound views on race when the game was integrating and accepting more players from Latin America; a disciplinarian who was out of step with the liberated players of the 1970s. He had an eventful baseball career that might be viewed with more appreciation had it not had quite so many events.