The Dodgers had just come off another postseason appearance. The management and the manager could not agree on a contract, so the manager left.
The Dodgers had World Series aspirations and a roster packed with star power. The management handed all those egos and all those expectations to a fortysomething manager, one who never had managed a game in the major leagues.
We're not talking about Dave Roberts, who will be introduced Tuesday as the Dodgers' latest manager. We're talking about Walter Alston, whose hiring as Brooklyn Dodgers manager in 1953 generated a "Who?" headline in one New York newspaper and this remark from a sportswriter: "'The Dodgers do not need a manager, and that is why they got Alston."
That line reflected the thought that a roster featuring future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider might be best served by a manager that wrote out the lineup card and stayed out of the way. Today, that line might reflect the increasing influence of the front office on decisions traditionally considered the province of the manager, including the determination of who plays and how often.
It might appear unusual to entrust a win-now club to a first-time manager. None of the three candidates the Dodgers invited for a final interview — Roberts, Gabe Kapler and Darin Erstad — had major league managerial experience.
However, the Dodgers have been a win-now franchise for pretty much their entire run in Los Angeles. Of their 10 managers in L.A., seven never had managed in the major leagues before they got the Dodgers job, including three who had not managed in the majors or minors: Bill Russell, Don Mattingly and Roberts.
The Roberts hiring also reflects a league-wide trend toward hiring first-time managers, and toward an assessment that clubhouse leadership and organizational collaboration are crucial skills. Game management is considered the most visible part of the job but a relatively minor part of it, and inexperience there can be overcome with a veteran bench coach and tutoring from the front office.
Of the 18 managers hired since the 2013-14 off-season, 13 have been first-timers, including seven who had not managed in the majors or minors: Roberts, Brad Ausmus of the Detroit Tigers, Kevin Cash of the Tampa Bay Rays, Craig Counsell of the Milwaukee Brewers, Paul Molitor of the Minnesota Twins, Bryan Price of the Cincinnati Reds and Scott Servais of the Seattle Mariners.
The trend has not been a winning one, at least as far as October goes. Bob Brenly, in his first year as a major league manager, led the Arizona Diamondbacks to the World Series championship in 2001. No first-year manager has won the World Series since then. Every manager to win the World Series in the last 10 years — Bruce Bochy three times, Tony La Russa twice, Terry Francona, Charlie Manuel, Joe Girardi, John Farrell and Ned Yost — had managed elsewhere.
Alston, who managed for 13 years in the minor leagues, initially faced fierce opposition from some of the Dodgers veterans, including Robinson and Don Zimmer. But, in his second season, Alston led Brooklyn to its first World Series championship.
He led the Dodgers to three more titles after the team moved to L.A. in 1958. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1983. Along the way, he won the respect and admiration of his players, and team president Walter O'Malley noted that Alston's collegiality contributed to his longevity.