Saturday, November 15, 2014

Alvin Dark, Willie Mays and the integration of baseball

Alvin Dark, who would win the pennant that year as
manager of the San Francisco Giants, with Casey Stengel
of the Mets in 1962,
Alvin Dark died Thursday at 92. You have to be of a certain age to remember him in baseball -- a standout shortstop on three World Series teams despite getting his career off to a late start because of military service during and after World War II, a skipper of two World Series teams in a lengthy managerial career.

Dark's career took him just shy of Cooperstown. There are worse shortstops than "Blackie" in the Hall of Fame, and there are better ones out, but that's not the point here. I'm thinking, instead, of the complexities that accompanied integration, not merely in baseball but in the larger society. It was a process, after all. It didn't begin with Jackie Robinson, and it sure didn't end with him.

Dark was widely seen during his playing days as a natural future manager. Dark was not merely a standout athlete. He was a college man and a Marine officer who broke in under one great manager (Billy Southworth) and starred for a second (Leo Durocher).

And he was a white Southerner, with all the racial baggage that came with growing up white in the South at that time.

He tried to change. I believe that. When he took over as Giants manager in 1961, he shuffled locker assignments to break up racial cliques. He had, as any manager would, a deep appreciation for the instant intelligence Willie Mays brought to the game, and named Mays team captain -- the first black to officially hold such a position.

And Mays returned that esteem, telling his future biographer, Charles Einstein, in 1961, that he thought Dark -- who he called "Cap," short for captain, the title Dark had when they were teammates -- a better manager than Durocher.

Then came a mid-season interview in 1964, with the Giants in a losing streak. Dark, who tended to be over-reactive, spouted off on his black and Latin players, rapping star first baseman Orlando Cepeda by name. A few excerpts:

We have trouble because we have so many Spanish-speaking and Negro players on the team. They are just not able to perform up to the white ball player when it comes to mental alertness. ... They just aren't as sharp mentally. ... You don't know how hard we've tried to make a team player, a hustling ballplayer, out of Orlando. ... I'd have to say he's giving out 40 percent.

And so on and so forth.

Well, you can imagine how that went over with men like Mays, Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal -- all black or Latin, all future Hall of Famers. In his fine book on Mays, "Willie's Time," Einstein describes a furious meeting of the non-white Giants convened by Mays in his Pittsburgh hotel room:

"Shut up," Mays told the congregants in his room. "Just shut up." 
"You don't tell me to shut up," Cepeda said. "I'm not going to play another game for that son of a bitch."
"Oh yes you are," Mays told him. "And let me tell you why."
One of those reasons: Were Dark fired immediately, it would merely make him a martyr, "a hero to the rednecks." Another, Mays reminded his teammates, was that Dark was truly colorblind with his lineups and playing time.

Mays, fighting a virus as he fought a team mutiny, quelled the player rebellion. But there was more. Einstein again:

Willie's cold had worsened. The following day he suited up, but the sickness was in this throat and his voice was gone, which may have been a good thing. Silently Dark handed him the lineup card to take out to the umpires. Logically, Mays ought not to play that day ... Logically, also, in the light of what Dark had said the day before, the baseball world would have taken it as a Mays refusal to play for a man who had bailed out on him, and Dark's managerial career would end then and there. Silently, Mays took the lineup card. His name was not on it.
"I actually felt sorry for the man," he told me later. "So I did the only thing I could do." What he did was to take a pencil, write his name back into the lineup, and hit two home runs to beat the Mets.
.... The day a sickness-ridden Mays took the lineup card from Dark and wrote his own name on it was two full months from the end of the season. In all that time, Mays never spoke to his manager again.

Whether or not Mays actually saved Dark's managerial career, Dark went on to manage the Kansas City Athletics, the Cleveland Indians, the Oakland Athletics and the San Diego Padres, winning the World Series with the A's in 1974. Two stints working for Charley O. Finley might be deemed suitable punishment for alienating so many star players.


  1. Never heard this story about Dark, whom I remember managing the A's in the middle 80s. Thanks for the elucidation.

  2. Good stuff, I enjoyed the read.

  3. Cepeda is ultimately at fault for Dark's stupid and ugly remarks. It was Cepeda who refused to move to LF and allow Willie McCovey to play first base, even though it was best for the team and everyone knew it. McCovey suffered lingering injuries for the rest of his career because of the 500 or so games he played in left. His build-- huge upper body, thin legs and ankles, narrow feet-- was wholly unsuited to the outfield. Cepeda's selfishness, and Horace Stoneham's unwillingness to confront him-- infuriated Dark. He should have remembered to "praise in public, criticize in private," but he didn't, and those of us who've made intemperate remarks of our own in public should have a little sympathy. The record shows Dark was no racist, but what's said cannot be unsaid, and once he lost Mays' respect it was all over.