Cooperstown Confidential: The 1978 firing of Alvin Darkby Bruce Markusen
March 29, 2013
More than a few managers will take up residence on the hot seat this year. Both of the New York bosses, Joe Girardi and Terry Collins, are in the final years of their contracts; a particularly cruel summer could spell the end of either man’s tenure in the city. On the other coast, the free-spending Dodgers face such a heavy air of expectation that if they fail to make the postseason Don Mattingly could be out of work come October.
In Philadelphia, Charlie Manuel is fighting off suggestions that it’s time to retire. If the aging Phillies don’t, at the very least, stake claim to a wild card spot, Manuel could be facing a forced retirement at season’s end. In the meantime, a first-year manager like Walt Weiss in Colorado is facing immediate pressure because he is working under the restrictive terms of a one-year contract.
Yet, none of these men are in imminent peril. Certainly none are in danger of losing their jobs during what’s left of the Cactus or Grapefruit League seasons. The act of firing the manager during spring training is an exceptionally rare event. In fact, it has happened only four times in the modern history of the game.
The most recent occurrence involved Joe Kerrigan and the Red Sox in 2002. Named as the interim skipper in 2001, Kerrigan had already been given a new contract by the Red Sox’ front office. But when the team was sold, the outlook changed; the new regime decided that a shift was in order. The Sox fired Kerrigan, replacing him with Grady Little.
In March of 1999, the Blue Jays decided that Tim Johnson had lost all credibility as their manager. The previous fall, Johnson admitted to having lied about his military service during the Vietnam War. He claimed to have seen combat in Vietnam, even though he had not. Johnson met with his players in an effort to clear the air, but the damage appeared to be irreversible. With the players having lost all respect for Johnson—one player, Ed Sprague, referring to Johnson as “a liar”—the Jays fired him and replaced him with Jim Fregosi.
The first managerial firing of spring training dates all the way back to the 1954 season, when the Cubs parted ways with their skipper, Phil Cavarretta. That decision came right after Cavarretta, in a moment of brutal candidness, told owner Philip Wrigley that the Cubs were destined for another second-division finish in 1954. Deriding his manager for having a “defeatist attitude,” Wrigley promptly fired Cavarretta and replaced him with former Cubs third baseman Stan Hack. So much for honesty.
In each of these cases, the manager was fired during the course of spring training for a very specific and public reason. In contrast, there was the more nebulous situation that dates back to the spring of 1978, some 35 years ago, when the reasons for a managerial change involved multiple levels of dissatisfaction.
The San Diego Padres held spring training in 1978 under a swirl of activity and rumor. General manager Bob Fontaine parted ways with unhappy slugger Mike Ivie, sending the erstwhile catcher to the Giants for versatile infielder Derrell Thomas. In the meantime, rumors persisted regarding a much larger transaction, one that would send the team’s best player, Dave Winfield, to the Yankees for a package of Graig Nettles and Ed Figueroa. (The trade never happened, though Winfield did eventually join the Yankees as a free agent and Nettles went to San Diego in a trade.) On a lesser and lighter note, some of the Padres’ beat writers observed a not-so-slender Mickey Lolich dining on an intriguing breakfast one day; the unusual meal featured a bowl of oatmeal accompanied by two scoops of ice cream.
Padres manager Alvin Dark added to the circus-like atmosphere on the very first day of spring training, when he announced that an unknown rookie named Ozzie Smith would be his starting shortstop, with former No. 1 draft pick Bill Almon shifting to second base. (Smith was so little known to most observers in 1978 that one writer repeatedly referred to him as “Ossie” Smith.) Smith had played only one season of minor league ball, and that was at Single-A Walla Walla, a long distance from the major leagues. Almon, meanwhile, had never played a single professional game at second base.
Additionally, Dark announced that outfielder Gene Richards would now play first base, while the newly acquired Thomas would play third base. Critics had a field day with Dark’s plan. In addition to knowing little about Smith, they questioned the wisdom of switching the highly touted Almon from one side of the infield to the other. They also pointed to Thomas’ lack of experience at third, and wondered if a speedster like Richards could best be utilized playing first base.
The Padres did not respond well to the massive reconstruction of their infield. Committing a bushel of errors in their early spring training games, the Padres struggled badly in Cactus League play. To make matters worse, the atmosphere around the team tightened into a death grip, as some players began to complain about the excessive number of rules and the efforts by Dark to control all facets of the team.
As the situation continued to grow tense, GM Fontaine approached owner Ray Kroc to talk about the state of the team. On March 21, just 17 days before the start of the regular season, the result of the meeting became public: the Padres announced the firing of Dark, and the decision to replace him on an interim basis with pitching coach Roger Craig.
On the surface, the move puzzled some observers, none more so than Dark himself. With a full two years to go on his contract, Dark did not see his firing coming. Nor did observers outside of the Padres’ organization. After all, Dark had taken over as manager in the middle of the 1977 season, and while his record of 48-65 was not particularly laudatory, he at least had kept a flawed group of Padres out of last place. This was not a Padres team that was expected to challenge the Dodgers or the Reds for Western Division supremacy. Firing the manager in spring training seemed like an overreach.
Yet, Fontaine felt the Padres had reached a point of no return. “We couldn’t wait until the end of spring training and find we were going in the wrong direction,” the GM announced.
Kroc, never known for pulling his verbal punches, was less diplomatic in explaining why Dark had to be let go. “Alvin had a tendency to overmanage,” Kroc informed The Sporting News.
One of the Padres‘ veterans, catcher/first baseman Gene Tenace, supported Kroc’s claim of overmanaging. “[Dark] put in so many trick plays and had so many signs that everyone was uptight,” said Tenace, who had previously played for Dark in Oakland. “There were too many things to worry about.”
Kroc said that Dark wanted too much control. “He wanted to be the pitching coach, the batting coach, the infield coach.” Kroc then explained how Dark had alienated one of his coaches. “Bob Fontaine discovered Donnie Williams, the infield coach, sitting in the coaches’ room. Dark had told Donnie to go in, he didn’t need him.”
The discontent among coaches and players dated back to 1977. In the latter stages of the ‘77 season, reports circulated that as many as 10 players on the team were unhappy with Dark and his methods. Some of the Padres were upset that Dark, a known teetotaler, had banned all alcohol on team flight. Others bristled at what they felt were efforts to have religion thrust upon them; a born again Christian, Dark had set up Bible studies classes for the Padres’ players.
The imposition of religion was one of the largest factors in creating resentment toward the manager. “Alvin Dark getting fired was the best thing that happened to me, because if Alvin was the manager I would of been sent to Double A,” says John D’Acquisto, a key reliever for the Padres in 1978. “Being that Alvin was a very religious man and having discussions with many of the players was kind of an intrusion on our beliefs and created an uneasy feeling in the clubhouse that spread like wild fire… Alvin is a great man but he let his religious convictions get in the way of his judgment of people’s abilities to play baseball.”
While D’Acquisto says the move was necessary, it still created a sensation at the time. “I personally had never seen a manager get fired in the spring time before the season got started but I guess there is a first for everything and he was one of the first I saw,” says D‘Acquisto. “I still shake my head over that one.’
One other problem involving Dark was not made public at the time, but eventually became part of common knowledge, at least to Padres fans. As it turned out, staff ace Gaylord Perry did not like Dark; the two men feuded badly throughout the spring. Of course, Perry had a reputation for being confrontational with his managers, having sparred repeatedly with Frank Robinson in 1975, when Robby first took over as the Indians’ skipper.
In tabbing Craig to replace Dark, the Padres anointed a man with no previous managerial experience. At first, Kroc announced Craig as the “interim” skipper, but within a few days, the owner changed his status, saying that Craig would act as the fulltime manager.
Far more laid back than his predecessor, Craig put an immediate stamp on the Padres. He immediately changed the infield structure, putting Thomas at second, where he had far more experience. He put Almon at third, a position that more closely approximated the demands of the shortstop position. Craig then returned Richards to the outfield, while shifting Tenace from catcher to first base. The one infield position that he left intact was shortstop, where Smith would play on a daily basis in 1978.
The changes not only improved the Padres defensively at three infield positions, but it seemed to relax the team. Not surprisingly, the Padres played better ball over the last two and a half weeks of the spring exhibition schedule.
The firing of Dark and the hiring of Craig sparked spring training improvement. But Cactus League wins are relatively meaningless. What impact did the change from Dark to Craig have on the Padres during the regular season?
Well, the 1978 Padres responded beautifully to the change in managers. Emerging as one of the surprise teams of the National League, the Padres forged a record of 84-78 to finish a respectable fourth in a very tough Western Division. The record under Craig became more impressive given that Oscar Gamble flopped as a free agent signing, George Hendrick departed in an early season trade that deprived the team of much of its power, and Almon provided no punch (zero home runs) from third base. For the season, only two Padres (Tenace and Winfield) reached double figures in home runs.
The Padres of Roger Craig led with their pitching, no surprise given Craig’s career-long success in coaxing the best out of his staffs. Perry, freed from a bad relationship with Dark, put together one of his best seasons: 260 innings, a 2.73 ERA, and 21 wins. Soft-tossing left-handers Randy Jones and Bob Owchinko each pitched well while hurling over 200 innings. The bullpen fared even better, headlined by Hall of Fame fireman Rollie Fingers, the hard-throwing D’Acquisto (who struck out 104 batters in 93 innings), and two effective left-handers in Lolich and swingman Bob Shirley.
So what does all of this say about the wisdom of changing the manager during spring training? Of the four franchises that have made such a daring move, three did well in the immediate aftermath. The 2000 Blue Jays played respectably under Fregosi, who led the team to 83 wins. The 2002 Red Sox fared even better under Little, winning 93 games. Only the 1954 Cubs did poorly, winning a mere 64 games for a first-year manager in Hack.
Perhaps the notion of firing the manager in spring training is not a move of desperation. Maybe it’s a sign that it’s never too late to salvage a season that could be heading toward a shipwreck. One thing’s for sure: the Padres never regretted their decision to fire Alvin Dark 35 springs ago.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.