Back in the middle of the 20th century, it was rare to see a man of the major leagues have a career that spanned from coast to coast. The major leagues had only expanded to the West Coast in 1958 and opportunities were limited. Al Dark was one of the few to accomplish such a feat, playing shortstop in New York and managing from Cleveland to San Francisco and Oakland. He lived a full life filled with great baseball stories. He managed some of the finest talent to ever come through the major leagues and won a couple of World Series on the way to a long career. This is his story.
Alvin Ralph Dark was born on January 7, 1922 in Comanche, Oklahoma where his father was a tool pusher for oil drillers. A few years later, the Darks moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana where young Alvin would spend his formative years. Raised as a Baptist, Dark would learn how to rely on his faith in God during the more tumultuous years of his baseball life. He was a sickly child as malaria and diphtheria prevented him from attending school until he was seven years old. He used sports to overcome the social awkwardness of attending school so late and by the time he reach high school he was starring in basketball, baseball and football.
He earned All-State honors as a tailback on the football team and was a captain of the basketball team for Lake Charles High School. The school didn’t have a baseball team but Dark honed his skills by playing American Legion baseball at that time. He could have focused on basketball when Texas A&M offered him a scholarship but he elected to attend LSU where he received both a basketball and baseball scholarship.
Amazingly, he lettered in baseball, basketball and football. After averaging 7.3 yards per carry as a sophomore in 1942, he transferred through the V-12 program to Southwestern Louisiana Institute, expecting to become an officer in the United States Marine Corps. In 1943, he helped the team to an undefeated season and a victory in the Oil Bowl against Arkansas A&M College. In that game, Dark ran for a touchdown, threw another and kicked a field goal along with three extra points. During that year, he also batted .462 in baseball and played for the basketball and golf teams.
Sworn in as an officer in the Marine Corps in 1945, Alvin Dark went to Pearl Harbor where the military wanted him to play on their football team. When the war was over, Dark was deployed to China where he assisted the Nationalist forces in the Chinese Civil War. He spent his time guarding a supply station 45 miles south of Peking and transporting supplies to another station. He and his unit never realized that one of the towns they passed was Communist controlled and when he came back to America, he found out that the unit that took over after his departure was ambushed and massacred in that town.
When he came home, he found out that he had been drafted into the NFL by the Philadelphia Eagles. However, his heart was in baseball and he signed with the Boston Braves.
Through his three years in Boston, Alvin Dark consistently had a good batting average but struggled with power, only hitting six home runs in two full seasons. However, he did earn the Rookie of the Year Award in 1948 after recording a batting average of .322. When he signed with the New York Giants in 1950, he learned quickly how to hit with power, slugging 16 home runs in his first year as a Giant. He was an All Star the next two years and slammed 28 home runs between those years.
Though he was not an All Star in 1953, he still managed to hit a career high 23 home runs while averaging .300. The Giants won the World Series in 1954 and Dark helped the team achieve the feat by hitting 20 home runs, driving in 70 scores and averaging .293 while earning his third and final All Star selection. In the World Series against Cleveland, Alvin Dark averaged .412 while collecting seven hits and scoring two runs.
After the Word Series triumph, Alvin Dark and the Giants felt like they could compete for more championships. However, that was not to be as the team soon moved to San Francisco and Dark would migrate to cities such as Saint Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Milwaukee as his playing career quickly dwindled.
He spent another year and a half in New York, hitting 11 home runs during that stretch, and was traded to the Cardinals in the middle of the 1956 season. His batting average never strayed below .286 in any of his two and a half years there but his power never returned, hitting just nine home runs during that stretch. In the middle of the 1958 season, he was traded to the Cubs where he slammed nine home runs in a year and a half. He played for both the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Braves in 1960, hitting four home runs and averaging .267. After the 1960 season, Alvin Dark retired as a player. Unbeknownst to him, a long coaching career was waiting.
Shortly after retiring as a player, Alvin Dark was hired by the San Francisco Giants as their new manager in 1961. Having recently moved into Candlestick Park, the Giants were still trying to establish a fan base in a city which was still very much in love with the recently departed San Francisco Seals. However, they did have several players who would help the team find early success on the West Coast including Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. The Giants didn’t win the pennant that first year but won it in 1962 with a 103-62 record. Though they lost to the Yankees in seven heart breaking games, the Giants won over the hearts of San Francisco. The Giants posted winning record in each of the next two seasons but never again reached the World Series under Alvin Dark’s leadership.
He was fired after the 1964 season and after taking a year off was hired by the Kansas City A’s in 1966. After two losing seasons in Kansas City, Dark was fired by the A’s in the middle of the 1966 season and hired by Cleveland for the 1967 season. In four years in Cleveland, Dark failed to lead them to the playoffs and was fired in the middle of the 1971 season. However, not all was lost in Cleveland. While he was their manager, Al Dark went back to his roots and became much more serious about his faith. This gave him a purpose beyond baseball. Eventually, he would become a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Meanwhile, the A’s had won two straight World Series but their manager had quit after the 1973 championship. They knew that they were talented to win a third straight championship but needed the leadership. They took a chance and hired Alvin Dark in 1974.
At the time of Alvin Dark’s hiring, the Oakland A’s were a great team going through a bit of turmoil. Their owner, Charlie Finley, had meddled with the team for years and it had finally gotten to their previous manager, Dick Williams. Frustrated over Finley’s constant meddling, especially over how he had briefly fired second baseman Mike Andrews during the previous year’s World Series, Dick Williams resigned at the end of the 1973 World Series. The team was quickly losing trust in Finley but still wanted at least one more chance at winning another World Series.
The team began the year inconspicuously, going 12-15 and struggled to win more than two games in a row. Despite their slow start, they were never more than five games behind in the AL West. However, things began to change with a 7-3 win against the Orioles in the 28th game of the year. The A’s used that win to start a five game winning streak, ending with a 4-2 loss to the Royals. Beginning May 19th, the A’s were in first place in their division and held that top spot the rest of the year.
The A’s would use the momentum from their first moderate win streak of the season to earn a 90-72 record and a spot in the AL playoffs. Though no one hit above .300, they did feature four players who hit more than 20 homeruns: Reggie Jackson (29), Gene Tenace (26), Joe Rudi (22) and Sal Bando (22).
The A’s faced the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS and lost the first game 6-3. However, the adversity that they had faced from within had strengthened the A’s and had given them the motivation that they needed to win the next three games. They knew that this might be their last chance at a championship. After defeating the Orioles 3-1 in the series, the A’s were headed to the World Series for the third straight season.
The 1974 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers was a tight affair, with the first three games ending in 3-2 decisions. With the A’s up 2-1 heading into Game Four, they took a one run lead before watching the Dodgers score two quick runs in the top of the fourth inning. Once again, the inner turmoil throughout the season had prepared the A’s for this moment and they came back to win 5-2. In Game Five, the A’s took an early two run lead before the Dodgers tied the game in the sixth inning. The A’s answered in the bottom of the seventh with a home run by Joe Rudi. The A’s won the game 3-2 and the World Series 4-1.
The A’s were even better in 1975, winning 98 games and hitting more home runs than the previous year. Six players hit ten or more home runs in 1975: Reggie Jackson (36), Gene Tenace (29), Joe Rudi (21), Sal Bando (15) and Claudell Washington (10). Incredibly, beginning April 23rd, Oakland held the first place spot in their division for the rest of the year. On the surface, all was going well for the A’s but growing tension with their owner and facing the increasingly real possibility that the dynasty could wither away by season’s end took its toll on the team. By the time they reached Boston for the ALCS, they were exhausted and were swept out of the postseason. When the season concluded, Dark was not rehired by the A’s and he spent 1976 out of baseball. However, he still had a few years left in the game that he loved.
After a year away from the game, Al Dark was hired as a coach for the Chicago Cubs. He stayed in Chicago briefly and was hired in late May to replace John McNamara as the manager of the San Diego Padres. After going 48-65, Dark was fired in spring training of the following year, only the second time in major league history that a manager had been fired during spring training. He never again held a managerial position but he still held value for the game. He was hired to be the Cubs farm system evaluator in 1981 and in 1986 was hired by the White Sox to be their minor league director.
His legacy is well established in the state of Louisiana. In 1976 he was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, in 1981 he was inducted into the LSU Athletic Hall of Fame and Alvin Dark Avenue in Baton Rouge, Louisiana bears his name. After moving to Easley, South Carolina in 1983, he started the Alvin Dark Foundation which donates money to Christian ministries. He passed away on November 13, 2014 from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 92.