Sunday, September 5, 2010

Altobelli clearly is no ordinary Joe

I'm really looking forward to seeing the statue of Joe Altobelli unveiled at Frontier Field before tonight's Rochester Red Wings game because no one in our city's rich 100-plus years of professional baseball has worn more hats for the organization than Alto.

He's been a player, coach, manager, general manager and broadcaster in his many years with the Wings. But the greatest role he's played is the unofficial one as baseball ambassador.

I've been covering sports for 37 years and I'd be hard-pressed to come up with a nicer or classier man than Joe Altobelli. And I believe if you asked any of my local sports media peers they'd second that emotion. In addition to spinning wonderful yarns about his extraordinary baseball life, Alto has been great, too, about teaching me things about the game that I never knew.

And as my friend and fellow author, Jim Mandelaro, will tell you, Alto has always been extremely generous in helping us promote our book, Silver Seasons - both when it was originally published back during the closing of old Silver Stadium in 1996 and this year, when we released a revised edition.

In celebration of Alto's special night, I'm re-running the feature I wrote about him in the Democrat and Chronicle about a decade ago when he celebrated his 50th season in pro ball. I hope it gives you a feel for his remarkable journey. Enjoy. And congrats to Joe on an honor well-deserved.


Baseball is a game of numbers, and there are many digits that come to mind with Joe Altobelli.

Like the number six, which was how many cents it cost to take the trolley from his house in East Detroit to Tiger Stadium to watch his childhood hero, Hank Greenberg, in the late 1930s, early '40s.

Or 6,000, which is how many dollars Altobelli received back in 1951 to sign with the Cleveland Indians.

Or 383, the first jersey he was issued when he reported to the Indians minor-league camp in Daytona Beach, Fla., a half-century ago.

Or 1983, the year Altobelli managed the Baltimore Orioles to their last World Series championship.

But the number that will be foremost in his thoughts when he arrives at Frontier Field today to provide color commentary for the Red Wings home opener against Scranton is 50. That's how many years Altobelli has spent in professional baseball.
"You wonder where the time goes," said the man known to Rochesterians as “Mr. Baseball. “All I know is that baseball has been very, very good to me."

It has been his life.

The 67-year-old has been a player, coach and manager in both the minors and majors. He also has served as the Red Wings general manager and consultant, and, for the past three years, the sidekick of Wings play-by-play man Joe Castellano on radio broadcasts.

"About the only thing I haven't done that I still want to do," Altobelli said, chuckling, "is work on the grounds crew at Frontier Field."

He says he wants to drive the riding mower but hasn't persuaded grounds crew chief Gene Buonomo to hand over the keys.

"Hey, there are worse jobs in the world than being on a riding mower in the outfield of a ballpark on a warm, sunny day," Altobelli said.

Should he cruise the outfield at Frontier, he'll be reminded of yet another significant number - 26: his uniform number now displayed in his honor on the outfield wall.

What can't be quantified by numbers is Altobelli's passion for the game, whose roots stretch all the way back to the Great Depression, when he played sandlot ball from sunrise to sunset in the Motor City. This son of Italian immigrants excelled at all sports - he was such a talented receiver that Michigan and Purdue offered him football scholarships. But baseball was his first love and best sport.

The New York Yankees offered him a contract the night of his high school commencement, and he had tryouts with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebetts Field and with the Tigers. He eventually accepted the Indians' offer of a $5,000 bonus and a $1,000 minor-league salary, in part, because Greenberg was the team's general manager.

Altobelli used part of his bonus to purchase a new Chevy, into which he loaded his belongings in March '51 for the two-day trip to Daytona Beach, Fla. When he arrived at the Indians' minor-league complex, he was given the triple-digit jersey, an indication of the vast number of players in camp.

"It was a little overwhelming at first," he said. "I was homesick. A lot of guys were. We all slept in barracks, and a coach would come in at 6:30 in the morning and fire off a blank gun to wake you up. You felt like you were in the military."

Altobelli survived that baseball boot camp and wound up having a sensational season for Daytona Beach, the Indians Class D team in the Florida State League. The first baseman hit safely in 37 consecutive games - a league record that still stands - and batted .341 with more than 100 runs batted in and 100 runs scored. An outstanding pitcher in high school, Altobelli persuaded his manager to let him take the mound in the regular-season finale. He pitched five innings to notch the win. Rocky Colavito, who would become an All-Star outfielder with the Indians and Tigers, picked up the save.

Altobelli progressed quickly through the minors, and, in 1955, he was promoted to the big leagues. The Indians used him primarily as a late-inning defensive replacement, but he received a rare start at first base that season and went 3-for-5 with a home run against the Tigers, in Detroit.

With only 16 major-league teams - 14 fewer than today - competition for roster spots was fierce. Altobelli was sent back down to Indianapolis after appearing in 42 games. He spent part of the 1957 season with the Indians and part of the '61 season with the Minnesota Twins. His big-league totals were mediocre: 166 games, 5 homers, 28 RBI, .210 batting average.

In 1963, the Los Angeles Dodgers loaned him to the Red Wings. Altobelli fell in love with the city and the fans fell in love with him. At the end of year, Red Wings general manager George Sisler Jr. purchased Altobelli's contract from the Dodgers for $500.

Altobelli was on the downside of his playing career, but he recalls his four seasons with the Wings as among his most enjoyable. He spent much of his time mentoring Oriole prospects such as Mike Epstein and Curt Blefary. Baltimore general manager Harry Dalton took notice, offering Altobelli a manager's job with the team's Class A affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va.

The summer of '66 was significant for another reason: Altobelli and his wife, Patsy, decided to buy a house in Gates.

"I'd been all around the country in my travels, and I never found a place where I felt more at home," he said. "A lot of baseball people settle in warm-climate places. They said you must be nuts living there with those kinds of winters. I said, "The weather may be cold, but the people are warm.' "

In 1971, he was promoted to manage the Wings, the Orioles' top farm team, and that club wound up winning the Governors' Cup and the Junior World Series.

"We had a great ballclub, but the thing people forget is that a couple of months into the season, we were a game below .500," Altobelli said. "The last two months, we sprinted to the finish line."

That team, led by future major-league all-stars Bobby Grich and Don Baylor, was recognized by Baseball America magazine as one of the best in minor-league history. One of the players on that team was Ron Shelton, a utility infielder who went on to become an Academy Award nominated screenwriter and producer. His critically acclaimed baseball comedy, Bull Durham, was inspired in part by Altobelli. Crash Davis, the journeyman catcher played by Kevin Costner, is based loosely on Altobelli.

The Wings experienced remarkable success with Alto as manager, winning two International League titles and 502 games in six seasons.

After the 1976 season, the San Francisco Giants hired him, and two years later he was named the National League Manager of the Year.

Managers are hired to be fired, and Altobelli was sent packing in 1979. He joined the Yankees organization, first as a manager at Columbus, then as a coach in New York. When Earl Weaver retired as Baltimore's manager in the autumn of '82, Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams hired Altobelli.

In his first season there, he led the Orioles to a World Series championship, helped out by the surprising pitching of Mike Boddicker, who had toiled several seasons with the Red Wings.

"Mike spent the first month of the season in Rochester and still managed to win 16 games for us in Baltimore," Altobelli said.

In his two-plus seasons at the Orioles helm, Altobelli wrote Cal Ripken's name onto the lineup card 162 times a year.

"I remember after the first season calling Cal into my office, and saying, 'Cal, I just noticed that you played every single inning of every single game this year. That's not going to happen again,' " Altobelli recalled. "At the end, of the 1984 season, I called him in and gave him the exact same speech. Little did we know this guy wasn't going to take a break for the next 10 years."

After the team's poor start in '85, Williams became impatient and released Altobelli. The firing still bothers Altobelli, but the respected baseball man landed on his feet. He spent the next several years coaching for the Yankees and the Cubs. In Chicago, Altobelli had the opportunity to work for Don Zimmer, now the right-hand man of Yankees manager Joe Torre.

"The thing you notice about Alto is that he's always calm and collected," Zimmer says. "He reminds me a lot of Joe Torre. Things might seem like they are crumbling around you, but there's Joe acting like the Rock of Gibraltar. What the Orioles did to him was ridiculous. Look what happened when they got rid of him. They went down the tubes. You aren't going to find a better baseball man or a better person than Joe Altobelli."

Altobelli always sensed that he would wind down his career in Rochester. He enjoyed his years as the team's general manager, when he played an important role in getting the new stadium built. He also groomed his successor, current GM Dan Mason.
"No way would I have been ready to take on that job at 27 years old without Alto's help and guidance," Mason said. "He taught me about baseball and he taught me about managing people. I went to school for 16 years, and Joe's been by far the best professor I've ever had. I can't thank him enough."

And Altobelli can't thank the Wings enough for the opportunity to keep coming to the ballpark.

A half century later, there's no place he would rather be.

1951 - Daytona Beach, Fla.
1952-53 - Reading, Pa.
1954 - Indianapolis
1955 - Cleveland, Indianapolis
1956 - Indianapolis
1957 - Cleveland, Indianapolis
1958 - Indianapolis
1959 - Toronto
1960 - Montreal
1961 - Syracuse, Minnesota
1962 - Omaha, Neb.
1963-66 - Rochester
1966-67 - Bluefield, W.Va.
1968 - Stockton, Calif.
1969-70 - Dallas-Fort Worth
1971-76 - Rochester
1977-79 - San Francisco
1980 - Columbus, Ohio
1983-85 - Baltimore
1981-82 - New York Yankees
1986-87 - New York Yankees
1988-91 - Chicago Cubs
General Manager/Consultant
1992-97 - Rochester
Broadcaster1998-2008 - Rochester

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