Jim Henneman: Remembering Joe Altobelli, The Last Orioles Manager To Win It All

In his adopted hometown of Rochester, N.Y., where he did it all during a period of almost six decades, he was known as “Mr. Baseball.”

In Baltimore, where he was hardly around long enough for folks to get to know him, he is the answer to a pair of trivia questions that are gaining traction after more than three decades:

“Who is the manager who succeeded, and was succeeded by, the only one who posted a higher winning percentage in the history of the Baltimore Orioles?” And, as a bonus, who was the last manager to lead the O’s to a World Series championship?

Joe Altobelli, who passed away March 3 at the age of 88, is the answer to both those questions, which figure to be in play for the foreseeable future.

Even though his previous job had been as third base coach for the Yankees, Altobelli had strong connections to the Orioles before he became manager. The last four full seasons of his 18-year minor league playing career, ending in 1966, were with the Red Wings in Rochester, then the O’s Triple-A farm team.

He was a natural to move onto the O’s minor-league staff, starting in 1967, with the Rookie League team in Bluefield, W.V., where he began a three-year run with touted rookies Bob Grich and Don Baylor, among others.

“Joe could be a little gruff at times,” Grich recalled. “It seemed like he always had a ‘three-day shadow,’ but he was like a father figure to me.”

Grich, Baylor and Altobelli all moved to Stockton in the California State League the following year. It wasn’t the easiest transition for Grich, who went to classes at UCLA (where he would’ve been the quarterback had he not signed with the Orioles) instead of spring training and played only on weekends the first two months of the season.

“I was in over my head and I really struggled,” said Grich, who hit .228 in 1968. “I’m not sure how it would’ve worked out had I had anybody other than Joe. He could see I was scuffling and my confidence was down. I had my worst year, but he believed in me and recommended that I go to spring training with the big team the following year.”

That decision, Grich says today, was the most influential of his career.

“When I got to spring training the next year the first thing I noticed was that everybody hit to right field — Frank, Brooks, everybody. Even Boog hit the ball the other way to left field,” Grich said. “I realized that’s what I had to do, learn to hit to right. That’s all I concentrated on — and I went to [Double-A] Dallas the next year, hit .310 and was the MVP.”

(Editor’s note: hitting the “other way” — what a concept, maybe it’ll catch on.)

Grich’s career took off from that point, and he looks back at Altobelli’s recommendation that he go to major-league spring training after only his second year as the turning point in a career that landed him in the Orioles’ and Angels’ Halls of Fame.

Jimmy Williams, Joe Altobelli, Cal Ripken Sr.
Jimmy Williams, Joe Altobelli and Cal Ripken Sr. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles)

It has been said many times that Altobelli was a perfect fit for the 1983 Orioles team, the last one to appear in, and win, a World Series. He brought his calm demeanor to the table after the feisty Earl Weaver had retired, prematurely as it turned out. And as it also turned out, Altobelli was the right man for the hot seat he inherited.

As one of three managers to lead the O’s to a World Series championship, Altobelli holds a special place in club history. But his less than two and a half year run was hardly a joy ride. He needed a thick hide to go along with his generally calm demeanor.

He had inherited a team that had a 14.5-year run with Earl Weaver, including a remarkable four-year stretch from 1979-1982 that included, in order, one pennant-winner, a 100-win season, a split season disrupted by a labor dispute, and a last-day elimination.

“Joe was smart enough to know he didn’t have to do much tinkering,” said Scott McGregor, the left-hander who was the winning pitcher in the final game of that Word Series. “He knew he just had to keep things going.”

True enough, but under the best of circumstances this wasn’t going to be easy. Besides a team conditioned to win, Altobelli also inherited an owner, Edward Bennett Williams, who was enamored with the outgoing manager, which made for an untenable situation to say the least.

That 1983 team survived a pair of seven-game losing streaks en route to the World Series triumph, but the honeymoon was over for Altobelli a year later. The team “slumped” to an 85-77 record and under normal circumstances would’ve been in contention until the final week. But that was the year the Tigers started 35-5, and the Orioles, despite a .525 winning percentage, finished fifth in the then seven-team AL Eastern Division.

It was the beginning of the end for Altobelli, less than a year after winning it all. The 1984 team was also a footnote in baseball history as the last team to make a postseason tour of Japan, which had been an every-other-year occurrence for the previous year’s World Series winner. That tradition ended, most likely as a result of contentious negotiations that dragged on for a good part of the season.

The Orioles managed a winning record on that trip, but it was a challenging one, and Altobelli could already see the handwriting on the wall.

“Sometimes it seems like we’re fighting the war all over again — two ways,” he quipped one day when he got some heat from Japanese media because the O’s were slow posting a lineup and was also beginning to feel pressure from EBW.

The Orioles were 29-26, leaving Altobelli with a career record of 212-167 (.559) as Orioles skipper when he was replaced in the third month of 1985 by Weaver, who finished that disappointing season and the disastrous one that followed, ending up with a .583 winning percentage.

Altobelli quickly hooked on again with the Yankees as first base coach, and also had a stint with the Cubs, but inevitably he was destined to return to Rochester, his home since 1966.

“Joe was such a loyal friend,” said Naomi Silver, president and CEO of the Red Wings. “He and my father [Morrie Silver, who also befriended Weaver] became great friends back in the day. He never let his deep loyalty to my dad wane. He looked after my mom and me after my dad died in 1974 and never stopped.”

In addition to playing, Altobelli would eventually manage the Red Wings en route to managing stops in San Francisco and Baltimore. And when he came back to stay, he would fill the role of coach, general manager, assistant to the president and also serve as color analyst on home radio broadcasts for the Red Wings.

“Joe meant so much to this community outside of his local and national celebrity in the world of baseball. His kind-heartedness and gentlemanly way was magnetic,” Silver said. “Everyone who met him felt like they were a friend. He could relate to people in a meaningful way. I know that was key to a great deal of his baseball success, and his personal success as well. He was a special man.”

In Rochester, Joe Altobelli is “Mr. Baseball” for generations of Red Wings. In Baltimore he’ll be remembered as the answer to a pair of trivia questions that generations of Orioles fans hope will someday be outdated.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles