Obituary: Joe Altobelli (1932-2021)

RIP to Joe Altobelli, World Series-winning manager and, briefly, a major-leaguer in the 1950s and ’60s. He was also one of the most beloved baseball figures in Rochester, N.Y. The Rochester Red Wings, on behalf of his family, announced that Altobelli died on March 3 at the age of 88 from natural causes. As a ballplayer, Altobelli played for the Cleveland Indians (1955, 1957) and Minnesota Twins (1961). As a manager, Altobelli led the San Francisco Giants (1977-79), Baltimore Orioles (1983-85) and, for one game, the Chicago Cubs (1991).

It’s a rare thing today for a minor-league player or manager to become a part of a town’s lore. That’s just the transitory nature of minor-league baseball. Everyone on the team, from the players to the managers, are in town on temporary assignments as they play their way up, or occasionally, down the system. Altobelli, though, became so tied to the Rochester Red Wings that he became their “Mr. Baseball.” He did pretty much everything possible with the Red Wings short of selling hot dogs at the concession stands — he was a player, manager, coach, general manager, assistant to the president and radio analyst. In reporting on his passing, the team noted that his number 26 was the first ever retired number in the history of the franchise. The team even erected a statue in his honor outside of Frontier Field in 2010.

Source: Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), October 29, 1968.

Joseph Salvatore Altobelli was born in Detroit on May 26, 1932. He was a multi-sport athlete at Detroit’s Eastern High School, starring as a receiver on the football team and a lefty pitcher on the baseball team. He was good at the bat, too, and typically helped his own cause at the plate with a couple of doubles or even a home run on the days he pitched. Accolades came his way, as he was an All-City player in basketball, baseball and football.

When the Cleveland Indians signed him in 1951, though, they turned him into a first baseman. It seemed like a brilliant move after Altobelli became the best rookie the Florida State League had seen since the days of Stan Musial. He set the league record with a 36-game hitting streak and was in the running for the league’s batting title before slipping to fifth place with a .341 average. He also finished second in the league with 204 hits and 19 triples and led with 40 doubles. He hit 8 home runs and was overshadowed in that department, at least, by his teammate Rocky Colavito’s 23 homers.

Altobelli didn’t get his batting average back to those stratospheric heights again, but he was remained a strong hitter as he advanced through the minors. In his first season of AAA ball with Indianapolis in 1954, he batted .287 with 79 RBIs. Kerby Farrell, Altobelli’s manager for several seasons in the minors, saw him as a future major-leaguer. “I like Joe’s playing because it improves every year. He has fine baseball brains and knows what plays to make,” Farrell said.

Altobelli made the Cleveland roster out of spring training in 1955, though he didn’t see much action, Used mainly as a defensive replacement in the late innings of games, Altobelli appeared in 42 games for Cleveland, with 15 hits in 75 at-bats for a .200/.259/.320 slash line. His first major-league hit came in his first start on April 22. After being inserted into five previous games and getting 3 plate appearances, Altobelli made the most of a rare start by hitting an RBI single off Detroit’s Steve Gromek in the bottom of the third inning and later scoring on a Jim Hegan sacrifice fly. He also laid down a sacrifice bunt in the game. Altobelli bounced up and down between Cleveland and Indianapolis all season long. He didn’t hit a home run until the second game of a September 24 doubleheader, when he connected off Detroit’s Ned Garver for a solo homer. He homered again the very next day off Bob Miller to give him 2 on the year.

Altobelli spent all of 1956 back in Indianapolis, and while his batting average tumbled into the .250s, he hit 19 home runs and drove in 81 runs. Cleveland brought him back in ’57 as a first baseman and outfielder — a position he hadn’t played professionally to that point. Again, he bounced up and down between the majors and minors all season long and hit .207 in 83 games — 18-for-87 with no homers and 9 RBIs.

Altobelli, now 26, returned to the minors in 1958 and stayed there for the next four seasons. He really had nothing left to prove as a AAA player and continued to bat for a good average and with some decent pop. His contract was bought by the Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League, which then traded him to the Dodgers organization. Los Angeles assigned him to the Montreal Royals in 1960, and led the International League in home runs (31) and RBIs (105), though his batting average tailed off to .255.

Source: The Miami News, July 26, 1960.

“I still haven’t given up on myself,” Altobelli told The Miami News in the midst of his monster 1960 season. “In other words, I don’t believe the Indians’ judgment on me was right. I would like to give it one more big shot in the majors to see if I can make it.”

The Minnesota Twins were the team to give Altobelli one more shot. They acquired him in a trade with the Dodgers in May of 1961. He was brought to the major leagues in August and played 41 games with the Twins as a pinch-hitter and outfielder. He batted .221 with 3 home runs and 14 RBIs. His first home run was a pinch-hit 3-run shot that led the Twins to a 5-2 win over the Angels on September 11, 1961. Manager Sam Mele decided to use Altobelli over Julio Becquer, and Altobelli happened to guess the 2-0 pitch correctly. “I knew he couldn’t afford another ball. So I figured fastball with him. And there it was,” he said.

That season was his last in the majors. In parts of 3 seasons, Altobelli slashed .210/.277/.323 in 166 games, with 54 hits that included 8 doubles, 3 triples and 5 home runs. He drove in 28 runs, stole 3 bases and scored 27 times.

Altobelli bounced around the high minors, playing for the Omaha Dodgers in 1962 before joining the Baltimore Orioles organization in 1963. It was a great move for him for a couple of reasons. First, the Orioles would give him his first opportunity to manage at the minor-league level. Second, Altobelli headed to Rochester to play for the Red Wings, starting in ’63. He loved the town so much, and the town loved him, that he moved his family there and became a lasting part of the city’s baseball scene.

While Altobelli was in Rochester, he was asked to be the roommate of a young, fireballing pitcher who showed little control inside or outside the park. It was Steve Dalkowski, one of the more legendary ballplayers to never appear in the majors. The story of the wild young pitcher and the veteran asked to be a calming presence was an inspiration to Ron Shelton, an Orioles minor-leaguer turned screenwriter. He heard a few stories when Altobelli was his manager in the minor leagues. Those stories became the basis of the hit movie Bull Durham, with Altobelli serving as the inspiration for Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character. When asked about the movie, Altobelli said, “Tell Shelton he wouldn’t have had to pay me as much if he used me to play the role, instead of Costner.”

During his time with the Red Wings, Altobelli hit clutch home runs and played excellent defense at first base, endearing himself to fans. He had a particularly strong season in 1965, with 20 home runs and a .295 average. By then, he was acting as a player-coach, serving under Rochester manager Darrell Johnson in 1965 and Earl Weaver in ’66. That arrangement lasted until June of 1966, when Altobelli was giving a managing assignment of his own, with the rookie-league Bluefield (W.V.) Orioles.

“We hate to see him go, but this is his opportunity to make a career in baseball beyond that of a player,” said Red Wings president Morrie Silver. “Baltimore asked if I thought Joe could do the job, and I had to recommend him highly as a leader, gentleman and baseball man.”

Altobelli remained the manager of Bluefield for two seasons, helping to acclimate future Orioles stars like Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and Dave Johnson to the world of professional baseball. He played a little for Elmira of the AA Eastern League at the end of the ’67 season when their outfielder, Merv Rettenmund, was injured with a dislocated shoulder, and he played a few games at the age of 38 for Dallas-Fort Worth in 1970 as a first baseman/pinch-hitter/pitcher, but his playing career was essentially over. He spent 18 seasons as a player in the minors and had a .275 batting average, with 1,823 hits and 178 home runs.

Altobelli rose up through the minor-league levels of the Orioles organization, from Bluefield to Class-A Stockton to AA Dallas-Fort Worth, eventually moving back home to manage the Rochester Red Wings in 1971. He could have come back earlier as a coach, but he knew that managing was in his future, and he was determined to follow along that path.

Altobelli called himself “stern but not tough” as a manager. He was a believer in team play and substance over style. He wasn’t a flashy manager and didn’t have flashy players, but he guided the Red Wings to an International League pennant in his first season, with stars like Baylor, Grich and 15-game winner Roric Harrison. It was Altobelli’s first pennant in pro ball. The ’71 Red Wings made it past Tidewater to become International League champions and beat the American Association’s Denver Bears to win the Little World Series. The Series win came without the services of top slugger Grich, who had been called up the majors when the Orioles needed an emergency second baseman.

In the six seasons that Altobelli led the Red Wings, the team never had a losing season. He won four pennants, and numerous players spent time learning from him on their way up to the big leagues. Altobelli, though, wasn’t able to advance to the majors himself. The Orioles’ managing job was locked down by Earl Weaver, and despite some rumors that he would join a major-league coaching staff, nothing ever materialized. Weaver gave a rare opening on his own staff to Cal Ripken Sr., all but guaranteeing that Altobelli could progress no higher in the Orioles organization. He won Manager of the Year awards from the International League and The Sporting News, but his managerial work wasn’t well-known outside of the Orioles organization.

San Francisco Giants fans, then, may have been shocked when the team hired Altobelli to be the manager for the 1977 season. More than one West Coast newspaper had a headline along the lines of “Who is Joe Altobelli?”, and there were some questions about how his ideas of dress codes, hairstyle codes and curfews would work among the Giants’ free spirits. The ’77 Giants finished with a 75-87 record, good for fourth place in the NL West. His optimism in the team paid off in 1978, as the Giants won 89 games. Though the team moved up only to third in the standings, it improved by 14 wins over the previous year and won a record 42 1-run games. Veteran performers like Vida Blue and younger players like Jack Clark and Bob Knepper helped the team to its best record in years. Excitement returned to San Francisco after a long dry spell, and Giants fans returned to Candlestick Park in droves — the team’s 1.7 million in attendance beat the 1977 number by more than a million.

Altobelli was named the National League Manager of the Year and tried to deflect the credit elsewhere. “I’m very honored, but I feel our success was an organizational thing,” he said.

The success of 1978 led to heightened expectations in 1979, and the Giants underperformed. Blue struggled after an excellent ’78 season and at one point threatened some sportswriters who were critical of the team. Starting pitcher John Montefusco was one of several players fined by Altobelli for drinking on the team plane and threatened to quit. Altobelli was fired in September, when the Giants had a 61-79 record. Interim manager Dave Bristol led the team for the final 22 games and had a 10-12 record.

Altobelli returned to the minor leagues as the manager of the Yankees AAA team in Columbus in 1980. After leading the team to the International League championship, the Yankees named him their third base coach. He held that position until the Baltimore Orioles called on him once again. Earl Weaver, who once told Altobelli that he would have to be patient and wait, had retired, and Altobelli was named his successor for the 1983 season.

When the new manager was asked what he had learned from his tumultuous experience with the Giants, he responded, “To stay out of San Francisco. I went from the sublime to the ridiculous in one year. I hope to go back to sublime again here.”

Winning the World Series is a pretty sublime accomplishment, and that’s exactly what Altobelli did in his first year as Orioles manager. Baltimore was already a very good team, but Altobelli brought a more relaxed atmosphere than his predecessor. Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey said that Weaver never complimented you; if he wasn’t yelling at you, that was his version of a compliment. Altobelli was a different personality, and it worked with a veteran team. The Orioles won 98 games, finishing 6 ahead of Detroit. They moved past the White Sox in the AL Championship Series to take on the Philadelphia Phillies in the Series.

Baltimore lost the first game but won the next four to become champions. Altobelli pulled a few strings to help his team. He made veteran starter Jim Palmer a long reliever for the Series, and Palmer picked up the win in Game Three with 2 scoreless innings of relief. He sent four consecutive pinch-hitters to the plate in Game Four, which had never been done in Series history, and two of them scored to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead and an eventual 5-4 victory. “I wasn’t going for broke in that inning,” he explained later. “I was going for the pot of gold.”

Altobelli won the AL Manager of the Year Award and was hailed for making all the right moves in the World Series. It also gave after-dinner speaker Bobby Bragan a chance to make this brilliant introduction to the featured speaker at a Governor’s Dinner in New York: “I now would like to introduce you to the best Italian manager in baseball… but Joe Altobelli isn’t here, so I give you Tommy Lasorda.”

The Orioles remained an above-.500 team in 1984, but an 85-77 record was only good enough for 5th place in the AL East. The Tigers ran away with the division, and the Orioles were 19 games behind them. The Orioles got out to a 29-26 start in 1985, and Altobelli was unceremoniously fired and replaced by the returning Weaver. It was a bad parting, as Altobelli was left to twist in the wind for several days as rumors of Weaver’s return gained momentum. The normally reserved Altobelli let loose with some harsh words when the news was finally made public. “I thought this was a class operation, but I guess I was sadly mistaken,” he said. It was pretty clear that the statement was directed solely to Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, who was largely responsible for leaving his manager in limbo for days while he negotiated with Weaver.

Joe Altobelli gets ejected from his one game as a Chicago Cubs manager. Source: Chicago Tribune, May 22, 1991.

Altobelli finished his career as a bench coach for the Yankees in 1986 and then a coach for the Cubs from 1988 through 1991. When Cubs manager Don Zimmer was fired 37 games into the season, Altobelli served one game as the interim manager before replacement Jim Essian arrived. Not only did Altobelli lose his only game as a Chicago Cubs manager (8-6 to the Mets), but he didn’t even make it to the end of the game. He was ejected by umpire Steve Rippley after Rippley had warned Cubs pitcher Chuck McElroy about throwing inside. Chuck Cottier had to serve as the Cubs; interim interim manager — the team’s third manager of the day, in fact.

“It hasn’t been one of the great Joe Altobelli days, not that anyone cares,” he said afterwards. That loss left him with a 437-407 record as a big-league manager, good for a .518 winning percentage.

Altobelli returned to Rochester in 1992 and was named the general manager of the Rochester Red Wings. He stayed in the front office as GM and consultant until 1997 and then moved over to the team’s radio booth as a broadcaster until he retired in 2008. When he celebrated his 50th anniversary in baseball in 2000, he joked that he still wanted to work with the grounds crew and drive the riding lawnmower, but the Red Wings’ crew chief wouldn’t give him the keys. He was influential in helping to get a new stadium built; without him, it’s possible there might not even be baseball in Rochester.

Before he had ever reached the major leagues as a manager, Altobelli talked with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about managing. He thought back to the managers he had in his playing days — Kerby Farrell, Bobby Bragan, Al Lopez — who helped contribute to his success.

“Maybe 10-12 years from now, a boy will remember something I tried to teach him,” Altobelli said. “Somewhere along the line in a crisis or when he’s having it rough, he’ll remember and it’ll help him.

“I feel this is what I was cut out to do.”

For more information: Rochester Red Wings

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