Summing up Joe Altobelli’s remarkable life in just a thousand words is akin to getting a hit off Clayton Kershaw with a twig rather than a Louisville Slugger in your hands. Near impossible. We’d need a book. Or a movie, given Alto’s Forrest Gump-like journey.
This, after all, is a man whose teen-aged, left-handed power attracted the attention of none other than Babe Ruth while Alto was participating in a home run-hitting contest for American Legion baseball players in his hometown of Detroit.
A man whose playing career, mostly as a minor-league slugger, loosely inspired the Crash Davis character played by Kevin Costner in the classic film “Bull Durham.”
A man who groomed scores of major-leaguers, including Bobby Grich and Don Baylor, the dynamic duo who helped arguably the finest Rochester Red Wings team of all-time win a minor-league championship in 1971.
A man who managed Cal Ripken, Jr. and the Baltimore Orioles to their last World Series title in 1983.
A man who convinced Frank Sinatra to sing the national anthem before a game in San Francisco when Alto was the Giants manager. (The successful sales pitch really irked Los Angeles manager Tommy Lasorda, who couldn’t believe his true-blue Hollywood friend would pull a Benedict Arnold and perform the “Star-Spangled Banner” for the Dodgers’ hated, in-state rival.)
A man who talked baseball with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
A man who spent a summer living with Yogi Berra, while working as a coach for the New York Yankees in the early 1980s.
And a man who became known as Rochester’s “Mr. Baseball,” a moniker well-earned after serving as a player, coach, manager, general manager, broadcaster — you name it — for a Red Wings franchise that wound up retiring his No. 26 and erecting a statue of him at Frontier Field.
Sadly, Alto died of natural causes Tuesday at age 88. He will be missed, but never forgotten. What a life. What a legacy. A legacy not only of significant baseball achievement, but also of bountiful kindness, humor, loyalty and mentorship.
Some of his greatest work occurred behind-the-scenes. While people such as Bob Matthews, Gary Larder and Naomi Silver deserve major kudos for getting franchise-saving Frontier Field built downtown, Alto also played an integral, less-publicized role. And he also deserves credit for molding Dan Mason into one of the finest general managers in minor-league sports.
“No way would I have been ready to take on that job at 27 years old without Alto’s help and guidance,” said Mason, who’s in his 27th season as Red Wings GM. “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.”
As a minor- and major-league manager and coach, Alto had a profound impact on hundreds of players, including Ron Shelton, a utility infielder from the Wings 1971 championship team who would make the transition from Silver Stadium to the silver screen as an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director.
“Joe was the absolute best,” said Shelton, who patterned some of Crash Davis after Alto. “He was level-headed and knew how to handle the trials and tribulations of a marathon baseball season, and the 25 disparate personalities on a ballclub. Joe had a million stories, and many of them carried a powerful lesson.”
Alto spent two seasons with fellow baseball-lifer Don Zimmer, when Zim managed the Chicago Cubs from 1989-91. Four years later, Zimmer would become Joe Torre’s trusted bench coach on the Yankee teams that won four World Series titles in five years. He saw similarities between Alto and Torre.
“The thing you notice about Joe (Altobelli) is he’s always calm and collected,” Zimmer told me. “He reminds me a lot of Joe Torre. Things might seem like they are crumbling around you, but there’s Joe, always like the Rock of Gibraltar. What the Orioles did to him (firing him early in the 1985 season) was ridiculous. Look what happened when they got rid of him. They went down the tubes. You won’t find a better baseball man or a better person than Joe Altobelli.”
Amen to that. I learned so much from Alto not only about baseball, but life. He was always a fabulous interview, and he had such a marvelous sense-of-humor. He was kind enough to write the foreword to the Red Wings history book Jim Mandelaro and I wrote years ago. One time we were doing a book signing with Joe at Frontier Field, and a man walked up with a picture of Alto and Sinatra in the Giants clubhouse. In the background, between the manager and the famous singer, stood a man buck-naked in front of a locker.
“That’s my third base coach,” Alto blurted out, chuckling. He signed the picture, handed it back to the fan, winked and said: “That’s the X-rated version. The ones I’ve seen usually have him air-brushed out, so that it’s just me and Frank.”
Alto’s love of Rochester was genuine. He fell in love with the place after coming here as a player in 1963. Three years later, he decided to buy a house and raise a family in Gates with his late wife, Patsy.
“I’d been all around the country in my travels and I never found a place where I felt at home,” he once told me. “A lot of baseball people settle in warm-climate places. They said I must be nuts living there, with those kinds of winters. I said, ‘The weather may be cold, but the people are warm.’”
And, so, he stayed. And we Rochesterians couldn’t be more grateful that he did.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.