There are 79 members of the Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame, and, sadly, none of them is named Joe Altobelli. Despite being one of only three managers to skipper the Orioles to a World Series championship (Earl Weaver and Hank Bauer are the others), Alto doesn’t have a plaque on the brick wall along Oriole Park’s Eutaw Street walkway.
That’s a darn shame.
And a glaring omission.
According to the Hall’s by-laws, Alto doesn’t qualify because he managed Baltimore for fewer than two-and-a-half years. I understand rules are necessary, but sometimes, they, like records, are meant to be broken. Or at least adjusted to allow for exceptions. Sometimes common sense and the spirit of the law need to prevail.
Yes, Alto may have been there for just two seasons and change, but they were awfully good seasons, and, in retrospect, he never should have been fired. Besides winning the Fall Classic in 1983 — which, by the way, remains the Orioles last championship — Alto posted a 212-167 record, a robust 559 winning percentage, which is just two points below what Bauer achieved in four seasons and change.
The voters would be wise to also take into account the 11 years Alto spent as a minor-league manager. During that time, he played an integral role teaching young players “Oriole Way” fundamentals, which made Bauer and Weaver’s jobs so much easier and the major-league club so much more successful. Older Rochesterians are well aware of the impact Alto had on future major league stars during his six seasons managing the Triple-A Red Wings. His 1971 team won it all and was named one of the greatest minor-league clubs of all-time by “Baseball America” magazine. His 1976 Rochester team compiled an even better record, and brought another Governors’ Cup to the Flower City. Those teams helped make thousands of Rochesterians into lifetime Orioles fans.
Along the way, Alto helped develop standouts such as Eddie Murray, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Doug DeCinces, Dennis Martinez, Johnny Oates, Mike Flanagan and Scottie McGregor. I’ve had the opportunity to speak to those Oriole Hall of Famers, as well as several others, through the decades, and they all swear by Alto. Several of them referred to him as not only a manager, but a father figure.
“There were times, at the beginning of my career, that my confidence was shot and I considered quitting,” said Grich, a six-time American League All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner at second base. “Thank, God, Joe was my manager at that critical time. When I was really doubting my abilities, he kept offering encouragement and solutions. And he kept writing my name on that lineup card. I don’t know of too many managers who would have kept showing that level of confidence. I owe him a lot.”
Weaver owed him much, too.
“I knew that when we called down to get a player from Rochester, he was going to be ready to go and was going to be fundamentally sound because he had been coached to the hilt by Joe,” the late Earl of Baltimore told me. “Joe was as solid a baseball man and teacher as you’re ever going to find.”
A true Oriole.
The team will announce the Class of 2021 inductees in the next month or two, and, unfortunately, Alto, who died two weeks ago at age 88, was not considered again because of that length-of-service technicality. But there’s still hope. I had an encouraging conversation Monday morning with Bill Stetka, the long-time Orioles’ media relations director who took over as the club’s director of alumni relations in 2008. He was kind enough to hear me out, particularly my argument that Alto’s 11 years as a minor-league manager in the organization also should be considered. In some ways, I actually was preaching to choir because Stetka was well aware of Alto’s Oriole achievements and loyalty.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to changing the criteria for managers and players, but I’d be afraid it might open up a Pandora’s Box,” he said. “I totally understand your argument, and we may have to start looking at guys who spent a lot of time in the minors, and that includes managers.”
The Orioles Hall was started in 1977, with Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson as the charter inductees. Since that time, several by-law revisions have been made, enabling non-uniform personnel such as broadcasters, scouts and front office executives to be eligible. The selection committee even made space for super fan “Wild Bill” Hagy, the Baltimore cab driver who became famous for leading the “O-R-I-O-L-E-S” chants from the upper deck of old Memorial Stadium.
I’m all for those inclusions. Those people definitely are part of the fabric of the franchise’s rich history. But so, too, is Alto. A bigger part than many might realize. Yes, it would have been wonderful for him to have been able to experience this honor several years ago, before he suffered a stroke and his health took a serious turn for the worse. But I believe acknowledgement of his Oriole achievements would have great meaning to his kids, grandkids, great grandkids and his longtime companion, Michele DiGaetano.
Alto gave the Orioles his all for parts of 14 seasons, and contributed greatly to them becoming the model franchise not just in baseball, but in all of sports. He should be remembered. And celebrated. He deserves a permanent spot on that brick wall, hopefully, by the summer of 2022.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.