If Earl Weaver was night, Joe Altobelli was day. Two managers could not have been more different, and that’s the first thing members of the 1983 Orioles recall about Altobelli, the man who led them to a World Series championship.
“With Earl, if you made a mistake on the field, he would be waiting in the dugout to scream at you in front of everybody,” said Ken Singleton, a veteran presence on the team. “Joe wasn’t like that. He was a calmer hand, and guys related to that after all those years with Earl. Maybe that’s what we needed at the time, because he took over, and we won it all.”
Altobelli, a humble baseball lifer who succeeded Weaver and managed the Orioles to their last championship, died Wednesday of natural causes. He was 88.
“He had no ego,” said Mike Boddicker, who pitched brilliantly as a rookie for the 1983 team. “He was just an easygoing, good family man who loved baseball. He had no pretense about what he was supposed to do. He never felt like he had to make his mark.”
Altobelli played an essential role in teaching the “Oriole Way” long before he led the major league club to glory, managing four of the franchise’s minor league affiliates between 1966 and 1976. The Detroit native had played 166 major league games for the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins between 1955 and 1961 but had spent most of his career banging around the minors. He understood when young players needed encouragement and when they needed a kick in the rear.
Bobby Grich would become an All-Star second baseman for the Orioles, but he was a confused 18-year-old who’d never tried to hit a professional slider when he joined Altobelli’s Rookie League club in Bluefield, West Virginia, in 1967.
“To me, he was like my second father,” Grich recalled. “I struggled mightily my first two years in the minor leagues. … I was really doubting my abilities and just really lost. And he just hung in there with me and talked to me so many times to keep my spirits up. I don’t know how many other managers would have taken the time or cared that much.”
Altobelli preached team unity. On one bus trip through the Appalachian Mountains, he pulled the entire club out of a roadside diner that would not serve Don Baylor and other Black players.
Grich, who played for Altobelli in four minor league cities, described him as a tough Italian from upstate New York who smoked Camel cigarettes and maintained a perpetual three-day stubble. “He was a tough guy, but deep inside, he really had a soft heart,” Grich said.
Altobelli was known as “Mr. Baseball” in his adopted home of Rochester, New York, where he played as a minor league first baseman and outfielder and managed the Red Wings, then the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, from 1971 to 1976. His teams finished first four times in those six seasons and featured a parade of future Orioles standouts, including Grich, Baylor, Doug DeCinces, Al Bumbry, Dennis Martinez, Rich Dauer, Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan and Scott McGregor.
“The kids who came up from there executed all the plays the way I wanted,” Weaver once said in praising Altobelli’s minor league work. “You didn’t have to reteach them anything.”
Altobelli earned his first major league managing job with the San Francisco Giants in 1977. He led the Giants for two seasons and then worked on the New York Yankees coaching staff before the Orioles tabbed him to replace the retired Weaver in 1982.
The Orioles had lost the American League East to the Milwaukee Brewers on the last day of the 1982 season, and Altobelli made it clear he had come to provide a steady hand, not rock the boat built by Weaver and general manager Hank Peters. Key members of the team had already played for Altobelli at Rochester, so they knew what they were getting.
“Usually, as a rule, a man in this position says something like, ‘We’ll be turning things around here next year,’” he said at his introductory news conference. “But I’m just going to try to keep the show going.”
He felt no need to match Weaver’s famous intensity.
“It’s like when my wife gets loud in an argument,” he said on his first Opening Day with the Orioles. “I tell her, ‘Just because you’re loud, it doesn’t mean you’re right.’”
Singleton remembered how little he panicked during a pair of seven-game losing streaks that hit in May and August. Where Weaver kicked dirt on umpires’ shoes, Altobelli might offer a laconic “Hey!” from the dugout.
Boddicker laughed, recalling how little Altobelli moved. Veteran Orioles such as Benny Ayala and Jim Dwyer knew when it was time to pinch hit, and they’d often put on a batting helmet before he even called for them. Altobelli would look up and confirm, “Yeah, you pinch hit.”
“The ship is steering itself,” the wry Flanagan said as the season unfolded.
With Murray and Cal Ripken Jr. at the heart of the lineup and a deep pitching staff led by McGregor, Flanagan and Boddicker, Altobelli’s club pulled away in September to win the American League East by six games. The Orioles then defeated Tony LaRussa’s Chicago White Sox, 3-1, in the American League Championship Series and held the Philadelphia Phillies to nine runs total in a 4-1 World Series romp.
Though Altobelli was known for his hands-off style, he managed the Orioles through several tight spots in the postseason. In Game 4 of the World Series, he sent up four straight pinch hitters to rally his team from a 3-2 deficit. Every move he made that October seemed to work.
“It’s been one of those years,” he said after the Series clincher. “There are years, and there are years, and they can’t take this one away.”
The Orioles won 85 games in 1984 but never had a chance to catch the 104-win Detroit Tigers. They were off to a 29-26 start in 1985 when owner Edward Bennett Williams fired Altobelli and turned back to Weaver in a desperate attempt to inspire a declining roster.
“It got to the point where it wasn’t the same,” Boddicker said. “It wasn’t the Baltimore Orioles that I remembered, so for Joe’s sake, it was probably a good thing to get the heck out of there.”
In his final days with the Orioles, Altobelli expressed frustration that he was left in the dark about his fate.
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“I don’t know if I’ve been fired. I’m in uniform, ain’t I?” he told reporters before his last game as manager.
He later said he felt no bitterness, noting that he’d learned to count on nothing in his long years at all levels of the game.
Altobelli coached for the Yankees and Chicago Cubs after leaving the Orioles. In 1991, he settled back in Rochester as general manager of the Red Wings. After he retired from that role, he became a radio analyst for the club and a beloved elder statesman of the city’s sports scene.
“He loved Rochester, New York,” Boddicker said. “Talked about it all the time.”
Altobelli was predeceased by his wife of 52 years, Patsy, and is survived by his partner, Michele DiGaetano, and his six children; Mike Altobelli, Mark Altobelli, Jody Collichio, Jackie McAlpin, Jerry Altobelli and Joe Altobelli.