Dell Alston

March 17, 2011

According to the Gods: a 2011 Team-By-Team Preview

Oakland A’s

For three seasons in the late 1970s, the once-great Oakland A’s plummeted into darkness. Of those three seasons, the most lightless was 1978, even though the A’s actually lost fewer games that year than they did in 1977 and 1979. In 1977, however, Vida Blue and Billy North still remained from the A’s dynasty, and the team also boasted a ray of hope in the form of newcomer Mitchell Page (who deserved the Rookie of the Year award); and in 1979 Rickey Henderson arrived, signaling the true beginning of a climb out of one of the franchise’s most dismal eras.

In 1978, the team was in between the end of one good thing and the beginning of another. Mitchell Page was still around, and though he remained the A’s best hitter, his numbers tapered off considerably from what turned out to be his one and only great year in 1977, a hint that he wouldn’t have much to do with the A’s coming revival. (Bruce Markusen at Hardball Times took a look recently at the career and life of Mitchell Page, who died at age 59 on Saturday.) In 1978, there weren’t any traces of former greatness or hints of better days to come. There was Dell Alston.

Which brings us to this 1979 card commemorating the Oakland A’s brief Dell Alston epoch the year before. The uninspired design of Topps’ 1979 baseball cards provided more than a few glum tableaus, but this particular offering seems at first glance to be unusually dim and lifeless. There’s no sky. The stands are empty. The field is abandoned. Even the grass seems exhausted.

In the foreground stands Dell Alston from Yonkers. He hasn’t shaved for a while and his head somehow seems too big for his body, giving the card a slightly jarring effect, like it’s the product of one of those carnival setups where you can stick your head through a hole to get a photograph taken of you as an astronaut or a cowboy. In the last few days, since pulling it and thirty other cards at random from my shoebox of cards, I’ve glanced at this card repeatedly, and until just a few minutes ago I’ve gotten nothing from it beyond that feeling that there may be light and life somewhere in the world but none of it made its way to Dell Alston’s 1979 baseball card.

But just now I noticed Dell Alston’s wrists, which are in sunlight while the rest of his arms are in shadows. And really his whole body but for those arms is in the light, and in contrast to the dimmer background Dell Alston glows. It’s hard to notice it at first because the eye is drawn initially to his grim, grizzled visage, and it’s also hard to notice at first because Dell Alston is one of those guys who is, in the context of major league baseball, a nobody. But Dell Alston glows.

And then, too, in the dark background above and around Dell Alston’s head, there are blurred slivers of light. I guess these are openings in the stands that are showing some of the sky, but it’s hard to tell for sure. The mind eventually wanders to other possibilities. Maybe hovering above our heads are blurry rectangular spirits, enigmatic guardians, mysterious reminders that every last one of us is glowing.


How to enjoy the 2011 baseball season, part 15 of 30:  Give the 1937 William Carlos Williams novel White Mule a try. I’m reading it now and it is a beauty, a classic work of American fiction from one of the pillars of American poetry. It’s got a whole chapter near the end (“Fourth of July Doubleheader”) where Williams turns his illuminating vision to a game featuring one of John McGraw’s championship Giants squads.


2011 previews so far: St. Louis Cardinals; New York Mets; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; Pittsburgh Pirates; Arizona Diamondbacks; Colorado Rockies; New York Yankees; Cleveland Indians; Detroit Tigers; Milwaukee Brewers; Minnesota Twins; Atlanta Braves; Cincinnati Reds


  1. The 1978 A’s were 55-51 at the end of July, but went 14-42 the rest of the way.

  2. As an 11 year-old, I immediately liked Dell Alston based upon this image. Being woefully ignorant of the game, I, like you, would spin imaginary careers out of whole cardboard, and Dell Alston seemed to me a grizzled veteran hoping to squeeze one more good year from his aching frame. In his youth, he had been a clean-shaven, handsome man – I see him coming up in the early 60’s, casting the withering gaze shown on this card to some loudmouthed Southern League cracker – and past the crow’s feet there still shines the fire of a young, proud man, with nothing to lose.
    The back of the card was a terrible disappointment, but I could easily ignore that, and ‘Ol Dell spent several years as a great pinch hitter and DH on my baseball dice game teams.
    I do have one question though – does this bode well or ill for the A’s this year, or do the mixed messages imply a .500 finish?

  3. The 1979 cards might be seen as uninspired, but I liked them. they were simple, solid and unadorned. Yet you only had to look at those cards and see that the wild ’70s were over and Reagan was comin’.

  4. In 1979, I was 10 years old. My baseball obsession was in full bloom. Being from New Mexico, I needed a team of my own. It was the 1979 Topps cards that made me an A’s fan. Something about the magic hour grimness of those cards, the pale green and gold, appealed to me on a level with which I am only now coming to terms.

    I also needed a favorite player. The following year, that player would be Rickey Henderson, who remains my all-time fave to this day. But at the beginning, in those magical, nascent days of discovery, that player was Mitchell Page.

    R.I.P., Swingin’ Rage.

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