My initial meeting with Al Gallagher came clouded with a young reporter’s misguided belief that anyone in charge of a team of athletes should be referred to as “Coach.”
So, I addressed “Coach Gallagher,” the new manager of the Durham Bulls, during spring training of 1980 in West Palm Beach, Fla.
“It’s Al,” Gallagher said in no uncertain terms. “Dirty Al.”
Thus a jump-start to a nearly 40-year relationship that began on a professional reporter-manager basis and morphed into a full-out friendship.
Gallagher died Thursday in Fresno, Calif. He was 73.
Gallagher left his mark on the Research Triangle as the man perhaps most responsible for kick-starting the rebirth of professional baseball with the Bulls and as one of the great characters in the area’s sports history.
Much uncertainty hovered over professional baseball’s return to the Triangle in 1980 following a nine-year absence. Then the Bulls, who set a goal of averaging 70,000 fans that first season, drew 176,000 to the old Durham Athletic Park in large part to Gallagher’s showmanship.
He was an entertainer, a public relations agent for the club and promoter of the game he so loved. From the third-base coaching box, he openly conversed with fans in those bleachers, occasionally asking an unsuspecting partisan what strategy he or she should employ during a game.
He fielded foul balls like he did in four big-league seasons as a third baseman for the Giants and Angels and threw wicked knuckleballs back to the opposing pitcher. He argued with umpires, doing his best Billy Martin impersonation by kicking dirt at their feet and spitting tobacco juice on their shirts.
During a Sunday afternoon televised game in 1980, Gallagher was ejected by the home-plate umpire.
“Then it hit me,” Gallagher recalled years later. “I remembered the game was being televised, so I figured I’d put on a show.”
He walked to home plate, removed tobacco from his mouth and deposited the remains on home plate. “Family entertainment,” he said.
Gallagher possessed a competitive streak that ultimately cost him a job in organized baseball.
Once, I made an ill-advised decision to be his playing partner in a card game of Spades while riding the team bus back from Winston-Salem. Gallagher ultimately slapped the deck of cards on the makeshift table and declared that my “stupidity” in the card game represented the general IQ of all sportswriters.
Gallagher was the rare manager who believed winning at the minor-league level was equally paramount --- if not more --- than the development of the players. He stubbornly fought that philosophical battle with the front offices of the Braves and Indians over six seasons before essentially being blackballed from the game as a manager.
That led to 16 more seasons as a manger in Independent Leagues, many of those jobs secured for him by Miles Wolff, the owner of the Bulls in the 1980s, who was forever thankful to Gallagher for helping revitalize baseball in Durham.
Allan Mitchell Edward George Patrick Henry Gallagher was born in San Francisco, named for his four uncles, a Dr. Mitchell who delivered him and an added George as a Confirmation name. Then he went about earning his “Dirty Al” nickname.
He pieced together a 25-game hitting streak at Santa Clara that stretched over three months, during which he refused to wash his uniform, including undergarments and socks.
Then, as a sophomore, Gallagher was seated with his date at a Santa Clara football game. He went out of the stands to capture a greased pig during a halftime promotion, returned to his date and attended a dance afterward with “the greased pig still on me.”
His unkempt appearance --- first as a major-league player and later as a minor-league manager --- led to Gallagher getting labeled with nicknames such as “Pigpen,” “Sludge” and “Filthy McNasty.”
With the Giants and Angels, Gallagher performed backflips when he returned to his position between innings. He wore his pant legs folded up, almost to his knees. His hat often was cocked upon his head.
Appearances aside, he batted .263 in 442 big-league games, compiling a respectable 138 walks against 164 strikeouts.
More than anything, Gallagher was most proud of being the first native of the city to play for the San Francisco Giants, and to be a teammate of Willie Mays. As he did throughout his managerial career, he wore No. 24 in tribute to Mays during the 1980 and 1981 seasons with the Durham Bulls.
That 1980 team went 84-56, excited the home crowds with a whopping 294 stolen bases and captured the Carolina League’s South Division championship.
“That was my favorite team, by far, because we had characters,” Gallagher told me a couple of years ago. “I love characters because I’m a character.”
A character forever known as Dirty Al.