Commentary

Earl Weaver: Irascible and brilliant

Legendary Orioles manager was the smartest baseball man I've ever met

Updated: January 20, 2013, 3:15 PM ET
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

The last time I spent significant time with Earl Weaver was almost a year ago. He was old and slow and needed a guy to walk with him in case he fell, but mentally, he was still the same Earl. We were watching an Orioles intrasquad game from the first row of seats in Sarasota, Fla., when manager Buck Showalter quietly called me over to alert me to a play, a tribute of sorts to Earl. Seconds later, the Orioles ran a pickoff play, one Earl had invented in the late '60s. "Hey," Earl yelled at me, "that's my pickoff play!"

It was vintage Earl: always ahead of the game, never missed a trick, brilliant, irascible, indomitable, hilarious. He was Mickey Rooney in a baseball uniform. That day in the stands in Sarasota, it was like it was 1979, the first time that I ever met him, only this time, I was sitting next to him as he dissected the game. In 33 years of covering baseball, no one has taught me more about the game than Earl. My most cherished days as a writer were the days before a game, sitting on the Orioles bench, listening to, and watching, Earl.

A case could be made that he is the third-greatest manager of all time, behind only the legendary Connie Mack and Joe McCarthy. In 17 years as a manager, all for Baltimore, Weaver went 1,480-1,060 in his Hall of Fame career. He won four pennants and one World Series. He won 90 games in a season 11 times. He won 100 games three years in a row, averaging 106 victories 1969-71. As the Orioles bus left Kansas City after a rare loss in 1970, Earl crackled from the front seat, "Damn, it's hard to stay 50 games over .500!"

He was just smarter, in a simplistic way, than the rest. He built those Orioles teams around pitching, defense and three-run homers because that's how you win games. Mental mistakes infuriated him. You had to hit the cutoff man, and it was imperative to always, always, always keep the double play in order. He hated to bunt because, as he always said, "You only get 27 outs; don't give any one of them away." It angered him when the other team was trying to bunt and his pitcher wouldn't throw a strike. He would scream, "They're giving us an out, throw the ball over the plate!" In 1986, when Angels manager Gene Mauch bunted in the first inning with his No. 3 hitter [Wally Joyner], Weaver looked at me the next day and said, respectfully but purposefully, "I could lose my next 500 games, and I'd still have a better record than that guy."

[+] EnlargeEarl Weaver
Focus On Sport/Getty ImagesMany loved irascible Earl Weaver, but umpires probably weren't among them. He was ejected nearly 100 times in his 2,541 games as Orioles manager.

Weaver implored his pitchers never to intentionally throw at a hitter because "It might lead to a fight. And if there's a fight, our guys and their guys are going to get ejected, and our guys are better than their guys, so we're going to lose on that exchange. So, don't hit them!" A writer once made the mistake of asking when Orioles outfielder Al Bumbry, whom Weaver loved, was coming off the disabled list. Earl yelled at the writer, "As far as I'm concerned, Bumbry is dead! I only deal with the living! When he's ready to come off the DL, then he's ready. Until then, he's dead!" To Earl, the DL was indeed the "Dead List."

Weaver was the master of when to call a team meeting, and what to say. But there were very few team meetings because his teams were always so good, and because, he once told me, "What if we have a team meeting and we lose? What do I do then?" He was also the master of running a bullpen. He always knew when to bring in a reliever, when to remove a starter; he knew how to protect his pitchers. One night in Toronto, the Orioles were getting clobbered. Weaver called the bullpen in the sixth inning. His backup catcher, Elrod Hendricks, who was warming up the Orioles pitchers, answered the bullpen phone. "You better get ready," Weaver said.

"Earl," Hendricks said, "it's me, Elrod."

"I know who it is; you better get up!" Weaver yelled.

So Hendricks was brought in to pitch the sixth and seventh innings so as not to burn a real pitcher.

Weaver would gladly tell us those stories as we sat on the bench before games, or in his office after games, which is why he had a great rapport with the writers. In the 1970s, when the Orioles were playing a getaway day on the road, he sometimes would supply his beat writers with what they called "if quotes" before the game. "If we win tonight," he would say, "I'll say, 'Well, we won six out of nine on this trip, we're still four games ahead in the division, and now we're going home.'" That way, the writers could have their stories written almost as soon as the game ended, giving them time to get on the Orioles charter. One Orioles beat writer in the '60s, long before computers, occasionally would show Weaver a printout of the story he had written that night as the team was flying to the next city. Weaver looked at one story and wrote on it, "C+. Shows improvement."

The writers loved Earl because he was so quotable, so funny. One day in Detroit in 1986, Orioles starter John Habyan, just up from the minor leagues, walked the first four Tigers he faced, then was pulled from the game. I casually asked Earl after the game, "So, Habyan was a little off with his control, huh?" Weaver said, "Yeah, I guess home plate at Triple-A is 17 feet wide, not 17 inches! I guess every hitter at Triple-A is about eight feet tall!"

Not all the players loved Earl, but they all played hard for him. Terry Crowley was a bench player, a terrific pinch hitter, for Weaver in the 1970s. Weaver once said of him, "I saved his career. If it wasn't for me, Crowley would be working in a beer hall." That quote made it in the newspapers in Baltimore. Crowley was crushed, and, nearly in tears, asked Weaver whether he had said that. Weaver looked at the quotes, and, instead of saying they had been taken out of context, he said, "Yeah, those are my words." Then Weaver took Crowley in his office and smoothed things over because he knew he would need Crowley that night.

Orioles outfielder Pat Kelly decided, while he was playing, that he was going to be a minister. So, he felt he should tell his manager about his plans. So, Kelly waited for the right time, a quiet time, to approach Weaver. "Earl," he said, "I'm going to walk with the Lord."

"I rather you walked with the bases loaded!" Weaver said.

When the Orioles acquired power-hitting catcher Earl Williams from the Braves in the early '70s, Weaver had him start the first four exhibition games that first spring so he could get used to catching the great four starters in the Orioles rotation. Before that fourth game, Williams barged into Weaver's office and said, "Don't we have any more f---ing catchers on this team?!" Weaver later said, "I knew right then that we were in big trouble." Williams played two years with the Orioles, then he was gone, done as a good player.

The players didn't always like the way Weaver dealt with them, but they couldn't argue with his success, or with his logic. The concept of platoon baseball was originally founded in the early 1900s, but Weaver was the first to really popularize it in his 17 years as a manager. He had batter-pitcher matchups on white index cards, always next to him in the dugout so he would always have the right guy for the right spot. In the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1979 American League Championship Series, the Angels brought in reliever John Montague. He had been acquired late in the season, so Weaver didn't have a white card on him. So Weaver breathlessly called the press box looking for 20-year-old intern Dr. Charles Steinberg, who was responsible for, among other things, the data for the white cards.

"I don't have Montague!" Earl yelled.

A panicked Steinberg worked quickly to look up the Montague numbers, then gave the white card to Earl's daughter Kim, who was an Oriole BaseBell, a person who, among other duties, helped deliver things, such as soft drinks, during games. She had never delivered a key piece of information to her father during a game. So she rushed down from the press box, through the Orioles clubhouse, where she'd never been allowed, past Jim Palmer, who was wearing only a towel, and into the dugout. Weaver saw it: The guy to use against Montague was John Lowenstein, who was 3-for-4 against him with two homers.

When the spot came up, Lowenstein pinch hit, and he hit a three-run homer to win the game.

The umpires hated Earl, and, for the most part, he hated them. On Earl Weaver Day at Memorial Stadium after Weaver retired (for the first time) after the 1982 season, he rode on the back of a convertible around the stadium, waving to the crowd. One umpire said that day, "If there is a god, that little SOB will fall off the back of that convertible and get run over." Weaver was ejected just short of 100 times in his career, and virtually every one of them was volcanic and entertaining. He told me he would turn his cap around backward to argue "so I wouldn't accidentally hit the umpire with the bill of my cap. No contact. With contact, I could get suspended." The crowds at Memorial Stadium went wild when Earl went wild because the fans and players knew he was standing up for them. Mike Flanagan once told me the story that, after an ejection one night in 1986, Earl came back in the clubhouse, where he was met by his father, who said that Weaver had embarrassed himself that night on the field. Weaver never was ejected again.

He retired again, and for good, after the 1986 season. He didn't have a good team that year, and losing really, really bothered him. Early on a Sunday morning in September in Oakland that year, he filled out his lineup card in the midst of a horrible collapse the final two months of that season. "Tim," he said, "this is the worst lineup card I've ever filled out in a major league game." Three weeks later, he would manage his last game, a Hall of Fame career that finished under an avalanche of losses. But that in no way took away from his legacy as one of the greatest managers of all time. And last year, the Orioles dedicated a statue to each of their Hall of Famers. Weaver's statue is great. It stands among those of Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, all of whom he managed. They will all tell you: No one knew the game better than Earl Weaver.

Earl Weaver died at 82 on the Orioles Cruise, which is fitting because, 25 years after he retired, he was the highlight of the cruise, the guy all the old Orioles fans -- and the new ones -- wanted to meet. I had the pleasure to know him well. And that last day I spent significant time with him, at that intrasquad game in Sarasota, was one of the highlights of my writing career. That day, an Orioles outfielder, in a squad game, overthrew the cutoff man, allowing the batter/runner to advance to second base. So, instead of runners at the corners with one out, there were runners at second and third. Weaver was really upset by that.

"Damn it," he growled, "the double play isn't in order! You have to keep the double play in order!"

To the end, he was the Earl of Baltimore, the smartest baseball man I ever met, the great Earl Weaver.

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