Sunday, January 20, 2013

Earl Weaver, 1930-2013

They say there is a fine line between genius and madness.  When I was growing up as a baseball fan in the 1970s and '80s, there were a few managers who walked that line, and sometimes crossed it.  Billy Martin.  Tommy Lasorda.  Whitey Herzog.  Don Zimmer.  Dallas Green.  If you wanna go a little later, Pete Rose and Lou Piniella.  And, while they were much more reserved about it, Gene Mauch, Sparky Anderson and the young Tony LaRussa.

And then there was Earl Weaver.  He wasn't an introvert like Mauch.  He was an extrovert like Martin.  He didn't just walk that line, he stomped it.

Earl Sidney Weaver was born on August 14, 1930 in St. Louis.  It's a little ironic that he would one day manage one of the St. Louis baseball teams, the Browns -- but not until well after they had moved out of town, to become the Baltimore Orioles.

He attended St. Louis' Beaumont High School.  At the time, the late 1940s, Missouri was a segregated State.  (It did not secede from the Union at the start of the American Civil War, but it was very sympathetic to the Confederacy, and Missourians Jesse and Frank James were Confederate guerrillas before becoming what we remember them as, bank and train robbers in the Wild West.) Years later, he said of Beaumont, "It's still segregated, only now, it's all-black."

In 1948, while the Browns overlooked the local high school 2nd baseman, the more successful team in town, the Cardinals, signed him.  But at 5-foot-7, he was a bit small for a ballplayer by the standards of the time (even though there were a few shorter men who excelled, like Phil Rizzuto).  And, at a time when there were only 16 major league teams and thus only 400 roster spots available (as opposed to 30 and 750 today), he wasn't going to make it.

He batted .283 for the Denver Bears in 1954, but, at the time, that was only a Class A team -- it would be another year before they became a Triple-A team and help to vault their city to major league status.  The closest he ever got to the majors was with the 1958 Louisville Colonels, who finished dead last in the Triple-A American Association (behind Charleston, Wichita, Minneapolis, Denver, Omaha, Indianapolis and St. Paul -- they were 12 1/2 games behind the 7th place St. Paul Saints, as West Virginia's Charleston Senators won the Pennant).  Indeed, aside from Weaver himself, the most notable name among the '58 Colonels was that of pitcher Ross Grimsley -- a notable name mainly because of his son, also named Ross Grimsley, who would later pitch for Earl on the Orioles.

After the 1960 season, at age 30, Earl was done as a player, except for 1 game as a player-manager with the 1965 Elmira Pioneers (of Western New York) in the Double-A Eastern League.  He had been in the Orioles' minor league system since 1957, and climbed the managerial ladder until arriving at Memorial Stadium in 1967, and being awarded the manager's job on July 7, 1968.

He replaced Hank Bauer, who played right field for the Yankees in the 1950s.  Bauer had guided the Orioles to their first real close call for the American League Pennant in 1964, and their first Pennant and World Series win in 1966.  But their superstar Frank Robinson got hurt the next year, and the team went downhill, resulting in Bauer being fired.  I met Bauer once, and I said that if the O's had stuck with him, they would have won the Pennant with him in 1969, '70 and '71, instead of with Weaver, and maybe then Bauer would be in the Hall of Fame.  He had been polite up to that point, but the mention of Weaver's name got his Marine blood boiling.  I dropped the subject.

With the O's healthy again, Weaver managed them to a 109-win season in 1969, matching the 1961 Yankees for the most of any major league team between 1954 and 1998.  But they got shocked in the World Series by the Mets.  Gil Hodges, the former Brooklyn Dodger 1st baseman, outmanaged and outthought Earl, and his calm temperament was in stark contrast to Earl's freakouts.  Earl got thrown out of Game 4, the first manager in 34 years to get tossed out of a Series game.  Since then, 3 managers have been through out of Series games: Martin in 1976, Herzog in 1985, and Bobby Cox in 1992 and 1996.

In 1970, the O's won 108 games, sparked by great pitching from Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Dave McNally.  They had a defense equal to the task: 3rd baseman Brooks Robinson (no relation to Frank, as Frank is black and Brooks is white), shortstop Mark Belanger (perhaps the ultimate in "good field, no hit") and 2nd baseman Dave Johnson (known as "Davey" when he became a manager) were known as the Leather Curtain -- before the Pittsburgh Steeler defense became known as the Steel Curtain.

But, with the previous year's loss in mind, the O's were underdogs in the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, who, that season, earned the nickname "The Big Red Machine" by rampaging through the NL and winning their first Pennant with manager Anderson, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez.  (Joe Morgan wasn't there yet.) This time, though, the O's raged against the Machine, taking the first 3 games before losing Game 4 and then clinching in Game 5.  The O's did just about everything right, especially Brooks Robinson (no relation to Frank -- Brooks is white, Frank is black), who not only showed the rest of the country what the State of Maryland had been watching him do at 3rd base for 15 years, but got key hits, too.  Earl had his ring.

He never won another.  In 1971, the O's won 101, and led the Pittsburgh Pirates 3 games to 1, with Games 6 and 7, if necessary, set for Baltimore.  But the Pirates came back from 3-1 down, something only 2 previous teams had done in Series play (the '25 Pirates and the '58 Yankees).

The Detroit Tigers won the AL Eastern Division in 1972, but Earl got the O's back to 1st place in '73 and '74.  The '74 race was an interesting one, as the Yankees and Red Sox battled for 1st against each other for the first time since 1951.  But the Sox went on a nosedive (foreshadowing some later Boston collapses), and the O's took advantage.  It was the first season in Pinstripes for left fielder Lou Piniella, whom Earl had previously managed, and he played mind games with Sweet Lou, saying he couldn't hack it at the major league level.  It worked, as the O's clinched the Division on the final weekend.  But, as in the season before, they lost to the Oakland Athletics in the League Championship Series.

After playing 2nd fiddle to the Red Sox in '75 and the Yankees in '76, the O's fought with both in a 3-way race in '77.  It was Brooks Robinson's last season, and most of the 1966-71 Oriole stars were long gone: Frank Robinson, Cuellar, McNally, Boog Powell.  But they still had ace pitcher Jim Palmer, had acquired Ken Singleton, and had developed that season's AL Rookie of the Year, Eddie Murray.

Earl also had a habit of developing role players.  He managed to get the most out of bench players like Kiko Garcia, Terry Crowley, Wayne Krenchicki, and Pat Kelly (no relation to the later Yankee 2nd baseman of the same name).  He was an expert bullpen operator, with Palmer, Dennis Martinez, Mike Flanagan, Steve Stone and Scott McGregor giving way to Tippy Martinez (no relation to Dennis), Sammy Stewart, Tim Stoddard, and Don Stanhouse.  Stanhouse was a stereotypical "flaky reliever," known, for both his name and his mind, as "Stan the Man Unusual." Earl's left field platoon of lefthanded John Lowenstein and righthanded Gary Roenicke would pay big dividends over the next few years.

Actually, Roenicke (father of pitcher Josh Roenicke, now with the Minnesota Twins) was a bit of an outlier in Earl's system: In 1979, he hit 25 home runs but only had 64 RBIs, earning him the nickname "Solo." These were the days when the phrase "The Oriole Way" became commonly used.  The hallmark of the O's, going back to the mid-1960s, had been superb pitching, a defense to match, and timely hitting.  As Earl put it himself, "The Oriole Way is pitching, defense, and three-run homers." In other words, not just home runs, but home runs with men on base.  (Are you getting this, current Yankees?) Or, to put it another way, the Orioles were playing more like a typical National League team, instead of what the 1920s Yankees had made the typical American League way: Wait for the big home run, and everything else will take care of itself.

This makes it sound like Earl favored "inside baseball" or "station-to-station baseball," the kind favored by Mauch, Herzog and Joe Torre.  Not at all.  He said, "If you play for one run, that's all you'll get." And, unlike Mauch, who was a big believer in bunting, Earl hated sacrifices: "On offense, your most precious possessions are your 27 outs." He did not believe in giving up an out to get a base.  Not wanting to make either his batter or his baserunner any more vulnerable than he had to be, Earl claimed that he never called for a hit-and-run play.  He didn't like stolen bases, either, since they often required a batter to purposely swing and miss at a pitch, to "protect the runner." Giving up one of your 3 strikes was as anathema to him as giving up one of your 27 outs -- indeed, they were practically the same thing to him.

Earl also presaged LaRussa, Torre and Joe Girardi with his micromanaging and analysis.  For example, I mentioned that Belanger was "good field, no hit." He won 8 Gold Gloves, and probably should have been awarded a couple more.  But his lifetime batting average was .228, on-base .300, slugging .280, OPS .580, OPS+ 68.  Only once, in 1976, did he have an OPS+ that was even 100, exactly average.  His peak RBI year was 1969, with 50.  Yet he had a .625 batting average against Texas Ranger pitcher Jim Kern, so, late in his career, when Garcia or Krenchicki might have been a better option against other other pitcher, Earl would start Belanger against Kern.  Likewise, hulking 1st baseman Powell hit just .178 against Detroit Tiger Mickey Lolich (it was a lefty-on-lefty matchup); while Chico Salmon, a lifetime .249 hitter, was a .300 hitter against Lolich.

The Orioles finished 2 1/2 games behind the Yankees in '77, as did the Red Sox.  The '78 season wasn't so hot, as the O's finished 4th.  But 1979 may have been Earl's masterstroke, as all his machinations got the O's to 102 wins -- aided by the fact that the Yankees were struck by injuries and tragedy, the Red Sox had injury issues of their own, and the Milwaukee Brewers (then an AL team) were on the rise but not yet ready for a Pennant.  The O's beat the California Angels 3 games to 1 to take the Pennant.

But the World Series turned out to be a repeat of 1971, in nearly every way that mattered.  Again, the O's played the Pirates, and took a 3 games to 1 lead, with Games 6 and 7, if necessary, set for Baltimore.  And, again, the Bucs came back from 3-1 down: The 4th time it had been done, and the 3rd time by the Pirates.  As in '71, when it was Roberto Clemente (along with Bill Mazeroski, the only holdover from their 1960 title), the Pirates were led by a veteran who'd been on their last title team, Willie Stargell, who took the Series by the scruff of the neck, including the go-ahead homer in Game 7.  Despite having more talent than the Mets in '69, the Reds in '70, and the Pirates in '71 and '79, Earl went only 1-for-4 in World Series play.

The thing most people remember Earl for is his battles with umpires.  On 91 occasions, an umpire threw him out of a game, a total topped before him only by John McGraw (who, ironically, played for the old, NL version of the Orioles) and since him only by Bobby Cox (who, unlike McGraw and Weaver, is not generally thought of us a nasty guy).  Ron Luciano, the most physically demonstrative umpire of all time, ran Earl 8 separate times.  In 1980, umpire Bill Haller was miked up for a documentary, and called a balk on Flanagan.  Earl stormed out of the dugout, and profanities and accusations of lies went back and forth.

The classic image of Earl is of him turning his cap around, getting nose-to-nose with an umpire, his face turning pink against his white hair, and adding a few kicks of the dirt on the ump's shoes.  When Memorial Stadium hosted its last game in 1991, Earl was the last uniformed man introduced, and Luciano came out, and offered Earl one last chance to kick dirt on his shoes.  The Earl of Baltimore obliged.

The game I'll always remember is that of August 13, 1978.  It had rained much of the day in Baltimore, and Earl had let the field at Memorial get waterlogged.  The Orioles beat the Yankees, 3-0.  Yankee manager Bob Lemon lodged a protest, but it was denied.

I hated Earl after that.  I hated him even more when he romped to the Division title in '79.  I hated him even more as the Yanks and O's battled to the end in 1980, with the Yanks winning 103 games and the O's 100.  No Wild Card in those days: The O's won 100 but missed the Playoffs, something only one team (the '93 Giants) has done since.  It was only after he retired that I came to realize how great a manager he was.

In 1982, Earl announced his retirement.  The Orioles trailed the Brewers by 4 games with 5 to play -- and, playing the Brewers in a 4-game set at Memorial to close the regular season, caught them in Game 161.  Knowing that Game 162 would be Earl's last regular-season game, 51,642 shoehorned their way into the old horseshoe on 33rd Street.  But the Brew Crew spoiled the party, winning 10-2.

Joe Altobelli was named Oriole manager -- and in 1983, their first full season without Earl since 1967, they won the World Series.  They haven't won a Pennant since.  Altobelli was fired in 1985, and Earl was brought back, but he quit after the 1986 season.  His final record was 1,480 wins and 1,060 losses, for a winning percentage of .583.  He won 6 Division titles, 4 Pennants and 1 World Series.

He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996.  The Orioles retired his Number 4.  Last week, he was a guest on an Orioles fantasy cruise to the Caribbean, with former players and fans going along on the cruise ship Celebrity Silhouette.  He died of a heart attack on board yesterday, at the age of 82.

Earl Weaver was a demented genius.  In that great dugout in the sky, he's probably laughing at all the people he pissed off over the years.  Including me.

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