Posted January 19, 2013

Pint-sized Earl Weaver, a giant among managers, passes away at 82

Baltimore Orioles, Earl Weaver
Earl Weaver

Earl Weaver took the Orioles to the World Series four times, but won only one title. (Anne S. McMahon/SI)

The baseball world has lost a legend, one of the most colorful, influential and successful managers in history. Earl Weaver, who managed the Orioles to six division titles, four pennants and one world championship in 17 seasons, compiling the highest winning percentage of any manager in the post-1960 expansion era (.583) en route to a plaque in the Hall of Fame, passed away on Saturday. The 82-year-old legend suffered an apparent heart attack while traveling on an Orioles fantasy cruise.

Anointed as “Baltimore’s resident genius” by Sports Illustrated‘s June 18, 1979 cover, Weaver was a 5-foot-7 spitfire whose irascibility was exceeded only by his tactical acumen; imagine Ozzie Guillen’s profanity crossed with Lou Piniella’s explosiveness, multiplied by Tony LaRussa’s mastery of roster usage. Weaver’s tirades against umpires were legendary; he holds the AL career record for ejections with 94. In 1969, he became the first manager thrown out of a World Series game in more than 60 years. In 1975, he was run from both games of a doubleheader in by umpire and longtime nemesis Ron Luciano, the second time during the exchange of lineup cards, then ejected again by Luciano the next day. This 1980 argument with first-base umpire Bill Haller following a first-inning balk call, is the stuff of legend (and absolutely not safe for work):

Weaver was as entertaining as any modern-day manager while working the blue, but he wouldn’t have lasted long — particularly in holding a single job for 14 1/2 seasons before a temporary retirement — if it weren’t for his intellect. He eschewed small ball strategies such as the bunt, the stolen base, and the hit-and-run in favor of a managerial philosophy whose foundation was simple: “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer,” as he liked to say. He literally wrote the book on the art of managing a ballclub: Weaver on Strategy is one of the indispensable tomes of genre, influential nearly 30 years after it was published because it was so far ahead of its time. Forged from more than a quarter-century of dugout experience, Weaver’s Laws have found a home in today’s game, particularly via forward-thinking organizations. Many of them are practical applications of what has since become known as the sabermetric philosophy. Consider:

• “The easiest way around the bases is with one swing of the bat.” (Weaver’s Third Law)

• “Your most precious possessions on offense are your twenty-seven outs.” (Weaver’s Fourth Law)

• “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.” (Weaver’s Fifth Law)

Weaver was a visionary when it came to using statistics in guiding his decisions. He kept notebooks and note cards full of pitching and hitting splits, which he would use to help determine his lineups and late-game head-to-head matchups. He did what managers are supposed to do: put his players into positions where they could succeed. Literally: it was his decision to move 6-foot-4 Cal Rikpen Jr. from third base to shortstop in the middle of his 1982 rookie season. Weaver was known for assembling productive platoons, and nurturing exceptional pinch-hitters who could turn a game around. In this legendary 1980 “Manager’s Corner” interview recorded with broadcaster Tom Marr as a gag after a flubbed take — unaired but widely circulated since then (and again not safe for work) — he extolled the virtues of one of his long-time benchwarmers:

Terry Crowley is lucky he’s in ——- baseball for Chrissake. He was released by the Cincinnati Reds, he was released by the ——- ——- Atlanta Braves. We saw that Terry Crowley could sit on his ——- ass for eight innings and enjoy watching a baseball game just like any other fan, and has the ability to get up there and break one open in the ——- ninth.

In a 2009 Sports Illustrated profile of Weaver, Tom Verducci succinctly captured what made Weaver tick:

His reason for being is pretty simple. If somebody is keeping score — be it in the Grapefruit League, in the World Series or in Ping-Pong games against blue-haired ladies on a cruise ship — Earl Sidney Weaver desperately wants to have more of whatever is being counted than you have. What drove him absolutely crazy as a manager, or absolutely [bleeping] crazy in the Weaver patois, were all the messy obstacles to his simple desire to win. What stood maddeningly in his way, besides the guys on the other side of the field, were ballplayers of his who made outs on the base paths, umpires, people who thought the hit-and-run play was good baseball, sacrifice bunts, umpires, the five-man rotation, that smart-aleck Palmer, umpires, pitchers who didn’t throw strikes, fans who wanted the Orioles to run more and, well … those bleeping umpires.

A St. Louis native who grew up watching the “Gas House Gang” Cardinals of the mid-1930s, Weaver signed with the Cardinals at the age of 17 in 1948. A light-hitting second baseman who was good with the glove, he spent six years in their organization, and another three in the Pirates’ chain before getting his first managerial job with the unaffiliated Knoxville Smokies of the South Atlantic League in 1956; he was just 25 at the time and still playing. He served as a player-manager in the Orioles’ organization from 1957 to 1960 before retiring as a player, and continued climbing the organization’s ladder from 1961 through 1967.

Promoted to the big club to serve as first-base coach in 1968, Weaver took over as manager at the All-Star break after general manager Harry Dalton fired manager Hank Bauer. Inheriting a 43-37 club that had won the World Series just two years earlier and still featured future Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Brooks Robinson, Weaver piloted the team to a 48-34 record the rest of the way. Aided by the return of 23-year-old pitcher Jim Palmer — a future Hall of Famer whose feuds with Weaver were legendary — following a year lost to injuries, the Orioles then reeled off three consecutive pennants on his watch, winning 109 games but losing the 1969 World Series to the upstart mets, winning 108 games and the 1970 World Series over the Reds, and then winning 101 games but losing the 1971 World Series to the Pirates.

From 1969 through 1982, the heart of Weaver’s tenure, the Orioles compiled a major league-best .596 winning percentage, 25 points higher than the second-best team, the Reds, and 44 points higher than the second-best AL team, the Yankees — the equivalent of a 97-win team every year. Weaver didn’t do it alone; the Orioles were a model organization whose foundation — “The Oriole Way” — was initially laid by manager/general manager Paul Richards in the mid-1950s after the St. Louis Browns relocated to Baltimore, and carried out by successor GMs Lee MacPhail and Harry Dalton as well as a slew of career minor leaguers who drilled the game’s fundamentals into the organization’s players. Many of those instructors eventually became major league managers themselves, among them Weaver’s longtime dugout lieutenant, Cal Ripken Sr., and his pitching coach, George Bamberger.

“Good ballplayers make good managers, not the other way around. All I can do is help them be as good as they are,” Weaver once said. He had more than his share of them during his time. In addition to the two Robinsons and Palmer, future Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Ripken both got their starts under his wing, and won Rookie of the Year honors. His 1971 team was the first since 1920 to feature four 20-game winners in Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally. From 1973 through 1980, Oriole pitches won five Cy Youngs, three by Palmer, and one apiece by Mike Flanagan and Steve Stone. Palmer, Murray, Davey Johnson, Bobby Grich, Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Paul Blair combined to win 35 Gold Gloves during his tenure.

During that 1969-1982 span, Weaver’s Orioles finished lower than second place just twice, with a winning percentage of at least .540 in every year but one. Baltimore took home additionial AL East flags in 1973, 1974 and 1979; they lost to the A’s dynasty in the ALCS the first two times but defeated the Angels in the latter year before falling again to the Pirates in the World Series. The Orioles nearly added one more division flag in 1982, but the Brewers’ Don Sutton outpitched Palmer on the final day of the regular season, and Baltimore fell short by a game.

Weaver retired to the broadcast booth, serving as ABC’s analyst alongside Al Michaels and Howard Cosell for the 1983 World Series while successor Joe Altobelli guided the Orioles to a championship. When Altobelli got the axe in mid-1985, Weaver was coaxed back into the dugout, but the team went just 53-52 on his watch for the remainder of the year. They were in the thick of the AL East race for the first four months of the 1986 season, compiling a 59-47 record through August 5 — just 2 1/2 games out of first place — but went 14-42 the rest of the way to finish 73-89 in Weaver’s only losing season, and his final one.

In all, Weaver’s 1,480 wins rank 22nd all-time among managers, while his 420 wins above .500 ranks seventh, as does his .583 winning percentage among managers with at least 1,500 games at the helm. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1996, and remained visible around the Orioles after his retirement. On June 30, 2012, a bronze statue of him was unveiled at Camden Yards. No word yet if his tombstone will include his preferred epitaph: “The sorest loser that ever lived.”

1 comments
DoubleG
DoubleG

I have to admit I enjoyed watching Earl manage.  I guess he can resume his arguments with Ron Luciano at the big diamond in the sky.