Earl Weaver 1930--2013

January 28, 2013

Earl Weaver was the Mozart of managerial ejections, bringing such versatility, craft and brilliance to getting tossed that he stands as the maestro. The Weaver catalog, an AL--record 98 compositions deep—the postseason and spring training not included—features some of the finest hat-tossing, dirt-kicking, finger-pointing, profanity-ripping stylings ever seen on a diamond. As manager of the Orioles for the better part of 17 seasons from 1968 to '86, Weaver elevated the quaint notion of the baseball argument to a symphonic tour de force.

Weaver versus umpires became comic gold, like Wile E. Coyote versus the Roadrunner. Once, in 1980, just five pitches into a game in Baltimore, Weaver rushed first base umpire Bill Haller to protest a balk call.

"You're here for one goddam specific reason," Weaver said, deftly setting the bait.

"What's that, Earl?" Haller asked.

"To f--- us," Weaver spewed.

"When he dies," Haller later said, "the family will have to pay for pallbearers."

Earl Weaver died last Friday while on a baseball-themed cruise. He was 82. The nature of his arguments was so vehement—a 5' 7" bantam with hat and silver hair askew, arms flapping, veins in his neck bulging—that the lasting image of Weaver is the combative one, especially in an era when Weaver, Billy Martin, Sparky Anderson and Tommy Lasorda brought outsized theatricality to managing.

The dust and dirt that Weaver roiled, however, obscured his true genius. The so-called Earl of Baltimore was one of the finest managers who ever lived, a brilliant tactician whose understanding of percentages and analytics was ahead of its time. He didn't manage baseball games so much as he solved them. Teams today use Ivy League--educated analytical statisticians to crunch through vast computer databases. Weaver sought the same sort of cutting-edge information and distilled it to batter-pitcher matchups handwritten in ballpoint pen on 8½ √ó 11 sheets of paper or personal observations and scouting reports on index cards.

The bumper-sticker version of the Weaver way would be "pitching, defense and the three-run homer," his philosophy that emphasized strike-throwing, fundamentals, on-base percentage, power and the preciousness of 27 outs. (Weaver so hated making outs on the bases that he never even had a hit-and-run sign.) His 1,480 wins are third most by any man never to play in the majors, trailing only fellow Hall of Famer Joe McCarthy and Tigers skipper Jim Leyland. (Weaver played 1,431 games as a minor league shortstop in the Cardinals, Pirates and Orioles organizations.) Only six managers ever finished more games over .500 than Weaver's 420-game differential. He presided over but one losing team, his last.

"Earl was 5' 3", couldn't run, couldn't throw and couldn't hit the ball out of the infield," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, one of Weaver's former players, "and yet he used to say the only thing that kept him out of the big leagues was [St. Louis shortstop] Marty Marion. That was Earl: the cockiest man you ever saw."

Players were but chess pieces to Weaver, deployed according to a given value and in concert with others. All the stroking and nurturing that occupies today's managers was no use to him. He once had a famous retort for Pat Kelly, a pious outfielder, after Kelly whiffed with the bases loaded and said to an angry Weaver, "Earl, I hope you walk with the Lord one day."

"Pat," Weaver snapped, "I hope you walk with the bases loaded one day."

Another time Weaver spotted slumping outfielder Al Bumbry headed to a team chapel service and advised him, "Al, take your bat."

But it was the passion Weaver brought to winning that will live on, more enduring even than his tactical might. "I never wanted to argue with an umpire in my life," Weaver told me in 2009, as we watched a spring training game together. I chuckled in disbelief.

"No," he said, "but in the heat of battle, when you think something is taken away from you, I had to go out there and holler at them. I knew it wasn't going to do much."

It was in 1986, his final year as manager, that Weaver made clear he understood his legacy.

"On my tombstone," he said, "just write, 'The sorest loser that ever lived.' "

EARL SAID IT

"I've got nothing against the bunt, in its place. But most of the time, that place is at the bottom of a long-forgotten closet."

EARL WEAVER, on his disdain for small ball.

PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)