My last meaningful conversation with my grandmother was about baseball. In a rare moment of lucidity, Carolyn Bartoli recalled a day in the fall of 1956 when all three of her children were in school and her husband was at work. She listened intently to Don Larsen pitch a perfect game while scrubbing the kitchen floor of her Iris Avenue home.
It was the happiest day of her life, she claimed. She could focus on every pitch and could barely stand the excitement.
Then she talked about her favorite managers.
“I liked those rugged guys,” she said, “like Casey Stengel. And who was that son-of-a-gun we used to have?”
“Earl Weaver,” I said.
“That’s him,” she said. “He was something else–a little pepper pot.”
Baltimore Spends an Evening With Earl
The 80-year-old Weaver was still feisty and razor-sharp last week at “An Evening with Earl” at the Sports Legends Museum. He spoke candidly about his 17 years as manager of the Orioles in an intimate conversational setting with Baltimore sportscaster Keith Mills. They chatted before an audience of 75-100 guests, among them O’s manager Buck Showalter and legendary third baseman Brooks Robinson.
The museum’s executive director Mike Gibbons introduced the event by pointing out Weaver’s contribution to Baltimore baseball history and to the community: “There’s a lot of love in this room for Earl.” Weaver replied modestly, but with his characteristic snap.
“I was fortunate to have guys coming up that could help. I could push a button,” Weaver said, turning to Showalter, who stood against a far wall. “I hope you get some of those.”
At another point, Weaver took credit for nicknaming pitcher Don Stanhouse “Full Pack” because he could smoke an entire pack of cigarettes before Stanhouse could retire the opposing side. Brooks Robinson spoke up to say that he had played golf with Stanhouse earlier in the day.
“Tell him I’m still alive,” said Weaver.
Passion and Profanity
In his prime, Weaver’s high wattage was part of the appeal of watching an Orioles game. You’d walked down 33rd street on your way to Memorial Stadium wondering in the back of your mind whether there might be a Weaver explosion. If balls and strikes were an issue, he would often kick dirt over home plate. He would stomp and rage and throw his hat across the infield.
“When he put that first step on the dugout, the crowd would start going crazy,” said audience member Bill Feeley, of Middle River. He’s right. It didn’t matter whether it was a legitimate beef or not – you were always on Earl’s side.
Last week, Weaver actually expressed some remorse about his run-ins with the men in blue: “I feel deeply ashamed about my two or three clashes with umpires.” Perhaps he was referring to his profanity-laced tirade with Bill Haller, immortalized on YouTube. He was ejected 91 times in his managerial career.
Seeing Dizzy Dean in the Dugout
Weaver talked last week about his unique entrée, growing up in St. Louis, to the world of baseball. His father ran the cleaning business that laundered both the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals uniforms and Earl would attend 100 games a year as a kid.
“They let us out of school and you could knot-hole your way in for six or seven innings,” he said. “I’d go in the dugout and see Dizzy Dean, Johnny Mize, and Joe Medwick.”
Of course, the young Weaver played the game as well. Thanks, he said, to two large Italian families on his block, one with 11 children and another with 13, “you could always find enough for a baseball team.”
Weaver said he toiled for 13 seasons in the minor league as a second baseman who played great defense but couldn’t, as Jim Palmer liked to point out, hit a curve ball for the life of him.
At Odds With O’s Management
Weaver may have been speaking at Camden Yards amid current Orioles managers, but he didn’t hesitate to talk openly about his clashes with the front office. For one thing, he disagreed with the organization’s decision to trade Frank Robinson to make room for Don Baylor, which ironically occurred only one year before the designated hitter was instituted in the American League.
“We knew Baylor would be MVP and we couldn’t hold him back,” Weaver said. “But he was no Frank Robinson.”
Weaver also recalled how he fought sending Eddie Murray back to the minors during spring training in 1977 by refusing to cut him. Murray ended up leading the team in hitting that spring, hitting 27 homers and drove in 88 runs.
“I knew it would crush him to send him down and I told them that he could help us now.”
Weaver also talked about the decision to move Cal Ripken to shortstop.
“I knew he could play shortstop because he came to the park every day with his Dad and we hit him ground balls. He was 14 or 15. He’d take two large steps in each direction and get to everyone we hit.”
The front office, Weaver remembered, had wanted Cal at third to fill the hole Doug DeCinces left. When they originally drafted Ripken, they thought he would become a pitcher because of his arm. “Neither his father, mother, or myself would have let that happen,” Weaver said.
The organization at the time considered Bobby Bonner the shortstop of the future. “Bonner was a good college player, but he’d reached a point where he wasn’t improving,” said Weaver. “I was supposed to do what I was told.” Resisting the bosses “must have been a pretty good move,” Weaver said. Ripken went on to revolutionize the position of shortstop and pave the way for future superstars like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.
Clashes with Jim Palmer
Weaver’s volatile relationship with Jim Palmer was another subject Mills brought up with the former manager. Even though Mike Flanagan had won the Cy Young Award in 1979 after a 23-9 season, Weaver had wanted Palmer to start the first playoff game and the pitcher refused.
“Flanagan has never pitched in the post season,” Weaver recalled telling Palmer. “You have experience. You pitched in a World Series game at nineteen.”
Palmer remained adamant and Weaver said he finally “told him if he didn’t start that he shouldn’t come to the ballpark that day. He should just stay home.” Palmer pled his case to General Manager Hank Peters but, needless to say, Palmer started. And won the game.
Weaver also recalled the clashes with Palmer that took place on the mound, in the late innings of tight games. It was clear that Palmer almost always wanted to stay in. Weaver would relent but add “if the next guy gets on, I will be here. You can count on that.”
It was a different time, Weaver observed. Middle relief hadn’t been invented yet. The game belonged to the starter.
“Those guys were pitching for next year’s salary. They needed the innings, the wins, and the ERA to present their case for more money. He would find a way to get the last six outs, moving the ball around.”
You Could Look It Up
Weaver also spent some time talking about Sabremetrics, the evidence-based analysis of baseball through objective, empirical data, especially baseball statistics from actual games. Using index cards, and looking at things like individual match-ups and “on-base percentage,” Weaver is widely thought to be a founder of this type of analysis.
“When I took over as manager, I asked management, ‘how far back can you go?’ with stats,” he said. “If a guy is 1 for 16 against a certain a pitcher, we’re going to get that guy out.”
“I even had Ken Singleton leading off,” he said. “He’d walked 110 times the year before.”
Statistics led to one of the most famous platoons in the history of the game between John Lowenstein and Gary Roenicke, alternating left fielders. Weaver could get 30 home runs and 85 runs batted in between the two of them
Stats also gave Earl an out, as he explained, with a twinkle in his eye: “I needed to have an excuse for the writers.”
Earl Weaver stomped, cursed, kicked and clawed his way to a World Series championship, three pennants, and ten seasons of 90 wins or more. Another story was about what happened after he announced that he would be retiring after the 1982 season.
The Orioles had finished 17-1 and came out of nowhere to be within four games of tying the Brewers heading into a season ending-series against them. They won the first three games – and then lost on the last day. After the last out, the fans went wild.
“They wanted a curtain call and we had lost the game,” said Weaver. “They didn’t want to leave.”
He was surprised because he wanted to win the game. That was all that mattered. The city loved him and they didn’t want it to end.
My grandmother loved Earl because he fought as hard as she did in amongst the bee-hive dryers in her basement beauty salon.
She held court with the “hons” of the neighborhood, listening to the games as she styled bouffants and bobs. Neapolitan by heritage, she managed the family from the earnings in a Maxwell House Coffee can.
In the downstairs kitchen, a pot of her meatballs and sauce simmered up through the house. Every once in a while, she’d disappear when the games were too close and walk into the kitchen to stir it.
“I can’t take the suspense,” she would tell her customers. She too, wanted to win.