Remembering Earl Weaver, and Thinking of Homer

Published January 22, 2013

National Review Online

Given the divine sense of humor, the reception committee appointed to meet Earl Weaver, the Hall of Fame manager of the Baltimore Orioles during their dynasty years — yes, Virginia, dynasty years — when he arrived at the pearly gates on the morning of January 19 might have been . . . interesting.

It could, for example, have been composed of Mike Cuellar and the first Mrs. Earl Weaver.

Cuellar’s less than overwhelming career had taken off after the Orioles had acquired him from the Houston Astros, and the screwballing Cuban had reeled off multiple 20-win seasons while Weaver was chain-smoking Raleighs in the passageway behind the Orioles’ dugout. But by 1976 Cuellar had lost it, and Weaver, though he hated to cut veterans who had won for him, had to let him go. As such things often are, it was an unhappy separation, immortalized by Weaver’s comment to an overly-inquisitive reporter whose questions seemed to imply a lack of loyalty on Earl’s part: “I gave Mike Cuellar more chances than I gave my first wife.”

Immediate post mortem commentary quickly focused on Weaver’s legendary feuds with umpires (whose incompetencies, it should be noted, have clearly increased since the days when managers like Weaver literally got into the arbiters’ faces). Other baseball commentators noted that Weaver was a pioneer of sabermetric managing, keeping detailed notes on opposing pitchers and hitters, long before the days of stat-loaded laptops in the dugout, so as to create the best situations for his own teams — a craftiness that made the careers of such platooned Orioles batsmen as John Lowenstein, Gary Roenicke, Benny Ayala, Terry Crowley, Lenn Sakata, and Joe Nolan, and that helped less-than-overpowering relief pitchers such as Tippy Martinez, Tim Stoddard, and Sammy (“the “Throwin’ Swannanoan”) Stewart enjoy major-league success beyond what their talents might have foretold.

Still others noted that Weaver never cultivated close friendships with his players, which suggests that he would not have fared well in a psychiatric hothouse like the Boston Red Sox clubhouse these past two years. But this alleged aloofness seems to be a bit overdrawn.

Weaver liked eccentrics and the relaxed atmosphere their antics could create, which he believed helped men play a very hard game more easily. (As his longtime pitching coach, Ray Miller, once observed, you can’t play baseball with clenched fists.) So he encouraged the postgame clubhouse kangaroo court over which Frank Robinson presided in a periwig fashioned from a mop, at which players who had messed up in the game just completed were indicted, convicted, and fined — a buffoonery, Weaver understood, that cleared the air and prevented a warped kind of class consciousness from dividing his team. But he also encouraged individual craziness.

The aforementioned, Sammy Stewart, for example, was a true nut, who relished tweaking Weaver. For months, one season, the righthanded pitcher practiced throwing lefthanded, so that he could, when called into a game in a (presumably dire) relief situation, try a southpaw pitch, just to see what Weaver’s reaction would be. After months of practice, Stewart was summoned from the bullpen one night, took his practice throws righthanded — and then turned on the mound and threw the batter a pitch from the port side. Weaver’s reaction? Stewart later told a reporter, “Earl didn’t let me down. He just said, ‘That’s why I like comin’ to the ballpark every day. You never know what the hell you’re gonna see.”

Then there was catcher Rick Dempsey, who entertained hundreds of thousands during rainouts with his one-man vaudeville act, “Baseball Soliloquy in Pantomime,” which involved a great deal of flopping around the rain-soaked infield tarpaulin on his pillow-enlarged belly (he would be named the most valuable player of the 1983 World Series, the year after Weaver retired). Dempsey and Weaver had notable screaming matches, and Dempsey decided on a unique form of payback. One year, as Tom Boswell reported, Dempsey let his hair and beard grow over an entire off-season, and then pranced into the Orioles spring-training clubhouse in tennis gear, like something out of a drag show. “Who the f*** is that and how the hell did he get into our clubhouse?” Weaver hissed, perhaps hoping that someone would clobber the invader with a bat. “It’s your catcher, “Mr. Genius [Manager],” Dempsey trilled, before flouncing away. Weaver loved it, as he loved the other antics of “the only guy who plays in foul territory.”

In retrospect, I think Weaver’s real genius lay in his ability to get the most out of very disparate groups of players. He inherited a blockbuster team in 1968 — Frank and Brooks Robinson, Boog Powell, multiple-20-win pitchers like Jim Palmer — and drove them to three straight American League championships, winning the 1970 World Series. In the middle 1970s, Weaver made do with fewer future superstars on their way to Cooperstown (save Palmer), but the Orioles kept on winning until the next Hall of Famer (Eddie Murray) arrived, to be followed in 1982 by yet another (Cal Ripken Jr., whom Weaver, brilliantly, switched from third base to shortstop, telling the rookie, “Just play short like you did in high school, kid.”) The Orioles’ 1982 end-of-season run was one for the ages, as week after week they closed the gap on the Milwaukee Brewers with one hair-raising late-game rally after another. (The month-long rush that led to another classic Weaverism: “We’ve crawled out of more graves than Bela Lugosi.”) The Birds lost the pennant on the last day of the season, which was the last day of Weaver’s real managerial career (he foolishly came back from retirement for an unhappy season and a half later in the Eighties), but the pitch of emotion in old Memorial Stadium that final day will never be forgotten by anyone remotely involved in Baltimore baseball and its fortunes.

In mid-July of that magical season, the Orioles came to Seattle, where I was writing about the Mariners for Seattle Weekly. Armed with my press pass, I approached the Earl of Baltimore as he was sitting in the dugout during batting practice, and thanked him for what he had done over the last 14 years for the team I loved. He growled something about “What’s that to me?” and lit another Raleigh. After the game, I ventured into the dingy visitors’ clubhouse in the dreadful Kingdome, whose multiple inadequacies included being really unwelcoming to the visiting team’s manager and coaches, who were all crammed into a holding pen the size of a living room in a modest Baltimore row house. The coaches (including Cal Ripken Sr.) dressed out of high-school lockers against one wall, while the visiting manager’s “office” was an Army-surplus metal desk and chair that took up about 40 percent of the space in the room. The scribal brethren were packed in there like sardines, everyone wanting a last chance to hear Weaver on his last visit to Seattle. And there, in his own lair, crumby as it was, he didn’t disappoint. Buck naked, with a Schlitz in one hand and a Raleigh in the other, he held forth for what I remember as the better part of an hour, one story after another, while Ripken the Elder and the other coaches quietly dressed and slipped away into the Puget Sound darkness.

The next day, I described this amazing scene to a colleague who had learned his baseball in Brooklyn in the 1950s, which is almost as good as learning it in Baltimore in that same Golden Age. So how was it, he asked? Well, I replied, I now know what it was like to listen to Homer reciting the Iliad. The only thing lacking was the philosopher’s chiton; but draped or undraped, as he was in this instance, Earl Weaver, Number Four, was a man of parts and ideas, who cared far, far more than he usually let on.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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