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R.I.P. Earl Weaver: The Sorest Loser That Ever Lived

January 19, 2013

By Jim Meyer

Baltimore sports have had a few kings, Unitas, Brooksie, Cal and Ray, but we’ve only ever had one Earl. Earl Weaver, legendary manager of the Baltimore Orioles, died Friday night. He’s probably already growing tomato plants along the pearly gates and kicking dirt on the Good Lord’s flip-flops.

Earl Weaver was an irascible man known perhaps more for his Vesuvian temper than for his baseball acumen, but make no mistake, Weaver was one of the greatest minds that great game has ever produced. The Little Genius, as he was, let’s say, affectionately known, led the Orioles to 1480 wins over 17 years with five 100-win seasons, the only five times Baltimore has reached that mark, four American League pennants, and a victory in the 1970 world series, and his philosophy was simple. “The key to winning baseball games,” Weaver famously said, “Is pitching, fundamentals, and three-run homers.” And Weaver built teams with that blueprint. Over those 17 years, Orioles pitchers won a remarkable six Cy Young awards, and in 1971 each of Weaver’s starting pitchers, Pat Dobson, Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally, and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, won twenty games, a feat that will never happen again.

Weaver’s blueprint became known as The Oriole Way, and defense was a huge part of it. Under Weaver, every level of the Orioles organization drilled the fundamentals. As a result, Earl’s O’s earned 34 Gold Gloves and was built on players like Paul Blair, Mark “The Blade” Belanger, Palmer, and of course The Human Vacuum Cleaner himself, Brooks Robinson; each of them fielded their position as well as any man ever to play the game. And it was Weaver’s idea to move the 6’4” Cal Ripken from third base to shortstop, traditionally a spot for a small and speedy players, which revolutionized the position in today’s game.

And then there were those three-run homers. Just the site of a bat in the hands of a Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, or Eddie Murray could turn a ball yellow from fear. What modern Moneyball acolytes scrutinize with arcane statistics like W.A.R., D.R.S., and W.H.I.P., Weaver understood intrinsically. While they search for value with computers pushing algorithms, Weaver saw the true beauty of the big bat and felt the futility of squandering outs on the bases in his bones. He was steeped to his core in the game; it permeated his being on every level. “Before the game he would walk through the locker room, not saying hello to anybody,” Palmer told Sports Illustrated, “I’d go, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ And it was like you had just tasered him. Because he was busy thinking about the ball game.”

In ’96, Weaver’s brilliance earned him a trip to Cooperstown and a spot the Hall of Fame, but to Earl, it was no big deal. “A manager’s job is simple. For one hundred sixty-two games you try not to screw up all that smart stuff your organization did last December.” Of course, Weaver rarely screwed it up. He thought too much and too hard about the game, but there was one thing that could short circuit The Little Genius: umpires.

Weaver expected the best from himself, his players, and the umpires, and if he thought an ump blew a call, he was going to let them know, and he was not a man known for his subtlety. While he was the Orioles skipper, a trip to old Memorial Stadium wasn’t complete without a red faced Weaver eruption. Earl was ejected from nearly 100 games during his career and was once thrown out of both ends of a double header. When Weaver climbed the dugout stairs and headed umpward, the fans would rise with him and the roar from 33rd street could shake your fillings free. His rage seemed to channel the energy of every resident of The World’s Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum. While only 5’6”, Weaver was blessed with a vocabulary of four letter words fit for a man five times his size. If he hadn’t found baseball, he could have made his way teaching sailors to curse. But words weren’t the only tool in Weaver’s kit. When insults failed, he’d kick dirt, and if the ump’s goat remained ungotten, he’d slam his gut, sumo style, into the belly of the umpire-beast. With all due apologies to the Ringling Brothers Circus, it was the greatest show on Earth.

Never before or since has Baltimore so thoroughly trusted a coach or manager, and it’s difficult to overstate how much Earl Weaver was loved in this town. Baltimore loved him for his wit and his honesty, for his ferocity, and for his fearlessness. Of course all the winning helped, and The Earl of Baltimore loved to win, but not as much as he hated the other side of the equation. “On my tombstone,” Weaver requested, “just write, ‘The sorest loser that ever lived.”