BALTIMORE — Earl Weaver penned his own epitaph.
“On my tombstone just write, ‘The sorest loser that ever lived,’ “ he once said.
Weaver, the Orioles’ irascible, chain-smoking, umpire-baiting manager who led the team to four American League pennants and the 1970 world championship in his 17 years here, died Friday night while on a baseball-themed cruise.
The Hall of Famer was 82.
Weaver piloted the Orioles from 1968 to 1982, and in 1985-86, earning nicknames like “the little genius” and “the Earl of Baltimore.” Weaver’s teams won 1,480 games and lost 1,060, and his lifetime winning percentage (.583) ranks ninth all-time and fifth among managers in the modern era who managed 10 years or more. Five times, Baltimore won at least 100 games for Weaver, who stood 5-feet-7 but was a legend to his players.
“Having Earl gives us a four-game lead on everybody,” pitcher Sammy Stewart once said.
Weaver’s death came on the eve of the team’s annual FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center.
“It’s a sad time, but at the same time, Earl would say I hope it won’t mess up FanFest,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said at the event, where Weaver’s No. 4 hung from behind the stage. “Every time I look at an Oriole now, it’s going to be missing a feather without Earl.”
The Orioles failed to post a winning record under Weaver only once (1986). His career was defined by an affinity for the three-run home run and a long-running, public feud with superstar pitcher Jim Palmer that both men jokingly played to whenever together.
Weaver was always a fan favorite and the Orioles faithful got several opportunities to let him know that during the course of the Orioles uplifting 2012 season. He returned to Baltimore repeatedly to take part in the special series of statue unveilings in the center field plaza at Oriole Park, including the one that was dedicated to him on June 30.
He showed his softer side during his acceptance speech, applauding all the great Orioles who also are immortalized in bronze there and a many more of the players who helped him become a managerial legend.
“What comes to mind is, ‘Thank God those guys were there and thank God we won 100 games three years in a row so I could come back for a fourth,” Weaver said. “And thank God for the fourth that won enough games for me to come back for the fifth … and on to 17.”
Weaver won six American League East titles, four pennants and one world title. His .583 career winning percentage ranks fifth among modern managers (since 1900) with at least 10 seasons in the major leagues. Factor in his reputation as one of the games great strategists and it’s no wonder that he was selected by the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee for induction at Cooperstown in 1996.
“Earl Weaver stands alone as the greatest manager in the history of the Orioles’ organization and one of the greatest in the history of baseball,” Orioles managing partner Peter Angelos said in a statement Saturday. “This is a sad day for everyone who knew him and for all Orioles fans. Earl made his passion for the Orioles known both on and off the field. On behalf of the Orioles, I extend my condolences to his wife, Marianna, and to his family.”
Palmer said that he heard of Weaver’s death at 3:30 a.m. Saturday from former Orioles pitcher Scotty McGregor. McGregor was on the same Orioles-theme cruise with Weaver. “I didn’t get much restful sleep after that,” Palmer said.
“There weren’t any gray areas with Earl,” Palmer said Saturday morning. “We had a love-hate relationship. Earl was going to tell you what he expected and there wasn’t a lot of room for error with him. Earl was about winning and that was what he did.”
He was irascible. No question about it.
He also was known by his closest friends to be both sensitive and caring, though he seldom allowed the public to see the softer side of him.
“Earl is a very caring human being underneath that facade,” former Orioles first baseman Boog Powell said in a 1996 interview. “And we all knew that. We felt like family, and when I left here, I felt like I had left my family. You always knew that Earl would do anything in the world he could do for you.”
Weaver went to bat for a couple of young players who would establish themselves among the greatest stars in the history of the game.
He pressed to keep Eddie Murray at the major league level in 1977 and is credited with bucking convention to switch supposedly oversized Cal Ripken Jr. from third base to shortstop.
The rest, of course, is history.
“This man fought for me,” Murray said, during an interview in early 2003. “He kept telling (general manager) Hank Peters and the rest of the front office that I should stay. They just had me penciled in there, but he kept sending me out there.”
Weaver also is credited with a major role in developing what came to be known as The Oriole Way, a standardized approach to minor league instruction that he instituted along with fellow minor league manager Cal Ripken Sr. during the early 1960s.
In some ways, he was a comic character like longtime Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, but he had a hard edge that could rankle a player as easily as an umpire.
Weaver got under the skin of Triple-A call-up Bobby Grich in the early 1970s, yelling “home run or (go back to Triple-A) Rochester” at the young second baseman as he went up to bat. Grich came back to the dugout and — after a loud verbal exchange — threw Weaver down the steps that led to the clubhouse.
To Weaver’s credit, he also had a short memory. Grich remained in the starting lineup for the next five seasons and established himself as one of the top power-hitting second basemen of his generation.
“You could go toe-to-toe, face-to-face and cheek-to-cheek with him,” former Oriole outfielder Don Buford said, “and, no matter what, the next day it was forgotten. That was outstanding.”
Murray said it was a little more complicated than that. Weaver had the uncanny ability of adjusting his managerial style to each player on the major league roster.
“He did something that nobody else could do,” Murray said. “He had 25 different people on his ballclub and he had 25 different ways to manage them.”
Maybe he had a case of little man syndrome — dating back to his childhood in St. Louis, when as an undersized-but-talented teenager he played baseball above his age level and battled anyone who teased him about his height — but he certainly had a knack for getting the most out of the players he managed.
He inherited a pretty good team when he replaced Hank Bauer as manager in the summer of 1968, the Orioles going 48-34 under Weaver to finish second with a 91-71 overall record. The club won 109 games the following season and was a heavy favorite to win the world title, but fell victim to the Miracle Mets in what is arguably the most famous World Series upset in history.
The 1970 club shook off that defeat to win 108 games and the world title and the Orioles also reached the World Series in Weaver’s third full season.
The O’s would finish first in the American League East five of the first six years after the institution of divisional play and Weaver finished lower than second only once in his first 10 seasons as manager (including his half-season in 1968).
The only time he finished as low as fourth in the 15 seasons before his first retirement, the Orioles won 90 games.
The famous feud with Palmer dated back to the 1970s, when they would exchange barbs on the mound and in the papers. They clearly grated on each other, but there also was a grudging mutual respect between two dynamic personalities that were integral to the Orioles winning chemistry from the time Weaver was hired as manager in 1968 until his first retirement after the 1982 season.
“Did he make my life difficult … yes,” Palmer said. “Did I make his life difficult sometimes … of course … and sometimes you did it for entertainment value.”
They occasionally sparred good-naturedly on the banquet circuit after both left the field, but carried on a largely cordial relationship until the feud bubbled up again with an ugly incident at the 2000 Sports Boosters of Maryland Banquet.
Several former Orioles stars were on hand to roast Weaver, but Palmer’s allusions to the diminutive former manager’s size and drinking habits struck a nerve.
When Weaver finally got his chance to fire back, it was no joke.
He ripped into Palmer, calling him an idiot and an egotist who often had little stomach for pitching with discomfort. It was a nasty scene that ended with Weaver being led away from Palmer by former Orioles first baseman Lee May and Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks.
“It was unfortunate because these two men have such great respect for each other,” Hendricks said at the time. “They may say some negative things about each other, but they ultimately say each one is a class guy. When somebody said something negative about Palmer, Earl jumped them. And Palmer would always defend Earl no matter what happened the day before.”
It was very unfortunate, but it also was very much Earl, whose quick temper got him ejected from games 98 times during his major league managerial career. He was famous for his protracted and animated disagreements with umpires, many of which ended with a red-faced Weaver hurling away his hat or kicking dirt on the shoes of the offending official.
“Earl was Earl,” Palmer said, “but once you were an Oriole, you played because winning was a lot of fun and Earl was all about winning. Did he inherit a good young team, sure, but he gave me the opportunity to win 20 games eight of 10 years. He was so good at handling his roster.
“Cal went 4 for 55 at the start. Rich Dauer went about 1 for 31. Earl stayed with them. Once you established yourself as a player, he stuck with you. I think I would have had much more of a chance if he had been the manager at the end of my career instead of (Joe) Altobelli. Earl would have said, ‘I’ve got to give the guy a chance to fail.’”