The Earl of Baltimore
Weaver on umpires: “Some have said that I can accept inadequacies in my players but not in umpires. That completely misses the point. I can’t tolerate anyone’s mistake.”
— Earl Weaver in “Weaver on Strategy” (with Terry Pluto).
In all the years I have known the marvelous umpire Steve Palermo, I have never once heard him say Earl Weaver’s name. He would talk about Weaver quite often but always called him “that little …” The ellipses represented any number of charming adjectives. Well, you know — Earl Weaver was one of the great managers the game has ever known, and he was also quite nasty to umpires. Nasty but brilliant. Palermo always concedes the brilliant part.
On August 16, 1979, Palermo was umpiring third base when Kansas City’s Frank White tried to steal home. He was called out but Palermo overruled the call and said Baltimore pitcher Dennis Martinez had balked. Weaver went bonkers. He raced on the field, argued with everyone, kept sticking his finger in Palermo’s face — it looked to reporters that the two were very close to getting into a fight — and then Weaver put the game under protest.
“He’s just a young punk,” Weaver growled to those reporters after the game. And then he said this to the Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell: “I question his integrity, but I respect the umpire’s uniform — otherwise, he might be dead.”
“Earl is bizarre,” Palermo said from the umpire’s locker room, and then to Boswell: “Weaver walks around with a block of granite on his shoulder. He’s a pest, an insult to baseball, a clown that goes under the guise of a manager.”
Then, it was another umpire — Jim Evans — who offered the classic: “(Weaver) is baseball’s son of Sam.”
Two days later, on August 18, 1979, Palermo was umpiring first base and called Mark Belanger out on a checked-swing. Weaver emerged from the dugout. Palermo tossed him from the game. “I think I know what Palermo’s problem is,” Weaver said after the game. “About the fifth inning of every game, he needs a diaper change.”
Palermo never did forgive Weaver for being Weaver. His fury … his insults … his bullying … his lack of even basic respect … these things Palermo simply could not abide. He would never say the name. But Weaver’s genius for baseball, yes, Palermo loves baseball too much not to admire that. Palermo and Weaver ran into each other now and again after they both left the field and the conversations were surprisingly civil. Not warm. But civil.
One time, Weaver actually talked to Palermo about writing a book about baseball rules together. Palermo laughed. “There’s no way we would both survive,” he said.
Weaver on outs: “There are only three an inning, and they should be treasured. It’s such a basic fact that fans sometimes forget it, but an inning doesn’t last 15 minutes or six batters or 20 pitches; it lasts three outs. Give one away and you’re making everything harder for yourself.”
— Weaver on Strategy
Weaver had this sign he would post in the clubhouse that read: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.” The funny thing is I’m not sure how much we’ve learned about baseball since Earl Weaver managed the Baltimore Orioles from 1968 to 1982.
Take Michael Lewis’ magnificent book “Moneyball.” I don’t think any baseball book has been more misread or misunderstood than Moneyball, but I would guess here are five things most people took away from it:
- The walk is under appreciated — on-base percentage matters more than batting average.
- The use of the bunt often goes against the most basic tenet of offense which is that outs are your most precious commodity.
- The running game only makes sense if you are successful a very high percentage of the time.
- it doesn’t matter what a player looks like or how talented he appears to be, it only matters what that player can produce on the field.
- Baseball is largely a game of group think and that one way to beat the game is to think differently.
Moneyball is much more than those five ideas … but those five ideas dominate much of the talk of baseball these days. And those five ideas were probably better expressed and utilized by Earl Weaver than anyone in the history of the game.
Going through them one-by one.
Weaver on walks: “It sounds like a little thing, but a walk can win a game.”
— Weaver on Strategy
- The walk? Earl Weaver loved the walk. Well he famously loved the three-run homer — “On a home run,” he would say, “nothing can go wrong” — and how else were you going to get two guys on base before the home runs? Walks, right?
Every single year from 1968 to 1982, Earl Weaver’s Baltimore Orioles drew more walks than they allowed. Over the 15 years, they drew 1,665 more walks than their opponents — 111 more per season. There are individual stories that tell the tale. Don Buford showed no particular expertise for plate discipline — he had an ordinary .335 on-base percentage — when the Orioles and Weaver traded for him in 1967. “Walk!” Weaver ordered, and Buford’s on-base percentage jumped 50 points over the next five years — one year he walked 100 times.
Of course, Weaver didn’t just yell “Walk” at Buford. He realized Buford had a great eye and a talent for getting on base. He cultivated it. He made Buford his full-time leadoff hitter and made it clear that his job was purely to get on base. Buford did and he scored exactly 99 runs three straight years — the last of those he led the league in runs.
Oh, Weaver loved the walk. In 1982, he gave 185 plate appearances to a man named Glenn Gulliver. Nobody could figure out why. Gulliver hit .200 with no power and no speed. But Gulliver could walk, and he did walk — his on-base percentage was a healthy .363 despite that .200 batting average. Weaver often thought playing Gulliver was one of his smartest decisions. Well, Weaver in the minor leagues had a talent for drawing a walk — one of his few talents — and he never stopped believing in its importance.
Weaver on the bunt: : “I’ve got nothing against the bunt — in its place. But most of the time that place is the bottom of a long-forgotten closet.”
— Weaver on Strategy
- The bunt? There has probably never been a manager in baseball history who was more openly and publicly hostile to the bunt than Weaver. He hated it, and I think there are a couple of reasons why. First, he was thoroughly opposed to giving up outs — as he himself said outs were to be treasured.
Second, though, is something a little more subtle: Weaver did not like to interfere with the game. Oh, he was a heavy-handed manager in many ways. He platooned like crazy, and he pinch-hit like crazy and, of course, he got thrown out of more games than any manager of his time (97 times).
But that’s not what I mean. Weaver didn’t bunt. He didn’t hit-and-run. He didn’t intentionally walk. He let his pitchers work out of their own jams for the most part, and generally trusted his his hitters hit away. He famously said he probably didn’t say 30 words to Frank or Brooks Robinson, and while that’s obviously an exaggeration, it’s probably not much of one. He saw the manager’s job as being the one who set the lineup and arranged the team and put players in the best position to succeed. And he saw the players’ job to play.
He would say that a manager should be the one to argue with an umpire “because it won’t hurt the team if he gets thrown out of the game.” It’s a funny line, but I think he meant it and he managed that way. Managers manage. Players play. The bunt was an affront to him because it was ordered from the bench. Let the players win the game.
Weaver on team speed: “Team speed for Christ’s sake. You got bleeping’ bleep bleep little fleas on the bleeping’ bases getting picked off, trying to steal, getting thrown out, taking runs away from you. You get some big bleep bleepers that can hit the bleeping ball out of ballpark and you can’t make any bleep bleeping mistakes.”
— Earl Weaver doing a prank version of “Manager’s Corner” with Tom Marr.
- Stolen bases? Weaver may have been joking when he made his famous “bleeping bleep little fleas” comment. But he wasn’t really joking. That’s exactly how he felt about the running game — it only made sense if you were successful 75% of the time. And Weaver never really thought his guys could be successful that often.
Weaver on faith: When Pat Kelly told him it was great to walk with the Lord , Weaver said, “I’d rather you walk with the bases loaded.”
— Widely attributed.
- What is a player supposed to look like? Billy Beane would say, “We’re not modeling jeans.” Weaver would pick up players who looked incomplete to everyone else and find ways to take advantage of their strengths. In 1979, for instance, he had a 34-year-old Pat Kelly, who had kicked around for a decade, who was on his fourth team, who was about at the end. He also had a 32-year-old John Lowenstein, who had also kicked around for about a decade and had only been an everyday player once. He had a 32-year-old Terry Crowley, who had never played 100-games in a season, a a 35-year-old defensive legend named Mark Belanger, a 28-year-old Benny Ayala and so on.
Well, here’s what he knew about Pat Kelly: Guy can hit with power against right-handed pitchers.
So, he gave Kelly 177 plate-appearances — 164 of them against righties — and the guy banged nine homers and slugged .536 for him.
Lowenstein? Crushes righties. He got 215 of his 232 plate appearances against righties and he hit 11 homers and slugged. 500.
Belanger? Couldn’t hit. At all. But could still play a brilliant shortstop. He played 101 games — but only 40 of them were full games. He started and was pinch-hit for in 14 games. And he came in a defensive replacement in 47 games.
Ayala? He could hit lefties pretty well. He had 85 of his 94 plate appearances against lefties and slugged .513.
This gets at the heart of Weaver — he didn’t care what the player looked like or, more to the point, he did not let a players’ weaknesses define him. The player is the player. The manager is the one who has to figure out how to get the most out of his. The 1979 Orioles went to the World Series.
By the way, the Pat Kelly “walk with the bases loaded” line is probably Weaver’s most famous statement on faith, but I always preferred the time Al Bumbry, in the middle of a slump, told Weaver he was going to chapel. “Take your bat,” Weaver said.
Weaver on some of baseball’s most cherished ideas.
On momentum winning games: “Momentum is tomorrow’s pitcher.”
On small ball: “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.”
On the five-man rotation: “The starts you give to your fifth-best starter are taken away from the four who are better than him.”
On inspiration: “I had to say to (Steve) Stone: ‘You’re a loser. You were a loser before you got here. If you want to shut your mouth and do what I tell you, you’ll become a winner.”
On big bullpens: “Ten pitchers are too many … I believe the last regular player will help you win more than a tenth pitcher.”
On treating stars like stars: “Every time (Jim) Palmer reads about a new ailment, he seems to get it. … Someone once asked me if I had any physical incapacities of my own. Know what I answered? ‘Sure I do,’ I said. ‘One big one: Jim Palmer.'”
— Weaver on Strategy, Danielle Gagnon Torrez’s “High Inside: Memories of a Baseball Wife,” and widely attributed.
- Groupthink? Weaver didn’t care. He was pretty confident that most people didn’t know what the heck they were talking about when it came to baseball. When the world went to the five-man rotation, he was sure that a four-man rotation was better. When managers bunted and played small-ball, he was sure that his strategies would win out more often than not. While baseball may be a copy cat game — while sports might be a copy cat game … while LIFE might be a copy cat game — Weaver was an original and he stayed an original.
He was one of the first to really embrace the radar gun as a way to judge pitchers. But unlike so many, he didn’t care so much if a pitcher threw 92 or 95 or 99. He was interested in the difference between a pitchers fastball and his change-up (he thought there needed to be a 10 mph gap at least). He was interested in telling his hitters what kind of pitches they should expect. The radar gun would later become a tool for every team and scout — “a crutch” is what one scouting friend of mine calls it — but Weaver was among the first, and Weaver looked at it with creativity and ingenuity.
Probably his most famous against-the-world risk was making Cal Ripken a shortstop. He was Cal Ripken Jr. then, and he was 6-foot-4, and if there’s one thing everybody knew about baseball it was that 6-foot-4 men did not play shortstop. Ripken had played third mostly in the minors, and he looked like a third baseman, and when he began the 1982 season he was a third baseman. Nobody but nobody seemed to think he had the dexterity or quickness to play short.
Weaver decided on July 1, 1982 that he was a shortstop. There were some serious doubters — though the doubts were interrupted, as they often were in the Earl’s career, by a seven-game Weaver’s suspension — but he didn’t care. He never cared. He saw Ripken as a shortstop. So Ripken played shortstop. You might know — he played there a lot time.
Then there’s the whole story with the DH. You probably know this — there’s a rule on the books that states that a DH in the starting lineup has to bat at least once (unless the opposing team changes pitchers before the DH’s first at-bat). This is because Weaver for a while wrote in pitcher Steve Stone as his DH every day, then before he came up Weaver would pinch-hit him with either a righty or lefty specialist, depending who was on the mound. Baseball didn’t like it, thought it was against the spirit of the DH (and would make a mess of the pinch-hitting statistics) and they added that little rule. Weaver thought the new rule was dumb and, more to the point, only written to prevent him from managing his team. He’s probably right about that.
The point remains: He rebelled against convention all his baseball life.
On my tombstone, just write “The sorest loser who ever lived.”
— To Thomas Boswell on his retirement in 1986.
Earl Weaver only won one World Series. This was just the way it went — his Orioles were beaten by the Miracle Mets in 1969, by the Clemente Pirates in 1971 and by the “We Are Family” Pirates in 1979. Well, like Billy Beane, you could say that his stuff didn’t work as well in the postseason. It’s interesting, Weaver probably explained the phenomenon best in an interview with Christina Kahrl … they were discussing how much people still misunderstand the basic premise that outs are precious. Weaver said something fascinating: “Not only managers misunderstand it, players do too. A manager has to convince his hitters that they have to get on base for the next guy, and that no player can do it himself. That isn’t easy. In the playoffs you can get into trouble because everybody wants to be a hero.”
Well, Weaver was about the long season. His Orioles won four pennants … and they won 97-plus games three other times. His teams finished first or second 12 times in his 15 years as manager of the Orioles (not counting the ill advised year and a half when he returned in the mid-1980s). He managed six Hall of Famers — guiding Brooks and Frank Robinson through the twilights of their careers, Jim Palmer through the peak of it, Ripken and Eddie Murray trough their early days and Reggie Jackson for one memorable year.
Twenty-two of his pitchers won 20-plus games including that famed “loser before you got here” Steve Stone. Thirty three times a player hit 20-plus homers for him. As mentioned, his teams always drew more walks than their opponents and yet, counterintuitively, every year from 1968 to 1981, the Orioles turned more doubles plays than they hit into. Even more counterintuitively, they did this almost entirely without bunting or using the hit-and-run. Weaver stressed great infield defense and let his hitters swing away … he didn’t care if everyone hit-and-run to “avoid the double play.”
One of the great and under appreciated stories about Earl Weaver is the Steve Dalkowski story. You probably know that Dalkowski, according to legend, threw harder than any man who ever lived. He also was preposterously wild — Nuke LaLoosh from “Bull Durham” essentially pitched like Dalkowski, who once struck out 262 and walked 262 in a minor league season.
Unlike Nuke, though, Dalkowski had no Crash Davis to settle him down. He was, best I can tell from Baseball Reference, 19-52 with a 7.07 ERA and had walked 1,022 batters in 537 innings when he went to play for Earl Weaver in Elmira in 1962. Weaver would always say that Dalkowski threw harder than Koufax or Ryan or anyone else he ever saw, but he convinced him to take just a little off the fastball and to forget about all those other crazy pitches. “The more you talked to Dalkowski, the more confused he became.”
Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. Dalkowski didn’t exactly become Bob Tewsksbury. But for the first time in his minor league career he had fewer walks (114) than innings pitched (160). He struck out 192, and was often unhittable (even throwing a no-hitter one night) and he had a 3.04 ERA. It was his first bit of pitching success.
The next year, he started in Elmira with Weaver again and pitched well again with a 2.79 ERA and more strikeouts than walks. Then he went to Rochester and mostly fell apart. He had one more half season of success when he was demoted to Class A for a while in 1964. Other than that, though, his only real success came under the managing of Earl Weaver.
And that’s probably pretty telling. There weren’t many people who played for Weaver who liked him. JIm Palmer, his most famous pitcher and target, used to say the only thing Weaver knew about pitching was he couldn’t hit it. There wasn’t a single umpire who dealt with him and liked him — Ron Luciano threw Weaver out seven times, once before the game even started. There weren’t many opposing manager or players or fans who liked him.
But, they all understood his genius for baseball. Earl Weaver was 82 years old when he died early Saturday morning while on the Orioles Fantasy Cruise. He worked his way up in the game. His father was a dry cleaner and so young Earl got close to the game by bringing in clean uniforms from the clubhouse and taking out dirty ones. He sold cars. He worked as a loan officer. He tried to make it as a player, failed pretty miserably, and worked his way up through 11 years of minor league managing. He brought to the major leagues some of his own ideas, developed some more, platooned like mad, smoked between innings, screamed at his players, went after the umpires, and waited, just waited, for the three-run homer .
And for Earl Weaver, the three-run homer happened often enough that the sorest loser who ever lived won at a higher percentage than any manager of the last 50 years. I guess you could say, this was Earl Weaver’s faith. He always believed the three-run homer would come.