While reflecting on the passing of Earl Weaver last weekend, one thought dominated all the memories of this unforgettable character who mesmerized Baltimore’s baseball fan base — that he had been able to make six trips to Camden Yards this year to attend ceremonies surrounding the unveiling of statues honoring the Orioles’ six Hall of Famers.
Then, before the night was over, came the news that Stan Musial had made the same journey. You can be sure that if Weaver could’ve made that call, that he could exit the stage in the company of “The Man,” his boyhood idol growing up in St. Louis as a diehard Cardinals fan — and someone who hit more than his share of three-run homers — he would’ve taken that call in a heartbeat.
Until health issues interfered during recent years, Musial had been a fixture at the annual Hall of Fame inductions in Cooperstown, N.Y., and Weaver treasured the times they spent together as members of baseball’s ultra-exclusive fraternity.
Weaver had also become a Cooperstown regular, but didn’t make it back last summer because of the wear and tear travel had taken on him. His last HOF celebrations were those conducted at Camden Yards, the most personally meaningful one being the unveiling of his own statue — and the presence of Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, the five former players who belong to that same fraternity.
One sensed that these visits were important to Weaver, and not just because there might not be many, if any, more opportunities. Having known Weaver for 53 years, and covered most of his career, I grew to realize he had a side the public didn’t know. It’s one that many — most assuredly the umpires he clashed with regularly — never saw and understandably wouldn’t believe.
Much to his dismay, the image Weaver projected was that of an irascible, heartless, cap-throwing, dirt-kicking, expletive-spewing, umpire-baiting tormentor, who often pushed the envelope to extremes. Was he like that quite often? Absolutely. It was part of his DNA. His competitive nature was such that he once (briefly) fired one of his coaches because of what the thought was a dumb play — during a “friendly” staff card game. His juices were also known to overflow on the golf course on a regular basis. By his own admission, he was a sore loser. A very sore loser.
It undoubtedly took a lot of his players a long time to find out that he had a heart, much less feelings. But he did, and they sometimes got in the way, too.
The worst disagreement I ever had with Weaver (and there were more than a few, though our relationship was probably as good as any he had with the media) happened in 1977, when Brooks Robinson was a seldom-used player-coach whose spot on the roster would be needed when Rick Dempsey came off the disabled list.
Weaver wanted me to write a story hinting at the impending move, but I thought Brooks Robinson should get the news from the club. The bottom line was that Weaver didn’t want to have to be the one to tell Robinson his playing days were over. Truth of the matter is, Robinson already knew that and was probably more relieved than anybody when it finally happened. But, honestly, Weaver didn’t have the stomach to be the one to break the news — and he would never apologize for that.
A year before, in a reflective moment, Weaver admitted there were things about his job that ate away at him.
“Do you know what it feels like to pinch-hit for a Brooks Robinson or Lee May?” he asked. “Sometimes you have to do that, and I hate it.”
The impression he left was that it was easier to sit a veteran player down, hold him out of the lineup, rather than embarrass him by pulling him for a pinch-hitter.
To his dying day — and I can attest to this, because I heard him say it many times, and I know some club officials have heard it, too — Weaver said his most memorable moment on a baseball field was when Brooks Robinson hit the 268th, and last, home run of his career — a 10th-inning, pinch-hit (ironically), three-run game winner.
That was one of only two times I saw Weaver charge onto the field after a dramatic win — the other being John Lowenstein’s pinch-hit, three-run homer (I know, there’s a pattern here) to win the first game of the 1979 American League Championship Series against the Angels.
Robinson’s homer came during a meaningless game in April, with the Memorial Stadium stands virtually empty, but it was an indelible memory for Weaver.
There were times — not often, to be sure — when Weaver actually let a soft or maybe even repentant side show when he talked about some of his legendary battles with the umpires. There were a few he never got over, convinced he’d been wronged by somebody with a grudge. But there were also some when he acknowledged remorse, a trait most of those he antagonized would refuse to accept.
There was one time in particular when I walked into his office mid-afternoon and Weaver seemed particularly somber, and he said something I never thought I’d hear. His parents were in town for a visit and had witnessed one of his patented blowups.
“I’m a little ashamed,” he said, “because I think I embarrassed my father, and it bothers me.”
Rest assured, that’s not something any umpire would’ve seen coming. But it was genuine, and it seemed for a few weeks that Weaver was on a docile streak of sorts. But that changed the second he thought some of his players might’ve thought he’d gone soft.
When the Orioles announced their celebration series before last season, fans naturally wondered how Weaver would be depicted, what his pose would be like. It is safe to assume many pictured him with his cap on backwards, his foot swinging as though kicking imaginary dirt or a finger pointing skyward as though lecturing an imaginary umpire.
Some have actually expressed disappointment with Weaver’s statue, which features a pensive stance, with hand in back pocket, as though mulling his next move — or even one three innings down the line. Fans will be fans, and many would have liked the statue to remind them of how they remember the iconic manager.
But to the Orioles’ credit, that idea was never part of the process. And had it been, Weaver would’ve shot it down, adamant about not wanting to be remembered in such a fashion. If fans want to remember him that way, that’s fine, because he understood, like it or not, that it was part of his legacy.
He accepted that, even if he didn’t particularly like it. As for how his statue portrayed him, Weaver knew exactly how to grasp the situation.
“I want to thank the sculptor, Toby Mendez, for making me look like Buck [Showalter],” he said, to the amusement of the current manager and new architect of the Oriole Way that Weaver helped script four decades ago.
Weaver’s gone now, but trust me, Showalter will find a way to keep his legacy alive — the creative and scheming side, not the kicking and screaming side. Just as the statue suggests. Just as Weaver would want it.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Posted Jan. 22, 2013