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Monday, January 21, 2013
One could make an argument for Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, Bobby Cox, or Joe Torre, among others. But I suspect that a number of baseball observers would nominate Earl Weaver, who died on Saturday at age 82, as the finest manager of the expansion era.
When it came to use of statistics, in-game smarts, and a value system that placed a premium on home runs and defense, Weaver just might have been the standard for major league managers of the past 45 years.
Weaver took over the helm of the Orioles in the middle of the 1968 season, replacing the fired Hank Bauer. Weaver and Bauer did not get along; for years they refused to have pictures taken with one another. But Weaver managed to follow up on some of Bauer’s success, which had culminated with an Orioles world championship in 1966.
Weaver placed an immediate emphasis on pitching, defense and power. The Orioles happened to be good in all of those areas. Despite playing in the year of the pitcher, the O’s had five players who reached double figures in home runs in 1968 (Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Don Buford and Curt Blefary). They had three Gold Glove defenders in Brooks, Mark Belanger, and Paul Blair. They also had three talented young starting pitchers in Dave McNally, Jim Hardin, and Tom Phoebus.
In 1969, two additions to the Orioles’ pitching staff elevated Baltimore from a good team to a great one. Jim Palmer returned from major arm problems that had knocked him out for all of 1968, while Mike Cuellar arrived in a trade for Blefary.
With his rotation fortified, Weaver led the Orioles to 109 regular-season wins and a sweep of the Twins in the first Championship Series. The O’s moved to the World Series, where they faced the upstart “Miracle Mets” of Gil Hodges.
After the Orioles won the first game of the Series, Weaver’s first title seemed inevitable. But the pitching-rich Mets stormed back to win the next four, stunning Weaver and the rest of Baltimore. To add insult to the outcome, Weaver was ejected from Game Four after a heated argument with the umpires.
Undeterred, Weaver led the Orioles to a 108-win season in 1970 and a return to the World Series. This time, they did the expected, dispatching the Reds of Sparky Anderson in five games. It would be the first and only world championship for the “Earl of Baltimore.”
The 1971 season brought more World Series disappointment. After dominating the American League for a third straight season, the O’s swept the A’s in the playoffs and then routed the Pirates in the first two games of the World Series. With the Orioles seemingly on the verge of a repeat championship, the Pirates somehow managed to win four of the next five games, including a decisive Game Seven on Baltimore turf. Weaver drew some criticism for his refusal to sit slumping first baseman Boog Powell, who was struggling with an injured wrist.
I'll always remember one Weaver moment from that Series in particular. It was Game Seven, with the Orioles facing a red-hot Steve Blass. In the very first inning, Weaver stormed out of the dugout to stage several protests with home-plate umpire Nestor Chylak. Weaver had a number of complaints: Blass was illegally putting his hands to his mouth, he wasn’t coming to a complete stop with a runner on base, and he wasn’t keeping his right foot in contact with the pitching rubber. The latter infraction grated Weaver the most. “Rule 8:01(b) says you have to be in front of the rubber or on it,” Weaver said adamantly.
It was all part of an effort to rattle Blass, to throw him off his game while he was in the midst of a pitching hot streak. It didn’t work, as Blass pitched beautifully that day, but it was pure Weaver, trying to acquire any advantage he could find.
Weaver’s baiting of the umpires became his trademark. He was ejected from 91 games, mostly for arguing with the arbiters. On three occasions, he was kicked out of both ends of a doubleheader. He carried his arguments to the extreme, sometimes kicking dirt on home plate and often spinning his cap around to avoid “head-butting” the umpire with the bill.
Perhaps his most famous argument came in 1980, when he and umpire Bill Haller exchanged an array of insults. Haller didn’t like Weaver to begin with; Weaver had questioned whether Haller should be allowed to umpire games involving the Tigers, whose catcher, Tom Haller, happened to be Bill’s brother.
Another Weaver trademark involved his chain-smoking. He often sneaked into the dugout runway to sneak a cigarette and calm his nerves before returning to his usual perch in the dugout. Weaver’s nerves especially fell prey to reliever Don Stanhouse, a wild right-hander who ran deep counts and issued his fair share of walks. Stanhouse became known as “Full Pack,” the reasoning being that Weaver went through a full pack of cigarettes during one of his high-wire relief acts.
In spite of the fraying of his nerves, Weaver had the Orioles back in the World Series for a rematch with the Pirates. The O’s were no longer heavy favorites, but they still took a three-games-to-one lead over the Bucs. Then came three straight losses at the hands of “We Are Family,” denying Weaver that elusive second world title.
From the time that Weaver took over the Orioles until his initial retirement in 1982, the Orioles were a paragon of success. Weaver posted winning records each year, with his “worst” season coming in 1972, when the O’s finished at 80-74 for a winning percentage of .519. In fact, it would not be until his second tenure as Baltimore’s manager that Weaver put up a record below .500. That came in 1986, when an aging O’s roster compiled a mark of 73-89. It was the only blemish on an otherwise spotless regular-season record.
Weaver was humble as far as the role and impact of the manager. As he once said, “A manager’s job is simple. For 162 games, you try not to screw up all that smart stuff your organization did last December.”
Weaver certainly had very capable general managers, with people like Harry Dalton and Frank Cashen supplying him with talent, but he also achieved the optimum with the players at his disposal. He adopted a philosophy that sounded simple, emphasizing “pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.”
But within that simplicity, Weaver enacted the complicated details. He kept note cards on each of his hitters, indicating how they fared against each pitcher, and adjusted his lineup accordingly. He also believed that certain players, not his stars but his role players, needed to be platooned in order to maximize their productivity.
Weaver crafted roles for each of his players. He advised them of what he expected them to do; if they failed, they were susceptible to being replaced. He manipulated his roster like a chess master.
In the early 1970s, he had four outfielders (Blair, Don Buford, Merv Rettenmund and Frank Robinson) for three slots. Rather than designate three starters and a clear backup, Weaver mixed and matched according to players’ strengths. He tended to play Buford against right-handers, and Rettenmund against left-handers. Sometimes Rettenmund played left, sometimes he played center, and at other times he played right. When Weaver wanted more offense, he played Buford in left and Rettenmund in center; when he wanted better defense, he reinstated Blair to center and moved Rettenmund to left.
By the mid-1970s, it was clear that Weaver had little use for baseball stereotypes. He made Ken Singleton, a slow-footed outfielder acquired from Montreal, his leadoff man. Singleton couldn’t run, but he drew walks and compiled high on-base percentages. In other words, he fulfilled Weaver’s No. 1 requirement for a leadoff batter.
Like Casey Stengel before him, Weaver believed in platoon baseball. He alternated catchers (Andy Etchebarren and Elrod Hendricks), second basemen (Rich Dauer and Billy Smith), and right fielders (Rettenmund and Terry Crowley), among other positions.
He also concocted the most famous platoon of the era, putting Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein into a time-sharing plan in left field. Roenicke and Lowenstein were good players, but they were not stars and arguably did not merit being everyday players. By playing Roenicke against lefties and Lowenstein against righties, Weaver maximized their strengths as hitters. In tandem, Roenicke/Lowenstein gave Weaver star-level production.
And then there was Weaver’s approach to pitching. For most of his Orioles tenure, he had strong rotations and thin bullpens. So he stayed with his starters longer than most managers, allowing them to eat up quality innings, while saving his relievers for optimal situations in which they could be better used.
Weaver’s brilliance as a manager was certainly noticed by his American League opponents. At least one league rival tried to approach Weaver about switching teams.
In a story that appeared in the Dec. 8, 1973, edition of The Sporting News, Oakland owner Charlie Finley contacted the Orioles about the availability of Weaver and did so during the World Series. According to reporter Doug Brown, Finley had placed the call while Dick Williams was still manager, several days before his publicly expressed intention to leave the A’s. According to Brown’s story, Baltimore’s vice-president and general manager, Frank Cashen, refused to give Finley permission to talk to Weaver. Nothing ever came of it, and Weaver remained in Baltimore for the rest of his managerial days.
Another rival owner who appreciated Weaver was George Steinbrenner. After the Yankees were swept by the Orioles in a regular-season series in 1980, “The Boss” expressed grudging admiration for Weaver’s work. “I wouldn’t invite Earl Weaver to Christmas dinner, but you’ve got to give the devil his due,” Steinbrenner told a New York baseball writer.
Weaver’s story is particularly compelling in that he never made it to the major leagues as a player. A longtime minor league second baseman in the Cardinals system, Weaver could not break through. After all, it was a time when only 16 major league teams existed and major league jobs were scarce.
Today’s players sometimes complain about having managers who never played, as if they somehow lack the credibility to have the job. It is one of the silliest arguments in contemporary baseball. The players who make such contentions conveniently ignore the accomplishments of Weaver, or someone like Joe McCarthy, who also failed to play in the major leagues. Weaver and McCarthy were simply two of the game’s managerial giants.
Was Weaver the greatest manager of his era? Based on regular-season performance, there was no one better. And if we chalk up his World Series shortcomings to bad luck and random chance, then we can safely say that he was the best of the era, period. Either way, baseball has lost one of its greatest minds and its most brilliant strategists. Of that, there is no doubt.
Twenty years ago today, one of baseball’s best and most consistent players of all time passed away, Tigers Hall of Fame second baseman Charlie Gehringer. Passing away at age 89, he’d lived a full life.
Gehringer was never the best player in the game (though he did win an MVP in 1937), but he was among the best for a very long time.
He came to Detroit in 1924 at age 21, and as he later recounted in Baseball When the Grass Was Real, impressed the legendary player (and then Tigers manager) Ty Cobb. Gehringer even noted that Cobb took him under his wing, helping him learn the finer points of hitting before they had a falling out.
No matter. Between Cobb’s instructions and Gehringer’s ability, he took off. In 1927, just his second full season as a regular, Gehringer hit .300 for the first time, .317 to be exact. Once he started doing it, hitting .300 got to be a habit with him. He did it 13 times in 14 seasons, with a .298 mark breaking up the streak.
To be fair, those hits were a product of the time. The AL in the 1920s and 1930s was a hitter’s paradise, with historically inflated batting averages. Still, even by those standards, few hit like Gehringer. From 1927-40, he bopped out 2,595 hits, over 600 more than anyone else. Sure, that’s selective endpoints, and it’s also looking at Gehringer’s best stat, but that’s still an enormous lead. He was healthy, he was consistent, and he was damn good.
And it wasn’t all just empty singles, either. Though not a player remembered for his speed, Gehringer also topped the baseball world in triples from 1927 to 40, with 125. He led the league in triples with 19 in 1929, which was one of seven times he had double digits in that stat.
More impressively were his collection of doubles. In that 14-year prime, Gehringer hit 536 doubles. Second-most in that period was fellow Hall of Fame second baseman Billy Herman, way, way back with 346.
536 doubles in 14 seasons is historic. Only four others can top that: Tris Speaker (593), Stan Musial (577), Pete Rose (543), and Paul Waner (542).
But Gehringer’s problem is that he basically has just those 14 seasons, while those above had several additional campaigns. Each was among the best of the best in their primes, whereas Gehringer was merely great, but he was incredibly consistent in his greatness.
In fact, Gehringer’s consistency earned him the nickname “Mechanical Man,” as you could seemingly wind him up and watch him hit .320 or .330 year after year. The nickname also fit his personality. He was never flashy, never colorful, but he got the job done. It was like he was a cyborg sent from the future to hit 43 doubles a season.
So it isn’t too surprising that Gehringer quickly won election into Cooperstown in 1949. He was just 46 years old when he entered the Hall, and as it happened, he was barely halfway through his life. Gehringer lasted another 43 years before passing on in January, 1993, 20 years ago today.
Aside from that, many other events today celebrate either their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago).
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