Earl Weaver penned his own epitaph.
“On my tombstone just write, ‘The sorest loser that ever lived,’ “ he once said.
Weaver, the Orioles’ chain-smoking, umpire-baiting, tomato-growing manager who led the team to four American League pennants and the 1970 world championship in his 17 years here, died late Friday night while on a baseball-themed cruise. The Orioles confirmed his death Saturday morning but did not release a cause.
The Hall of Famer, who lived in Pembroke Pines, Fla., was 82.
“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 owner Peter Angelos said in a statement.
Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame third baseman, called Weaver’s passing “a terrible day. I loved that guy. He made every player who ever played for him a better player.”
Weaver piloted the Orioles from 1968 to 1982, and again in 1985-86, earning nicknames like “the little genius” and “the Earl of Baltimore.” His teams won 1,480 games and lost 1,060, and his lifetime winning percentage (.583) ranks seventh all-time and fifth among managers in the modern era who managed 10 years or more. Five times, the Orioles won at least 100 games for Weaver, who was 5-feet-7 but stood taller in his players’ eyes.
“Earl was one of a kind,” said Hank Peters, the Orioles’ president and general manager from 1975 to 1987. “He was little, but he produced mighty results. He had the ability to get so much out of his players. He was the master at giving them the opportunity to do their best. His record attests that he made the right moves.”
One of the game’s great strategists, Weaver was also a visionary and a genius at maximizing a 25-man roster’s potential. In his pocket, he carried index cards with “the minutiae of the American League on them.” He loved players who got on base and hit home runs. He abhorred small-ball strategies that wasted outs. And he trumpeted these theories long before they were brought into Hollywood vogue.
“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.”
Born and raised in St. Louis, Weaver signed with the Cardinals in 1948 and kicked around the minor leagues as a light-hitting second baseman. In 1957, at age 26, he joined the Orioles’ organization as player-manager of their Fitzgerald, Ga. rookie club, and gradually progressed. He quit playing in 1960, never having made the big leagues.
Early on, Weaver’s fiery temperament struck the Orioles’ brass.
“He’s colorful and aggressive,” Harry Dalton, then Baltimore’s farm director, told The Sun in 1961. “Once he charged an opponent’s dugout with a flying tackle, hit a post and wound up in the hospital with a shoulder separation. But he has mellowed some lately, and that is good.”
In 11 years of managing in the minors, Weaver won three pennants, placed second on five occasions and never finished out of the first division.
Promoted to the parent club as first-base coach in 1968, he became the Orioles’ sixth manager that year and made his debut on July 11, replacing the fired Hank Bauer. His salary was $25,000 — half that of his predecessor.
“We took a chance on him,” said Frank Cashen, then the Orioles vice president. “Weaver was a rogue, in the best sense of that word. Making him manager was probably the smartest thing we ever did. In my opinion he was the best manager in baseball – twice hired, twice retired, and never fired.”
Weaver won his first game, 2-0, over the Washington Senators as Dave McNally pitched a two-hitter and Boog Powell stole a base.
The Orioles, then 43-37 and in third place, rose to second and finished 91-71.
Three straight American League pennants followed and, in 1970, the Orioles won their second World Series, defeating the Cincinnati Reds, four games to one.
Afterward, at an awards dinner, Weaver said, “The Orioles made me. I didn’t make the Orioles.”
Powell remembered Weaver as “a fierce competitor who understood the innermost workings of the game. Earl knew the rulebook, forwards and backwards – and, sometimes, he tore it up too.”
Weaver’s run-ins with arbiters — he was ejected 98 times — were legend. He screamed. He swore. He kicked dirt on home plate and, on several occasions, tore bases from their moorings and gave them the heave-ho before getting one of his own.
“Wherever Earl is now, I’m sure the umpires are saying, ‘Oh no, here he comes,’ “ Powell said.
Caricatured by the media, Weaver seemed not to care. Sun columnist Kevin Cowherd said his raspy voice, refined by years of smoking unfiltered Raleighs, resembled “a Cuisinart set on ‘puree’ when the umpires blow a call.
But Weaver’s theatrics were well-planned, said Rich Garcia, former AL umpire.
“He knew the drill. Earl didn’t want his players thrown out [for beefs], so he stepped in and got thrown out himself,” Garcia said.
“In my eyes, he was an icon of the game, and some of his strategies helped umpires. Earl didn’t want his pitchers throwing at guys because he didn’t want other teams doing the same. He didn’t want anyone getting hurt because he felt his 25 guys could beat anyone else’s.”
Weaver retired in 1982, declaring that there was more to life than baseball. “I didn’t want to wake up dead some morning in the Oakland Hyatt Hotel,” he said, adding that “I don’t know if I’m mean enough to manage anymore.”
On Sept. 19, a crowd of 41,127 showed at Memorial Stadium for “Thanks, Earl Day.” President Ronald Regan sent a congratulatory telegram. The Orioles retired Weaver’s No. 4 jersey, making him only the second big league manager to have his number retired (after Casey Stengel of the New York Yankees).
In his speech, written on those dog-eared index cards, Weaver said:
“Little did I know 15 years ago, how deeply attached I’d become to this city. I came here in 1968 when urban areas were being demolished by riots and fires ... but, after the turmoil subsided, it didn’t take me long to find out I was in a baseball town.
“The warmth and understanding you fans show professional athletes is hard to believe.”
Weaver thanked his family for “putting up with a mind completely dominated by my job for some 35 years” and the club for putting up with a “moody, irrational and sometimes rude individual.”
He thanked players for their exploits that “allowed me to keep my job” and said, “I will carry the memory of this day to my grave. I’m a very lucky man.”
Then he took a ride around the field in a 1954 Pontiac convertible and blew the fans a kiss.
It would be a bittersweet farewell. Weaver bowed out with a season-ending, 10-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers for the division championship. Twently minutes after the game, 40,000 fans hollered him back onto the field, where Weaver turned to the crowd and, arms extended, spelled O-R-I-O-L-E-S as fans shouted it out.
Two and a half years later, Weaver returned, at the behest of Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, in mid-1985 after the firing of Joe Altobelli. The Birds finished fourth as Weaver managed them down the stretch, winning 53 and losing 52.
He retired for keeps after 1986, when the Orioles (73-89) finished seventh in the AL East. It was the only losing season in Weaver’s 17 years with the club.
He was always a fan favorite, and the Orioles faithful got several opportunities to let him know that during the course of the Orioles’ 2012 season. Weaver returned to Baltimore repeatedly to take part in the special series of statue unveilings in the center field plaza at Camden Yards, including one that was dedicated to him on June 30.
He showed his softer side during his acceptance speech, applauding the other great Orioles there who are immortalized in bronze, and dozens more 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 year,’ '' Weaver said. “And thank God for the fourth [team] that won enough games for me to come back for the fifth year … and on to 17.”
Weaver was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996. Two years later, at 68, he suffered a heart attack while watching television at his home in Florida. He quit smoking after that.
Jim Palmer, the Orioles’ Hall of Fame pitcher who had many a go-round with his manager, said that he heard of Weaver’s death at 3:30 a.m. Saturday from Scott McGregor, another Orioles pitcher. McGregor was on the same Orioles-theme cruise with Weaver.
“I didn’t get much restful sleep after that,” Palmer said.
Weaver straddled no fences in his life, Palmer said.
“There weren’t any gray areas with Earl,” he said. “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 Earl. 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 times. He was so good at handling his roster.
Paul Blair, the Orioles’ longtime center fielder, called Weaver “a good friend and mentor. If he had a beef with you, he faced you man-to-man. You could have a knock-down, drag-out argument but, when the air cleared, it was over and done with.
“Yes, Earl was a fair, fair man.”
Weaver is survived by Marianna, his wife of 49 years, of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; a son, Michael Weaver, of Fort Lauderdale, Fl.; and daughters Kim Benson, of Bel Air, Terry Leahy, of St. Louis, and Rhonda Harms, of Houston.