The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

Earl Weaver: Strategy, Innovation, and 94 Meltdowns (pt.2)

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…continued from yesterday

Given the weight the ejections and antics lend to his legacy, it’s easy to forget that Weaver has humble roots—he came to baseball as a working-class boy from the streets of St. Louis. As a child in the 1930s, he worked hauling uniforms back and forth between his father’s dry-cleaning business and the clubhouses of the St. Louis Browns and the Cardinals. He fell in love with the Gashouse Gang at a young age and dreamed of nothing but becoming a professional ballplayer. Weaver eventually became a standout player at Beaumont High School in St. Louis and played second base in the minor leagues for almost a decade before realizing, as he said, “I wasn’t going to make the majors as a player.”3 He went on to manage at every level in the Orioles organization before finally being brought in to manage Baltimore, replacing Hank Bauer midway through the 1968 season.

Baltimoreans know all this, though, and will forget neither how hard Weaver worked to get to the Orioles dugout nor all he accomplished once he got there. They were the ones who saw Weaver as their guy, as the literal small guy sweating his way through life with an unwavering work ethic and who rarely worked with more than a one-year contract. They dubbed the diminutive dynamo The Earl of Baltimore. It was those same fans who cheered wildly and almost brought Weaver to tears when he delivered his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in August 1996. Standing behind the podium, speaking in front of his boyhood idols Enos Slaughter and Stan Musial, Weaver implored the fans, “Please don’t make me cry, now. I don’t want to cry.”4 The Oriole faithful knew that Weaver was right where he belonged, and it wasn’t just his 1,480 wins that got him there. They knew that, over the course of his career, Weaver developed a system that not only defined Orioles baseball but had a significant impact on how the game was managed.

Weaver was one of the first managers to make extensive use of statistics; he pored over them endlessly as he tried to find anything that would give him an advantage over an opponent. Sometimes those advantages came at the cost of a player’s ego, but Weaver made no apologies. An excellent example: Substituting a hitter like Chico Salmon for MVP Boog Powell when the Orioles faced Mickey Lolich. To Weaver, who described the odd substitution in his book Weaver on Strategy, it was a no-brainer. Salmon’s .300 batting average, .349 on-base percentage, and .400 slugging percentage against Lolich towered over Powell’s paltry .178/.211 /.278. The same applied to slugger Lee May. When Weaver “went to the books” (as the Oriole players used to say), he saw that May hit a sickly .095 against Luis Tiant. To hear Weaver tell it, “No way he’s going to be in the lineup against Tiant when I got [another] guy who hits his junk for about .420.”5 In a similar regard, Weaver would move Mark Belanger higher up in the batting order when facing Jim Kern. Belanger hit .625/.684 /.625 against Kern; he was otherwise (that is, after subtracting his 10-for-16 against Kern) a .226 lifetime batter. Weaver tolerated Belanger’s low average in the first place because Belanger was an outstanding defender who won eight Gold Gloves at shortstop.6

Weaver was also a renowned judge of baseball talent. Frank Robinson, one of six Hall of Famers Weaver managed, said in Time magazine article that Weaver’s talent went far beyond realizing who the best athlete was or what combinations made the best starting lineup.7 He delved deep into the question of who was the best man to get a hit after sitting on the bench for a week, what pinch-runner could steal a base in the late innings, and who could play more than one position if there was an injury. “Nobody in baseball can put all those elements together better than Earl Weaver,” Robinson concluded. “Because nobody can judge baseball talent as well as he can.” Robinson may as well have said the name Terry Crowley, the same player Weaver ripped on his fake radio broadcast. Part of what Weaver said wasn’t fake at all—he kept the journeyman around because he knew Crowley could sit on the bench and then break something open late in a game with his clutch hitting. But it wasn’t just Crowley that cemented Weaver’s reputation. He was but one of a boatload of no-names and castoffs from other teams whom Weaver used once he dug through his files to see who could do what in whatever situation. Weaver credits his ability to evaluate talent with the epiphany he experienced when he realized he would never play in the majors. In the same Time article, he said, “Right then I started becoming a good baseball person, because when I came to recognize, and more important, accept my own deficiencies, then I could recognize other players’ inabilities and learn to accept them, not for what they can’t do, but for what they can do.”

Adding to this, Weaver also had a knack for exploiting loopholes he found in the rules. Whether it was a survival skill that carried over from the Depression or something that developed in his mind as he scrambled to find any way to compensate for his size on the field, Weaver’s conniving became one of his best-known characteristics. In 1975, he adjusted for Mark Belanger’s weak bat during late-season division races by listing Royle Stillman to hit leadoff and play shortstop on the road. Stillman, who was called up from the minors once rosters expanded, hit .500 (3-for-6) in those situations, so he usually gave the team an immediate advantage. When the Orioles took the field in the bottom of the first, Belanger would trot out to short and hit leadoff the rest of the game. The league never stopped Weaver from using that particular ploy (he did it again in 1979), but it did pull the plug on another one of his strategies. In 1980, he fell into the habit of listing Steve Stone as his designated hitter.8 The motivation was simple: If the opposing pitcher was knocked out of the game early, Weaver wouldn’t lose a position player if he wanted to change the DH to match up better with the reliever. It was perfectly legal, but the league passed a rule against it, citing that the stunt distorted hitting statistics.

Written by seeker70

January 23, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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