To the extent that anyone in today's buttoned-down world of professional sport can be described as a character, Earl Weaver is a character. He is 5 feet, 6 1/2 inches of combustible contents, and when he explodes--as he does frequently, if unpredictably--he fairly lights up the night. He is outspoken and profane, provocative and cocky, and he has been known to take a drink. He is also, on the evidence, the best manager in baseball--perhaps even the best in the game's long and populous history.

Some of this, though not as much as most readers probably would like, comes through in "It's What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts." Weaver is not exactly your standard-issue sports figure, 1980s style, but he and Berry Stainback have collaborated on a rather standard-issue, as-told-to sports autobiography. It's not an inspirational book, in the tradition of "Lou Gehrig: Boy Hero," but it tends to sanitize a fellow who, his performance over the years suggests, is anything but a saint--indeed, it leads us to believe that there's something of a softie beneath Weaver's sun-scorched, granite-hard exterior.

Since taking over as manager of the Baltimore Orioles at midseason in 1968, Weaver has wheedled, cajoled, bullied and goaded his teams into winning three of every five games they've played--an extraordinary winning percentage, at the end of the 1981 season, of .597 over 2,111 games. He's done this with one Hall of Famer (Frank Robinson), two near-cinches (Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer) and one bright prospect (Eddie Murray), but how he has handled his stars has been far less important than how he has handled his foot soldiers; assuring each man on his 25-player squad of fair (if sometimes rough) treatment, ample playing time and a bracing dose of loyalty, he has repeatedly gotten the most out of a cast of characters that over the years has fluctuated markedly in talent and personality. His formula may seem simple, but it takes a complex understanding of the game and those who play it to make it work:

"What else is a good manager but a guy who pushes the button that gets the right player into the ball game at the right time. That is simply the player best suited to accomplish what needs to be done to assure victory in a given situation, whether it be a pinch runner who can beat the double play or get you an extra base, or a pinch hitter who can deliver the runner, or a defensive replacement who can make the tough catch, or a relief pitcher who can get the big out."

There's a good deal of this sort of stuff in "It's What You Learn"--hard-core strategy and tactics served up by the reigning master of same. There is a good deal less of the kind of irreverent chatter that Weaver's behavior and reputation might lead one to expect. He speaks with little charity of the baseball hierarchy and few umpires come in for kind words, but by and large Weaver is content to look back with benign serenity.

This is not to say, however, that the compliments he hands out smack of insincerity. To the contrary, there is genuine feeling in his stated admiration for Frank Robinson and Reggie Jackson, his rueful speculation about what might have been had Boog Powell only taken better care of himself, his recollection of the farewell celebration for Brooks Robinson:

"Standing there looking at Brooks holding the base with that wonderful smile on his face and the crowd going wild in the background and all of the love and warmth permeating the stadium . . . I thought, I'd like to be like Brooks Robinson. The guys who never said no to anybody, the ones that everybody loves because they deserve to be loved, those are my heroes."

But his great love is baseball, the game that kept him away from home so much that his first marriage fell apart, the game that has made him financially independent, the game that with the Orioles' world championship in 1970 "made a short, fat, sassy, weak-armed former second baseman the happiest man on earth." Maybe so. But it's hard to imagine that he could have been happier then than he had been two decades earlier, playing Class D ball in Illinois:

"I loved West Frankfort, even though I had to live in a rooming house and eat at the Little Egypt Cafe. But the food was reasonable and plentiful, which was important when you were trying to stretch $1.25-a-day meal money. At the Little Egypt we got two eggs, bacon, toast, grits and coffee for 29 cents. We played 120 games that season, many of them on fields that featured knee-high weeds in the outfield or surfaces on which no plant would grow. But I was 17 years old and making a living doing the only thing I ever wanted to do: play baseball."

It's that paragraph, as much as anything else in this book, that makes me doubt that Weaver will go through with his announced plan to retire at the end of this season. Indeed, I note that when he mentions his intention to retire to Florida, he says that could happen "perhaps after the 1982 season." To any Oriole fan, that "perhaps" is as momentous--and as welcome--as a Murray three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth.