In the 1970s, when female reporters were first allowed in baseball locker rooms, I was leaving Earl Weaver’s office one night after his smart, sarcastic postmortem of a tough Orioles defeat. I realized that the only woman on the beat, a relative newcomer, had missed Weaver’s performance.
Entering his office as we all left, she looked worried. Weaver dressed down reporters for dumb questions and at times demanded what you would have done — and why — before he would give his own answer. His office was sometimes a funny place, but also electric with tension: Baseball spoken here.
Eavesdropping is a clubhouse sin. But I wanted to see how cruel Weaver might be. To that point, I’d never met anyone in baseball with much grasp that a female journalist had every right to be there.
“So,” said Weaver, businesslike, “do you want it all or just the highlights?” And he started repeating his best answers as she wrote.
Earl Weaver died late Friday night at 82. Whatever you think he was, you’re right. But he was probably also, to some degree, the opposite as well. Whenever you assumed he was a man of his time, defined and limited by immersion in his sport, he often showed he was ahead of the times and also, frequently, ahead of his sport.
In death, we will see images of his tirades at umpires, be reminded of his funny wisecracks and of his sense of strategy that predated several “Moneyball” theories by a generation. We’ll see a hard, smart man with a Chesapeake crab’s shell, little social polish and a need to overcompensate for his lack of size and ability as a minor league ballplayer. We all saw that.
But in nine years of covering the Orioles beat, I saw another Weaver, one that doesn’t contradict the first, but rather broadens him. He didn’t open up often, but when he did, you were floored. He knew himself — why he was who he was and why he managed the way he did — as well as anyone I ever covered. We knew he had examined baseball and hadn’t missed much. But he’d also examined himself and analyzed in detail everyone around him, too.
The distance Weaver kept from his players, with no desire whatsoever to be their friend, but rather to be their leader, was his defining trait to me. That distance gave him authority and made every day at the park feel just a little bit dangerous. What would Earl do? What might he not do, if he felt like it? No contemporary team, in my experience, was on its toes in the sense that Weaver’s Orioles always were.
Reggie Jackson only played one season for Weaver but said: “I loved the little Weave. If you made a mental mistake, you saw him waiting for you on the top step of the dugout when you came back in. He’d just say one word, ‘Why?’ And you better have an answer. On his team, if you didn’t ‘think the game,’ you had a problem. He was right in your face.”
“We are all on speaking terms. We have a little rapport. Not too much,” Weaver told me, regarding his relationships with his players. “You learn the lesson the first day in Class D [what the lowest rung of the minor leagues was once called]. You’re always going to be a rotten bastard, or in my case, a little bastard, as long as you manage. That’s the rule. To keep your job, you fire others or bench them or trade them. You have to do the thinking for 25 guys and you can’t be too close to any of them.”
Weaver never allowed managing to be a pleasure to him. It was work. And while he loved a loose, goofy clubhouse with characters and high jinks, one where you argued and let off steam one day, then started fresh with clean air the next, he never pretended to be a friend to anyone except his coaches. Every star he ever had “except Brooks Robinson,” ended up denouncing him, refusing to believe it when The End came to their careers.
That strain, of being a true authority figure, is perhaps the main reason his career was so short. He retired at 52, was begged and bribed back, but retired for good at 56. Two other reporters and I sat in the dugout one evening in ’86 before a game when Weaver began ruminating on how he returned but couldn’t fix the team and knew it and should quit. Then he said he had to go see the general manager and he left.
“Did Earl just decide to retire?” we asked each other. He did at the end of the ’86 season.
For Weaver, the strain of the game was his certainty that he was often one of the few adults in the room. “You must remember that anyone under 30 — especially a ballplayer — is an adolescent,” he once told me. “I never got close to being an adult until I was 32. Even though I was married and had a son at 20, I was a kid at 32, living at home with my parents. Sure, I was a manager then. That doesn’t mean you’re grown up.
“Until you’re the person that other people fall back on, until you’re the one that’s leaned on, not the person doing the leaning, you’re not an adult. You reach an age when suddenly you realize you have to be that person. Divorce did it to me. It could be elderly parents, children . . . anything. But one day you realize, ‘It’s me. I’ve got to be the rock.’ ”
Finally, he got sick of being that rock, never showing his players how much he cared about them, always being the adult bringing bad news. No manager ever yearned for retirement more than Weaver.
“I know exactly what I need to live on, have since ’57. I’m always going to do the same things. I grow all my own vegetables. I stuff my own sausages. Pork shoulders will be coming on sale next month. I look for chuck roast on sale to use in stew or grind up for hamburgers,” Weaver said. “Doing that takes time and I enjoy it. I’ll have plenty [of money] to play golf every day, run out to Hialeah or the dogs, take [wife] Marianna out to dinner in Fort Lauderdale, and take a walk on the beach. . . .
“I don’t want to spend my whole life watching the sun go down behind the left field bleachers.”
Weaver’s Orioles were always amazed that he retired so young, stayed in Florida and always seemed content, especially compared to the constantly wired Earl of Baltimore, whenever they saw him again. They assumed he was worried about his health or didn’t want his ritual postgame drinking, to unwind after games, to get the better of him. What they missed was his wisdom. One of his owners, the distinguished lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, talked constantly about “competition living” and how little else mattered. Weaver looked at him amused and grew tomatoes in the bullpen.
Many will remember him for his wins, his arguments and his quips. “I gave Mike Cuellar more chances than my first wife.” Or, on seeing slumping Al Bumbry heading to chapel services, cracking, “Take your bat.” He never met an authority figure, in a blue ump’s uniform or a general manager’s office or a state trooper’s cruiser, that didn’t bring out the hell raiser in him.
That’s Earl. But there was plenty more. He thought about everything in baseball with a unique freshness, as if it was unexamined before he arrived. He loved to analyze the psychology of his players, adding every new detail to his mental portrait. And, in a game where consistency is worshipped, he actually enjoyed changing his mind, reworking the puzzle.
“Why?” we asked him.
“Everything changes everything,” he said.
And now that he’s gone, even more so.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/