Earl Weaver’s death, and the huge national coverage it received, reminded me again how rich a sports history Baltimore has.
For a city with just two major league sports teams, there are icons aplenty, and most still with us.
It’s remarkable, especially considering that the city was without the NFL for 12 years, and had an NBA team for barely a decade. (For those too young to remember, the Wizards were once the Bullets and played in Baltimore from 1963-73.) The city has never had the NHL, and hasn’t even had minor league hockey in years.
Weaver was the most noted manager or coach in Baltimore sports. Don Shula and Weeb Ewbank both coached the Baltimore Colts, and John Harbaugh is well on his way to greatness, but Weaver’s accomplishments are astounding.
In the pre-three division era, Weaver’s teams won six American League East titles, four pennants and a World Series. Six more times his team finished second (one year tied). In only one of his 17 years did his team have a losing record, his last.
Whenever Buck Showalter hears the comparisons to Weaver, he shudders. Showalter doesn’t suffer from a lack of ego, but he knows, he’s accomplished just a fraction of what Weaver has.
It actually enhanced Weaver’s stature when he died on the same day as one of his boyhood idols, Stan Musial. Two Hall of Famers dying the same day was ironic.
Weaver and Johnny Unitas are gone, but Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Cal Ripken and Ray Lewis are still with us.
Baltimore isn’t a large city. It shouldn’t be compared with Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia or Detroit. Those markets are all significantly larger.
More accurate comparisons are Cincinnati, Kansas City and San Diego. They’re all two-team towns that also lost NBA teams.
The Reds had Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Sparky Anderson, Pete Rose and the rest of the Big Red Machine. By the way, the Orioles beat the first of those teams in 1970 to earn Weaver his World Series win. Frank Robinson played there, too, but he prefers to think of himself as an Oriole. They don’t have the football tradition Baltimore has.
Kansas City has George Brett and Len Dawson while San Diego has Tony Gwynn and not much else.
In its brief incarnation as home to the Bullets, Baltimore had six first place teams and one loss in the NBA finals.
Sports fans in Baltimore expect and recognize excellence. They identified with Weaver’s working man persona, and it didn’t hurt that he was small and liked to battle umpires.
They see the same things with Showalter.
When he came to Baltimore, Weaver was the team’s first base coach, and after a half-season, the career minor leaguer was promoted to Orioles’ manager.
Weaver lived modestly in Perry Hall, a middle class suburb northeast of the city, and retired for the first time at the young age of 52 because he had enough money and was tired of fighting with everyone.
A hard drinker and heavy smoker, it would have seemed impossible for Weaver to live three more decades, but after a heart attack in the late 90s’, he adopted a healthier lifestyle and lived to 82.
Of course, Weaver returned to the Orioles for a season-and-a-half in 1985. His teams didn’t play well, and after his 1986 team collapsed, he had enough.
He softened a bit in his last stint. Eric Bell, who was a pitcher on his final teams was called up from the Instructional League in Florida, and didn’t have suitable clothes.
Bell was shocked when he found out Weaver bought him a sports jacket. He saw it lying on his bed in Milwaukee.
“I didn’t even have one. I borrowed one from someone,” Bell said from his home in Chandler, Ariz., where he runs a baseball school.
“Earl called up to the room, and said: ‘Do you like it?’ I don’t where that thing is now. I can’t imagine I threw it out.”
Bell remembers Weaver’s coarse voice. “One time in spring training, he was yelling and [Mike] Flanagan or [Mike] Boddicker yelled at him: “’get the rocks out of your throat.’”
That voice was unforgettable, and so were his teams. He fit the town, and the city was so much richer for his baseball knowledge.