(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)
The little man of destiny surveyed a rising empire in disarray and acted decisively to arrest its declining fortunes. He set new organizational priorities and made changes to key personnel that enabled him to realize those new goals. In a very short time, he rose to become the dominant figure in his field.
And that, in an overwrought paragraph, is how we like to think about the great baseball managers' rise to prominence with the teams that made them famous. It's a better fit for Napoleon Bonaparte in the summer of 1799 than Earl Weaver in the summer (and fall) of 1969, but it says something that either man could wear it. Let's not, though. To properly appreciate Weaver, we have to let go of the naive and deterministic man-of-destiny idea that leaders shape their circumstances rather than vice-versa. Greatness is contingent, and Weaver's career is testament to the reality that circumstances can be badgered, but not always beaten.
We can hold onto "little man," though: Napoleon was 5-foot-6, Weaver 5-foot-7.
Weaver, manager of the Baltimore Orioles from 1968 through 1982 (as well as an ill-fated 1985-1986 encore) won six division titles, four pennants, and one world championship. He had his name on an Electronic Arts video game before John Madden. At the time of Weaver's initial retirement, his career winning percentage was .596, third-best among modern managers. Another way of saying this is that his average team won 97 games. Nonetheless, it's also indisputable that the best teams of Weaver's career were also the ones that least reflected his particular genius. Like most managers, when Weaver was dealt a good hand, he played it well. It was only when the cards weren't as good that he began tinkering.
When even that didn't work, he yelled.
On October 15, 1969, Weaver was ejected from Game 4 of the World Series against the New York Mets. Then and now, that is extremely unusual—neither baseball nor umpires, the latter of whom Weaver, in a moment of strange candor and palpable irony, said, "have as much integrity as any working group of people anywhere," want to deprive a team of its coach at the season's crucial moment. Before the Series began, Weaver and Mets manager Gil Hodges had been told that they would be given exceptional leeway when arguing with the umpires so long as their language wasn't abusive. Weaver was new enough on the job that no one knew how useless this heads-up would be.
In baseball, there has historically been a "magic word" that gets managers tossed regardless of circumstances. We're adults here, so here it is: "Motherfucker." All Weaver said to get tossed from a World Series game in 1969 was, "Shag," which he didn't even mean in the Austin Powers sense of the word. This, too, was ironic given his typical vocabulary in dealing with the men in blue. It was the third inning and, in Weaver's telling, he had mildly protested a strike called on O's shortstop Mark Belanger by home-plate umpire Shag Crawford:
"I don't really know why he threw me out. The pitch to Belanger was low… I yelled to the umpire that we weren't getting that pitch. He… yelled something back at me which I couldn't hear, so I went out and all I got to say was, 'Shag' before he told me, 'You're out for coming up here to question balls and strikes.' I told him I wasn't up there to argue… but to learn what he had said to me… 'Well, all you're going to hear now is that you're out of the game.'"
Crawford, a National League ump with 14 years experience, depicted himself as having been even more confrontational: "I told him to shut his damned mouth—if he didn't hear me then his ears are as bad as he thinks my eyes are… Weaver was just trying to test me. He wasn't coming to the plate just to say 'Hello.'"
Weaver had only a half-dozen ejections on his major-league record at that point, but Crawford was acting as if Weaver and the umpires were at war—which, as it turned out, was true. Weaver would ultimately be ejected a record 94 times, although Bobby Cox would ultimately surpass him during his much longer career. As with all of the most idiosyncratic aspects of Weaver's career, this tendency towards confrontation for its own sake didn't really accelerate until after the 100-win World Series seasons of 1969-1971, when Weaver had less to work with. Weaver had spent 17 years in the minors trying to make his way up to the bigs, first as a player, then as a manager, and he wasn't headed back without a struggle.
The team that Weaver took over from skipper Hank Bauer in 1968 had already been good enough to sweep the Dodgers out of the World Series in 1966. Many of the players who would make Weaver famous were already present, including Boog Powell, Davey Johnson, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Paul Blair, Frank Robinson, Don Buford, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer. "I think I inherited a good ballclub," Weaver said at the time. "With one or two changes, I think it can be improved."
He saw those changes with characteristic clarity, cutting the starting rotation back from five men to four and making a regular out of Bauer extra Don Buford, telling him to emphasize drawing walks. Offensive walks were a religion to Weaver, one of many points on which he was roughly a generation ahead of the curve. His teams finished first or second in the AL in walks drawn in seven of 14 seasons, and Buford became the primary leadoff man for the '69-'71 pennant-winners, hitting an aggregate .284/.405/.433 in those years.
"A manager's job is simple," Weaver once said. "For 162 games you try not to screw up all the smart stuff your organization did last December"—or the previous November, when Bauer had failed to grasp the potential of the O's acquiring Buford. Of course, even genius needs that kind of luck—the bad luck for Bauer that created an opportunity, mostly due to injuries suffered by Jim Palmer in 1967 and '68, and the good luck for Weaver when Palmer returned a perennial Cy Young contender.
And Weaver was a baseball genius. He tracked batter-pitcher match-ups on index cards before there were computers to do it for him and simplified his strategy down to, "Pitching, three-run homers, and fundamentals." In this, Weaver was well ahead of his time, as the old "inside baseball" of the bunt and steal died hard. Hell, it practically died yesterday. He made his defenses airtight, with his clubs finishing first or second in the AL in defensive efficiency 10 times in 14 seasons. He also has Cal Ripken, Jr. as a monument to his vision. He insisted Ripken could play shortstop at a time when conventional baseball men, including Weaver's own GM, didn't think a 6'4" shortstop was viable. There is a plaque in Cooperstown proving him right.
The 1969-1971 O's, Weaver's first attempt at making his vision a reality, could compete with any of the great teams in history. His later clubs were often very good, but not of that quality. As the old Bauer-era core aged out, the farm system produced strong replacements such as Bobby Grich and Don Baylor—at which point free agency came along and started to attrit that core. The O's couldn't compete with the Yankees on that basis—iconic case in point: Reggie Jackson joined the Yankees from Baltimore, not Oakland—and that was when Weaver started scouring the curb for bit players he could turn into productive part-time pieces. "Earl gave mediocre players more of an opportunity to play than any other manager," said O's catcher Elrod Hendricks.
This was when Weaver turned into his most inventive and iconoclastic self, the guy who said things like, "I'd like to find the guy who invented the sacrifice bunt and shove it in his ear." Every manager faced with a deficiency of talent will try to make things happen. This makes psychological sense: If he doesn't push buttons, the manager, who is unable to hit or run or pitch, is helpless to do much beyond cheerleading. Weaver went in the opposite direction. His early teams bunted and stole bases at an average rate, and his lineups didn't chase platoon match-ups. As late as 1975, the Orioles had the platoon advantage at the plate less than any other team in the league. They rapidly rose from there, finishing first in this category in 1981. Not coincidentally, Weaver was also first in pinch-hit at-bats the same year.
He also doubled down on the tendency that first surfaced in that World Series ejection, harassing the umpires and even his own players—"He tried to humiliate me every day," catcher Rick Dempsey told author John Eisenberg—likely to the point it was counterproductive. In some sense, though, all that frenetic activity worked: The Orioles kept winning, picked up another pennant in 1979, won 100 games again in 1980, missed a division title on the last day of the 1982 season, and the team he built won the World Series in 1983.
By then, though Weaver was just 51, and retired. The fire had consumed itself and gone. This trying to be a man of destiny thing, it takes a lot out of you. At the very least, you lose your voice.