Earl Weaver took over the reigns of the Baltimore Orioles from Hank Bauer mid way through the 1968 season as the Tigers were on their way to the World Series. Bauer had led the Orioles to the World Series in 1966. They were a perennial contender and the Tigers’ primary rivals from that ‘68 season into the early seventies.
There are some good reviews of the impact that Weaver had on the game of baseball, including this excellent article from Beyond the Box Score at SB Nation. I’m writing from the perspective of a Tiger fan who saw Weaver as a nemesis, and the leader of my favorite team’s chief rival.
I sort of got my wheels as a Tiger fan during the 1967 season. The Orioles were the defending World Series champions, led by triple crown winner Frank Robinson. ‘67 was a long, hot summer in Detroit, as riots spread and fires burnt down much of the city. Pictures of the war in Vietnam were on the evening news, brought to us by Walter Cronkite, and the Huntley- Brinkley report. Pretty much all we had to cheer for was our baseball team, and they staged quite a battle.
The Tigers were in a dead heat, a three way race with the Boston Red Sox and the Minnesota Twins for the American League pennant, with the winner set to face Bob Gibson’s Cardinals in the World Series. Weaver was the colorful first base coach of the Orioles that summer. The Red Sox won the pennant on the last day of the season, leaving the Tigers and Orioles tied for second place, just one game back. Carl Yasztremski won the triple crown this time. Little did we know that no player would again accomplish that feat for another 45 years.
Frank Robinson was injured during the ‘68 season, which my friends and I viewed as sort of offsetting the Tigers’ loss of Al Kaline, although the loss of Robinson was actually much greater at the time. The Tigers gradually pulled away and opened up a ten game lead by the fourth of July, and it was shortly after that time that Bauer was fired and replaced by Weaver. I recall the comments by Ernie Harwell and George Kell that Bauer could hardly be blamed, as the Tigers deserved credit for playing great baseball and Bauer couldn’t be faulted for Robinson’s injury.
The Tigers held a comfortable lead down the stretch, and the attention of Tiger fans turned to whether Denny McLain would break Dizzy Dean’s record of 30 wins. He did, and I was at the game sitting behind the Tiger dugout, behind Bowie Kuhn, and David Eisenhower who was dating Julie Nixon at the time. I learned all about magic numbers as I rooted for Baltimore to lose. Weaver’s Orioles finished second that year, 13 games behind the champion Tigers.
The following season, 1969, Weaver’s Orioles bolted out to a big lead and left the Tigers in second place, 19 games back despite winning 90 games. Mike Cuellar was voted the league’s co-Cy Young winner with Denny McLain, and it was game on for Tiger fans whenever we’d face the Orioles.
For the next three years, the Orioles won the newly formed American League’s east division every season. I was happy to see them lose to the miracle Mets in 1969, and none too thrilled when they beat Sparky Anderson’s Big Red Machine for Weaver’s only World Series title in 1970. The Tigers finished second two of those three seasons, but the Orioles were in the World Series every season.
I had the lineups for the Tigers, and their chief opponents, the Cardinals, Red Sox and Orioles all studied in those days, and to this day, I can rattle them off better than I could name my own cousins. Or at least my second cousins. The Orioles had Boog Powell, the monster sized first baseman, with Frank and Brooks Robinson, and three pitchers who were considered the best rotation in the league at the time. Dave McNally, Cuellar, the young Jim Palmer who would fight with Weaver seemingly every time he was taken out of a game. Then they added Pat Dobson, who was a relief pitcher on the champion ‘68 Tigers. All four of those guys won 20 games apiece in the 1971 season, something that hasn't been done since.
At the center of it all was Weaver. The colorful, angry white haired manager who was always arguing with the umpires, throwing temper tantrums and getting ejected from the game. We knew when he came out of the dugout that he wasn’t going to just have a conversation. He was going to have a fit. 91 times he was tossed from the game- I wasn’t counting at the time, but it was certainly a regular occurrence.
Now, here’s the main thing, as a Tiger fan. In 14-1/2 seasons as manager of the Orioles, Weaver’s teams won the division five times. They finished first or second twelve times. They had a winning record every single season. I was happy enough some seasons when anyone but Baltimore won the World Series. And they didn’t win it again until 1983, the season after Weaver retired, and they haven’t been back to the World Series since.
Weaver was famous for "pitching, defense, and the three run homer". He had no time for sacrifice bunts, stolen bases, or a hit and run. I’d like to claim that I recognized the wisdom of his philosophy at the time, but that’s not the case. Not until decades later, when sabermetric concepts slowly crept into my logic, and I read more about his baseball philosophy, did the pure genius of Earl Weaver become clear to me.
The fact of the matter is that the ranting white haired crazy manager of our nemesis was a genius, well ahead of his time. I knew that he studied match ups and he liked using platoons even if it meant sitting star players at times. And I knew that his teams were always beating my team by a few games every season. Only in retrospect can I appreciate what I had been watching.
For most of my time as a kid and as an adolescent, I thought that the only thing good to ever come out of Baltimore was Al Kaline. At least until Mickey Tettleton joined the Tigers, and just about then I was out of college and soon out of Michigan. Friends have joked with me that I had to leave Michigan for the Tigers to win again, which they did the very season that I left, and Earl Weaver was gone from Baltimore.
It occurred to me as the Tigers were putting something together in the early 80's, that Detroit had sunk to the bottom, not really contending for about ten years while the Orioles managed to stay on top. Boog Powell was replaced by Eddie Murray. Davey Johnson was replaced by Bobby Grich. Cal Ripken replaced Belanger, and they seemingly had a closet full of Cy Young contenders like Palmer, Steve Stone, Mike Flanagan, Scott McGregor, and Mike Boddicker. One thing was constant- Earl Weaver.
I was a nine year old boy when Earl Weaver took over the manager’s job with the Orioles, and he stayed in that job almost as long as I lived in Michigan. I’m sure that these memories will ring true for any Tiger fan who lived through those times. I’m not sure how this all comes across to those who didn’t, but that’s my perspective on Earl Weaver. May he finally rest in peace.