ED PIERCE: Earl Weaver Left Indelible Impression
By Ed Pierce, Managing Editor // January 21, 2013
Interview Completed Long-Standing Goal
BREVARD COUNTY • WEST MELBOURNE, FLORIDA – Have to admit I was shocked to learn that Hall of Fame baseball manager Earl Weaver had passed away of a heart attack late Friday night at the age of 82.
Our paths had crossed a few times and over the years “The Earl of Baltimore” had left an indelible impression upon my life.
In the winter months of early 1966 when I was growing up in Henrietta near Rochester, N.Y., my father would go through the local newspaper with me at the breakfast table and one day he posed a simple question to me.
“You say you want to be a sportswriter when you grow up,” he told me. “Can you pick out four names from this newspaper today of famous people you’d like to interview someday?”
I took about five minutes looking through all the sections of the paper before coming up with four “dream interview” names for him.
They were inspiration for my imagination and I never thought the list would hold great meaning for me throughout my career in journalism.
One name was from the newspaper masthead, the paper’s general manager Al Neuharth, and another was Carmen Basilio, a Rochester boxer and former middleweight world champion.
The third name was Bubba Smith, a defensive end for Michigan State who had appeared in the Rose Bowl that New Year’s Day against UCLA and was touted in an article as a possible top pro football draft choice.
The fourth name I chose was Earl Weaver, the newly named manager of the Rochester Red Wings, a man from St. Louis that my father and I had not heard of before his promotion to Red Wings skipper.
Weaver never played major league baseball, had retired from minor league ball at a rather early age and had risen quickly through the ranks of the Baltimore Orioles farm system as a manager.
As my father and I watched a lot of Red Wings baseball that summer from the grandstands of the old Silver Stadium in Rochester, we came to admire Weaver’s grit and hard-nosed determination to win.
He would do whatever it took to inspire his team, including being tossed in heated arguments with umpires over and over again.
Weaver loved the long ball and we found out that he would rather have batters swing at a 3-2 fastball with two runners on base than take a close pitch hoping to draw a walk. (The 3-run homer later became his trademark in the big leagues.)
We quickly learned that if Earl turned his baseball cap around while approaching an umpire, we could expect plenty of shouting, flying dirt around home plate and most certainly an ejection of the fiery manager.
That 1966 Red Wings team was loaded with talent including slick fielding shortstop Mark Belanger, power hitting first baseman Mike Epstein, future major league pitchers Tom Phoebus and Freddy Beene and a dazzling young outfielder named Dave May.
The Red Wings responded to Weaver’s leadership and claimed first place that season in the International League in a hard-fought battle edging Toronto and Columbus by a single game in the standings.
The following year Weaver returned to manage the Red Wings and they finished just a game back behind Richmond in the International League standings with a cast that included future major leaguers Curt Motton, Jim Hardin, Bobby Floyd and Ron Stone.
When Weaver joined the Orioles coaching staff following the 1967 Red Wings season, my father and I were sure Earl would someday find success as a major league manager.
Major League Opportunity
And we were right. When manager Hank Bauer was fired by the Orioles during the 1968 season, Baltimore general manager Harry Dalton selected Weaver over a host of more experienced staffers to lead the O’s.
The Orioles prospered under Weaver just as the Red Wings had done. And a year later in 1969, Baltimore won 109 regular season games under Earl’s guidance and were the odds-on favorite to take the World Series title until they ran into the upset-minded New York Mets, who claimed the title in five games.
Weaver’s Orioles won the World Series in 1970 over the Cincinnati Reds following another spectacular regular season that saw the Birds win 108 games.
In 1971 it was more of the same as Baltimore won 101 regular season games under Weaver. An incredible performance that fall by Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates halted the Orioles’ bid for a repeat World Series title in a seven-game seesaw battle.
I hailed Weaver once more when he led the Orioles to the World Series again in 1979 despite the fact Willie Stargell’s Pittsburgh Pirates again edged the Orioles in seven games that year in the Fall Classic.
In 17 seasons as Baltimore’s manager, Weaver won 1,408 games while enjoying a winning percentage of .583. His teams won six American League East titles and finished second seven times.
He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996, calling it the most humbling moment of his life.
By 1985 I had completed service as a military journalist and was working for a newspaper in New Mexico as a general assignment reporter. A star of the movie “Police Academy” was in town and my editor asked me to sit down and talk about the film with him for a story.
That movie star was former Michigan State and NFL star Bubba Smith. My interview with him was the first one of my original four newspaper interviews realized.
I later had the chance to do a story about the pitchman for an Italian sausage vendor at the State Fair. He happened to be none other than former middleweight boxing champ Carmen Basilio, thereby checking off yet another of my original four dream interviews.
Later I was able to interview newspaper legend Al Neuharth – the creator of USA Today newspaper – at his home in Cocoa Beach. I actually told him about the conversation my father and I had way back in 1966 about my “dream interviews” and he laughed with me about it.
But to bring the story full circle, I had the great privilege of being asked by an editor to cover the appearance of a baseball Hall of Famer for the Sunday sports section when he appeared in Viera for an autograph session in 2002 at Space Coast Stadium.
When I asked the editor which Hall of Fame member I would be interviewing, my jaw dropped when he told me it was Earl Weaver.
I was given Earl’s home telephone number in Miami and arranged to meet with him before his appearance.
Going into the interview, a few of my colleagues at the newspaper related stories to me how they had heard that Weaver was a “terrible interview” and that he “disliked and distrusted the media.”
They wished me luck and told me it would be a tough assignment. I have to admit I was more than slightly nervous as I shook hands with Earl and sat down with him in the third-floor conference room of Space Coast Stadium overlooking the ballpark.
“What do you want to know,” he asked me. “How long is this going to take?”
I quickly sensed that he was as nervous about the interview as I was.
To put him at ease, I told him the story about how on a wintery morning in January 1966 my father had me pick out four names from the Rochester newspaper for me to interview if I ever reached my goal of becoming a sportswriter.
He smiled broadly and told me he loved the time he spent in Rochester and that “Rochester people were good people.”
I told him how he had once autographed a Rochester baseball cap for me when I stuck it over the fence at Silver Stadium when he was managing the Red Wings.
It broke the ice and initiated a great conversation I can still recall almost word for word as if it were yesterday.
We talked about the great Orioles teams and players through the years and I told him it was because of him that I became a lifelong fan of the team.
Even though he had retired from baseball years before, I wanted to know if he still watched games on television and if so, what current players he admired.
He told me he didn’t watch a lot of games, but when he did, he was interested in what he called his ‘Big Three.”
They were all shortstops – Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.
“Best in the game today,” Weaver told me. “I like watching those three guys. They are throwbacks to days gone by and every time they come to bat it’s exciting.”
I asked him about his legendary feud with Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, a player he managed with the Orioles.
“The press has blown that all out of proportion,” he said. “I love Jim Palmer and the Orioles would not have achieved all the success they did and I wouldn’t be the manager I was without what Jim did.
“He was a great player and very gifted as an athlete,” Weaver said. “I will always be proud to have managed him.”
We shared about a half hour reminiscing before he told me he’d answer one last question before his going to his autograph session.
I asked him to tell me of all the players he managed in both the major and minor leagues who was most prepared as a player to become a manager himself.
“Very good question and one I’ve never been asked before,” he said. “And it’s actually an easy question for me to answer.
“Back when I was managing Elmira in 1965 for the Orioles I had this 22-year-old kid that kept a tiny notepad and one of those little bowling pencils in the back pocket of his uniform,’ Weaver said. “That kid would ask me about every decision I made as a manager – pitching changes, why I chose a particular pinch hitter or put on the hit-and-run sign – and then he’d write everything down in that little notepad. It was very apparent even at that age that the guy was going to be a great manager and he sure is. That young guy was Lou Pinella.”
“That kid would ask me about every decision I made as a manager – pitching changes, why I chose a particular pinch hitter or put on the hit-and-run sign – and then he’d write everything down in that little notepad. It was very apparent even at that age that the guy was going to be a great manager and he sure is.” Earl Weaver talking about Lou Pinella
Pinella went on to a great career in baseball as both a player and later a major league manager, guiding Cincinnati, the New York Yankees, Seattle, Tampa Bay and the Chicago Cubs before he retired at the end of the 2010 season.
When I read the news Saturday morning about Earl Weaver’s passing, it made me sad and all the memories flooded back.
Weaver was more than just a name on my “dream list” of people I had hoped to interview, he was a living legend that linked my childhood to my professional career and even to my father.
Baseball transcends generations and for me, Earl Weaver was someone my father and I followed closely through the years with respect and admiration.
My father died in an automobile accident in 1991 at the age of 65 without ever knowing that someday I would finally accomplish my long-forgotten task from the winter of 1966.
He would have been in awe that I got a chance to meet, let alone interview our hero Earl Weaver. So am I.