The Saturday just past was a sad one for fans of the Grand Old Game, as two hall of famers went end-of-watch after long and eventful careers and lives. Stan the Man and the Earl of Baltimore were American originals. They both made major contributions to the game, but in different ways, and could not have been more unalike temperamentally.
Musial was not only one of the game’s greatest hitters, but is universally thought to be the nicest guy who ever wore cleats. It’s not my call, but I’d judge Stan to be a first-ballot lock on entry to Heaven. As God is merciful, I like Earl’s chances as well. But he may have to march off some demerits before being admitted. Especially if the Entrance Committee is heavily salted with former Major League umpires, up whose noses Earl seemed to live. No one – not Lou Piniella, not Casey Stengel, not Sparky Anderson, not Bobby Cox – no one, could bait an umpire like Earl. (OK, maybe Billy Martin was close.)
Musial made the bigger footprint in the game. The stats from his 22-year career are truly staggering, comparable or superior to better known stars – Mantle, Williams, DiMaggio, et al. – who commanded far more attention and got more ink than Stan because these players did not spend their careers in fly-over St. Louis. Just a sample:
Stan hit .331 for a career and collected 3,630 hits, a National League record until Pete Rose surpassed it. He batted over .300 seventeen times, winning seven National League batting championships along the way. Not a big man – at six-foot even he played most of his career at 175 pounds – he still hit 475 homes runs. Stan’s best season was 1948 when he batted .376 with 39 home runs, 131 RBIs, and 135 runs scored. He was one home run short of the triple-crown. Remarkably, in a 39-dinger season, Stan struck out only 34 times (34 strike-outs is barely a month’s work for B.J. Upton). In fact, Stan struck out only 696 times in a career that covered 3,026 regular season games and 10,972 at bats.
A model of consistency, Stan rang up 1,815 base hits in home games and 1,815 on the road. He sprayed the ball all over the field and hit about as well against lefties as against right-handers. Former Dodgers pitcher Preacher Roe, who faced Stan many times, once suggested that the best way to deal with Musial was to “throw him four wide ones, then try to pick him off first base.”
The gaudy numbers above establish Stan as one of the greatest players in the history of the game, and made him a first-ballot pick for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. But those who knew him say he also led a hall of fame life away from the field. He was as decent a man as he was a great hitter. Stories of Stan’s sunny disposition, humility, humor, and generosity would, and do, fill books. Team owners, league MVPs, rookies, fans, the club house boy, all were treated equally, and with respect, by The Man. This helps explain why Stan was a successful businessman after his baseball career and was and remains, no contest, the most beloved athlete in St. Louis history. Contemplating Musial’s honest approach to the game and to life offers contemporary sports enthusiasts a welcome break from debates on whether pharmaceutically enhanced geeks belong in the hall of fame, or whether fantasy girl-friends hurt a guy’s chances in the NFL draft.
At the age of 13 or 14 I witnessed the Musial charm in action for myself outside of rickety old Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, where the Cardinals played their spring training home games in the fifties. Some of the players brushed aside kids seeking autographs, but Stan never did. He patiently signed for whoever was there with a program or a ball or an autograph book. As I write this there’s a baseball on my desk, signed by Stan on one of those spring days.
A testament to Stan’s even-temper and unflappability is reflected in one of his most remarkable stats. In a career of more than 3,000 games he was never ejected from a single one. The possessor of near X-ray vision, Stan knew when the umps didn’t get it right. But he saw no point in laying into the man in blue when he missed one to Stan’s disadvantage.
While Stan was one of the games greatest hitters and a model of civility and restraint, our Earl was quite the other thing. A five foot-six inch bundle of cantankerous competitiveness, Weaver never made the bigs as a player. But he knew the game as well as anyone, and knew how to motivate players. He became one of the game’s most successful managers, making the Orioles the winningest franchise of the 1970s.
Weaver was a master of Xs and Os. He knew about match-ups before match-ups were cool. But his success may have been due more to his fanaticism about defensive fundamentals, which he drilled his players on endlessly in spring training. He expected his players to play the game right, and would get in their faces when they didn’t (even when he had to stand on a stool to do it). He knew games were won by good pitching, which he was blessed with through most of his career, by strong defense up the middle, and by the odd three-run dinger.
Some may have overlooked Weaver’s real skill as a manager because of his on-field pyrotechnics at the expense of umpires. While Stan was never ejected during one of the game’s longest careers, Weaver was run from more than 90 games, including three times from both games of a double-header. Whether Weaver’s frequent tilting with umpires came from over-competitiveness, an attempt to motivate his players, or sheer cussedness isn’t clear. But it could be entertaining, unless of course you were an American League umpire, many of whom admitted Earl got under their skin.
I was able to watch Earl the picador in action in Memorial Stadium on several occasions in the summer of 1982, Earl’s last year as Oriole manager and my first year working on Capitol Hill. If I sat close enough to first base I might pick out a little Weaver supplication along the lines of, “#$%@! Luciano! Is this as #$%@! good as you’re going to be all #$%@! night?!”
Earl didn’t come running out of the dugout like Lou Piniella, another great umpire baiter. Earl stalked out of the dugout, oozing contempt from every pore. When he got close to the offender in blue he turned his hat around backwards to allow him to work in close and launched into his spittle-laced message (no stats are kept on spittle, but if there had been Weaver would have led the league every year).
Retired American League umpire Durwood Merrill summed it up in his 1998 book this way, “Knowing that Baltimore manager Earl Weaver was in the dugout made a lot of umpires sick.” Earl may have made a few umpires queasy, but he made a lot of teams and a lot of players better than they otherwise would have been.
Baseball aficionados will celebrate the lives of these two men, who contributed to the game in starkly different but important ways. The Grand Old Game has both room and need for accomplished practitioners like the graceful and talented gentle knight that was Stan the Man, and the fiery Weaver, who lacked the physical talents to get beyond the bus leagues as a player, but who could encompass baseball’s big picture well enough to be a leader of men and a builder of teams. And, even umpires who wish Earl hadn’t left he dugout so often will admit, a winner.