Throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day is a special moment for every team on its home opener, but rarely—if ever—has a team done something as creative and touching as the Baltimore Orioles did for their Friday home opener. After keeping the identity of the person chosen secret throughout the offseason, when gametime arrived, the Orioles announced there would be no one. Instead, a ball was placed on the mound and a moment of silence called for the recently deceased Earl Weaver, with the crowd told that Earl would throw out the first pitch. For today’s MLB coverage, rather than read too many conclusions into one week of play, TheSportsNotebook will follow suit and give a salute to the Earl of Baltimore.
Earl Weaver took over the Orioles’ managerial reins midway through the 1968 season and managed through 1982. He tried a brief, ill-fated comeback in the latter half of 1985 and in 1986, but it’s the 1969-82 period that really defined the heart of his stewardship.
Younger fans are often familiar with Earl, from video footage of the colorful skipper kicking dirt on the umpires in his battles with the men in blue. Earl’s flair was a big part of his appeal and his legend, and why he’ll never be truly replaced, but it would be a big mistake if he were reduced to a caricature. Consider what the Orioles did under his leadership….
*Excluding the 1985-86 comeback try, Earl won 59.6% of his games, averaging to more than 96 wins per year. To put that in perspective, only one team in baseball won 96 or more a year ago (the Washington Nationals). For Earl, 96 was the average over a 14-year period.
*He won the American League East six times, and let’ s keep in mind that prior to the realignment of 1994 the East was at least six teams strong and became seven in the late 1970s. Furthermore, these races generally weren’t close. In winning three straight divisions from 1969-71, Weaver’s Orioles finished at least twelve games ahead of the competition, in spite of the fact that the runner-up won at least 90 games.
*In four of those years, Baltimore went to win the American League Championship Series. In fact, Baltimore won nine straight ALCS games from 1969-71 (the LCS was best-of-five prior to 1985) and only lost once in taking the 1979 pennant.
*The World Series wasn’t quite as kind to Earl, as Baltimore won one title—in 1970, when they combined with the Colts to give their home city a rare World Series-Super Bowl Parlay, but two of the losses came in seven-game sets. Ironically, both Game 7 defeats came to the Pittsburgh Pirates, providing the city of Baltimore a non-NFL related reason to loathe the Steel City.
This resume alone explains why Weaver was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996 and was one of several Oriole legends honored last year with the unveiling of a statue likeness outside Camden Yards. But the winning alone doesn’t quantify his impact on the game alone, or on the city he managed.
When Weaver was in charge, the Orioles struck terror in the hearts of rival AL East cities, and it was about more than the winning. It was because Weaver was a master at getting his team to play its best baseball after the All-Star break and even if Baltimore fell behind in a division race, a second-half surge was the surest thing this side of death and taxes.
If we look at the 1969-82 timeframe, excluding the crazy strike year of 1981 when the season was split in half by a work stoppage, Earl’s teams won 63.2% of their games after the All-Star break. That’s a 102-win pace if you extrapolate over an entire year, and it’s accomplished over a 14-year timeframe that encompasses generations of players, from Brooks Robinson to Cal Ripken Jr.
As a result, the fans of AL East teams who had a lead—even a healthy-size lead—had to keep in the habit of checking the rearview mirror at the orange-and-black car, lest it suddenly appear in their blindspot. I grew up in Milwaukee in the early 1980s and a decade later embraced the city of Boston’s sports heritage, so I’ll cite three examples I’m most familiar with….
*In 1974, the Orioles were eight games back of the Red Sox on August 29. Less than a month later, on September 20, the Birds were dead even and the signature moment came over Labor Day. Baltimore swept a three-game series from Boston, shutting out the Red Sox each game and only giving up a combined eight singles in the course of the series. Boston never recovered and went into a free fall, and Baltimore beat out the New York Yankees to win the AL East.
*One year later, New Englanders feared they were watching a rerun. A 9 ½ game lead over Earl’s Orioles on August 3 was only marginally closer by Labor Day, but was suddenly down to four in mid-September. The Hub was in a panic, and though the Red Sox would survive this race, as Luis Tiant outdueled Jim Palmer in a 2-0 game at Fenway, it was another example of how Baltimore was never dead.
*I lived through the terror of 1982. The Milwaukee Brewers had a seven-game lead over the Orioles on August 27, and Baltimore gradually trimmed it to three games by the time the two teams began a final four-game set in old Memorial Stadium (known affectionately to the residents of Baltimore as the House on 33rd Street). Earl had announced his retirement earlier in the season and the atmosphere was electric. The Oriole fans brought brooms, to signify their demand for a sweep—while this is more commonplace today, at least the “Sweep!” chant, the ’82 conclusion was the first I had seen of it.
Baltimore won the first three games by a combined 26-7, and set up one of the great battles of major league history, when future Hall of Famers Palmer and Don Sutton took the mound in a winner-take-all battle for the AL East title. The hope of a magic ending for Earl didn’t pan out—Robin Yount hit two home runs and a potential game-tying double in the eighth from Baltimore was denied on an amazing catch by Brewer leftfielder Ben Oglivie, but it was a fitting finish for Weaver that he made sure a frontrunner had the fear of God put into them before the race was over.
And Oriole fans put on what ABC announcer Howard Cosell called “an extraordinary scene” in overcoming their disappointment to demand a curtain call from Earl, creating an emotional farewell. Earl left his successor, Joe Altobelli, the foundation that would produce a World Series title one year later.
A simple way of putting it would be that Earl was perhaps the only manager in baseball history who could make you feel like his team had a division race clinched if they were only three games out at the break.
We also can’t overlook Earl’s impact on the sports culture of Baltimore. The success of his teams, and his great flair, transformed Baltimore into something that’s a rarity in this day and age, and that’s a true baseball town. When Weaver arrived, Johnny Unitas and the Colts were the kings of Baltimore sports, and while Johnny U has his own rightful place in Baltimore lore, Earl’s success—which ran parallel to more winning seasons from the Colts, including a Super Bowl victory—lifted Baltimore to the status of a town where baseball had first claim on the city’s heart. Perhaps only St. Louis, Boston and Chicago’s North Side are the only other places in America that can say this.
That part of Earl’s legacy lives on to this day. Consider that current Oriole manager Buck Showalter was named Maryland Sportsman of the Year—in spite of the fact that the city’s football team won the Super Bowl in honor of a colorful veteran (Ray Lewis) on his pre-announced “last ride.” It’s easy for cynics to point at bad attendance numbers prior to last year’s turnaround, but if you see it up close, as I did for four years, it was easy to tell that the fans just wanted a reason to believe and put their time and money back into the Orioles. All part of Earl’s legacy.
Finally, consider that Earl’s record could easily look even better than it did. His championships—be it an AL East flag, an ALCS victory or a World Series title—were all decisive. But we’ve also covered crowns he just missed—two Game 7s in a World Series, the 1982 regular season finale and the 1973 American League playoffs, came down to a decisive fifth game with Oakland. What if Earl splits these four? That’s at least one additional World Series title and perhaps more, as either his ’73 or ’82 teams would have been favored going forward.
Furthermore, Earl managed in the day when only two American League teams made the playoffs. By the standards of today, with its expanded postseasons, the Orioles would have gone into October play in 1975, 1976, 1977, 1980 and 1982. In all of those years, they were a team following the classic Weaver formula of gaining steam down the stretch. We’ve seen in our day how momentum matters most in October and Earl’s teams always had it. It’s hardly unreasonable to think he would have won at least a couple more American League flags and another World Series.
Earl’s ultimate impact though, was not found in tallying up championships. It was the emotional bond he formed with a fan base. And that’s why, even though he hadn’t been in the dugout for 27 years, his passing this January still inspired a team and city to let him “throw out the first pitch” on Opening Day.