BALTIMORE — Earl Weaver penned his own epitaph.
“On my tombstone just write, ‘The sorest loser that ever lived,’ ” he once said.
Weaver, the Orioles’ irascible, chain-smoking, umpire-baiting manager who led the team to four American League pennants and the 1970 world championship in his 17 years here, died Friday night while on a baseball-themed cruise.
The Hall of Famer was 82.
Weaver piloted the Orioles from 1968 to 1982, and in 1985-86, earning nicknames like “the little genius” and “the Earl of Baltimore.” Weaver’s teams won 1,480 games and lost 1,060, and his lifetime winning percentage (.583) ranks ninth all-time and fifth among managers in the modern era who managed 10 years or more. Five times, Baltimore won at least 100 games for Weaver, who stood 5-feet-7 but was a legend to his players.
“Having Earl gives us a four-game lead on everybody,” pitcher Sammy Stewart once said.
Weaver’s death came on the eve of the team’s annual FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center.
“It’s a sad time, but at the same time, Earl would say I hope it won’t mess up FanFest,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said at the event, where Weaver’s No. 4 hung from behind the stage. “Every time I look at an Oriole now, it’s going to be missing a feather without Earl.”
The Orioles failed to post a winning record under Weaver only once (1986). His career was defined by an affinity for the three-run home run and a long-running, public feud with superstar pitcher Jim Palmer that both men jokingly played to whenever together.
Weaver was always a fan favorite and the Orioles faithful got several opportunities to let him know that during the course of the Orioles uplifting 2012 season. He returned to Baltimore repeatedly to take part in the special series of statue unveilings in the center field plaza at Oriole Park, including the one that was dedicated to him on June 30.
He showed his softer side during his acceptance speech, applauding all the great Orioles who also are immortalized in bronze there and a many more of the players who helped him become a managerial legend.
“What comes to mind is, ‘Thank God those guys were there and thank God we won 100 games three years in a row so I could come back for a fourth,” Weaver said. “And thank God for the fourth that won enough games for me to come back for the fifth … and on to 17.”
Weaver won six American League East titles, four pennants and one world title. His .583 career winning percentage ranks fifth among modern managers (since 1900) with at least 10 seasons in the major leagues. Factor in his reputation as one of the games great strategists and it’s no wonder that he was selected by the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee for induction at Cooperstown in 1996.
“Earl Weaver stands alone as the greatest manager in the history of the Orioles’ organization and one of the greatest in the history of baseball,” Orioles managing partner Peter Angelos said in a statement Saturday. “This is a sad day for everyone who knew him and for all Orioles fans. Earl made his passion for the Orioles known both on and off the field. On behalf of the Orioles, I extend my condolences to his wife, Marianna, and to his family.”
Palmer said that he heard of Weaver’s death at 3:30 a.m. Saturday from former Orioles pitcher Scotty McGregor. McGregor was on the same Orioles-theme cruise with Weaver. “I didn’t get much restful sleep after that,” Palmer said.
“There weren’t any gray areas with Earl,” Palmer said Saturday morning. “We had a love-hate relationship. Earl was going to tell you what he expected and there wasn’t a lot of room for error with him. Earl was about winning and that was what he did.”
He was irascible. No question about it.
He also was known by his closest friends to be both sensitive and caring, though he seldom allowed the public to see the softer side of him.
“Earl is a very caring human being underneath that facade,” former Orioles first baseman Boog Powell said in a 1996 interview. “And we all knew that. We felt like family, and when I left here, I felt like I had left my family. You always knew that Earl would do anything in the world he could do for you.”
Weaver went to bat for a couple of young players who would establish themselves among the greatest stars in the history of the game.
He pressed to keep Eddie Murray at the major league level in 1977 and is credited with bucking convention to switch supposedly oversized Cal Ripken Jr. from third base to shortstop.
The rest, of course, is history.
“This man fought for me,” Murray said, during an interview in early 2003. “He kept telling (general manager) Hank Peters and the rest of the front office that I should stay. They just had me penciled in there, but he kept sending me out there.”
Weaver also is credited with a major role in developing what came to be known as The Oriole Way, a standardized approach to minor league instruction that he instituted along with fellow minor league manager Cal Ripken Sr. during the early 1960s.