Earl Weaver – Winning!

I thought I would share a few thoughts on the books I picked up at the once-a-month booksale here in Porterville this month. Oh now that we have been going for about 4 months, we look forward to the first-Saturday ritual. Many of the books are worthy of the dust they are covered with and becoming in the basement, but occasionally there is a real find, and you simply can’t beat the price. Pretty much nothing costs over 1 dollar, and most books are about 25 to 50 cents.

Many books are set up outside in the staging area each month, new arrivals, that are free! At that price, it is worth it to grab a copy of that paperback you remember from your youth, or that history book that was on your parent’s piano untouched as a kid. Whatever happened to the “Making of a President” series? Who knew it was a decades long series? The Friends have most if not all of the, and for 5 dollars the completist in you can have all of them!

This month, I found a book about Baltimore Orioles baseball, written at the peak of “The Oriole Way”  by Hall of Fame Manager Earl Weaver. The Orioles had justcompleted the first 3 full seasons under Weaver, and won well over 100 games each year, went undefeated in the first 3 ever division playoffs, sending them to the World Series each year, winning once.

In the late summer of 1969, living in Northern New Jersey, as a 2nd grader I first became aware of baseball to go along with my family’s frequent return trips to visit relatives in our native Baltimore. Naturally I was a Baltimore sports fan, and what better time to learn to be a fan – the Colts were the classiest program in the NFL (but lost Super Bowl 3 to the NY Jets earlier that year), the Baltimore Bullets NBA team (now the Washington Wizards) had a top-ranked rivalry with the NY Knicks, and now the Orioles had “the best damn team in baseball”.

Of course my young friends became Mets fans that summer, but I don’t really recall much of baseball until the division playoffs, and then it was my Orioles against the local Amazin’s.

40 years have gone by since then, but you are all baseball fans – I don’t need to give details of how that World Series turned out.

By the time the next season started, the Orioles were intact, and another year better. We had moved to the suburbs of Central Jersey, I was active in Little League for the first time, and the Orioles picked up right where they left off, decimating the American league for the second year in a row.

This time, the Amazin’ part of the World Series would be play of Brooks Robinson at 3rd base. I clearly recall, since the games were in the daytime, taking my transistor radio to school to sneak a listen to the games. And the day of the decisive 5th game, I ran home from the school bus stop in order to catch the end of the game on TV. As the now- inevitable victory occurred, home alone, I gathered up newspapers to toss up in the air in celebration. I guess I was not able to convince my parents to let me pour champagne all over everything as I had seen the Mets do the year before.

The next year was more of the same – the Orioles were maybe even better, having 4 twenty game winners on one team, which had only been accomplished once before, and never since. The World Series ended in a dramatic 7 game loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the next year was marred by a players strike and that was the end of the momentum for the Orioles until the latest part of the 1970s.

This is the period covered by the book. Oddly enough I never saw or even heard of this book before finding it in the Porterville Book basement last week. I am sure it was a grand best seller in its day in Baltimore, but in my 12+ adult years in Baltimore, it was forgotten. Never saw it in a used bookstore, nothing, even when Weaver finally retired in 1982 after Cal Ripken’s rookie year.

As a kid, and even in college, I always thought Weaver was a very old man, but in this autobiographical tale, I came to realize in the period covered, he was younger than I am now. He never made it to the major leagues as a player, but his combination of spunk, feistiness, and innovation in strategy and people-handling made him tops of the pops as a manager, never finishing lower than 4th place in the minors or major leagues, and except for that never finishing lower than second place.

This books is especially interesting for baseball fans besides the usual “as told to” style of anecdotes about one of the best teams ever. The book must have been dictated to editor John Sammis right after the World Series of 1971, and there is an afterword by Weaver dated December that year. This is eery because baseball fans know that on New Years Eve that year, Roberto Clemente, hailed as a great player by Weaver, was killed in a plane crash. This is eerie because the book apparently went to press jut before that event, and so is not mentioned at all.

The appendices give some very insightful strategy that Weaver innovated, detailing the nuances of complex defensive plays that the Orioles worked on year after year. Weaver was perhaps the innovator of statistical record keeping, with pen and paper, that Billy Beane has perfected on computers now. Not all of the suggestions Weaver makes match of wit the description of Beane in the well-known Moneyball, but the basic ideas certainly do – play the percentages always, don’t give away outs for sacrifices or steals, and every defensive play matters, if only to keep a runner from advancing, or catch him napping, could lead to 15 wins a year.

This book could not have been a better fast read at any price, and at 25 cents, it will have a treasured spot on my bookshelf. There is another baseball book I noticed there, even older, that will probably find a new home after decades on the dusty shelves.  Look for it here someday.

Posted in Books.