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.
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 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.
“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.”
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.
In some ways, he was a comic character like longtime Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, but he had a hard edge that could rankle a player as easily as an umpire.
“You could go toe-to-toe, face-to-face and cheek-to-cheek with him,” former Oriole outfielder Don Buford said, “and, no matter what, the next day it was forgotten. That was outstanding.”
Murray said it was a little more complicated than that. Weaver had the uncanny ability of adjusting his managerial style to each player on the major league roster.
“He did something that nobody else could do,” Murray said. “He had 25 different people on his ballclub and he had 25 different ways to manage them.”
He inherited a pretty good team when he replaced Hank Bauer as manager in the summer of 1968, the Orioles going 48-34 under Weaver to finish second with a 91-71 overall record. The club won 109 games the following season and was a heavy favorite to win the world title, but fell victim to the Miracle Mets in what is arguably the most famous World Series upset in history.
The 1970 club shook off that defeat to win 108 games and the world title and the Orioles also reached the World Series in Weaver’s third full season.