Humble entry to game, Weaver deserves Hall's grand entrance

August 04, 1996|By John Steadman

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- Eating on $1.25 meal money per day, playing for $175 a month, hanging his clothes on a nail in a closet of a locker room and wearing a worn, hand-me-down uniform from the St. Louis Cardinals was the unspoiled baseball life that Earl Weaver stepped into when he went away from home for the first time. It was a career opportunity. All he wanted was the chance.

Now, this afternoon in a pristine village that is the "cradle of baseball," the doors of the Hall of Fame open to receive him with fitting ceremony, acclaim and a bronze tablet that will proclaim his deeds for perpetuity. It's the most esteemed honor the grandest of games, which has been going on for 157 summers, bestows on one of its sons.

The burning ambition of becoming a second baseman with the Cardinals in Weaver's hometown of St. Louis ebbed away after spending nine years in the minor leagues. There were stops at Winston-Salem, Houston, Omaha, Denver and New Orleans, where the meal money increased and the salary, for him, got to a maximum of $800 a month.

He found himself sold to the Knoxville Smokies, an independent club, of the South Atlantic League in 1956. The manager was Dick Bartell, a one-time brawling shortstop with the Philadelphia Phils and New York Giants. Weaver will talk with fondness about all his other managers but not the acerbic Bartell. Earl and the other players didn't come close to breaking into tears when they heard Bartell had been fired.

An hour before the game, the club vice-president, Ray Bass, a Knoxville city councilman who moved to Laurel, caught up with Weaver on the ramp leading to the dressing room. "Hey, you," he said, "how about managing the ballclub?"

Weaver was stunned. "You mean right now?"

That's the way a Hall of Fame career began. He won, 1-0, and Bartell sought out Bass to tell him his rookie manager had made eight mistakes in his first game. "Yes," said Bass, "but we won." Winning has been synonymous with Weaver ever since.

The next day, by coincidence, Harry Dalton, the Orioles' assistant farm director, visited Knoxville to talk about a working agreement for the 1957 season. He met Weaver and was impressed immediately with his enthusiasm and knowledge. Dalton returned to Baltimore and informed Jim McLaughlin, who directed the farm system, of his impressions of Weaver and recommended he be hired by the Orioles. The next winter Weaver signed a $3,500 contract for the season to manage the Fitzgerald club in the Georgia-Florida League.

For the next 11 years, he moved through the Orioles' farm system, as he had once done as a player with the Cardinals, and continued to draw attention with his results. His teams won three pennants and finished second five times and also won three of five pennants in the winter leagues. It was apparent when you were around him -- and we were impressed while watching him at Scottsdale, Fox Cities and Elmira -- that he was in control, a leader, with overwhelming enthusiasm, stubborn ways and keen intellect.

In 1968, Dalton, then in charge of the Orioles baseball operation, decided to make a change at the top -- Hank Bauer was being terminated; Weaver was to be the replacement. At the announcement, the first time the club brought a manager out of the minor leagues, Dalton said, "We are appointing a man who knows this team and knows our talent. He has already managed 15 of the 25 players who are here right now. . . He is a battler for his team, a battler for his organization and a battler for what he thinks is right in running a ballclub."

Weaver, among other things, mentioned that when he began in Fitzgerald, Ga., he wasn't thinking of this important moment in Baltimore. "When I started managing in professional baseball I had no major-league ambitions," he said. "I was an organizational man. I always felt I contributed my share to the major-league club, not necessarily in making a major-leaguer, which you can't do -- a ballplayer has to have ability -- but in guiding the person in the right direction so that his thoughts were right, so he could think baseball and get the most out of the ability he had.

"When I got to Triple-A baseball [Rochester of the International League], especially when I started managing against men who had gone on to manage in the major leagues, I thought, 'Well, I managed against this fellow, there's no reason why I can't do it.' "

Weaver brought excitement and intensity to what he was doing. He would blister players if that's what he thought was needed. But he never held a grudge or isolated them in a dog house, because he didn't have one. The next day, they were all even again. In the low minors, he made bonus boys responsible for carrying the bats and catcher's equipment from the bus to the park, sending a silent message that you're nothing special until you prove it.

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