Baltimore Orioles

Weaver's passion a gift to game, hall

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — As Earl Weaver sat in the bar of the Otesaga Hotel, nursing a cold drink and a cigarette and every raw anxiety in his considerable repertoire, this village of 2,400 souls and a single traffic light seemed like any other place where 20,000 tourists suddenly arrive, where the baseball Hall of Fame flings open its doors and where former major league stars are agreeable to signing an autograph the very minute you fork over dollars for the privilege.

Earl's gonna love it here. The place is crawling with 20-game winners and guys who used to swing from the heels. Whitey Ford, for example. The old Yankee left hander's scheduled at Collector's World, over on Main Street, where he'll sign your baseball for $18. Or Eddie Mathews, the old Milwaukee Braves slugger. He'll sign a bat. For $40.

(Or, for that matter, Pete Rose. Pete's barred from baseball for betting on games, but he's brazenly set up a stand a few yards from the Hall of Fame's front door, where he's signing pictures for $25 or bats for $50. And the line is long.)

This is the cradle of baseball, the Norman Rockwell set where the game invokes its innocent past each year at this time and embraces its most golden boys of summers past.

But it's also, inevitably, a branch office of the game's modern marketing notions and its tendency to grab with both hands. There are thousands who have arrived here to pay homage to their childhood heroes; but also, they'll pay eye-popping money for proof that they made actual contact.

Weaver, manager of the Orioles for 17 mostly glorious seasons, seems to straddle both worlds as he awaits today's induction. He was bidding farewell to the game as the truly gargantuan salaries were arriving. He saw some money, but he's one of those guys from the last generation where they were known primarily for the things they accomplished, and not for the money they were paid.

For Weaver, it was 1,480 victories, a .583 winning percentage (fifth best in this century), six division titles, four pennants and the 1970 World Series championship.

Oh, and a personality that seemed to go to operatic extremes to make a point. Earl Weaver lit up a ballpark. He was ejected from 91 games -- more than the combined total of all other big league managers of his era.

He made his players crazy, and he made 40,000 people come alive all at once, and in the process turned a game into a war and a season into a crusade. When he won, he looked like a man with a last-minute pardon from the governor. When he lost, he looked as if gremlins were nipping at his ulcers.

So here he was, Friday evening, nursing a drink at the Otesaga Hotel's Hawkeye Bar with his wife, Marianna, and a few family members, and his agent, Dick Gordon, and his wife, and declaring without embarrassment that his nerves were coming undone.

"Are you kidding?" he said. "I'm very nervous. Very, very nervous. I've got 32 family members to take care of up here. The Hall of Fame's got me scheduled to play golf Sunday morning, but I want to rehearse my speech another eight or nine times."

In 10 days, he'll be 66 years old. He came out of tough times in St. Louis, tried to make it as a second baseman, but couldn't cut it, managed in minor league towns like Elmira and Rochester, landed in Baltimore and seemed like he might have spent his entire working-class life there.

He was the little guy who refuses to be pushed around by any bullies. He had no polish, and never tried to fake any. He once suggested, "On my tombstone just write: 'The sorest loser that ever lived.'THIN SPACE" He believed in the power of fast balls and long home runs and screaming fits with umpires.

"Is this as good as you're gonna get?" he'd scream at an ump after what he considered a bad call. "I just want to know if this is the best we can expect." He wasn't much easier with his players.

"I don't think, in all the years I managed them, I ever spoke more than 30 words to Frank or Brooks Robinson," Weaver once said.

"That's right," Jim Palmer was saying Friday night, not far from Earl's table at the Otesaga. "He knew a manager needed a certain distance from his players. He hid his feelings his whole career. The good ones, anyway.

"Although one time, we're in Milwaukee and the club called up Eric Bell, who was a rookie and didn't have much money. And Earl bought him a sports jacket. Mike Flanagan said to him, 'Earl, I heard what you did. That was nice.' And Earl growled at him, 'You tell anybody, I'll release your ass, I swear I will.' He didn't want anybody to know that side of him."

That's the kind of story to remind us why baseball still holds its grip on us. It's grown men playing a game for children, sure, but it's also the little signs of humanity behind the box scores.

In Weaver's time, the game had different proportions. Weaver, the tough kid escaping the St. Louis streets, had to come out of retirement for one last financial killing so he could leave again without any worries. Weaver, the guy to whom nothing was ever given, sat here now declaring, "I'd be lying if I said I ever imagined I'd be going into the Hall of Fame."

He's part of that last generation that didn't quite see the multimillion-dollar salaries, the guys who show up now and you see them in all the shops here, hustling their autographs for cash. They never saw the big money in their youth, so this is their financial postscript, their belated attempt to cash in a little.

So now you have a Bob Feller scheduled in one shop to sign his name for $25, and a Richie Ashburn for $40. And here you have four kids from Baltimore, Chris D'Anna, Rob Burns, Chris James and Ryan James.

Ryan's 11. He's thrilled because he got Duke Snider's autograph. It cost $20. He and his buddies agree, this was a bargain.

So it goes. The Hall of Fame opens its doors and invites us to imagine the game in its innocence. Sometimes, when it asks young boys to pay for a signature, it stretches the point.

But sometimes it pulls it off. It welcomes a guy like Earl Weaver. Earl, an innocent? Not likely. But he brought to the game his simple, pure essentials each night: His passion, his nimble mind, the various hungers of his entire ferocious lifetime. And they are his immortality.