Two Sports Greats Whose Lives Are Worth Talking About and Remembered
Forget Lance Armstrong. Forget that Notre Dame guy with the imaginary dead girlfriend. Forget the fact that nobody was nominated to the Baseball Hall of Fame this year and what all of that says about tainted glory.
Let’s talk about Earl Weaver. Let’s talk about Stan Musial. Both of them are already in the Baseball Hall of Fame, with no disclaimers, no errors, just grand slam lives and careers. Weaver and Musial, diminishing further a sports world dominated by obscene amounts of money, crazy, outrageous and sometimes criminal behavior and egos that can only be shaded and shared by confessions with Oprah.
When it comes to baseball, both Weaver, whose fame rests on his hugely successful run as a crafty, crusty Baltimore Oriole manager, and Musial, a major nice guy and star as a St. Louis Cardinal who counted among his peers players like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, were old school, each in his own way.
Weaver was a major figure in the ranks of managers as colorful characters—a la Casey Stengel—but was also a pragmatic, shrewd visionary who anticipated stat-driven strategies and team building. He was a very smart, hard-working, completely to a fault honest, a man who salivated in front of umpires and became a legend. Musial, for sheer consistency of excellence and effort, stood right up there with his more glamorous peers. Sometimes, he stood above them. Each man defined their baseball times to some extent, and surely their teams and the cities they represented.
Among the many photographs you saw printed of Weaver, after his passing Jan. 19 of a heart attack, included one where he was getting into an umpire’s face, mouth wide open in a scream, full of combative fury, about to kick up home plate, the umpire a moment from yelling, "You’re outta here.” Weaver did not suffer fools gladly, and that included especially umpires, but also his players and the media, which covered just about everybody in his professional world.
But he was always a very smart guy in terms of managing and strategy, and he was blessed with great players like Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and great pitching topped by Jim Palmer. He once quipped that managing was easy—all you needed was a team where every guy was named Robinson. As a man and person, and manager, he understood himself very well, but he understood the game better. He was short of temper and short of stature—five foot seven—but long on game knowledge, charisma, loyalty and a few other things that make up the complexity of being human.
Weaver managed the Orioles from 1968 to 1982 and again for a year and a half in 1985 and 1986. He won 1,480 games and lost 1,060, for the ninth best percentage among managers ever. He won one World Series and lost three; two to the Pittsburgh Pirates and one to the New York Mets, an astonishing upset.
He believed in great pitching and the three-run homer and hated bunting, squeeze or otherwise, or playing for one run. “If you play for one run, that’s all you get,” he once said. He avoided friendship with his players which peeved Palmer but worked for Weaver. He did not avoid criticizing his players—he told one player, according to reports, who was in the midst of a big slump and heading for a chapel to “take your bat.”
For Weaver, who drank inordinate amounts of beer and smoked a lot, managing was work, but sometimes you suspect that heckling umpires was a joy for him. When one umpire offered to let him read his rule book after one loud dispute, he declined, saying “I can’t read Braille.” He was ejected from more than 100 games, which may be a record. But when he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in his acceptance speech, he thanked “the umpires.”
According to the New York Times, when Pat Kelly, a player who led prayer meetings, was peeved that they didn’t get enough time for the meetings, he asked Weaver, “Don’t you want us to walk with the Lord?” Weaver replied “I’d rather have you walk with the bases loaded.”
In his final season—his only losing one—he said, “Just write on my tombstone: 'The sorest loser who ever lived.' ”
I’m not going to check that one. You never know.
Stan Musial, who died at the age of 92, didn’t cuss out umpires as far as anybody knows. If he did, it was quietly, where only the second baseman might have heard what he said. They called him "Stan the Man," and he was described as a gentlemanly slugger, which seems a contradictory term, but there you are.
As a player, he had attitude: the same kind Ernie Banks, the perennially sunny and great Chicago Cubs player and Little Orphan Annie had: the sun will come out tomorrow, and that’s when we’ll play two.
He was born grit and true working class, the son of a Polish immigrant working in the steel town of Donora, Pa., a little ways away from Pittsburgh, the kind of town full of Eastern European mill workers from Serbia, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Ohio and Pennsylvania were full of towns like that—one such was featured in “The Deerhunter.”
But Musial wasn’t rough and tumble: he became a legend for his performances and the way he hit a baseball better than most people. He was one of the good guys. He was an exuberant, warm, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. He did not have DiMaggio’s aloofness, Williams’s fixated bully competitiveness, May’s bustle-hustling spectacular style or Mantle’s self-destructiveness. Indeed, he was “The Man.”
Here’s why: from 1941 to the 1960s, he hit 475 home runs, got 3,630 hits, drove in 1,951 and had a career batting average of .331, playing on three World Series Championship teams and was named Most Valuable Player three times, playing the outfield and third base. His favorite song? “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which he could play on his harmonica. He married his wife Lillian, who died last year at the age of 91, in 1940. He was in the restaurant business, hosting Stan and Biggie’s since 1949.
Musial was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. The president said Musial was “untarnished, a beloved pillar of the community, a gentleman you’d want your kids to emulate.”