Baseball clubhouses were not crowded with reporters over the course of a 162-game regular season in the mid-‘70s. New York and Los Angeles could be exceptions to this, but elsewhere working a postgame clubhouse was mostly a chore for beat writers from newspapers that traveled with teams.
I had this duty on a full-time basis for the St. Paul newspapers from 1974 to 1978, and then frequently in subsequent years.
Consider a summer series between the Twins and the Orioles: There were would be three beat writers from Minneapolis-St. Paul, three from Baltimore, and maybe a columnist working for a newspaper in the home team’s town in the clubhouse.
In this non-crowded environment, you had a chance to get to know and share conversations with managers of all American League teams - if so inclined. And we were all inclined to do this with Earl Weaver, the wise, wonderful, wacky manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
The Earl died on Friday night. He was 82 and on a Caribbean cruise. I would have guessed more like Marlon Brando in “The Godfather’’ - Earl going while tending his tomato plants in a garden in the back of his house.
When I first covered Twins’ games in Baltimore, there was no beautiful waterfront ballpark. There was Memorial Stadium, stuck out in the middle of a neighborhood and plagued by horrendous parking.
You could take a cab to Little Italy and eat a great meal late at night … which was very helpful in putting on 10-15 pounds annually on the baseball beat. Beyond that, you drank in the hotel bar, because you figured wandering the streets in downtown Baltimore after midnight gave you about a 60-40 chance for survival.
Yet, Baltimore was one of my favorite stops in the American League for one reason: Earl Weaver.
How much fun was it watching The Earl at work - even as a visiting writer? Consider the events of Aug. 16, 1977 in Memorial Stadium:
The Twins, as they were forced to so often that season, had outslugged the Orioles 13-9 one night earlier. This put them at 68-50 and a half-game in front of the White Sox in the AL West. The Orioles were 67-49 and trailing the Red Sox by 3 ½ games in the AL East.
Now, on this steamy Tuesday, the Twins were leading 4-1 going to the bottom of the sixth. Pete Redfern was ready to face the O’s Lee May. Catcher Butch Wynegar removed his mask and started shaking his head in an attempt to get something out of an ear.
Turned out it was a moth. Turned out trainer Dick Martin led Wynegar to the visitors dugout, hoping to remove the flapping insect from Butch’s ear with a syringe.
This was a feisty moth. It could not be grabbed. A new idea was offered: Pour water in the ear, drown the moth, and remove it then.
This was taking time. Weaver started to get riled up, even though it was the Twins’ pitcher - Redfern - waiting out the delay.
The Earl started insisting to crew chief Jerry Neudecker that Wynegar either had to get behind the plate, or the Twins needed another catcher. It took 11 minutes for the moth to be executed and for Butch to return to the catcher’s box.
Redfern made it through the sixth, but then the O’s kicked up a 4-run rally in the seventh and tied the game at 5-5.
The legend is that Weaver protested the game over the delay due to the moth in Wynegar’s ear. That’s not right. Earl protested after plate umpire Al Clark ruled the Twins’ Jerry Terrell had checked his bunt on a failed suicide squeeze in the ninth inning.
How you check a bunt on a suicide squeeze is anyone’s guess, and what Weaver wanted explained by Clark.
The Earl survived that animated protest. Not so much on the next one in the 11th - Weaver’s third brouhaha of the night with the umps.
This was an argument over whether Lyman Bostock had been hit by a pitch while trying to bunt. When Bostock was awarded first, Weaver stormed from the dugout, kicked dirt on home plate, bent over and covered the plate with more dirt with his hands, and then took off his hat and spun it 50 feet toward the pitcher’s mound.
Rex Barney, the O’s public address announcer, declared this to be an all-time distance record for a Weaver hat toss.
The Earl was ejected, of course, but he still went to change pitchers ... causing Clark to chug from behind the plate and chase Weaver from the mound. The manager went to the grass in front of second base, crossed his arms and stood for a time, until finally leaving under the threat of forfeiture.
Of all the ballgames I covered as a writer of a newspaper’s game story, I believe “Butch, Earl and the case of the Drowned Moth’’ ranks as my favorite.
The Orioles wound up winning in 13 innings, to the delight of Earl as he consumed his post-game beverage.
There was nothing quite like a post-game session with Weaver in those days, with Ken Nigro and Jim Hennemann as ever-present beat reporters from Baltimore newspapers.
Invariably, the interview in Weaver’s office turned into more of a debate, as Nigro - with occasional assistance from Hennemann - would challenge Earl on a strategic decision at some moment on the game, and Weaver would defend himself vociferously.
As was said in “Diner,’’ the fine Baltimore movie, the debates were “definitely the smile of the week.’’
Earl managed five 100-win seasons during his first Baltimore run from the middle of 1968 through 1982. He was preaching the fundamental tenets of Billy Beane baseball - without the dollar-squeezing aspects - when Billy was not yet underway in his failed career as a player.
“EarlBall’’ was to get on base and hit three-run home runs. Don’t give away outs with bunts or steals. Pitch, catch the ball and turn double plays.
He was worthy of his Hall of Fame status as a manager. And if I were to put together a Hall of Fame for characters I’ve met in sports, Earl would be in the first class of five.
I’d have to think about the others, but Earl’s in as an original.
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