Sunday, January 20, 2013
SEATTLE — What an odd pairing they make, the quietly elegant Stan Musial, content to let 22 years of brilliance stand as his calling card while others soaked up larger accolades, and the fiery little banty rooster of a manager, Earl Weaver, who loved to strut and preen for the crowd.
Yet those two disparate baseball icons, Stan the Man and Earl the Whirlwind, each of whom died on Saturday, belonged in the innermost circle of the Hall of Fame.
Weaver, who suffered a heart attack while on a Caribbean cruise, was 82. Renowned for his animated arguments with umpires, some of which were luckily caught on tape and will live for perpetuity on the Internet, Weaver was hardly a histrionic clown. He was a brilliant strategist and forward thinker whose theories incorporated the basics of sabermetrics long before the term was even invented.
Musial, who was 92 and died of natural causes at his Ladue, Mo., home while surrounded by family, was simply one of the 10 greatest hitters who ever lived. If he was overshadowed in his own time, first by Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams, later by Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, well, that just means people weren’t paying close enough attention.
Perhaps his astonishing consistency lulled people into a trance. This might be the greatest baseball statistic of all time: Musial pounded out 3,630 hits — 1,815 at home, 1,815 on the road. He scored 1,949 runs and drove in 1,951. He hit over .300 in 17 seasons, and was never once thrown out of any of his 3,026 games.
Consistency? How about being married to the same woman, his beloved Lil, for more than 70 years.
Musial won seven batting titles. He hit .347 in 1944, missed 1945 to serve in the Navy, and came back in 1946 to lead the National League with a .365 average.
His left-handed batting stance, with the trademark crouch, famously described by pitcher Ted Lyon as “a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops are coming,” was legendary. It was captured in a statue (one of two in his honor at Busch Stadium) inscribed with the words of former MLB commissioner Ford Frick: “Here stands baseball’s perfect warrior, baseball’s perfect knight.”
Weaver was as obtrusive as Musial was understated, but no less a master of his craft. Weaver built a dynasty in Baltimore from 1968 to 1982 (we won’t count his brief, ill-advised comeback for one-plus seasons with the Orioles in 1985 and ‘86), winning at nearly a .600 clip. His teams exceeded 90 wins 10 times, and went over 100 wins five times. Weaver won four pennants and a World Series, and wrung the most out of every bit of talent at his disposal.
Weaver is famous for extolling the virtues of the three-run homer, but he understood most clearly — and well before it became an inviolate sabermetric staple — the value of each out. In fact, Weaver’s Fourth Law in his influential book, “Weaver on Strategy,” would have come with the Bill James stamp of approval: “Your most precious possessions on offense are your twenty-seven outs.”
Thus, Weaver disdained the sacrifice bunt, which in his mind was tantamount to simply giving up an out. Hence, Weaver’s Fifth Law: “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.”
He had an elaborate system of statistical analysis well before the computer age, the numbers scrawled on index cards but giving him a huge edge on the by-the-gut managers of his day. And as if all that genius weren’t enough, it came packaged in a 5-foot-6, chain-smoking dynamo who realized that a little showmanship wasn’t so bad.
Unlike his contemporary, the maniacal Billy Martin, Weaver’s shows always seemed to come with a twinkle of amusement. Even the umpires on the receiving end of his abuse never seemed overly offended, like they were in on the joke. Like they understood that was just Earl being Earl.
Both Musial and Weaver were symbols of a place. Though born in Donora, Pa. (also the hometown of Ken Griffey Jr., who amazingly was born the same day as Musial, Nov. 21 — but 49 years later), Musial become an enduring monument of St. Louis, as much a part of the fabric of the city as the arch. And Weaver WAS Baltimore, never managing anywhere else and ensconced in the pantheon of baseball greats from the city, including Cal Ripken Jr. Weaver, in fact, was Ripken’s first manager, and the one who moved him to shortstop, another visionary decision in an era when big, lumbering guys like Ripken were typecast as third basemen.
The singular loss of a baseball figure the stature of a Weaver or Musial would have been staggering. To have both pass on the same day leaves an incalculable hole in the sport both of them conquered completely, in their unique way.