Sunday, January 20, 2013

Musial, Weaver, two men with Rochester baseball ties, will be sorely missed

Had the opportunity to interview both Stan Musial and Earl Weaver a few times through the years, and they both lived up to their reputations. Stan the Man was gracious and kind as advertised, a real salt-of-the-earth guy. And the Earl of Baltimore was a tad cantankerous, but still managed to spin some interesting tales. (Ones, I might add, that were peppered with expletives that were a colorful part of Earl’s vocabulary.)

Both Baseball Hall of Famers, who died over the weekend, once donned the Red Wings flannels, and remain two of the franchise’s most beloved alums.

While researching Silver Seasons, the history of the Wings that I co-wrote with Jim Mandelaro, I came across an interesting anecdote about Musial’s Rochester arrival. After stashing his paper bagful of clothes and personal belongings into his locker (he was too poor to afford a suitcase), Musial pulled on his uniform and headed for the batting cage.  The young hitter with the awkward-looking, corkscrew stance lashed line drives all over the field. But a big-league scout was unimpressed. He turned to Wings manager Tony Kaufmann, shook his head disapprovingly and said: “He’ll never make it up there. Not with that stance, he won’t.”

Kaufmann was incredulous. Sure, Musial’s stance was ugly. (“He looks like a kid peeking around the corner to see if the cops are coming” was the way one player described it.) But his swing was a thing of beauty, and was enough to convince Kauffman that the son of a Polish immigrant zinc miner from Western Pennsylvania would not only make it, but become a Man among boys.

Musial spent just 54 games with the Wings before being promoted to the St. Louis Cardinals. His Rochester stint included 10 doubles, four triples, three home runs, 21 runs batted in and a .326 average. His torrid hitting continued in the big leagues as he batted .426 in 12 games with the Cardinals. Musial told me in a 1987 appearance in Rochester that he fully expected to be reassigned to Rochester the following spring. Instead, he stuck with the big club, and you know the rest of the story: Seven National League batting titles, 3,630 hits, 475 home runs, a .331 career batting average and a first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame.

I wonder whatever became of that not-so sage scout who doubted Musial’s unorthodox stance. I also wonder what might have happened if Musial – who originally was signed as a pitcher and who went 18-5 in the Florida State League – had not injured his shoulder while diving for a ball in 1940. Would he have become a Hall-of-Fame pitcher? Or would he have faded into oblivion like thousands of other ballplayers?

Lastly, I wonder how much more appreciated Musial would have been had he played for the Yankees or Dodgers or Red Sox. He remains one of the most underappreciated superstars in sports history, overshadowed by contemporaries such as Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

It's cliché and risky to say that Musial was an even better person than he was a ballplayer. But, in this case, I believe it’s true. I’ve never read or heard a disparaging word about him. He was beloved by his peers and fans. He clearly wasn’t just the Man on the diamond.

Weaver’s ties to Rochester were much stronger than Musial’s. Earl spent two seasons managing the Wings, guiding them to a pennant in 1966 and a second-place finish the following summer. That led to his promotion to the Baltimore Orioles, where he began a Hall-of-Fame managing career that saw him win four American League pennants and one World Series title.

Earl was known for being a master tactician and a pugnacious competitor. At 5-feet, 6-inches tall, he was shorter than all of the players he managed and most of the umpires he verbally sparred with. Spurred on, in part, by a Napoleonic complex, Weaver took guff from no one.

There’s a great story about a 1963 ejection from a game in Charleston, W.V. when Weaver pulled the third base bag from the ground and carried it into the clubhouse and locked the door. Apparently, the grounds crew couldn’t find another base, so the umpire sent the clubhouse boy to retrieve the bag from Earl. Weaver gave the clubbie the bag after he was told that the umpire was about to forfeit the game in the other team’s favor.

Weaver wound up being ejected 21 times during his two seasons skippering the Wings and 91 times with the Orioles. He was known to turn his cap backwards, so he could get face to chin with the umpire. He loved kicking dirt on homeplate after he had been given the thumb. Umpires hated his histrionics, but fans loved it; they thought it was great entertainment.

The infamous feud between Weaver and Hall-of-Fame pitcher Jim Palmer has its roots with the Red Wings. A year after beating Sandy Koufax during Baltimore’s World Series sweep of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Palmer developed arm problems and was sent to Rochester on a rehab assignment. In his first start for the Wings, the Orioles ace was cruising along with a 6-0 lead against the Bisons at old War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo before running into control problems in the fourth inning. He wound up walking the bases loaded and after throwing two balls to the next hitter, Weaver stormed out of the dugout to have a conference with his pitcher. “Throw the (bleeping) ball over the (bleeping) plate,’’ Weaver barked. “This guy is (bleeping) nothing.”

Palmer didn’t appreciate Weaver’s tirade, but he grudgingly followed orders. He threw the next pitch down the pike and the “(bleeping) nothing” – who went by the name of Johnny Bench – hit the ball over the fence for a grand slam. It would be the only grand slam Palmer would allow in his professional baseball career. “Earl Weaver lost all credibility with me at that point,’’ Palmer told me years later. “I told Earl that the only thing he knew about pitching is that he couldn’t hit it. I never listened to him again.”

The two strong-willed men would lock horns on numerous occasions after Weaver became the Orioles manager, but eventually buried the hatchet.

“Earl and I actually were similar in many ways,’’ Palmer told me. “He wanted to be the best manager in baseball and I wanted to be the best pitcher in baseball. Sometimes we got in each other’s way, but, I’ll say this, when Earl managed, I can never think of a time when we went into the season and we weren’t one of the favorites to win.”

Stan the Man and the Earl of Baltimore certainly were two indelible baseball personalities. Musial’s line-drive hits, fun-filled renditions of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on his harmonica and his common decency will be missed. As will Weaver’s managing skills and entertaining theatrics.  


Max said...

Scribe, thanks for taking me back 47 years this summer when I got to sit next to him in the dugout. What great times those were. said...

What a review here. I just gift a baseball bat to my younger brother in this Christmas that I collected from PIJ. PIJ is great for product and its price. Its always lovely to me. Thanks for sharing this article.