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Palmer and Weaver

By Tim Wendel, December 18, 2016
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Original artwork by Joey Enos.

Oh, how they loved to argue. Debates about what pitches to throw, how to manage the game, even how to deploy everyone else on the Major League roster. Yet the fractious, volatile relationship between Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver in many ways personified “The Oriole Way.”

While the best pitcher and the best manager in franchise history rarely got along, they enthralled fans for decades and both reached the Hall of Fame. That they were so different, and willing to talk about it, only added fuel to the fire.

“The only thing Earl knows about a curveball is that he couldn’t hit it.”

That line was first attributed to Dave McNally, another great Oriole pitcher, but Palmer certainly believed it and often repeated it. As with many successful managers, Weaver wasn’t much of a player. At 5 feet, 7 inches, he had a weak arm, barely any power at the plate, and didn’t make the grade with the St. Louis Cardinals. Yet Weaver soon proved that he knew how to motivate a ball club.

After working his way up through the minors, Weaver became the Orioles’ manager at the All-Star break in 1968. While the ball club had been floundering under Hank Bauer, with Weaver at the helm the Orioles went 48–34 in the second half, throwing a brief scare into the Detroit Tigers, the eventual World Series champions.

Soon after taking charge, Weaver put up a sign in the clubhouse that read, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

As time went on, the message could have been aimed at the Orioles’ budding superstar—right-hander Jim Palmer. Adopted when he was just two days old, Palmer had grown up in a well-to-do family that moved from New York City to Beverly Hills to Scottsdale, Arizona. In high school, Palmer won all-state honors in baseball, football, and basketball. (UCLA offered him a hoops scholarship.)

When Weaver took over the Orioles, Palmer was a bit of an enigma. No question he had talent. After all, he had outpitched the Dodgers’ Sandy Koufax in Game 2 of the 1966 World Series. Since that star turn, though, Palmer had been battling arm troubles and even considered becoming a position player.

After going unprotected and unselected in the expansion draft for Seattle and Kansas City, Palmer began to right himself in the Puerto Rican Winter League on a team managed by Frank Robinson. Weaver and the Orioles’ front office wanted Palmer to throw more innings and not be so concerned if a certain pitch wasn’t working on a particular day. Weaver soon became the organization’s best administrator of such tough love.

“So Palmer learned to get his fastball over, his curveball over,” center fielder Paul Blair later told John Eisenberg, “and he learned to pitch because he was going nine. Earl made him grow up a little bit.”

Under Weaver’s tutelage, Palmer became one of the best pitchers in baseball. He reached the 20-victory plateau eight times and captured three American League Cy Young Awards. When Weaver went to a four-man rotation, Palmer joined McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson. They all were 20-game winners in 1971.

When Palmer won Game 3 of the 1983 World Series, he became the first pitcher in Major League history to win a contest in the Fall Classic in three different decades. He threw a no-hitter and never served up a grand slam in his 19-year career.

Jim Palmer, a three time winner of the AL Cy Young Award, also collected four Gold Gloves during his career. Palmer pitched in six World Series and won three.

“When you’re going through it, it’s hard to grasp,” Palmer said decades later. “But I know for certain (Weaver) made me a better pitcher. His expectation level was so high. If I gave him eight innings, he wanted nine. If I gave him 325 innings, he wanted 350.”

First baseman Boog Powell said that if he had to pick one pitcher to win a ball game, Palmer “was my guy. As much as I loved Mike Cuellar, as much as I loved Dave McNally and Pat Dobson . . . if I had one game to win, Palmer was on the mound for me.”

Anybody in Baltimore saw that the Palmer-Weaver partnership was a winning one. But that didn’t help the two of them get along any better. Over the seasons, the ongoing sniping occasionally turned into a full-blown feud, one that everyone else often enjoyed.

Once Weaver came to the mound after Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger made an error and Powell lost a pop-up in the sun.

“Are you trying?” Weaver asked Palmer, hoping to fire him up.

“That’s it, Earl?” the pitcher replied. “Why don’t you say that to your 280-pound first baseman who lost a ball in the sun and watch him plant you in the ground?”

Of course, Weaver knew that Palmer was the only one who could get the team out of this jam, which the pitcher promptly did.

“He told you where you stand,” Palmer said to Paul White of USA Today. “But he also told you what your job description was and then he trusted you. He’d come out to the mound and say, ‘Don’t be looking out at the bullpen. There’s nobody better out there.’”

Vintage old school, Weaver kept his distance from his players. He once explained that he did so because he was “the person who decides all the worst things in their lives.”

 As a result, he rarely complimented his staff ace or anybody else for that matter. And when such praise did bubble up, it almost came across as a mistake.

Peter Schmuck, longtime baseball writer for the Baltimore Sun, told a story about pitcher Mike Flanagan’s first days with the Orioles. Weaver pulled him aside and said to keep an eye on Palmer.

“Just do what he does and you’ll be fine,” Weaver said.

Decades later, with both Palmer and Weaver now in the Hall of Fame, they talked at an induction weekend in Cooperstown, New York. Palmer said he had heard the Flanagan story and appreciated it.

“I didn’t just tell Mike Flanagan,” Weaver answered. “I told everybody.”

Later in their careers, Palmer and Weaver both did television work. After one game, the producer invited the two of them to join him for dinner. When Weaver accepted, Palmer realized that the “line was gone. I thought, ‘Wow, this guy could have been my friend. He chose not to.”

Instead, Weaver chose to be his manager.

Earl Weaver is shown arguing with the umpires during a game in 1978.  This sight was not uncommon, as Weaver was known for his temper with both players and umpires.

 

 

 

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