By Ross Newhan
The Baltimore Orioles under Earl Weaver, even as the names changed, had to rank as one of the 10 best teams of the last 50 years, and Stan Musial, Stan the Man of the St. Louis Cardinals and the real El Hombre as Albert Pujols insisted in reaction to those Angel billboards, had to rank as one of the 10 best hitters ever.
Weaver died Friday night, and Musial died Saturday.
Two giants of the game with differing personalities.
There was the pugnacious Weaver who battled players and umpires, and there was the mild Musial, who seemed to take as much delight in pulling out his harmonica and playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," as he did in discussing his Hall of Fame career, the fourth player elected to the Cooperstown museum on the first ballot.
In the years that I covered the Dodgers and baseball in general--first in Long Beach and then at the Los Angeles Times--I did not see Musial play in person.
I did chat with him a few times at the old Busch Stadium in St. Louis and I recall asking him if it was true that he could discern the nature of a pitch in the split second it left the pitcher's hand, as Ted Williams claimed he could see the seams on the ball, see it hit the bat.
"Well," said Musial, "studying pitchers was a key to my sucess. I don't know about seeing the seams, but I became so familiar with the pitchers that I could tell what a pitch was almost immediately and I was able to adjust my swing by the time it reached the plate."
He had a .331 career batting average, won three Most Valuable Player awards, played on three World Series teams, was consistent to the remarkable point of collecting 1,815 hits at home and the same number on the road, and never struck out more than 46 times in a 22 year career (and those 46 were in his next to last season).
Who needed steroids when you had the eyesight of Williams and Musial, and to a degree there has to be grudging respect for Barry Bonds in the same regard.
Steroids helped inflate his physique and double his normal home run totals, but he still had to see the ball and hit it.
What impact steroids had on that basic fact is uncertain. Bonds cheated and made the most of it.
Williams and Musial had no need for the cream, even if it had existed then.
In the years that I covered the Angels and baseball in general--in Long Beach and then at The Times--I had many pre- and post-game talks with the always quotable, biting and crusty Weaver, who loved to tell reporters that his tombstone should read: "The sorest loser who ever lived."
He preached the "three run homer" and had the hitters who could produce it, supported during many of his 17 years at the Orioles' helm by one of the best rotations ever.
Weaver led the Orioles to four American League pennants and one World Series title, and his cap turned, gesticulating arguments with umpires were/are video highlights. He was ejected 94 times, a figure far surpassed by Bobby Cox's record 158.
If those umpire debates are not among the first things that come to mind when thinking of Weaver, his long feud--real at times and, perhaps,cinematic at others--with stubborn and perfectionist Hall of Fame pitching ace Jim Palmer shares billing.
Each took delight in getting under the skin of the other, or as Palmer once famously said, "The only thing Weaver knows about a curveball is that he coudln't hit one."
The basic fact is that Palmer teared up and broke up when speaking of his Hall of Fame manager during an impromptu news conference at the Orioles' Fanfest on Saturday, and Weaver is known to have told every young pitcher who tried to break into the club's rotation that he should go about it the way Palmer does--in both preparation and performance (the latter, of course, being almost impossible given that Palmer would win 264 games).
The basic fact, too, is that the passing of Weaver and Musial has left the baseball landscape much less than it had been.