Weaver was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles a team that my mom’s Irish grandmother didn’t care for. We rooted for the teams where Great Grandmother’s kids lived because my Great Aunts and Uncles would always take her to the local games when she went to visit them. That meant we were Dodger fans, Angel fans, Royals fans, and of course Red Sox fans (because Boston is Irish). The Damn Yankees were our nemesis as were the Orioles with that stupid grinning, bird and that cantankerous, old man for a manager.
Earl and Nellie never met except on the baseball field, and that was never in person. He showed up on Saturdays during the ‘Game of the Week’ on TV and whenever the Birds made the post season. You would think by the way Nellie yelled at him from the front room that Earl could hear her every word through the big Zenith set.
My Grandparents lived just a few blocks away from me growing up. Nellie came to live with them and it opened my eyes to a passionate side of sports as well as my Irish heritage. I often found myself at their home on Saturday afternoons for the baseball game. My Grandpa Craig would sit in his recliner with his leg-and-a-half stretched out on the footrest. His prosthetic leg, which attached just below his left knee, would sit patiently waiting beside his chair.
Nellie and I would sit in our twin, orange rockers, listening to Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola call the play by play. Grandpa and Great Grandma would always bet on each game. It was only a quarter, but the point was it cost you something to be a fan. Grandpa Craig would always let Nellie pick her team first which meant he always got stuck with Weaver and his Orioles.
My Grandpa was a character and loved to rattle Nellie’s cage over a close call at first base or a dispute on the placement of a pitch. Sports were more of a way for him to pass time, but getting Nellie’s goat was pure entertainment. I think Earl and my grandfather were in cahoots.
Earl managed his team with passion and protected his players by arguing with the umpires. He was ejected 94 times in his managering history and he always did it with flair. Earl would kick dirt on umpires, on bases, and could out-cuss the whole dug-out. While we couldn’t hear the swearing on the game his boisterous arm motions clearly gave away what he was telling the umpires. I think my favorite ejection was when he motioned to have the umpires thrown out of the game. Great Grandma would be on the other side of the set yelling back at Earl and telling him to get off the field. The few times I ever heard Nellie swear was while watching a baseball game.
In 1979 I was 11 years old and happily watching the American League Championship Series with my Grandfather and Great Grandmother. It was our beloved California Angles against the ungodly Orioles and their devilish little manager. The best of five series went only four games with the Birds beating the Angles and my Grandfather up 50 cents. I knew Nellie and I would root for the winner of the National League Pennant and that Grandpa would keep cheering for Baltimore.
The first game was brutal as the Orioles came back from behind to beat the Pirates by just one run. Pittsburgh tied it up in the second game but then lost the third and fourth games. Grandpa gloated as did Earl. All they needed was one more win. But this Fall Classic ended up being just that, classic – the “We Are Family” Pirates won the next three amazing games to win the World Series. My Irish Great Grandmother danced a jig in the living room and my Grandfather put on his leg and walked over to the TV and pretended to kick dirt on it. I sat in my orange rocker and took in the celebration on the screen, in the room and in my heart. Grandpa ended up having won the money battle with Nellie as he netted .25 cents from her from his amount of wins, but I knew she didn’t care.
I always thought I hated Earl Weaver, but now that he is gone I know it never was personal. It was sports. It was heritage. It was loyalty. It was passion.
I miss those childhood Saturdays. I miss Nellie. I miss Grandpa Craig.
Though the roads are supposed to be paved with gold, I still think there must be dirt in Heaven. I imagine an Irish woman, who now looks younger than I remember, hiding behind the gate as Earl jogged in like he was heading to make a pitcher change. She’d get his attention and then finally, gleefully kick some dirt on his shoes. He’d start to get angry and make the motion to toss her out and then he’d remember where he was and break into an Oriole grin. Grandpa Craig would be close by; happy to see Nellie win their last sports bet, and handing her over his quarter.