I have been watching baseball games for a very long time. To give you an idea of how long when I started out watching baseball Bobby Cox was one of the youngest managers in the game. Now, at 69, he is nearly the oldest.
And unless the Atlanta Braves win the National League Wild Card spot this will be Cox’s final week managing major league baseball games.
Yet even if the Braves are unable to reach the post-season it will have been a remarkable career for Cox, who has managed in the big leagues for thirty seasons. Over the weekend, Cox reached a milestone by winning his 2,500th regular season game as a major league manager. The Braves 5-0 victory over the Washington Nationals on Saturday made Cox only the fourth big league manager to reach that mark. Only St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, John McGraw, and Connie Mack have guided their teams to more victories.
When Cox was hired to manage the Braves at the age of 37 his contemporaries at the time included a veritable who’s who of managers — Earl Weaver, Whitey Herzog, Gene Mauch, Dick Williams, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda and Billy Martin (under whom Cox had served as a first base coach on the 1977 World Series champion New York Yankees). All of these skippers (save for Martin and Mauch) have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Who in 1978 could have predicted that Cox would finish with more wins as a major league manager than these baseball legends?
Well, they certainly could not have predicted it by the end of the 1981 season. The Braves fired Cox after four years with only one winning season to show for it. But despite not winning, Cox did develop a reputation of being able to work with young players. The careers of players like Bob Horner and Dale Murphy blossomed under him. Indeed, it was Cox’s idea to move Murphy to the outfield after struggling as a catcher and at first base. Murphy put it succinctly in a 2004 interview when he said, “Well, Bobby Cox saved my career.”
No doubt it was this ability to work with young players that caught the attention of the Toronto Blue Jays, who would hire Cox as their manager in 1982. The Blue Jays, an expansion team that came into the American League in 1977, had been finished last in the AL East in each of their first five seasons. Cox helped the Jays get off the ground almost immediately. By 1983, the team would enjoy its first winning season.
In 1985, Cox’s work would pay off as the Blue Jays would win their first AL East divisional title, clinching on the next to last day of the season after a tough battle with the Yankees who were once again being managed by his old friend Billy Martin. That Blue Jays team included the likes of Dave Stieb, George Bell, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez and Tom Henke. The Jays would nearly reach the World Series that year but blew a three game to one lead in the American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals.
To the surprise of many, Cox returned to the Braves the following season after they offered him the position of general manager. Cox jumped at this second chance in Atlanta even if it wasn’t under the most ideal circumstances. The Braves were a moribund team and he faced the unenviable task of rebuilding from the ground up. It was so slow going. From 1986 to 1990, the Braves finished either in last place or next to last in the NL West. But during this time, Cox would trade for prospects like John Smoltz and draft the likes of Chipper Jones.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Braves was finding a suitable skipper. Chuck Tanner could not replicate the success he had with the 1979 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates, and Russ Nixon would fare no better. After axing Nixon in the middle of the 1990 season, Cox decided to put on the uniform back on and manage again.
The following year Bobby Cox began to be regarded as one of baseball’s managerial greats. The 1991 season saw Smoltz, Steve Avery, and Tom Glavine became baseball’s most talked about starting rotation, with Glavine winning the NL Cy Young Award. Braves third baseman Terry Pendleton unexpectedly won the NL MVP. It was also the season the Braves went from worst to first. They would upset the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL Championship Series before losing the World Series to the Minnesota Twins in seven games in one of the greatest World Series ever played.
The following year, the Braves proved it was no fluke by winning a second consecutive NL championship, although they fell again in the World Series, this time to Cox’s old friends in Toronto. The Braves finally won the World Series in 1995 in six games over the Cleveland Indians. While some have criticized Cox for winning only one World Series, he did take the Braves to fourteen consecutive post-season appearances between 1991 and 2005 (save for the strike shortened season of 1994), including World Series appearances in the 1990s. It’s a record unlikely to be broken.
Another Cox record that will likely stand was his propensity for being ejected from the game by umpires. In all, Cox has been tossed 158 times in his career (and there’s still a few games to go!). That’s nearly a season’s worth of early showers.
It would be great for baseball to see Bobby Cox manage one last October.