Happy birthday to Bobby Cox, the best manager we’ll ever see

Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox celebrated his 79th birthday May 21. Here are five things to know about Cox.

Editor's note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will spend the year looking back at the 25th anniversary of the 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves. In a season-long series that will run through October, we will capture all the key moments and hear from the participants as they share their memories. Today's installment focuses on Bobby Cox, the manager of the 1995 squad and a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

You want a stat? From 1985 through 2005, every team Bobby Cox brought north from spring training won its division — except one. The blip was the strike year of 1994, when everything ended in August. Fifteen times over 15 completed seasons, the team with Cox managing it finished first.

Yeah, yeah, you might be saying, but only the one championship. That’s also a fact. So’s this: Winning the 1995 World Series didn’t make Bobby Cox a Hall of Famer. Had his Braves lost in seven to Cleveland that year, his plaque still would be in Cooperstown. It’s tempting to call the ’95 Series the exclamation point on a shining career, but it wasn’t: The man presided over 10 more division winners in the 10 years after Marquis Grissom gloved Carlos Baerga’s fly for the 27th out of Game 6.

Did the 1995 season change the way we remember the Braves of that vintage? Sure. They stopped being the Buffalo Bills of baseball. They didn’t have to watch somebody else celebrate in Atlanta; they got to do it themselves, parade down Peachtree and all. They got their rings. They lifted the big trophy. “Only one championship” sounds a lot less harsh than “not even one championship.”

Here’s the thing, though. The man who regards the 1995 World Series as just another stressful week in October is the man whose career — at least to outsiders — it burnished the most. Years later, Robert Joe Cox was sitting at his farm in Adairsville. When the subject of triumphant ’95 arose, he cocked an eyebrow. “You know,” he said, “we played better in three of the ones we lost than in the one we won.”

Bobby Cox suffered a stroke April 2, 2019. He has been seen in public only once since: On Labor Day, he attended the Braves' game at SunTrust Park and watched six innings of the team's victory over Toronto, the franchise for which Cox won the first of his division titles. He turned 79 on Thursday.

Bobby Cox is presented his plaque during the National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Clark Sports Center on Sunday, July 27, 2014, in Cooperstown.   CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
Bobby Cox is presented his plaque during the National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at Clark Sports Center on Sunday, July 27, 2014, in Cooperstown. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Back in 1999, Bobby Dews — then a Braves coach and long one of Cox’s closest associates — said: “One of Bobby’s great assets is that he doesn’t try to take credit. He’ll take the blame, but he won’t take credit.”

Cox was a player, a third baseman for the Yankees when they weren’t very good. (Though they were still big in the Big Apple. Cox was in a cab headed for the Bronx when a bicyclist pulled alongside and said, “Hey, you’re Bobby Cox.” The cyclist’s name: Joe Namath.) The Yankee manager was Ralph Houk, known as the Major for his military bearing. Houk became Cox’s model.

“It’s easy to support the players,” Cox once said. “They’re human. I came under Ralph Houk, and he could be as tough as they come. But he was also supportive. He was good at communicating with the guys who weren’t playing; the superstars take care of themselves. I liked that style.”

What former players had to say about Bobby Cox

Said Greg Maddux, Hall of Famer: “There are a lot of reasons to want to pitch and play well. You want to do well for your family, your contract, your pride. Here, one of the reasons you want to do well is for the manager. You won't hear many players say that, but when somebody treats you as fairly as he does, you want to win for him.”

Said Stan Kasten, who as Braves president persuaded Cox, who’d been rehired by Ted Turner in 1985 as general manager, to return to the field June 22, 1990: “Central to our success in the whole big scheme of things, John (Schuerholz, who succeeded Cox as GM) has probably been No. 2. Bobby is No. 1. Or maybe it's Nos. 1 and 1-A.”

To say Cox loved every single player is a slight stretch. (He did, after all, manage Kenny Lofton and John Rocker.) To say he supported each one to the hilt — so long as that player was a Brave — is the gospel truth. We in the media would laugh over Cox’s refusal to rip anyone for the record, but we weren’t his target audience. Those guys in the clubhouse were, and they noticed.

Said Tom Glavine, Hall of Famer: “Sometimes I’ll give up a bunch of hits and read the next day where Bobby said I threw really well, and I’ll think, ‘What game was he watching?’ ”

Braves manager Bobby Cox embraces pitcher Tom Glavine on stage during his uniform number retirement in a pre-game ceremony at Turner Field in Atlanta, Friday, August 6, 2010, before the game vs. the San Francisco Giants. Glavine's # 47 is the seventh Braves uniform number to be retired, joining Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), Dale Murphy (3), Phil Niekro (35), Warren Spahn (21), and Greg Maddux (31).    Curtis Compton  ccompton@ajc.com
Braves manager Bobby Cox embraces pitcher Tom Glavine on stage during his uniform number retirement in a pre-game ceremony at Turner Field in Atlanta, Friday, August 6, 2010, before the game vs. the San Francisco Giants. Glavine's # 47 is the seventh Braves uniform number to be retired, joining Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), Dale Murphy (3), Phil Niekro (35), Warren Spahn (21), and Greg Maddux (31). Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

What game? The long game. A year’s worth of games, 162 in all, that 15 times over 15 completed seasons ended with Cox’s team in first place. Those Braves are living proof that anything can happen when you get to October; they’re also a reminder that nothing happens unless you get to October.

Cox didn’t manage October 1995 any differently than he did the other Octobers. The Series rotation was Maddux, Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery. Cleveland, which had hit .291 over the regular season, batted .179 over those six games. The manager got great postseason mileage from Mike Devereaux and Luis Polonia, two of Schuerholz’s August pickups. (Devereaux was MVP of the National League Championship Series sweep of Cincinnati.)

The deftest managerial move came in the ninth inning of World Series Game 4. The Braves were three outs from taking a 3-1 lead. Mark Wohlers, the established closer, yielded a leadoff home run to Manny Ramirez and a double to Paul Sorrento. Next up were Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar and Lofton — two lefties and a righty. Cox pulled Wohlers and inserted lefty Pedro Borbon, owner of two career saves. Borbon struck out Thome looking, struck out Alomar swinging and induced Lofton to line out to David Justice.

Coda: Three days later, Wohlers worked a 1-2-3 ninth to close Glavine’s 1-0 win in Game 6. The Braves, at last, were champs.

On the TV podium in the clubhouse, where champagne was shooting and joy was unconfined, Cox was handed a phone and told to wait for the president, meaning Bill Clinton. Cox was so awed by the moment that he lowered the phone, effectively putting the White House on hold, to greet his daughter Skyla, who’d just entered. “Hey, Sky,” Cox said.

Don’t misunderstand. Bobby Cox was tickled pink that his team won it all, but he was tickled less for himself than for his beloved players. Being a champion changed him not one whit. He still hated postseason news conferences. (He’d sit sideways, as if he were about to bolt for the exit.) He still didn’t look TV interviewers in the eye. He preferred the company of print journalists, though only if he knew you and liked you. Bless bless him for that.

He came to the ballpark ridiculously early and left late. He liked being around baseball, the players especially. They liked him back. They played hard for him. He's not a Hall of Famer because he won a World Series. Some manager does that every year. He's a Hall of Famer because, over 15 astonishing years, he put every team he had in position to win a World Series.

And yeah, he kept score. After the 2004 Braves clinched the National League East, this correspondent walked past Cox on the way out. “Thirteen division titles,” I said. “Unbelievable.”

His eyes danced. “I’ve got 14,” he said, recalling Toronto 1985. And the next year he’d have 15. He’s best manager we’ve ever seen. He’s the best manager we’ll ever see.

MORE FROM THE SERIES

» About the series
» FURMAN BISHER: Atlanta's finest moment
» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players

» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending
» BUILDING THE BRAVESHow the championship team was built
» CHIPPER JONES'No bigger beneficiary of '94 strike than me'
» ANNOUNCERS: Championship call years in the making
» DAVE SHOTKOSKI: Remembering pitcher killed in spring training
» MARQUIS GRISSOM: Dream comes true for Atlanta native

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