This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
John Schuerholz spent 26 seasons as a big league GM, winning 16 division titles, six pennants and two World Series. In Kansas City he oversaw that franchise’s only World Series. After moving to Atlanta he took over a team that had lost more than 90 games for four consecutive years and won the next 14 division titles (excepting the truncated 1994 strike season) and five pennants. Schuerholz displayed an uncanny knack for retooling his team, knowing which holes could be filled by integrating prospects and which needed outside solutions.
A Baltimore native, Schuerholz left his junior high school teaching position to join the Orioles front office in 1966. Two years later he became an administrative assistant with the expansion Royals and worked his way up to farm director in 1975, and Vice President of Player Personnel in 1979. Finally, in October 1981 the Royals named him GM, promoting incumbent Joe Burke to president.
The Kansas City team he inherited had won the AL pennant in 1980, but slipped below .500 in the strike-shortened 1981 season. In one of his first moves he hoped to fill a couple of needs for his mostly veteran team by swapping several young players for Vida Blue and outfielder Jerry Martin. The team rebounded to 90 wins in 1982, but Blue and Martin proved a distraction in 1983, as a cocaine investigation dogged them and other players. After the season those two, along with stars Willie Wilson and Willie Mays Aikens, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three months in prison.
Rather than try to rebuild his aging rotation with veterans, in 1984 Schuerholz introduced a trio of young starters: Bret Saberhagen (20), Mark Gubicza (21), and Danny Jackson (22). For 1985 he acquired veteran catcher Jim Sundberg to help his young staff acclimate, and in conjunction with offensive mainstays George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Steve Balboni and Lonnie Smith (the last two great trade acquisitions by Schuerholz), Kansas City won the franchise’s first and so far only World Series.
Over the remainder of the 1980s, the Royals remained at the margin of the division race but could not capture another title. The team made some astute draft picks, such as Bo Jackson, but Schuerholz also made what he considered his worst deal, swapping David Cone for Ed Hearn, and some suspect free agent signings towards the end of the decade. By this time the Royals executive suite was becoming a little unwieldy; the two owners were not in complete agreement, and Burke remained tangentially involved as well.
In October 1990 Schuerholz joined the Atlanta Braves as GM with full authority over baseball operations. He inherited a franchise coming off a last place finish that had not been relevant for some time. Nevertheless, the team had a solid core of young pitchers: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery, plus outfielders Ron Gant and David Justice. As he had back in Kansas City, Schuerholz went to work to support his young hurlers, acquiring four solid defensive players: Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard, Terry Pendleton, and Otis Nixon. Pendleton had a great hitting season and won the league MVP, and the Braves won their first pennant since 1958 before losing in the World Series. With pretty much the same line up the team captured the flag the next year but again fell short in the World Series.
Schuerholz was not typically a participant in the big name free agent auctions, but prior to the 1993 season, the Braves rocked the baseball world by signing free-agent Greg Maddux, the 26-year-old ace of the Chicago Cubs, to bolster a pitching staff that was already the envy of the league. Maddux responded with the second of his four straight Cy Young awards.
The Braves could not have maintained their success for a decade without a continual influx of talent. The team that won the World Series in 1995 was much different than the one that had lost four years earlier: five of the eight position players, two starting pitchers, most of the bench and all of the bullpen had turned over. When the Braves lost the World Series in 1999, five of the eight position players, two starters, and all of the bench and bullpen were different from the champions of 1995.
Schuerholz made several impressive trades to keep his team competitive, but more importantly he continually addressed aging and ineffective players with internal solutions (if available) as opposed trading his prospects for aging veterans. Good teams are often reluctant to give significant roles to untested players. The Braves of the early 1990s had several veteran journeymen that needed replacing within a few years. What set the Braves apart from other great teams of the past generation is their willingness to give regular roles to the jewels of their farm system. When Terry Pendleton or Ron Gant needed replacing, Schuerholz did not trade his young talent for veteran solutions. In 1994 the Braves gave starting positions to Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko, and within two years both Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones were key players. Later still, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche claimed jobs.
Schuerholz often liked to note that the Braves on average turned over ten players on their roster every year. “One of the key responsibilities we have as general managers is managing change effectively,” he said. “I think it’s true in any business. We exist in an environment where change occurs in a bizarre fashion at a bizarre pace. We have to keep our antennas up and keep our minds open. We have to understand that change in inevitable, especially in our business, where we rely on human beings to perform physically, and we have to be able to manage the changes that are required in an effective manner.”
A comparison to the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s under general manager John Hart (now Schuerholz’s GM in Atlanta) is instructive. Hart built a great team in Cleveland that blossomed in 1994-96, but as holes emerged he seemed reluctant to fill them from within the organization. Over the next few years he dealt such players as Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Jeromy Burnitz, Albie Lopez, Brian Giles, and Richie Sexon, often acquiring a veteran player who proved less productive than a possible internal solution.
One of the reasons the Braves magnificent run eventually ended is because the farm system could not continue to produce stars the way it had in the mid-1990s, putting additional pressure on Schuerholz’s trades and free agent signings. Nevertheless, even in 2002 and 2003, twelve years after Schuerholz’s first division title the team was still winning 101 games a year.
After the 2007 season Schuerholz was named team president, and he promoted Frank Wren to GM. After a few mediocre years, the Braves returned to the postseason in 2010, making it again in 2012 and 2013. After missing the playoffs in 2014 Schuerholz dismissed Wren and made Hart the GM.
The Atlanta Braves from 1991 to 2005 enjoyed one of the most impressive runs of success by a franchise in baseball history. The team has been underrated because they navigated through the post-season unscathed only once, but Schuerholz’s maneuvering that kept this team at the top for fourteen years is truly remarkable. When added to his legacy in Kansas City, Schuerholz clearly merits a ranking among the best ten general managers ever.
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To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.