Cox and Braves coach Pat Corrales have had a rivalry dating back to childhood. Growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley but attending different high schools, Corrales’ team routinely pummeled Cox’s team whenever the two sides met in the late 1950s. Friends by the time both reached professional baseball, Corrales went on to serve eight years in the major leagues as a backup catcher, while Cox’s career consisted of two seasons as a major league third baseman. It wasn’t until Cox started managing that he distinguished himself in baseball, eclipsing the managerial achievements not only of Corrales but of most of their contemporaries.
Signed in 1959 for a $40,000 bonus, Cox spent seven mostly productive years in the Dodgers’ farm system before being traded to the Braves late in 1966. After playing the 1967 season in Richmond, he was traded to the Yankees for Bob Tillman and Dale Roberts and won their starting third base job in 1968. He was named to the Topps Rookie All-Star team that year (despite hitting .229 with only seven HR) but lost his job to Bobby Murcer the following spring. Due to bad knees, Cox’s playing career was over within two seasons at the age of 30, and he became a minor-league manager for the Yankees.
In 1971, Cox spent his first year as manager of Ft. Lauderdale (Florida State League). His team ended up in fourth place, the lowest finish of any of his teams in the Yankees’ system. But the next year, his West Haven (Eastern League) squad claimed first place in the Eastern League with an 84-56 (.600) record and won the 1972 league championship. Following that were two second-place and two third-place finishes with Syracuse (International League); his 1976 club won the league championship as well. Cox returned to the majors in 1977 as a first base coach for the Yankees, who went on to win the World Series.
Cox’s first major league managerial job came with the Braves in 1978. In contrast to his days in the minor leagues, where none of his six teams finished below .500, Cox’s best year came in 1980, when the Braves finished 81-80. In four years under Cox, Atlanta went 266-323.
He saw more success after taking over the reins of the Toronto Blue Jays from Bobby Mattick in 1982. The young franchise never regressed in his four years there; under Cox’s direction, Toronto won 78 games in 1982, 89 games in both 1983 and 1984, and 99 games in 1985. The Blue Jays won their first AL East championship that year, but Cox’s strict platooning style allowed Royals manager Dick Howser to outmaneuver him in the LCS. Nevertheless, Cox was subsequently named Manager of the Year.
Lured back to the Braves as their GM by Atlanta owner Ted Turner in October 1985, Cox proved to be just as adept at developing personnel. Key players like Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, Dave Justice, Javy Lopez, and Ron Gant were all nurtured under Cox’s supervision. He replaced the fired Russ Nixon as Braves manager on June 22, 1990, and relinquished his front-office job to John Schuerholz after the 1990 season.
Once again turning his full attention to managing, Cox led the 1991 Braves to a dramatic worst-to-first turnaround, the first of its kind in the National League. After a compelling World Series in which his team lost to Tom Kelly’s similarly resurgent Minnesota Twins, Cox received a multitude of post-season awards, including the AP Manager of the Year (the first manager to be so named in both leagues).
The postseason appearances became the norm in the 1990s as Cox continued his unprecedented stretch of success. After 1991, the Braves won division titles in each season in the 1990s with the exception of the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Those division titles also translated into NL pennants, except for 1993, 1997, and 1998. (Ironically, Cox led the Braves to 100-plus wins all three years.)
In the process, Cox became the Braves’ winningest manager in the modern era with 1,254 wins after the 2001 season. While some may argue his place as the most victorious postseason manager (55 wins) is somewhat cheapened by the extended playoff format, there is no question about the stature of his regular season record: 1704-1305 (.566), second to Tony LaRussa among active managers and twelfth on the all-time list.