John Schuerholz’s historic success acknowledged by Hall of Fame
Back in 2002, during a long drought in recognizing general managers for the Hall of Fame, longtime scribe and Veterans Committee member Leonard Koppett lamented, “Players looked fondly upon [longtime Dodgers and Angels GM] Buzzie Bavasi after they had to deal with him. But someone like [John] Schuerholz, who's gonna vote for him?” The answer, as revealed on Sunday, was “everyone.” Best known for engineering the Braves' 1991-2005 run of dominance in the NL East and for being the only GM to win championships in both leagues (1985 Royals and '95 Braves), Schuerholz was a unanimous selection by the 16-member Today’s Game Era committee on Sunday. Former commissioner Bud Selig, whose election was as inevitable as it was anticlimactic—to the point that news of it leaked about half an hour before the official announcement—was the only one of the other nine candidates elected, receiving 15 out of 16 votes. Both men will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown next July 30, alongside whichever candidates from the BBWAA ballot are elected via a separate process whose results will be announced on January 18.
One of four committees created this past summer via a rejiggering of the process by which the Hall considers executives, managers, umpires and long-retired players, the Today's Game Era committee is focused upon candidates whose greatest contribution to baseball came from 1988 onward; the other three eras are Early Baseball (1871–1949), Golden Days ('50–69) and Modern Baseball ('70–87). Twelve votes were needed to gain the 75% necessary for election. Among the remaining candidates on this year’s ballot, manager Lou Piniella received seven votes, while all of the others — owner George Steinbrenner, manager Davey Johnson, and players Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser and Mark McGwire — received fewer than five votes; their exact totals weren't announced.
The 16-member committee that voted consisted of owners Bill DeWitt Jr. (Cardinals) and David Glass (Royals), executives Andy MacPhail (Phillies), Kevin Towers (Reds) and Paul Beeston (formerly of the Blue Jays), veteran media members Bill Center, Steve Hirdt and Tim Kurkjian, and Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Bobby Cox (Schuerholz's longtime partner in Atlanta), Andre Dawson, Dennis Eckersley, Pat Gillick (the most recent executive elected to the Hall, in 2011), Frank Thomas, Ozzie Smith and Frank Thomas.
A Baltimore native who starred in baseball at Towson University, Schuerholz kicked off his front office career just after the 1966 World Series, when the Orioles hired him to be an administrative assistant. He worked under farm director Lou Gorman in Baltimore, and followed Gorman to Kansas City to join the expansion Royals in 1969. There, Schuerholz was part of the scouting and player development system that produced George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Dennis Leonard and Dan Quisenberry, players who helped Royals win five AL West titles and one pennant from 1976-1981. He became their general manager after the '81 season, when GM Joe Burke was promoted to club president. At 41 years old, he was the youngest man to hold the title at that point. During his nine years as the Royals’ GM, the team finished above .500 six times, won more than 90 games three times, and took the AL West both in 1984 and '85. In the latter year, the team—by then featuring homegrown starters Bret Saberhagen and Danny Jackson, with Brett, White, Wilson and Quisenberry still key contributors—overcame three-games-to-one deficits in both the ALCS against the Blue Jays and the World Series against the Braves.
Schuerholz left the Royals after the 1990 season to become the GM of the Braves, with Cox, who had spent the past five years as their GM, returning to the dugout. The team had averaged 96 losses a year during Cox’s GM tenure, but he had begun to amass the young talent—future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, fellow starting pitcher Steve Avery, outfielder David Justice and third baseman Chipper Jones—that would turn the franchise around. With Schuerholz bringing 1991 NL MVP Terry Pendleton and other veterans via free agency, the Braves vaulted from 97 losses and a sixth-place finish in 1990 to 94 wins and an NL pennant in '91. They lost to the Twins in a thrilling seven-game World Series, and to the Blue Jays in the 1992 World Series as well, but Schuerholz's long-term planning kicked off a 15-year run atop the NL East, interrupted only by the 1994 strike. In 1995, the Braves won their first championship since 1957, beating the Indians in the World Series. They dropped both the 1996 and '99 World Series to the Yankees, and bowed out in three NLCS series, but during Schuerholz's tenure, which ended with his promotion to team president (a title he still holds) following the 2007 season, the Braves won at a major league-best .593 clip.
No Schuerholz move paid off more than signing reigning NL Cy Young winner Greg Maddux after the 1992 season. The addition gave the Braves a trio of future Hall of Fame starters who combined to win seven Cy Young awards in Atlanta. Around that foundation, Schuerholz managed a frequently changing cast, plugging in players from the team's bountiful farm system, such as Andruw Jones, Javy Lopez, Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles, and supplementing them with quality veterans acquired through trade such as Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton, generally without surrendering much in talent.
Including his time in Kansas City, Schuerholz’s teams won 16 division titles and six pennants in 26 years; including his time with the Royals before becoming GM, and with the Braves as president, his teams have made the playoffs 24 times. Quite simply, there aren't many men who have been connected to as much winning baseball as he has. He joins Ed Barrow, Gillick, Larry MacPhail, Branch Rickey and George Weiss as Hall of Famers recognized primarily for their GM work.
As for the 82-year-old Selig, he's best known for his 22-year run (September 1992-January 2015) as commissioner, the longest tenure since baseball's original commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Landis (1920-44). In that capacity, Selig presided over unprecedented growth in attendance and revenue, two waves of expansion, numerous innovations and technological modernization, but he was also at the helm for two of baseball's darkest moments since the Black Sox scandal, namely the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and the proliferation of performance-enhancing drugs within the game. He stuck around long enough to clean up those messes, and left office with MLB amid the longest run of labor peace of any major North American sport, and with the most comprehensive drug program. The Today's Game voters forgave the stains—which also include his involvement in the mid-1980s collusion scandal—on his resume, but many fans and media members have not.
A Milwaukee native who followed his father into the automobile dealer industry, Selig's involvement in baseball stretches back to 1963, when he became the largest public shareholder of the Milwaukee Braves when they went public. After the Braves left for Atlanta following the 1966 season, he battled to bring MLB back to the city. In 1970, he led a group of investors in buying the bankrupt Seattle Pilots, who had just begun play one year earlier, for $10.8 million in 1970. The Brewers didn't enjoy a great deal of success under his ownership, winning 90 games five times but making the playoffs only in 1981 and ’82; they won the pennant in the latter year but lost the World Series to the Cardinals.
But behind the scenes, Selig amassed power, making up for his lack of a charismatic public persona with a backroom savvy, building and maintaining consensus among other owners. For better or worse, that savvy led to some pretty dark places. Selig formed alliances with other small-market owners and big-market ones, such as the White Sox Jerry Reinsdorf, who were willing to take a hard-line stance against the MLB Players Association when it came to rising player salaries—to the point that the owners colluded in an effort to suppress free agent salaries, which eventually resulted in a $280 million damages payout to players. Selig built up enough support among other owners to become chairman of the Executive Council of Major League Baseball in September 1992, playing a central role in ousting commissioner Fay Vincent and became acting commissioner himself.
In that capacity, Selig (whose controlling interest in the Brewers was transferred to his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb) presided over the owners' ham-fisted attempt to eliminate salary arbitration, restrict free agency, and institute revenue sharing tied to a salary cap, which led to the 1994 strike that resulted in the cancelation of the World Series and required federal mediation to settle the following spring. Amid that lasting labor war, he and the other owners turned a blind eye to the influx of PEDs until some of the game's biggest stars had been implicated, and he himself had been dragged in front of Congress. He commissioned former U.S. Senator George Mitchell to investigate the game's ongoing drug problem, the result of which, issued in December 2007, focused on only a few distributors and raised more questions than it answered. There's more dark stuff where that came from, such as his attempt to contract two teams following the 2001 season, which led to the destruction of Montreal as a major league market, as well as other ownership shenanigans.
Still, over a two-decade span Selig brought about tremendous change, starting with realignment into three divisions in each league with the addition of the wild card and a three-tiered playoff system (not fully implemented until 1995), revenue sharing between wealthier and poorer teams (1996), interleague play (1997), creation of the collectively owned MLB Advanced Media to allow distribution of audio and video over the internet (2000), the competitive balance tax (2003), the inauguration of the international World Baseball Classic tournament (2006), and the introduction of instant replay (boundary calls for 2009, with bigger changes instituted in 2014). Against that backdrop, he oversaw a building boom that resulted in new ballparks for 22 teams during his tenure — with taxpayers footing the largest share of the bill and owners reaping nearly all of the financial benefits. Indeed, such were the gains that baseball expanded from a $1.2 billion industry in 1992 to a $9 billion one in 2014, with franchise values skyrocketing.
Not all of those changes were for the better. One—the use of the All-Star Game result to determine home-field advantage in the World Series, the result of an embarrassing tie in Milwaukee in 2002—was discarded with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement announced this past week. But they left an indelible imprint on the game, one that rivals only Landis among past commissioners. Selig joins Landis, Happy Chandler (1944-51), Ford Frick (1952-1965) and Bowie Kuhn (1969-84) as the other commissioners in the Hall. Chandler was the last living ex-commissioner to be elected, in 1982.
From among the other candidates on what was generally considered to be a weak slate due to the dates chosen as cutoffs—the Modern Baseball era has a far deeper pool of players to draw from, at least until some current BBWAA candidates fall off the ballot—I'm of the opinion that Steinbrenner belongs, and I can see a case for McGwire, particularly given Selig's anointment. The PED mess in which McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and others became ensnared was a result of a complete institutional failure that resulted from the owners' long, misguided war on the union, which prevented the two sides from addressing other problems, and nobody was more central to that mess than Selig. If the Today’s Game voters can overlook that for him, BBWAA voters should be able to do the same for the aforementioned stars, and the Hall should be able to stomach both results.