Cox humbled by entrance into Braves' Hall

Cox humbled by entrance into Braves' Hall

ATLANTA -- Over the course of more than 30 years, players ranging from Phil Niekro to David Justice to Chipper Jones had come to know Bobby Cox always deflected praise toward his players and felt most uncomfortable when it was being pointed in his direction.

There was no way for Cox to avoid praise on Friday. The Braves inducted him into their Hall of Fame during the afternoon, then retired his No. 6 jersey before the night game against the Cubs at Turner Field.

But with his family and numerous former players among a crowd of nearly 1,000 gathered for the induction ceremony at the downtown Atlanta Omni Hotel, Cox truly seemed to enjoy himself as he shared laughs and a multitude of memories from his legendary baseball career.

"It's very humbling to be inducted into any Hall of Fame," Cox said. "I think the Braves Hall of Fame is very special. It's been a great day. I've enjoyed it. It was good to see ol' [Greg] Maddux, [Tom] Glavine and Smoltzie [John Smoltz] on the stage, and Justice. It brings back a lot of memories."

Cox becomes the eighth person to have his number retired by the Braves, and four members of that group -- Dale Murphy (No. 3), Maddux (No. 31), Niekro (No. 35) and Glavine (No. 47) -- played for him during his two managerial stints (1978-81 and 1990-2010) in Atlanta. Other former players to have their number retired by the organization were Warren Spahn (No. 21), Eddie Mathews (No. 41) and Hank Aaron (No. 44).

"I was fine until they took that curtain off that number," Cox said. "I want to thank you so much. This is one of the greatest days of our lives."

Somewhere in the process of compiling the fourth-most wins (2,504) among managers in Major League history and leading the Braves to 14 consecutive division titles, Cox seemingly already punched his ticket to soon be enshrined with the game's all-time greats in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

"We'll keep the light on for you," Niekro, a 1997 Hall of Fame inductee, said during one of the video tributes shown during the ceremony.

Commissioner Bud Selig, President Jimmy Carter, former Braves owner Ted Turner and former umpire Randy Marsh also expressed their appreciation for Cox's contributions to baseball via video tributes.

Marsh jokingly referenced the many disagreements he and Cox shared over the course of nearly 40 years, then expressed the opinion of many umpires by saying, "He always protected his players."

While guiding the Braves to 15 postseason appearances, five National League pennants and a World Series championship (1995), Cox was praised for the loyalty and support he showed his players. Those who knew him long before this incredible run of success recognized this was simply part of his DNA.

Niekro vividly remembers the rage Cox displayed after Mets hurler Craig Swan seemingly intentionally hit Niekro in the ear with a fastball on June 15, 1978.

"By the time they got me up off the ground, all I could see was four or five guys holding Bobby back from getting Craig Swan," Niekro said. "If he would have got to him, he might not have been able to stay in baseball. I never knew a human being had that many veins in his neck."

Cox actually thought his days in baseball -- or at least the Yankees' organization -- might be numbered while he was serving as the first-base coach for the Bronx Bombers in 1977. When one of his former Minor League players asked for tickets to a game, Cox, conversing on a clubhouse phone, said that the owner was "ridiculous about tickets and made it tough for anybody to get what they want."

As these words came out of his mouth, Cox felt a tap on his shoulder and saw longtime Yankees owner George Steinbrenner standing behind him.

But like countless others in the baseball world, Steinbrenner liked Cox. The next day, he sent him a letter that essentially said, "Anything you want anytime, just ask."

Cox left New York after that season and spent each of the next four summers serving as a Major League manager and attempting to restore respectability to the Braves. Turner fired him after the 1981 season, and the club went to the postseason the next year under the direction of Joe Torre.

"Bobby built that team, Joe just came in and took over," Niekro said.

Obviously Cox's greatest reconstruction process occurred when he returned to Atlanta after the 1985 season and became the Braves' general manager. With the help of Bobby Dews and Paul Snyder -- a pair of men he credited again Friday -- Cox overhauled a bad Minor League system and planted the seeds for the success the organization has celebrated over the past 20 years.

It's impossible to discuss what the Braves have accomplished over the past couple decades without mentioning Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz, who formed one of the most recognizable starting-pitcher trios in the game's history.

As they participated in a question-and-answer session with longtime Braves broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton during Friday's luncheon, Glavine, Smoltz and Maddux complimented their former manager and laughed about time shared with Cox.

Glavine remembers the calm Cox provided when he called to tell him there was no way he would be traded during an offseason in the late 1980s, when the southpaw's name was being bantered around. Smoltz talked about the faith Cox continued to show in him in 1991, when he started 2-11 with a 5.16 ERA and then went 12-2 with 2.63 ERA in his final 18 starts to help the Braves go from worst to first and clinch the first of their 14 straight division crowns.

Twenty years later, Cox spent three days last month walking around a golf course following Smoltz as he competed in the Georgia Open. In the process, he once again proved his loyalty and love for his players extended beyond the time they shared in the same dugout.

"Whenever we won, it seemed like it was because of [the players], and whenever we lost, it wasn't [the players' fault]," Justice said. "We all appreciated that."

Cox's attempt to protect his team led to a series of hysterical exchanges after umpire Hunter Wendelstedt tossed Smoltz in the fourth inning of a game in Cincinnati in 1998. Low on pitchers, the Braves' skipper told Smoltz to go back to the mound and just stand there. In the process, he used some choice words to tell Wendelstedt that he would never be as good as his father, Harry Wendelstedt -- a highly-respected former umpire.

Providing his colorful version, Jones remembered going toward the bottom of the dugout stairs, where Cox was positioned after being ejected. After Jones told his manager the Braves had just taken the lead, he remembers hearing Cox yell, "[Take that], Hunter."

Most of the laughs created during the luncheon centered around the Wendelstedt story and one Glavine told about Rick Lueken, a former pitcher who made the mistake of entering Cox's office at 4 a.m. after a return from the West Coast to ask him to define his role on the team.

When asked about Lueken again Friday, Cox smiled and said, "I really liked him."

Sometimes loyal to a fault, Cox always attempted to find good in each of his players. Now that his career is complete, these players have returned to Atlanta this weekend to express their appreciation and enjoy a celebration.

"This has been a heck of an honor," Cox said. "I'm very humbled and I'll never find the right words to express myself. But this is a day that the family and I will remember forever."

As they addressed the Turner Field crowd, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz and Jones talked about the impact Cox had on their careers and their lives.

"A small part of Bobby Cox changes you as a baseball player," Smoltz said. "Twenty years with the man changes your life."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.