MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

In so many ways, they don't come any better than Cox

Hall of Fame skipper one of the most pleasant folks to have played, worked in baseball

In so many ways, they don't come any better than Cox

Even before Churchill toked on his stogey and flashed the victory sign, winners were associated with cigars. The Babe posed with one on numerous occasions, George Burns took his first puff before he met Gracie in 1923. Durocher loved a good heater while he was the Dodgers' manager/shortstop in the late 1930s. A cigar was as much a part of Groucho's shtick as those heavy-duty eyebrows.

Over more recent decades, we have seen Fidel Castro, JFK, comedian Alan King, Michael Jordan, Columbo, Charlie Sheen, Mike Ditka, Ringo, Luis Tiant, LeRoy Neiman and Sharon Stone relaxing with 'gars between their index and middle fingers.

And, of course, Red Auerbach famously and routinely fired up whenever his Celtics had victory in hand.

Bobby Cox smokes cigars, too. But for years, he lit up before games. Now that's confidence. Victory certainly wasn't secure in those pregame hours, but, chances are, a division championship was. Indeed, few folks would have questioned Cox's wisdom had he smoked one cigar just before the Braves' Opening Day engagement and let it stand for 162 games, because for the better part of 21 baseball summers, his team's place in the postseason was almost assured.

Instead, Cox's practice was to arrive at the ballpark -- home or away -- before noon for a night game and burn a few before the first pitch. The Braves manager would walk down the ramp at Turner Field at about 3:30 p.m. or so and take a seat in his second office, a cubbyhole that had been intended for an alternate purpose and is still known as "Bobby's Room." Within a minute, white smoke and that strangely inviting aroma would waft into the runway. It was the scent of success.

Few are more familiar with that scent or success than Cox. The teams of his second tour with the Braves stand among the most accomplished in the game's history. They were phenomenally consistent, winning division championships in assembly-line fashion from 1991 through 2005. Only a players' strike and cancelation of the 1994 postseason denied the Braves; no opponent did.

Cox's teams always had outstanding starting pitching, several special position players, a few pretty effective coaches and an ingredient unavailable to other clubs -- a driven father figure who wore No. 6 and expressions of consternation while watching his teams steamroll opponents. It was Cox who sat in dugouts with a borderline sourpuss expression with his arms folded across his chest as if he were miffed, Cox who continually removed his cap, ran his fingers though his hair as if he were approaching desperation and then replaced the cap.

And most of the time, Cox's guys were winning.

It is an image that stays with us even now, 3 1/2 years after Cox abdicated his position to one of his apprentices, Fredi Gonzalez, an image we undoubtedly will see often this weekend with reports and retrospectives about the three former managers being inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Come Sunday afternoon, Cox, his cigar-smoking Yankees counterpart Joe Torre and Tony La Russa will increase Cooperstown's manager roster to 23.

The three will be the first managers inducted since Whitey Herzog was enshrined in 2010. Hall of Fame coverage begins at noon ET with MLB Tonight live from Cooperstown on MLB Network and simulcast on MLB.com and the At Bat app, with the induction ceremony beginning at 1:30 p.m.

The three of them went about their jobs differently. Cox managed the players, La Russa managed the game and Torre tried to manage his owner. Each method worked. The Hall's 2014 managerial hat-trick members combined for 7,558 victories -- after Connie Mack and John McGraw, the winningest managers of all-time are La Russa (2,728), Cox (2,504) and Torre (2,326) -- made 45 playoff appearances, won 17 pennants and eight World Series.

Cox's teams -- don't overlook the Blue Jays of 1985 -- were responsible for 15 postseason appearances, five pennants and one World Series championship and for encroaching on the college football autumns in the South.

Not that anyone begrudged Cox his time in the spotlight. The city embraced him as much as his players did, and his players held him in the highest esteem.

Now 73, Cox has spent 41 years at the big league level, two -- 1968-69 -- as a bad-kneed third baseman with the Yankees, 1977 as a coach with the Yankees, 1978-81 as the Braves' manager, 1982-85 as the Blue Jays' manager, and October 1985 through June 22, 1990 as the Braves' general manager before he moved back to the dugout. He retired after the 2010 season.

In 1991, the first full season of his second tour as the Braves' manager, his team executed a worst-to-first renaissance and played in one of the seminal World Series of all-time, losing to the Twins in seven games. The Braves' World Series success came four years later against the Indians.

They played in the World Series in 1991, '92, '95, '96 and '99.

Along the way, Cox was voted Manager of the Year four times, once with the Jays, established a Braves franchise record for most managerial victories (2,058) and became the fourth manager to win at least 2,000 games with one club. Mack (Athletics), McGraw (Giants) and Walter Alston (Dodgers) are the others.

Cox's successes as a player were substantially more modest. He spent five years in the Dodgers' farm system before being selected by the Chicago Cubs in the November 1964 Minor League Draft. Cox was acquired by the Braves in a 1966 trade. After playing for their Triple-A affiliate in Richmond in 1967, he was traded to the Yankees.

Cox's time with the Yankees began inauspiciously. When he arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for 1968 Spring Training, the club had no hotel accommodations for him. So Cox and his family slept on the beach. But later that spring, he beat out Mike Ferraro, the Yankees' outstanding Spring Training rookie, for the third-base assignment.

Cox played in 135 games, starting 129, but hit poorly -- .229 with 41 RBIs. The following year, he played in merely 85 games, batting .215. But it was in those seasons in the Bronx, the first with Mickey Mantle as a teammate, the second with him as a coach, that Cox played for Ralph Houk, the man who inspired him to consider managing.

Houk was Cox's favorite, an avid cigar smoker as well. Through the years, Cox regularly referenced his only big league manager. When a New York columnist wrote about Houk at his death in 2010, Cox requested a copy of the column. And he kept it.

Houk was renowned as a "player's manager." Cox developed a greater reputation in that regard.

"I always say Bobby 'allowed' us to win," Chipper Jones said about Cox in spring 2011. "I've never played for anyone else, so if there's a difference, I can't tell. But I know I've had it good.

"Players who come here and guys who leave us and go to other teams tell me all the time, 'There's no one like Bobby.' And I'm not going to challenge that."

* * * * *

Cox was a father figure for sure and in more ways than one. He once benched center fielder Andruw Jones for not hustling. Jones nearly cried.

"I felt like I'd been benched by my father," he said. "I didn't want to let either down."

Cox was strongly influenced by Houk, "The Major." He once acknowledged hating an opposing manager "because Houk told me to."

Cox's on-field demeanor mirrored that of his hero. Houk was fiery and confrontational with umpires. As a man intent on protecting his players, he was one of the first dirt kickers. Cox made less dust, and he was generally well-liked by the game's lawmen. Nonetheless, they ejected him 158 times, a big league record. Cox led his league in ejections 13 times and yet was seen as an agreeable sort.

* * * * *

It's been a rewarding life for Cox. Simplified, it's been about smoking cigars, working his farm, earning ejections, winning more than 2,500 baseball games and untold friends and being one of the most pleasant people on the planet.

Cox is generous with his time and his money, he throws no stones -- not even at umpires -- listens well and directs with a firm, hardly oppressive hand. He gets what he seeks. John Smoltz characterizes Cox as a "sweet and tolerant man who deserves all the success he's had."

Said Smoltz: "We don't have the careers we've had without Bobby's hands on the [steering] wheel. They couldn't have a legitimate Baseball Hall of Fame without him in it. We're all thrilled for him getting in."

Marty Noble is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.