John Schuerholz entered the world of big league baseball with a letter to a man he did not know. But after a lifetime in baseball, Schuerholz became known to everyone in the game as one of the National Pastime's great team builders.
Born Oct. 1, 1940, Schuerholz was raised in Baltimore. His father, John, was a minor league second baseman in the Philadelphia A’s organization before a broken leg derailed his career.
Schuerholz followed his father’s footsteps in high school as a second baseman, but received no offers after graduating and instead enrolled at nearby Towson University. There, Schuerholz was an all-conference selection in both baseball and soccer and was named Athlete of the Year during his senior season.
With his degree in hand, Schuerholz became a junior high teacher in the Baltimore suburb of Dundalk. But in 1966, Schuerholz took one last shot at a baseball career – sending a letter of inquiry to Jerold Hoffberger, the president of the National Brewing Company and chairman of the Orioles.
The letter found its way to Orioles president Frank Cashen, who personally replied to every letter he received. That brought Schuerholz to the attention of Orioles director of player development Lou Gorman, who hired Schuerholz as a personal assistant.
Two years later, Gorman joined the front office of the expansion Kansas City Royals, and Schuerholz went with him.
“The very first day I started in that job (with the Orioles), my goal was to become a general manager of a Major League Baseball team,” Schuerholz said. “I gave myself five years, after which I would assess where I was in my career – because I felt I could always go back to teaching if I didn’t succeed.”
Five years into his baseball career, Schuerholz was still working for Gorman – helping lay the foundation for the talented Royals teams of the late 1970s that featured homegrown stars Frank White, Al Cowens and future Hall of Famer George Brett. Gorman was named the Royals’ general manager in the fall of 1975, and Schuerholz became the team’s farm director.
Then in early 1976, Gorman left to run the expansion Seattle Mariners – and Schuerholz was promoted to director of scouting and player development for the Royals. In 1979, Schuerholz was named Vice President of Player Personnel.
In 1981, Schuerholz took over for Joe Burke as the Royals’ general manager when Burke was promoted to team president.
“Unless you’ve ever been on the inside and worked with him, there’s no way you can appreciate (Schuerholz’s) baseball intelligence,” said former Braves executive Paul Snyder.
Schuerholz took over a Royals franchise that won four American League West titles in five years (1976-78, 1980) and an AL pennant (1980), but seemed to be in transition. By 1985, Schuerholz had re-tooled much of the team with younger talent – especially pitchers like Bret Saberhagen, Danny Jackson and Bud Black. In 1985, the Royals won their first World Series title – defeating the Cardinals in a classic seven-game battle.
Following the 1985 season, Schuerholz was named the Executive of the Year by the Sporting News.
“I want to be here. I like it here,” said Schuerholz in 1985. “I have a lot of my blood and sweat in this organization.”
But by 1990, Schuerholz – who signed a “lifetime” contract with the Royals in 1985 – was looking for a different challenge. He found one with the Braves, who had posted losing records from 1984-90 and were searching for a new general manager when Bobby Cox went back to the dugout after a stint as GM. Schuerholz immediately helped the Braves go from worst to first, winning the National League pennant in 1991 after finishing last in the NL West the year before.
Schuerholz inherited talent like Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but added to the mix by acquiring Greg Maddux, Terry Pendleton and Fred McGriff over the next few seasons.
“(Schuerholz) knows what he wants,” said former Indians general manager John Hart. “He’s always prepared (during trade negotiations), and he doesn’t mince words.”
Under Schuerholz, the Braves embarked on a run unseen in big league history. For 14 seasons from 1991-2005, the Braves finished first in their division in every completed season. Atlanta advanced to the World Series four times in that stretch, winning the 1995 Fall Classic title.
He became the first general manager to lead teams to World Series titles in both the American League and National League.
“We could have been a one-shot wonder,” Schuerholz said during the Braves’ run. “The consistency of or success is a great source of pride for me.”
Schuerholz spent 17 years as the Braves’ general manager, then took over as team president following the 2007 season.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2017.