John Schuerholz got his first job in baseball the old-fashioned way: He wrote a letter of application. And he didn't exactly follow the normal chain of command either -- he started at the top, which as it turned out was only fitting because that's where his career peaked July 30, when he was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame.
It is an oft-told story how Schuerholz, who played second base for City College and Towson State Teachers College (now Towson University), wrote a letter to Orioles owner Jerold Hoffberger, who passed it along to team president Frank Cashen. As Schuerholz related during his induction speech, Cashen kept the letter's chain going by turning it over to director of player development Lou Gorman with a solitary comment: "I've never met this young man, but I know he's from good stock."
Thus began the story of the "local kid makes good" Hall of Famer who got away.
The Schuerholz name had been synonymous with athletic prowess in Baltimore for a couple of generations (his father, John Sr., played in the Philadelphia Athletics minor league system) and was the basis for Cashen's opening endorsement. It should be noted that the letter sent to Hoffberger and passed down to Cashen and Gorman was not an application for a particular job -- it was for any job, something that would open the door to a front office career than now exceeds half a century.
Gorman was the director of what was then known in baseball circles as the farm department, the place where the hamburgers and filet mignons were raised in unequal doses for delivery to the major leagues. He hired Schuerholz for a job that would carry a handful of titles today -- and require as many different individuals -- something like assistant director of scouting, minor league personnel and player development. In the old-time jargon of the day, Schuerholz was hired as the assistant farm director, second in command when it came time to separate the filets from the burgers.
That was 1966, the year the Orioles won their first World Series title, and that season proved to be a launching pad for the careers of Gorman and Schuerholz. It was only two years later, as Schuerholz related, that Gorman burst into his office and said: "Great news, John, we're going to Kansas City."
Startled by this development at such an early stage of his career, Schuerholz, now 76, recalled saying: "What's this ‘we' stuff? I'm a Baltimore guy, I'm not going to Kansas City."
But, indeed, he would go to Kansas City to play a prominent role in the Royals' rise as one of the second-wave expansion teams. Gorman had been hired to run the new team's minor league department, and his first move was to bring along his assistant -- something that perhaps might not be allowed to happen with the current generation of baseball executives.
It wasn't such a big deal at the time, maybe because the Orioles were almost as talented in the front office as they were on the field, with Cashen, Harry Dalton and a slew of top-rated executives and scouts. But in retrospect, the Orioles were more than a little generous in allowing the Royals to stock their front office with two key members of their own staff.
A few months ago, during his pre-induction visit to Cooperstown, N.Y., I asked Schuerholz this question: "John, have you ever thought what would have happened if the Orioles had offered you Gorman's job [essentially the one he took in Kansas City] and asked you to stay?"
The somewhat quizzical smile on his face was the best indication that it wasn't something he'd dwelled on, especially given the path his career had followed, but the thought at least seemed to intrigue him. After a short pause, he just said, "I guess we'll never know, will we?"
Which is probably as good a place as any to leave the thought. When Gorman moved on to become the Seattle Mariners' general manager in 1977 during the next wave of expansion, he was replaced by Schuerholz, who eventually became general manager of the Royals in 1981. At 41, he was the youngest general manager in the game at the time -- an age he noted would make him a graybeard in today's age of analytics.
The Royals were an instant success, winning three division titles in their first 10 years (1976-1978), reaching the World Series in 1980 and winning it in 1985. Recruited by the Braves, Schuerholz eventually went to Atlanta in 1990 and presided over a team that won 14 consecutive division titles and a World Series -- a run that ushered him into the Hall of Fame three years after his manager, Bobby Cox.
Schuerholz has never forgotten his Baltimore roots and those of his family, the where and how of the start of his journey. The baseball field at Towson University carries the Schuerholz name, thanks to a sizeable contribution from a former second baseman who was just a couple years removed from college and teaching at North Point Junior High School when he wrote the letter that altered the course of his career.
We lost a potentially great educator -- and baseball got a prize catch, the Hall of Famer who got away. •