Paul Snyder

This article was written by Lee Lowenfish

Paul Snyder (ATLANTA BRAVES)Paul Snyder was the indispensable man behind the scenes of the Atlanta Braves’ success. If anyone has said a bad word about him, it has not been recorded in the hothouse world of baseball. A baseball lifer since he started his career as a Braves minor-league outfielder-first baseman in 1958, Snyder is a rarity in that he has spent his whole life with one organization. He has worn many hats — minor-league player, minor-league player-manager and manager, area scout, director of player development, director of amateur scouting, and special assistant to the general manager. He has experienced his share of triumphs and setbacks but he has carried on with an unmatched work ethic and a relentlessly positive attitude. In his career-long search for talent for the Braves, Snyder’s travels have led him, in the words of author Charles Fountain, from “Central American homes with dirt floors and no plumbing … [to] suburban mansions.”1

Snyder has been called the Braves’ Branch Rickey because his knowledge of baseball from A to Z is so encyclopedic. Though he is never one to blow his own horn, his peers have recognized him numerous times: the 2004 Roland Hemond Award given to someone “who has demonstrated a lifetime commitment to professional baseball scouts and scouting, and player development history”; election to the Braves Hall of Fame in 2005, and the prestigious “King of Baseball” title bestowed at the 2006 minor leagues’ winter meetings. When Baseball America celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2001 and 25th anniversary in 2006, Snyder made both lists of the 20 and 25 most notable baseball people during those two timespans.

Paul Luther Snyder was born on June 11, 1935, in the small central Pennsylvania town of Dallastown, about eight miles northwest of York.2 He fell in love with baseball early on. By the age of 15 he was making a local name for himself by competing against older players in area semipro twilight leagues. A scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers was interested in signing the outfielder-first baseman after high school, but Snyder’s parents insisted that he start college because neither one had done so. Turning down a baseball scholarship to Penn State, Paul accepted a football scholarship to Lebanon Valley College in nearby Annville; it was a school sponsored by the Church of the Brethren, to which his mother belonged. A back injury on the football field and a lack of interest in academics led Snyder to leave college after only one year. He returned home to help his father in the plumbing and heating contracting business, and he resumed playing baseball in a top-notch twilight league run in nearby Red Lion.3

Sterling Arnold, a bird-dog scout for the Washington Senators, expressed interest in signing him, but the amateur free-agent draft was still eight years away so Snyder could entertain more offers. Milwaukee Braves scout John Ogden, who had made a prominent name for himself as a scout for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and later as an executive with the minor-league Baltimore Orioles, convinced Snyder that the Braves were a more stable and prosperous organization than the penny-pitching Senators. The Braves were in their heyday in Milwaukee — they would win the World Series in 1957, lose a rematch to the Yankees in 1958, and lose two straight in the National League playoff to the Dodgers in 1959. Ogden didn’t need a hard sell to get Snyder to ink a Braves minor-league contract that would pay him $2,500 if he made the roster of a minor-league team in his first season.4

In 1958 Snyder enjoyed an outstanding rookie year for Midland, Texas in the Class-D Sophomore League — .350 BA, .574 SLG, with 15 HR and 106 RBIs. (It was a new, short-lived league that folded in 1961.) He felt that playing semipro ball back home with older men had prepared him very well for pro ball. In 1959 Snyder was promoted to Cedar Rapids in the Class-B Three-I League (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa), but a roster crunch forced him down to the Eau Claire Braves in the Class-C Northern League. He wound up hitting over .300 in both stops, but his back flared up again while he was traveling on the rickety team bus to a road game in Winnipeg, Canada. He amassed only 326 AB, 120 fewer than during his rookie season. His balky back would require spinal surgery, and it became a chronic problem during his playing career.

The 1960 season found Snyder demoted to the Class-D Wellsville Braves of the New York-Penn League. Still plagued by the bad back, he hit .241 in only 101 at-bats for the franchise in western New York State. But Snyder always found a silver lining whatever his circumstances. He developed a lifelong friendship with Wellsville player-manager Harry Minor. Minor, a native of Long Beach, California, was at the end of a 12-year minor-league playing career that never reached the majors. Minor would start a scouting career the next season for the Braves, and in 1968 joined the Mets where he enjoyed a 44-year career, being instrumental in signing such future stars on the 1986 world champions as Darryl Strawberry, Lennie Dykstra, Kevin Elster, and Kevin Mitchell.5

Minor took an immediate liking to Snyder, who was seven years his junior. It wasn’t just Snyder’s batting tools, his line-drive stroke, and his ability to wait on the pitch. He liked even more Snyder’s aptitude for the mental side of game, noticing that he was an attentive listener and observer and was looked up to by younger teammates. Minor shared with Snyder a lot of his accumulated baseball knowledge, some of it delivered while driving the team bus. Among the lessons Snyder learned was never to criticize any individual in front of the team. After a game, whether a win or a loss, Minor just asked the players to sit in silence for about 15 minutes thinking about the day’s events. He then told them to flush the experience and prepare for tomorrow.

In 1961 Snyder’s back issues abated and he enjoyed a stellar season. Assigned again to Class-B Cedar Rapids, he led the Three-I League in hits and compiled the impressive line of .310 BA, 14 HRs, 76 RBIs, and .450 SLG. In 1962 the strapping 6-foot-2, 200-pound Snyder enjoyed his best year as a player, hitting .312, slugging .495 with 19 HR and 113 RBIs for the Austin Senators in the Double-A Texas League.

For 1963 he was promoted to the Denver Bears, the Braves’ Triple-A Pacific Coast League franchise. His elation at arriving one step from the majors was quickly doused when his back flared up again. After one game early in the season, Denver manager Jack Tighe called him in for a heart-to-heart discussion. The former skipper of the Detroit Tigers noted Snyder’s declining mobility. “You have only one tool now, line-drive power,” Tighe bluntly told him, adding that at nearly the age of 28 he wasn’t getting any younger.6 Yet like others in the Braves organization, Tighe didn’t want to lose Snyder’s services. He told him that a player-manager job was open at Greenville, South Carolina, in the Class-A Western Carolinas League, and he knew that farm director John Mullen wanted to hire him.

The death of a dream is never easy for any player, but after letting the bad news sink in, Snyder thought about his future. His wife was due with their first child, and he knew he had to make a living to support his family. He didn’t want to leave baseball, so he quickly accepted the offer and headed to his first assignment as player-manager. As the years passed, Snyder never failed to credit Jack Tighe for his frank evaluation and for kick-starting him toward his new career. “Never lie to a player” is the lesson from Tighe that Snyder always kept in mind.

At Greenville, Snyder took over for Jim Fanning, who was a rising star in the Braves’ player-development system. (By the end of the decade Fanning would become a key member of the Montreal Expos expansion franchise.) “He was like a big brother to me,” Snyder remembered in an October 2019 phone interview. “You could take any problem to Fanning and he would always suggest a sensible solution.” In the same interview Snyder also lavished praise on Roland Hemond, who was another vital early influence before he left to join the expansion California Angels. “Roland taught me to always call players by their first names,” Snyder recalled.7

Snyder’s managerial career started auspiciously as the Greenville Braves won the 1963 Western Carolina League playoffs. Snyder took over 263 at-bats in his last semi-regular year as a player, hitting .316. (His career average rested at .318.) The following season of 1964 started with Snyder working as a co-manager with Andy Pafko for the Binghamton Triplets in the Class-A New York-Penn League. On the staff with Pafko, the former Cubs-Brooklyn Dodgers-Milwaukee Braves slugger, was Walter “Boom Boom” Beck, the pre-World War II Phillies hurler who had gotten his nickname for giving up line drives that loudly caromed off the tin wall at cozy Baker Bowl.

It was during the 1964 season that the future “Braves Branch Rickey” had his first and only encounter with Branch Rickey himself, who was in his last season as a consultant with the Cardinals. (He died late the next year at age 83.) Snyder was part of a Braves contingent that traveled to a meeting in Sarasota where the Braves, Cardinals, White Sox, and Yankees were finalizing plans for a new cooperative league to be called the Sarasota Rookie League. Snyder vividly remembered Rickey arriving in a Chrysler limousine and holding forth for most of the day on the fundamentals of running, throwing, sliding, and baserunning. He recalled that Rickey stressed the importance of using games in this cooperative league as lessons in player development.8

Snyder managed the Sarasota Braves to a 1964 pennant with a 36-23 record. In 1965 he returned to Florida to manage again, this time in West Palm Beach, where the Braves had moved their franchise in what was now called the Florida Rookie League. (In 1966 the name was changed again to the Florida Gulf Coast League.) Snyder led the team to a strong second-place finish; one of his young players was Wayne Garrett, who four years later was a platoon third baseman on the World Series champion New York Mets.

Meanwhile, the parent franchise was facing a serious problem as it prepared to set up shop in Atlanta for the 1966 season. There was evidently nobody in the organization who knew anything about stadium operations. Already seen as a good company man, Snyder was asked by Braves president John McHale to fill the void although he knew nothing about hiring and organizing grounds crews, arranging stadium cleaning contracts, and other business issues. The workload was so heavy that at times, Snyder told author Bill Shanks, “I slept in the first aid room.”9 The stadium operations job became the only job in Snyder’s baseball career that he did not enjoy because he was far removed from working with and evaluating players.

After the season, he was rescued from the administrative side when he learned that Jack Tighe, who had turned from managing to scouting, was leaving the organization. Snyder asked Braves general manager Paul Richards for Tighe’s job and his wish was granted. Always a sponge for picking up lessons from his elders, Snyder learned a lot about baseball strategy and techniques from Richards, who encouraged talking the game with players — in practices and before and after games. Snyder picked up many durable insights from Richards’ fertile baseball brain without developing the oversized ego of the well-traveled manager.

Snyder started his career as a Braves scout in 1967 and immediately fell in love with the profession. He loved being out in the field doing hands-on development work with aspiring players. The good company man did return to manage in the lower minors four more times in the early 1970s, and led each team to a winning record: in 1970, the Magic Valley Cowboys in Twin Falls, Idaho, in the Pioneer League; in 1971 and 1973, Wytheville, Virginia, in the Appalachian League; and in 1972, Greenwood, South Carolina, in the Western Carolinas League. But his commitment to building lasting organizational success through scouting and player development became permanent when the Braves named Snyder’s former Austin Senators teammate Bill Lucas scouting director in 1972. The men shared a mutual admiration society because Lucas immediately named Snyder his assistant scouting director.

William DeVaughn Lucas was a rarity in the baseball business, an African-American who worked his way up the ladder to a prominent front-office position. Born January 25, 1936, in Jacksonville, Florida, Bill Lucas, like Paul Snyder, got the baseball bug early on. He broke in as a peanut vendor for the local Braves affiliate in the Class-A South Atlantic League, rose to team batboy, and in high school became a star shortstop. At the historically black Florida A&M University in nearby Daytona Beach, he earned All-American honors from the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics). A six-year minor-league career ensued, interrupted at times by military service. Paul Snyder is convinced that Lucas would have made the majors had he not suffered a knee injury when they were teammates in 1962. Lucas retired two years later and briefly tried teaching school, but the siren call of baseball was too strong.10

In 1965, the last year of the minor-league Triple-A Atlanta Crackers’ existence, Lucas served as the team’s public-relations director. The year 1966 began with Lucas working in the mailroom of the newly minted Atlanta Braves, but he quickly was tapped to start a community-relations department aimed at building interest in the Braves in the black community. In 1967 Lucas became assistant to farm director Eddie Robinson, the former Indians and Yankees first baseman. When Robinson was promoted in 1972 to vice president in charge of baseball operations, Lucas was named his successor as farm director. It did not hurt Lucas’s rise in the organization that his sister, Barbara, was married at the time to the Braves’ reigning superstar, Hank Aaron. But there was no doubt that the Braves had found a man blessed with the rare combination of passion, compassion, and dispassion. As Eddie Robinson later wrote in his memoir Lucky Me, Lucas was “a talented fellow” and a “forward thinker.”11

Paul Snyder found in Bill Lucas a soul baseball brother. He once described Lucas as a rare teammate who read books on the team bus “that had no pictures.”12 For his part, Lucas never forgot that during their season as teammates in Austin, Paul had been heartsick that his friend had to endure segregated second-class living conditions, often sleeping in a rundown apartment building with no windows. Yet Lucas never complained and always came to the ballpark ready to work and compete. Bill Lucas understood intuitively that for Paul Snyder color did not exist. What only mattered were the answers to two basic questions: Could the farmhands play the game? And how could we make them better players?

Lucas took special pains to ease the transition into pro baseball of the many players of color the Braves were bringing into the organization. One of those players was Johnnie B. “Dusty” Baker Jr., who was drafted in the 25th round in 1967 out of high school in Carmichael, California, near Sacramento. Baker still glows with the memory of how Lucas cushioned him from the worst aspects of racism in the South that Baker had never experienced so directly in California. Lucas took such an interest in Baker’s advancement as a person as well as a player that when Dusty graduated with honors from the Dress Blue program in his Marine Reserve training camp program a few years later, Lucas attended the ceremony. The idea that the Braves organization was a family that took care of each other was not lost on Baker, who made it a point to pick up his African-American teammate Ralph Garr in Louisiana on his annual cross-country automobile trip to Florida for spring training. (Garr himself felt the warm vibes from Lucas and was thrilled when he was hired as a Braves scout in 1984, a position he still held in 2020.)13

As the Braves scouting and philosophy program took hold under Lucas and Snyder, certain principles became obvious. There was a shared belief that high-school players with high ceilings were the preferred athletes to draft and develop under the care of veteran coaches. They especially encouraged the scouting of high-school pitchers, or at most community college pitchers, who hadn’t been ruined by overuse and could be trained by pro coaches to throw correctly. They might take two or three extra years to develop, but Lucas and Snyder firmly believed that the patience was worth the end result. Hiring good pitching coaches and hitting coaches and instructors for the minor leagues became paramount. Soon former major-league hurlers Bruce Del Canton, Bill Fischer, and EddieWatt would be hired by the system for their teaching abilities.

As Snyder’s career blossomed, he was especially grateful to Lucas for introducing him to one of the Braves’ most respected area scouts, Bill Wight. “What a gift Bill Lucas gave me by assigning me to two weeks on the road with Bill Wight,” Snyder told me in our phone interview. Although the southpaw’s career record of 77-99 doesn’t look impressive, Wight lasted 12 years in the majors after being traded in 1948 from the Yankees in the deal for fellow southpaw (and future scout) Eddie Lopat. Wight earned industrywide respect from his peers for the intensity and guile in which he approached his craft. Pitchers were particularly awed at his move to first base. Shortly after retiring, Wight turned to scouting, first with the expansion Houston Colt .45s, for whom he signed future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.

From 1967 through 1994 Wight served the Braves as a California area scout who played a very influential role in meetings before the amateur draft. He would be central to the signing of such future Braves stars as Dale Murphy, Bob Horner, Ron Gant, Brian Hunter, David Justice, and Dusty Baker. (Baker remembered Wight as a thoughtful, caring person who was instrumental in persuading him to sign with the Braves and turn down college baseball, basketball, and track scholarship offers.) What fascinated Paul Snyder about Bill Wight’s scouting acumen was that he was more expert at appraising hitters than pitchers. He surmised that Wight’s keen evaluation of hitters had to come from his awareness that he didn’t have overpowering stuff as a pitcher so he had to understand hitters’ weaknesses to survive. “At times I’d scout with him and he’d ask about my radar gun, ‘Whatdya get? Whatdya get?’’ Snyder remembered with a chuckle.14

Before the arrival of Bill Lucas at the helm of the farm system in 1972, the Braves did not have great success with the amateur free-agent draft. However, on the horizon in Portland, Oregon, was Dale Murphy, a gifted athlete who as early as the ninth grade was attracting the attention of legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. The strong consensus of the Braves scouting staff was that Murphy should be a first-round draft pick, and he was indeed taken at that level in 1974. He did not excel immediately in the minors, and a knee injury would ultimately force his switch from catcher to the outfield. Yet the compassionate understanding that was the watchword under Lucas and Snyder worked wonders with Murphy. He never forgot the Braves’ insistence that he accept a bonus for his production in his mediocre minor-league season of 1976 even though he didn’t reach the requisite numbers.15

Paul Snyder always liked to cite the old adage that you needed to draft 10 pitchers for every one who truly had a career. So in addition to signing Dale Murphy in the first round of the June 1974 draft, the Braves selected southpaw Larry McWilliams in the first round of the January draft (for those players who had not finished at least three years of college by June) — McWilliams, a Paris, Texas, junior-college hurler, went on to a 13-year major-league career. Picked in June out of small colleges were two future longtime Braves hurlers, Rick Camp in the seventh round and lefty Mickey Mahler in the 10th round. With the trade of Hank Aaron back to Milwaukee at the end of the 1974 season, the organization’s youth movement seemed to be accelerating.

On the major-league level, however, ownership was in flux. The whirlwind known as Ted Turner arrived on the scene in 1973 as a part-owner eager to use Braves’ games as programming for his WCTG TV station in Atlanta. The station was still showing mostly old movies with his emphasis on news still a ways off. “I hate the news. News is evil. It makes people feel bad,” he said at the time.16 When rumors were flying that the Braves might be sold and moved to another city, Turner bought full ownership in the team after the 1975 season.

The Braves were competing in the tough NL West Division dominated by the Cincinnati Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Yet in 1976, the first season with Turner as full owner,

attendance picked up by 53 percent. Braves games became carnivals with pregame ostrich races, contests in pushing a baseball with one’s nose between first base and home plate in which Turner occasionally took part, and scantily-clad damsels cavorting around the field. He relished the publicity of being of an owner. He even managed one game after he sent incumbent skipper Dave Bristol on a “scouting vacation” during a long losing streak. The Braves lost in Turner’s one-game turn at the helm, and afterward the baseball establishment came down hard on him for making a “mockery of the game.” National League President Chub Feeney dug up an obscure rule that prevented an owner from managing a game without special permission from the commissioner, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn refused to grant a waiver.17

Paul Snyder admired Ted Turner’s energy and showmanship, but he sensed early on that Turner did not understand how to develop baseball players. Out in the field evaluating amateur talent and minor leaguers, Snyder stayed out of Turner’s way, feeling confident that Bill Lucas had earned the respect of the owner. Indeed, Lucas was promoted in 1976 to vice president of player development, becoming the first black general manager. (He was not given the GM title, something Turner kept for himself.) Unfortunately, the indefatigable Paul Snyder was allowing danger warnings about his health go unheeded. In the fall of 1975, he went on a hunting trip with two of his favorite players, pitchers Joe and Phil Niekro. Snyder’s doctor warned him that a serious heart condition must be monitored, but when he returned from the trip, he thrust himself back into work. There were drafts to prepare for — the January draft of players not eligible in June and then the big June one.18

The 1976 draft would be a fruitful one —in the fifth round the Braves picked University of Nebraska-Omaha catcher Bruce Benedict, who would play 12 years in the majors and later become a coach. Then, the night after the June draft, while watching the Johnny Carson Tonight Show and planning to stay awake for the rebroadcast of a Braves game on TBS, Paul Snyder felt all the lights go out. He had suffered a major stroke. He was rushed to a hospital in Atlanta where he stayed for two weeks. Only 40 years old, Snyder lost almost all feeling in his right side. Once back at home, his wife, who usually doubled as his radar gun assistant, took on an even more crucial role as his main physical therapist. He slowly began to feel better, but he told author Bill Shanks that he may have lost two years of memory during his ordeal. Bill Lucas stood firmly beside his ailing friend, insisting that Snyder must be kept on the payroll and everything must be done to nurse him back to health. When some in the organization thought about cutting ties with Paul, Lucas responded, “I could do that, but you’d have to replace me, too.”19

By the next season in 1977, as Snyder was back to full-time work, the baseball world had gone through revolutionary changes. As a result of impartial arbitrator Peter Seitz’s decision just before Christmas in 1975, veteran pitchers Andy Messermith and Dave McNally were freed from the constraints of the perpetual reserve system. The Players Association had worked out a new basic agreement with the owners that created a professional free-agent draft after the 1976 season in which all players with six or more years of major-league service could be free to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Not surprisingly, Ted Turner immediately barged into the free-agent market by signing Andy Messersmith. He was not allowed, however, to attire Andy with the number 17 and the word “Channel” above it on the back. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn nixed that bald advertising ploy for Turner’s TV station. Turner also incurred the wrath of Kuhn for declaring publicly that he wanted to sign outfielder Gary Matthews away from the Giants before the free-agent draft even started. He was slapped with a year’s suspension although it wasn’t fully enforced.20

Messersmith never regained 20-game-winning form with the Braves and was gone after two seasons. Matthews did become a Brave for four seasons but his defensive liabilities negated his relatively adequate offense. The 1977 and 1978 Braves plummeted to the NL West basement, but organizationally there were some promising signs in scouting and player development. After a fallow 1977 draft, the Braves were far more productive in 1978. The draft produced three future major leaguers in the first three rounds. Slugging third baseman Bob Horner in the first round, who was rushed to the majors from Arizona State University without any minor-league seasoning as Ted Turner salivated at the prospect of a big bopper to pair with the slowly-emerging Dale Murphy in the lineup. Catcher Matt Sinatro came aboard in the second round from a West Hartford, Connecticut, high school; he would enjoy a 10-year major-league career. Steve Bedrosian was nabbed in the third round, another player from a cold-weather area, the University of New Haven in Connecticut. Paul Snyder had a special affinity for players from the Northeast who dealt with chilly if not frigid conditions and emerged as major leaguers. (Bedrosian did enjoy greater success with other teams, winning the 1987 Cy Young Award as a Phillies reliever and later pitched for the Giants and Twins.)

 

Then on May 1, 1979, tragedy hit the Braves organization. The hard-working Bill Lucas had just finished watching on TV Phil Niekro’s 200th win over the Pirates in Pittsburgh when he suffered a brain aneurysm. He died two days later. Bill Lucas was only 43. At the funeral in Atlanta, an overflow crowd of mourners extolled the baseball pioneer. Renowned Florida A&M football coach Jake Gaither said that he had never met a finer leader than Bill Lucas and called him “one of God’s great men.” (Bob Lucas, Bill’s younger brother, would later coach baseball at Florida A&M and also scout for the Braves.) Flamboyant Ted Turner said that Lucas was now the general manager on a team in heaven with Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig. Dale Murphy struck a more subdued genuine note when he remembered how Lucas had greeted him warmly at the airport when he first came to Atlanta as a raw amateur. Murphy called it “a sacred honor to fulfill his dream” of a Braves pennant.21

When the Braves moved to Sun Trust Park in 2018, they memorialized Bill Lucas in several ways. The main street was named Bill Lucas Way, a Bill Lucas Conference Room was created, and a Bill Lucas Diversity Apprenticeship was established. It is a fitting honor for Lucas, who made it a point to try to hire an African-American for every white person he brought into the organization. Longtime Braves publicist Bob Hope never forgot how Lucas had demonstrated his belief in gender equality when he escorted Hope’s wife to a sports dinner where no women had ever been invited. When Lucas was elected to the Braves Hall of Fame in 2006, Paul Snyder said simply, “He planted a seed, and we just carried through with it.”22

John Mullen, who had started his front-office career with the Boston Braves and offered Snyder his first managing job, returned from the Houston Astros to become Lucas’s replacement with the title of general manager. Yet the Braves continued to be also-rans and often basement dwellers in the tough NL West division dominated by the Dodgers and the Reds with the Giants also becoming contenders. Though the Braves finished one game over .500 in 1980 during Bobby Cox’s first tenure as Braves manager, a 1981 slip to fifth place in the division led Ted Turner to replace him with Joe Torre.

Titles never meant anything to Paul Snyder but with the loss of Bill Lucas, he was now named the Braves scouting director and poised to start the most brilliant decade of his service to the Braves. He kept most of Lucas’s talented scouts like Bill Wight and added some key ones of his own. Rod Gilbreath, a third-round 1970 middle-infield draft choice from a Laurel, Mississippi, high school, was named a West Coast scout. Snyder had managed Gilbreath at Magic Valley in the Pioneer League in 1970 and a paternal relationship quickly developed. Gilbreath was amazed at the depth of Snyder’s evaluating skills and his ability to be frank without being insensitive. He knew how “to recognize players who could play, and what to do with players who couldn’t play,” Gilbreath told Bill Shanks.23

In 1980 Snyder hired Harold “Hep” Cronin as a full-time Midwestern area scout who later became a national cross-checker. The father of UCLA basketball coach Mick Cronin, Hep in 1969, while coaching high-school baseball in Cincinnati, had been hired as a Braves associate scout. Though the focus and demands of coaching and scouting were obviously different — coaching focused on immediate wins and scouting emphasizing long-range development — the Braves Way that Bill Lucas started and Paul Snyder was continuing looked at the whole player, his mental makeup and not just his tools or his statistics. Cronin loved working for a boss like Snyder who always listened intently to his area scouts’ opinions. Paul never pulled rank, Cronin told Bill Shanks, because “he’d rather migrate to talk to the area scout from Tennessee or something.”24

One of the older scouts that Snyder brought into the fold was indeed from Tennessee — Lou Fitzgerald from Cleveland, Tennessee. He had been one of Paul Richards’ right-hand men in Richards’ prior jobs with the White Sox, Orioles, Colt .45s/Astros, and Braves. From the White Sox, Snyder picked up another savvy evaluator, Fred Schaffer, who specialized in pitching. Back in the mid-1950s he had signed future American League All-Star southpaw Gary Peters, and in 1988, as we shall soon see, Fitzgerald would be one of the biggest advocates for signing Michigan high-school southpaw Steve Avery.

Though Bill Lucas did not live to see the June 1979 draft, he was pleased with the January 1979 results when Milt Thompson became a Brave. He was signed out of a Gaithersburg, Maryland, high school in the second round and would enjoy a 13-year major-league career, mainly as a utility outfielder. Ventura, California, high-school outfielder Brook Jacoby was a genuine diamond in the rough, picked in the seventh round in January. The June 1979 draft brought into the fold first-rounder Brad Komminsk from a Lima, Ohio, high school; Jacksonville University shortstop Paul Runge in the ninth round (who would have an eight-year major-league career); and a steal in the 23rd round, Southeastern Oklahoma State outfielder Brett Butler. Of course, neither Paul Snyder nor any of the player-development staff had much input when Ted Turner okayed the 1983 trade of Butler and Jacoby to the Indians for Len “No Hit” Barker that turned out disastrously for the Braves. (As for Komminsk’s failure to live up to his billing as a “can’t miss” prospect, Snyder remained baffled. Except for average running speed, Komminsk seemed to possess all the tools, Snyder reflected in our phone interview. He probably lost confidence and listened to too many suggestions.)

In 1980 the Braves hit pay dirt in the first round of both drafts. Right-hander Craig McMurtry from McLennan (Texas) Community College was picked in January and southpaw Ken Dayley from the University of Portland was the June first-rounder. Another serviceable future utility fielder came in the 15th round when Stanford University’s Paul Zuvella was selected. Though Dayley wound up enjoying a fruitful career as a relief pitcher, mainly for the Cardinals, Snyder regretted that he never became a core Braves starter. “He should have lasted a long time with us,” Snyder told Bill Shanks. “His psyche was beaten down.”25

That the draft can be a very unpredictable procedure was proven when the 1981 and 1982 drafts produced no future major-league Braves. They did select Livermore, California, high-school southpaw Randy Johnson in the fourth round, but he chose college at UCLA and later was picked by the Expos before starting to show his Hall of Fame form with the Mariners. The 1983 draft was much more fruitful. Two gems were found, one relatively high and one far lower in the draft. Shortstop Ron Gant from a Victoria, Texas, high school wasn’t even in the registry of the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau. The bureau had been established in 1974 to streamline information for all the clubs (though not every organization joined it). Gant was known more for his football and basketball skills but when tipped off by a local source, influential Bill Wight made a trip to Texas. When he filed a glowing report on Gant’s promising athletic tools, Gant shot up the Braves’ draft lists and they nabbed him in the fourth round.

The lower-round find in the 1983 draft was unheralded future starting second baseman Mark Lemke, picked in the 27th round out of Notre Dame High School in Whitesboro, New York. He epitomized the Lucas-Snyder belief that a team cannot win without grinders who may lack glitz and glamour but care only about winning. Listed at 5-feet-10 and 167 pounds, Lemke played in the spirit of his predecessor Glenn Hubbard, who had been drafted in the 20th round in 1975 and played 10 seasons for the Braves. Lemke’s offensive stats were not gaudy but they would increase noticeably in the postseason. He was a peerless defender, the kind of fielder you wanted the ball hit to. When Lemke tried a comeback as a knuckleballer in an independent league in 1999, he told New York Times writer Dan Barry, “To be honest with you, I enjoy playing the game of baseball.”26 (The Braves also selected in 1983 outfielder Jay Buhner in the ninth round out of McLennan Community College in Texas but he did not sign — the Pirates drafted Buhner later, the Yankees picked him up in a trade, and he became a star when traded to the Mariners for Ken Phelps — a transaction that drew the scorn of George Constanza in a memorable Seinfeld episode.)

The 1984 draft turned out to be crucial to the Braves’ future success. Future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine came aboard in the second round, and Lemke’s future double-play partner Jeff Blauser was picked in the first round of the January secondary draft. Blauser’s signing was uneventful, but the wooing of Glavine from a possible hockey career was more complicated. It provides a prime example of how the Braves Way, started under Bill Lucas and continued under Paul Snyder, was beginning to function smoothly and successfully.

Newly appointed Braves Northeastern area scout Tony DeMacio knew what kind of athletic talent Glavine possessed. He was the star of both his hockey and baseball teams at Billerica High School, a few miles northwest of Boston, where his father, Fred, had been a star football player. The Braves knew that the senior Glavine had discouraged Tom from playing football because of the chance of permanent injury. Yet they weren’t sure how deep was Glavine’s love of hockey. He had been offered a four-year hockey scholarship at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and was also drafted in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Kings of the National Hockey League. With the Red Sox the only team in town since 1953, DeMacio wanted to downplay his interest in Glavine lest the newspapers got wind of it and pressured the Red Sox to get in on the bidding. To add to the complications, longtime Braves Northeastern scouting supervisor Bob Turzilli wasn’t that high on Glavine as a baseball player.27

By the time of Tom’s senior year, most internal doubts within the Braves brass had been eliminated about his baseball abilities. He had a sensational season both on the mound and playing center field on days he wasn’t pitching. Billerica High made the Eastern Massachusetts high school state finals against Brockton with Glavine pitching nine scoreless innings and then throwing out from center field a potential winning run in the bottom of the 10th. (The victim happened to be a nephew of late heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano.) To cap off his great day, Glavine started the winning rally in the 13th inning.

When it was time for Snyder, DeMacio, and Turzilli to meet with Glavine and his father shortly before the draft, they were all impressed by Tom’s maturity. He, not his father, took charge of the meeting, asking good questions about what minor-league life would be like and how fast he could expect promotion. The Braves contingent left the room, convinced that Glavine wanted to play baseball and would turn down the hockey scholarship offer. When draft day came, the Braves breathed a sigh of relief when he was still available in the second round; according to Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book, the Blue Jays would have picked him next.28

In 1985 the Braves made another unconventional selection by choosing in the fourth round David Justice from tiny Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. Justice was another player that scouting’s conventional wisdom branded as too raw and undisciplined to develop in baseball; after all, he started college on a basketball scholarship before he became bored with all the running. Scout Lou Fitzgerald loved Justice’s athleticism and felt confident that the Braves’ growing stable of coaches and instructors would bring out the baseball player in him. He saw Justice as a genuine diamond in the rough who had finished high school at the age of 15 and was only 18 when he left Thomas More after his junior year because of its weak noncompetitive baseball program.29 (There were other future major leaguers selected in the 1985 draft. The first-rounder was right-hander Tommy Greene from Whiteville [North Carolina] High School, who wound up having an eight-year major-league career though injuries curtailed what might have led to greater success. The eighth-round pick in 1985, West Covina, California, high-school outfielder-first baseman Al Martin, who stayed in the majors for most of 11 seasons.)

Atlanta’s 1986 first-round June pick turned out to be southpaw Kent Mercker, who entered the organization out of Dublin, Ohio, High School. He never emerged as a star with the Braves so there is a “what-if” quality to the 1986 Braves draft because they selected three high schoolers who did not sign until later with other teams. Southern Illinois University outfielder Steve Finley in the 11th round and Louisiana high-school pitcher Ben McDonald in the 27th round — both later were signed by the Orioles with McDonald 1990’s number one pick in the country. Also drafted in the 18th round but unsigned by the Braves in 1987 was Phoenix high-school outfielder Tim Salmon, the future Angels star right fielder.

If 1986’s draft was not very productive, the year still goes down as a vital one in Braves history because Bobby Cox returned as general manager, and Stan Kasten was promoted to team president. Kasten had worked for Ted Turner since 1977, becoming at age 27 the youthful general manager of Turner’s Atlanta Hawks in the National Basketball Association. He had long spurned Turner’s request to take on the top position in both sports, but now he felt ready and willing. Kasten, Cox, and Paul Snyder were all on the same page about the importance of investing in scouting and player development. When Kasten expressed the hope that tryout camps could be established in every state where of course TBS was already airing, Snyder and Cox positively beamed. Where previously the Dodgers had more than four times as many scouts on their payroll as the Braves, Kasten with Ted Turner’s blessing rapidly closed the gap, raising the number of full-time scouts from five to eighteen and also hiring many more minor-league coaches and instructors.30

Starting in 1987 there was only one amateur free-agent draft, in June, and the Braves picked two important contributors to the future 1995 champions — infielder-outfielder Brian Hunter was selected in the eighth round out of Cerritos College in California (nine-year major-league career) and lefty short reliever Mike Stanton came in the 13rd round out of Alvin (Texas) CC (19-year major-league career). Number-one draft pick southpaw Derek Lilliquist was signed out of the University of Georgia and would enjoy an eight-year major-league career as a pitcher and later a long tenure as major-league pitching coach for various teams.

In 1988 Taylor, Michigan, high-school southpaw Steve Avery was the Braves’ number-one selection. On the scholastic level, Avery had been virtually unhittable. Scout Fred Schaffer, Paul Snyder’s top pitching adviser, drooled over Avery’s arsenal of velocity and movement that was rare in someone so young. Snyder loved to tell the story that in one game the plate umpire gave Steve Avery a gift strike call. “Mr. Ump, this guy don’t need no help,” the overmatched batter wailed to the plate umpire.”31 The 1988 draft also brought to the Braves in the eighth round future closer Mark Wohlers, picked out of high school in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Enjoying his first full season in the Braves organization in 1988 was youthful future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, whom the Braves had pilfered from the Detroit Tigers for veteran pitcher Doyle Alexander during the 1987 pennant race. Alexander did help the Bengals win the AL East but he retired two years later. In picking Glavine earlier, and now Wohlers and Smoltz, another pitcher hardened by a cold-weather upbringing in Michigan, the Braves were beginning to see the fruits of their strong commitment to youthful pitching.

The Braves were not so fortunate in the first round of the 1989 draft, when they selected catcher Tyler Houston from a Las Vegas high school. Houston did last in the majors for eight years without shining. Far more successful was fifth-round selection Ryan Klesko, from high school in Westminster, California, who was drafted as both an outfielder and left-handed pitcher.

A nagging elbow injury curtailed his development as a minor-league pitcher, and though his potent bat brought him soon to the majors, the arm ailment led to his ultimate switch from the outfield to first base. Klesko would be a key contributor to the 1995 champions and last for 16 seasons in the majors.

The last great coup of Snyder’s fruitful decade as Braves director of amateur scouting came with the selection of Larry Wayne “Chipper” Jones Jr. in the 1990 draft. The Braves hierarchy was split between choosing the switch-hitting Jacksonville, Florida, prep-school shortstop and the Arlington, Texas, high-school right-hander Todd Van Poppel. Scout Red Murff, who had nurtured and signed Nolan Ryan for the Mets out of an Alvin, Texas, high school, was very high on Van Poppel. In fact, he had already developed a friendship with the prospect’s father and publicly compared the youngster to Ryan. Murff admitted in his memoir, The Scout, written with Mike Capps, that he probably had driven up the price the Braves would have to pay.32

Young Todd Van Poppel had several bargaining chips: a baseball scholarship offer from the University of Texas; a reported desire to pitch for the 1992 USA Olympic team; and representation by rising player agent Scott Boras. General manager Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder flew to Texas shortly before the draft to meet with the prospective draft pick. “There were no negotiations at all with the young man,” Snyder later told Baseball America. “We talked to his mother and father, but never to him.”33 He even spurned meeting with Red Murff, his biggest advocate among the scouts. It led Murff and other people to believe that Van Poppel and Boras had already made a deal with the reigning World Series champion Oakland Athletics, who would pick him sixth in the draft and provide a contract reportedly worth $1.2 million.34

The Braves quickly turned to gauge the interest of Chipper Jones in becoming a Brave. Paul Snyder sent scouts Tony DeMacio and Dean Jongewaard to meet with Jones and his family at their home in Pierson, Florida. The Jones family greeted the Braves emissaries far more warmly than the Van Poppels had. They had seen DeMacio, Snyder, Hep Cronin, and Bill Wight at Chipper’s games because he was a hot prospect. Veteran Reds scout George Zuraw had gifted Chipper with a bunch of wooden bats while he was still in the eighth grade because he was sure that he would need to get used to them after high school. By the age of 14 Chipper was already playing in American Legion tournaments. He was also a top-notch wide receiver in football, leading all Florida high schools in catches.35

As much as Jones’s physical talents tantalized the Braves hierarchy, his background and makeup attracted them even more. Chipper’s mother was an expert equestrienne, specializing in dressage, which Chipper described in his autobiography, Ballplayer, as “ballet for horses.” Larry Sr. was a schoolteacher and his only child’s longtime baseball coach. After the ninth grade, Chipper’s parents sent him to the Bolles School in Jacksonville for better schooling, good athletic competition, and more discipline. Chipper tells the story in Ballplayer that his parents told Bolles coach Charles Edwards, “If he steps out of line, you jerk a knot in his tail.” It turned out that Edwards, an African American and former star wide receiver at Vanderbilt, became one of Chipper’s biggest boosters and friends.36

It did not take long for an agreement to be reached. DeMacio and Jongewaard saw immediately that Chipper wanted to turn pro and turn down a baseball scholarship offer from the University of Miami. Chipper had interviewed Scott Boras as a possible agent, but he was turned off by the agent’s aggressiveness and his willingness to threaten enrollment at Miami as a bargaining ploy to raise the ante. Jones wound up accepting less than a $300,000 bonus, approximately one-quarter of Van Poppel’s haul. But Jones wanted to be a Brave and enjoyed a far longer career than Van Poppel, and all with one team.37

The remainder of the 1990 draft did not produce any future regulars for the Braves, and

the varsity was still having trouble winning at the major-league level. A 1990 dip into the free-agent market to sign first baseman Nick Esasky backfired when Esasky developed vertigo early in the season and had to abruptly retire. With the team struggling in midseason, manager Russ Nixon was fired and Bobby Cox returned to the dugout. After the season, John Schuerholz was lured from Kansas City to become general manager. Wanting to bring in his own people, Schuerholz replaced Snyder as scouting director with Chuck LaMar, and Snyder was given the title of special assistant to the general manager.

Snyder was always one of those people who believed that the success of an organization comes when people are not concerned about getting the credit. If he was miffed at having his scouting directorship taken away, he kept quiet, good company man that he always was. He still saw the Braves’ future as bright. “Omigod, we had so much talent coming,” Snyder remembered in our phone interview. So Snyder continued to work in the field with scouts and player developers as the Braves startled the baseball world by rising from the 1990 basement to the 1991 NL East title, their first in their remarkable run of 14 straight division titles. The signing of free-agent third baseman Terry Pendleton gave the Braves a good run-producer, defender, and, maybe most of all, a leader.

John Schuerholz also believed in scouting and player development as the key to any successful organization, but he was willing if necessary to sign a key free agent. Especially if his trusted scouts told him that Pendleton would recover from injuries that had hampered his production in St. Louis. Paul Snyder reflected later on Schuerholz’s tenure with the Braves, “He taught us how to win,” adding, “He’ll talk at our organizational meetings in January, and those scouts can’t wait to get out of that room, and get their radar guns and get to work.”38 Meanwhile, the organization was continuing to hire new scouting blood with Snyder’s input always valued. Dayton Moore, the general manager of the Kansas City Royals who oversaw their World Series teams of 2014-2015, was hired as a Mid-Atlantic scout in 1994. He said of Snyder, “You go away from your interaction with Paul knowing that he had listened to everything you said.”39

In the summer of 1995 Chuck LaMar left the Braves to become general manager of the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Snyder was asked to take over the duties of director of player development starting the next season. Always willing to help the company in any way, he gladly accepted the new assignment. In the meantime, he started to advance-scout the possible opponents for the Braves in the 1995 playoffs. When the Braves at last won the World Series in 1995, he rejoiced quietly with the rest of the staff, who voiced their appreciation for his steady work over the decades. Snyder found it especially satisfying that Tom Glavine won the clinching game. He thought back with pleasure to 11 years earlier when he first brought into the organization the gifted hard-working teenager who, like the scout himself in his younger days, did not mind working in construction to keep himself fit and active during the offseason.

Snyder served as player development director through 1998, and then answered the call in 1999 to resume his job as scouting director. In 2001 he was again given the title of assistant to the general manager, where he remained until his retirement in 2006. Yet he has never really left the organization and never will. When enshrined in June 2013 into the Professional Scouts Hall of Fame at the home of the Charleston River Dogs of the South Atlantic League, Snyder explained, “You have to step away from the game before you realize how great it is. … Guys you work with every day for 30 or 35 years are what matter to me.”40

Turning 85 in 2020, he expected to be in Braves’ spring training for every year as long as he was able. It remains the happiest time of year for a man who has made scouting and player development his life’s major work. Without his guidance, keen evaluative skill, and compassion, the Atlanta Braves would never have become the remarkable Beast of the NL East.

 

Acknowledgments

The writer wants to acknowledge the indispensable help of Baseball-Reference.com and Baseball

America’s Ultimate Draft Book (no date of publication).

 

Notes

1 Charles Fountain, Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 152.

2 Warm gratitude to Paul Snyder who patiently explained in phone interviews how his birth year was originally listed as 1936 when he signed as a player but was apparently restored to 1935 when he came closer to pension eligibility.

3 Phone interview with Paul Snyder, September 22, 2019; Paul Snyder interview at Jamestown, New York’s Diethrick Field, July 26, 1999, youtube.com/watch?v=Lma5bPA3T2s.

4 Andrew Sharp, “John Mahlon ‘Jack’ Ogden,” SABR Bioproject; YouTube Snyder interview.

5 The Mets Hall of Fame Achievement Award was bestowed upon Harry Minor in 2013.

6 Paul Snyder YouTube Interview.

7 Phone interview with Snyder; Andy Esposito, “In Memory of Harry Minor,” New York Sports Day, January 19. 2017.

8 Paul Snyder, phone interview; YouTube interview.

9 Bill Shanks, Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team (New York: Sterling and Ross Publishers, 2005), 43.

10 Alex Putterman, “The Forgotten Legacy of Bill Lucas,” atlantic.com, June 4, 2007.

11 Eddie Robinson with C. Paul Rogers III, Lucky Me: My Sixty-Years in Baseball (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2011), 164.

12 Putterman.

13 Phone interview with Dusty Baker, September 26, 2019; in-person interview with Ralph Garr, New York City, November 9, 2019.

14 Phone interviews with Paul Snyder and Dusty Baker; email from Tony DeMacio, December 16, 2019.

15 Bob Hope, We Could’ve Finished Last Without You (Atlanta: Longstreet Press 1991), 188.

16 Hope, 156.

17 Michael O’Connor, Ted Turner: A Biography: (Santa Barbara, California: Greenwood Press, 2010), 72-75.

18 Shanks, 45.

19 Shanks, 46.

20 O’Connor, 74.

21 Lee Walburn “Bill Lucas,” Atlanta Magazine, May 2011. https://atlantamagazine.com/great-reads/bill-lucas/.

22 Hope; Putterman.

23 Shanks, 48.

24 Shanks, 43; See also Paul Daugherty, profile of Cronin, cincinnati.com, June 5, 2018. https://cincinnati.com/story/sports/columnists/paul-daugherty/2018/06/05/mlb-draft-insight-conversation-longtime-atlanta-braves-scout-hep-cronin-mick-cincinnati/673802002/.

25 Shanks, 87.

26 Dan Barry, “Loose Grip on a Ball, Tight Grip on Dream,” New York Times, August 8, 1999.

27 Tom Glavine, with Nick Cafardo, None but the Braves: A Pitcher, a Team, a Champion (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 22-34; email from Tony DeMacio, December 30, 2019.

28 Allan Simpson, ed., Baseball America’s Ultimate Draft Book (no publication date), 294.

29 John Ed Bradley, “Justice Prevails,” Sports Illustrated, June 6, 1994.

30 Shanks, 111; phone interview with Paul Snyder, January 8, 2020.

31 Shanks, 134.

32 Red Murff with Mike Capps, The Scout: Searching for the Best in Baseball (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996), 283.

33 Ultimate Draft Book, 377.

34 Murff, 284-85.

35 Email from Tony DeMacio, December 30, 2019; Chipper Jones with Carroll Rogers Walton, Ballplayer (New York: Dutton, 2017), 25-6.

36 Jones, 13, 25-26, 30.

37 Jones, 49-61; DeMacio email. Dean Jongewaard, brother of Roger Jongewaard, the renowned scout who insisted the Mariners draft Ken Griffey Jr. as number-one pick in nation, was an expert Braves negotiator. He informed the Jones family that Chipper could have access to a full four-year college scholarship later in his career.

38 Fountain, 152.

39 Shanks, 49.

40 “Braves’ Paul Snyder Inducted into Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame,” South Atlantic League’s Charleston River Dogs news release, June 16, 2013.

Full Name

Paul Luther Snyder

Born

June 11, 1935 at Dallastown, PA (US)

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