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Braves Throwback Thursday: Ted Turner buys the team

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This week in 1976, the maverick broadcasting entrepreneur took over as owner

Ted Turner and Girl Dancing Getty Images

The Atlanta Braves were fast becoming irrelevant as America’s bicentennial year of 1976 began.

The team had been THE STORY in baseball for much of 1973 and 1974, with Hank Aaron pursuing and ultimately overtaking Babe Ruth for the game’s most-hallowed record. But Aaron was gone before the 1975 season began, the club having acquiesced to his wishes with a trade to the Milwaukee Brewers, where he could finish out his career as a designated hitter in the city where he’d first become a star.

The Braves fell to 67-94 in 1975, finishing fifth in the six-team National League West. Even worse, with Aaron and his home run chase no longer a drawing card, attendance dropped more than 45 percent to a mere 534,672, or about 6,600 per game at 52,000-seat Atlanta Stadium.

As former Braves executive Bob Hope (not THAT Bob Hope) wrote in his 1991 memoir, We Could’ve Finished Last Without You, “we had to cheat to get that high.”

“At the end of the year, we started buying free tickets from ourselves for 25 cents each and calling them paid admissions. The season was awful and we were groping for respectability in the midst of disaster.”

So the Braves were not only bad, they were boring. The franchise badly needed a shot in the arm.

Enter one Robert Edward Turner III, a brash 37-year-old who had made his fortune selling outdoor advertising during the 1960s and had soon after began buying radio and television stations. Ted Turner was approved as the Braves’ new owner on Jan. 14, 1976, 44 years ago this month.

Turner had actually come onto the scene with the Braves two years earlier, when he purchased the rights to air the team’s games on his television station, WTCG, known locally as Channel 17. The idea of buying the entire team came to Turner during a conversation at a game late in the 1975 season with club president Dan Donahue, who broke the news that the Braves were for sale.

Turner remembered the conversation in his 2008 book Call Me Ted:

“Who’re you going to sell it to?,” I asked.

“To you,” Donahue answered.

“Me?” I was stunned.

After the shock wore off, Turner realized that LaSalle Corporation’s asking price of $10 million would be a bargain in the long run. If nothing else, Braves games would provide programming for Channel 17 for nearly half the year.

Turner wrote that he and Donahue agreed he would pay $1 million down, and pay the rest over the next nine years, with interest, for an eventual total price of $12 million. But he still needed the approval of Major League Baseball, which was no given.

Cable television was in its infancy in the mid-1970s, and Turner was one of the first to realize its vast potential. Word began to leak out that he planned to make WTGC a superstation, that is, beaming its signal nationwide.

That meant Atlanta Braves games would be available across the country, encroaching on the local TV deals of the other 23 MLB teams. The other owners naturally didn’t like this, and voiced their concerns to commissioner Bowie Kuhn.

Kuhn and Turner both testified before Congress, and Kuhn asked Braves chairman Bill Bartholomay (part of the original Atlanta ownership group, who had agreed to stay on under Turner’s stewardship) for a letter ensuring them that Turner’s intentions were pure. As Kuhn related in his 1987 autobiography Hardball, Turner promised that he personally intended to “comply with the best interest of baseball in all matters including collective posting on cable television.”

That was apparently good enough for the other NL owners, who approved Turner’s purchase of the team.

Fast-forward a year later, and Turner’s application to beam the signal for his station — which was later re-christened WTBS — nationwide was approved by the Federal Communications Commission. Kuhn said Turner later boasted that he’d “pulled the wool over the eyes of the National League.”

That wouldn’t be the last time Turner had a run-in with Kuhn or his fellow owners. More on that later.

So just how was Turner’s purchase of the Braves received at the time? It was something of a mixture of bemusement and confusion.

“Some think him absolutely bananas,” columnist Ron Hudspeth wrote in the Atlanta Constitution. “Others consider him a genius. More than likely he falls somewhere in between.”

In his opening address to season-ticket holders at Atlanta’s Peachtree Plaza, Turner promised the Braves would “play with Little League enthusiasm” and that if the team didn’t improve “he’d turn off the lights … and permit fans to watch the team for free in the afternoon.” He encouraged Braves players to move to Atlanta year-round in order to build team camaraderie, and told fans the team would win the World Series within five years.

Atlanta Constitution sports editor Jesse Outlar quoted one anonymous fan as saying that Turner would be “the greatest thing that ever happened to sports in Atlanta.” He then quoted the same fan’s wife as saying “I think he’s off his rocker.”

Before he was even formally approved as owner, Turner told reporters that he was thinking of changing the team’s name to “Eagles.” He explained that this was to tie in better with the NFL’s Falcons and the NBA’s Hawks, but also because he wasn’t crazy about the team using Native American imagery (a concern he’d also briefly voiced more than 15 years later when the Tomahawk Chop began to catch on, though he never formally discouraged it).

Turner soon scrapped the idea of changing the team’s name, and moved on to making a bigger splash.

On Dec. 23, 1975, an independent arbitrator had declared Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Andy Messersmith a free agent, ruling that baseball’s so-called “reserve clause” was null and void, and players could not be perpetually bound to their teams. Still resentful of the idea of free agency, the majority of MLB owners refused to bid for Messersmith’s services, and the 30-year-old right-hander remained unsigned through spring training.

Turner stepped up with a three-year, $1 million offer, and Messersmith signed on April 10, 1976. He posted a 3.04 ERA and made the All-Star team that first year, though injuries marred his 1977 season and he was later traded to the New York Yankees. (Most famously, Messersmith wore “Channel” on the nameplate of his uniform for a handful of starts in 1976, before National League president Chub Feeney ordered it removed as an illegal advertisement for Turner’s television station. Feeney also nixed Turner’s plan to pay his players bonuses for victories, and officially discouraged him from playing poker with team personnel.)

Turner proceeded to make a spectacle of himself on several occasions that season, leading the Atlanta Stadium crowd in a pre-game rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” on Opening Day and running onto the field to congratulate outfielder Steve Henderson following a home run. Turner had a microphone installed next to his seat near the Braves dugout, and after one especially tough loss promised every fan in attendance a free ticket to the next day’s game.

Hope was a born promoter, and often used Turner as a direct participant in some of his most outrageous ideas. Turner competed with Phillies pitcher Tug McGraw in a pre-game baseball nose-pushing competition (which left Turner with a bloody face), and with sportswriter Frank Hyland in an ostrich-pulled chariot race (Hyland’s bird won, while Turner’s bolted straight into the visitors’ dugout and refused to finish the contest).

The Braves improved by only three games (to 70-92) that first season, but attendance was up to better than 10,000 per game. Heading into 1977, Turner was determined to continue the club’s momentum.

He almost didn’t get there, thanks to an incident that occurred during the 1976 World Series in New York. In the hospitality suite at the Americana Hotel, Turner — who’d been drinking heavily on his flight to New York — openly taunted Giants owner Bob Lurie, declaring that he was going to sign away outfielder Gary Matthews, about to become one of the most coveted free agents on the market.

“Whatever you offer him, Lurie, I plan to pay him double,” author John Helyar quoted Turner as saying in Lords of the Realm, his seminal 1994 history of baseball’s labor relations. With that night’s World Series Game 4 rained out, numerous baseball owners, executives and sports writers witnessed Turner’s rant.

This was of course against baseball’s anti-tampering rules, though Kuhn could not ban Matthews from signing with the Braves since the player had not been directly involved in any misconduct. Matthews did so, inking a 5-year, $1.8 million deal on Nov. 17, 1976.

Kuhn suspended Turner from baseball for one year, fined him $10,000 and took away the Braves’ first-round pick in the 1977 amateur draft. Turner wasn’t exactly broken-hearted about the suspension, given that he planned to captain the U.S. team in that year’s America’s Cup yacht race (Turner’s boat, Courageous, did win the Cup in September, sweeping all four races against Team Australia. He’d also bought the NBA’s Hawks in January 1977, shortly after his baseball suspension was announced).

Turner sued in U.S. District Court, and his suspension was on hold until the court announced its decision. That opened the door for perhaps the most-bizarre moment in a tenure filled with them.

With the team mired in a 16-game losing streak, Turner summoned manager Dave Bristol to his hotel suite in Pittsburgh on May 11. Turner told Bristol to “take 10 days off” and “go scout the farm system, I’ll manage the team.”

With Turner at the helm, the Braves lost 2-1 to the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium that night, their 17th straight loss. Turner would not get a second game as skipper.

Feeney and Kuhn invoked baseball’s Rule 20-E, which prevented owners from managing. The rule had been put into place to prevent another Connie Mack, who had owned and managed the Philadelphia Athletics well into his 80s.

On May 19, judge Newell Edenfield announced his decision. Turner’s one-year suspension was upheld, but the Braves got their first-round pick back (they’d use it on New York high school pitcher Tim Cole, who posted a 5.55 ERA in 10 minor-league seasons and never reached the majors).

Despite strong seasons from Matthews and slugger Jeff Burroughs (acquired in an offseason trade from the Texas Rangers), the 1977 Braves were god-awful. They went 61-101 and finishing in last place, securing the No. 1 overall pick in the 1978 draft.

Attendance had remained flat since the slight tick upward in 1976, and Turner began to cast about for new ways to make money. He claimed in an interview with a newspaper in Kingsport, Tenn., (home of the Braves’ Rookie League affiliate), that he’d lost $5 million in 1977.

In early May of 1978, Turner floated the idea of playing a number of the team’s home games in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., the former of which had a new indoor stadium and the latter of which had lost the Senators to Texas (where they became the Rangers) a few years earlier. It was about this time the local media began to turn against Turner.

In a May 7, 1978, column in the Atlanta Constitution, Gary Caruso wrote that “if the Braves ever have a winner, it will be in spite of Ted Turner and not because of him.” While citing the good work and solid baseball acumen of general manager Bill Lucas and first-year manager Bobby Cox, Caruso noted that Turner “is simply too much of a handicap.”

Handicapped or not, the Braves had begun to amass some young talent by 1978, with future two-time National League Most Valuable Player Dale Murphy joining the lineup full-time that season. On June 6, Atlanta used the No. 1 overall pick on Arizona State third baseman Bob Horner, who quickly negotiated his way directly onto the major-league roster and wound up as the NL Rookie of the Year.

The Braves finished 69-93, and Turner’s worst impulses again got the better of him that offseason. He became embroiled in a bitter contract dispute with Horner, who accused the owner of trying to cut his salary by more than the permissible amount under baseball’s collective bargaining agreement (Horner and his agent, Bucky Woy, argued that Horner’s signing bonus was part of his salary, with which Turner disagreed).

Horner ended up holding out into the 1979 season, but eventually signed and hit 33 homers. However, any good feelings disappeared after the beloved Lucas — the first African-American general manager in MLB history — died from a massive heart attack and cardiac arrest on May 5. (In his typical speak-first, think-later style, Turner openly blamed Horner’s agent for Lucas’ death, telling reporters that Woy should be charged with manslaughter.)

The 1979 Braves posted a record of 66-94, their fifth straight last-place finish. But things began to brighten in 1980, when the club went 81-80 and finished fourth behind a breakout season from Murphy and typical production from Horner, veteran pitcher Phil Niekro and first baseman Chris Chambliss, acquired the previous December in a trade with the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Braves slipped to 50-56 during the strike-shortened 1981 season, which led to perhaps the most short-sighted move of Turner’s tenure with the club. Acting on the recommendation of his front office team (which included general manager John Mullen, executive vice president Al Thornwell, director of player development Hank Aaron and scouting director Paul Snyder), he fired Cox shortly after the season ended.

Turner seemed to almost immediately regret the decision.

“Bobby Cox is going to make some team a fine manager,” Turner told reporters on Oct. 10, 1981. “If not next year, he’ll surely be managing in the future. We aren’t letting him go because we don’t feel he’s a good manager. A fresh face, that’s all it was. If Bobby wasn’t here, he’d be one of the leading candidates for the job.”

A week later, Cox latched on with Toronto, whom he’d manage to the first winning record in franchise history in 1983 and a first division title in 1985. The Braves hired Joe Torre, who had recently finished his fifth straight losing season as manager of the New York Mets.

As the 1980s went along, Turner became less involved in the day-to-day operations of the Braves. In 1980, he’d launched CNN, the success of which made him a national figure.

Murphy and Horner had blossomed into stars by 1982, leading the Braves to their first NL West crown in 13 years. Atlanta again had a winning season under Torre in 1983, but faded in the second half in part due to a season-ending wrist injury suffered by Horner in August.

The Braves sank into mediocrity again in the mid 1980s, as Turner’s management team made one blunder after another. In 1983 alone, Atlanta traded for sore-armed Cleveland Indians pitcher Len Barker (dealing away budding star Brett Butler and top prospect Brook Jacoby) and let franchise icon Niekro leave as a free agent. The following year, Atlanta fired Torre following an 80-82 season.

(Three years earlier, the front office team had wanted to hire long-time organization man Eddie Haas instead of Torre, but Turner overruled them. They got their way the second time around prior to 1985, but Haas himself was fired just 121 games into his first season.)

There were free-agent boondoggles as well, most notably Bruce Sutter, who blew out his shoulder after just one full season in Atlanta and is still getting paid by the club more than 30 years later thanks to an unusual contract his agent negotiated with Turner. The Braves averaged 96 losses per season from 1985-90 — bottoming out at 54-106 in 1988 — and finished last in the six-team NL West four times and fifth twice.

Turner made his wisest decision as Braves owner prior to the 1986 season, re-hiring Cox as general manager. Cox moved back into the dugout as manager midway through the 1990 season, and Turner hired John Schuerholz away from the Kansas City Royals as general manager the following year.

With a stable and capable management team finally in place, the Braves began to win and win big immediately. Atlanta won the NL pennant and reached the World Series in 1991, and won it all four years later.

Turner sold the Braves as part of Turner Broadcasting’s merger with Time-Warner in 1996, the same year Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics. The Braves moved the following year into the stadium that had been built for the games, and it was named Turner Field once it was retro-fitted for baseball. (When the Braves moved to Cobb County and SunTrust Park in 2017, the city of Atlanta sold Turner Field to Georgia State University, which renovated the property into a football stadium.)

Now 81, Turner has largely avoided the spotlight in recent years, though he remains one of the largest individual landowners in the United States. He revealed in a 2018 interview with veteran journalist Ted Koppel on CBS Sunday Morning that he had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a progressive illness that affects memory and other cognitive functions.

Turner’s 21-year tenure as Braves owner saw its share of ups and downs. But it was certainly never boring.

Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at darrylpalmerbraves4@gmail.com. No, that’s not his real name.

References: Newspapers.com; Sporting News archives (via Paper of Record); SI Vault; CBSNews.com; SABR.org; John Helyar, Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball (Ballantine Books, 1994); Bob Hope, We Could’ve Finished Last Without You (Longstreet Press, 1991); Bowie Kuhn, Hardball: The Education of a Baseball Commissioner (Times Books, 1987); Marvin Miller, A Whole Different Ballgame: The Sport and Business of Baseball (Birch Lane Press, 1991); Ted Turner, Call Me Ted (Grand Central Publishing, 2008)