The plan floated in 2019 for the Tampa Bay Rays to split home games between St. Petersburg and Montreal was widely pilloried, but it wasn’t exactly an original idea.
Forty-two years ago this month, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner had a similar brainstorm, which he either unwisely or intentionally leaked to the media. In early May of 1978, Turner — then in his third year owning the Braves — told reporters that he hoped to play a portion of his team’s home schedule the following season in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.
The Braves had gone a league-worst 61-101 in 1977, and by early the next season, attendance at Fulton County Stadium had dropped by more than a quarter to less than 10,000 per game. Turner feared he would lose $2 million that season alone if things didn’t improve.
Though the club had a lease with the city of Atlanta through 1990, Turner wanted to play 12 to 18 of the Braves’ 81 home games in other cities beginning with the 1979 season. He hoped attendance — and thus his team’s bottom line — would get a boost from fans in those baseball-starved markets. And since his Superstation WTGC (later WTBS) was beaming most Braves games all over the country via satellite by that time, it probably didn’t matter that much from where the games originated.
“If things keep going the way they have the first month, we have to do something,” Turner told the Atlanta Constitution’s Wayne Minshew for a story published May 5, 1978. “It’s not wise not to have an escape route.
“In time of peace, prepare for war. We’re at war. We’ll make it all right, but it’ll possibly be close.”
In those days before revenue sharing and massive national and regional television contracts, major-league clubs playing home games in other cities in order to boost attendance wasn’t exactly as outlandish an idea 40 years ago as it seems now. The Brooklyn Dodgers played 15 games in Jersey City, N.J., in both 1956 and 1956 (their final two seasons before leaving for Los Angeles), while the Chicago White Sox had played 10 games in Milwaukee in 1968, two years after the Braves left for Atlanta and two years before the Brewers arrived from Seattle.
But those were reasonably nearby cities in markets where the local fanbase had some familiarity with those teams. Atlanta is more than 450 miles from New Orleans; it’s more than 600 miles from Washington.
The nation’s capital had been without baseball since the Washington Senators left to become the Texas Rangers in 1972, and had what was at least a usable baseball facility in RFK Stadium. The San Diego Padres very nearly moved to D.C. in 1974, coming so close that Topps even printed up baseball cardsshowing players such as Willie McCovey and Nate Colbert playing for “Washington, National League.” (McDonald’s tycoon Ray Kroc stepped up at the last minute and bought the team, keeping it in southern California.)
New Orleans had opened the Louisiana Superdome in 1975 and was looking to add a baseball team to a market that already included the NFL’s Saints and the NBA’s Jazz. At one point, the Cleveland Indians toyed with the idea of playing up to 30 games per season in New Orleans, before fellow American League owners shot down the proposal.
Likewise, Turner wasn’t sure he’d get league approval for a similar plan, telling Minshew “there are so many obstacles, it’s unbelievable.” National League president Chub Feeney would only say he’d hear “rumors” about the idea, but that nothing could be official until the league’s other owners had a chance to weigh in.
The Braves were 9-15 and seven games out of first in the National League West Division when the story broke about Turner’s possible New Orleans/Washington gambit. And bad weather was at least partly to blame for the poor attendance, according to contemporary reports.
Though they had drawn more than 42,000 fans on Opening Night against the defending NL pennant-winning Los Angeles Dodgers, attendance had not topped 11,000 for any of the 13 home games since. A Monday night game against the Padres on April 10 had featured an announced crowd of 2,056 (the Braves won that game 8-7 in a walk-off, when Darrell Chaney popped a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth).
Still, it seems as if Atlanta fans had tired of the Braves after three years in which they’d averaged 95 losses. And the local media was definitely beginning to grow weary of Turner’s antics.
Atlanta Constitution columnist Rod Hudspeth wrote a column published May 6 entitled “Ted’s ‘Little People’ Philosophy Dissected.’” He wrote that if Turner was really planning on playing a number of Braves games elsewhere, then good riddance.
“Maybe the studio lights are better there,” Hudspeth wrote, taking a not-so-subtle shot at Turner’s television background. “If he wants to, I say okay. But please don’t take ‘Live Atlanta Wrestling’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island’ away from us, Ted. They are more entertaining than your baseball team.”
Venerable Constitution sports editor Jesse Outlar wrote a column published May 11 with the headline “Ted Turner: More Operator Than Owner.” On May 21, the AJC published a Sunday feature by Frank Hyland entitled “The Turner Mystique” and containing the line “Only one thing is really certain about Ted Turner, in fact: talk.”
Joe Walker of The Atlanta Voice wrote on May 27 that Turner claimed to have lost $5 million of his own money since buying the Braves in 1976. However, he noted that the grass wasn’t necessarily greener elsewhere.
“If the people in New Orleans and Washington are exposed to the same brand of baseball that the fans in Atlanta have tolerated since the Braves arrived here in 1966, they too will remain at home and watch the game on TV or listen to them on the radio,” Walker wrote.
Legendary Atlanta Journal sports editor Furman Bisher, who had written about teams in the city since the 1940s, entitled his May 27, 1978, Sporting News column “Ted Turner — Frustration and Phonyism” and included the line: “the organization is, to put it mildly, without direction.”
Dick Young of the New York Daily News also got in a shot at Turner in his June 17 Sporting News column, writing “Ted Turner, the yachtsman-owner of the Braves, has his sports enterprises mixed. He should sail for the America’s Cup every year and play for the NL pennant once every four years.”
By the end of June, however, things appeared to finally be trending upward for the Braves. Exciting young players such as Dale Murphy and Bob Horner had begun to draw more fans to the ballpark, with Horner promoted directly to the big leagues June 16 after being drafted No. 1 overall out of Arizona State.
Turner told the AJC for a story published July 1 that he’d gained league approval to play nine games in New Orleans in 1979, but suddenly didn’t seem like his heart was in it anymore. The Braves were drawing an average of 13,469 through 33 home dates, putting them on pace to easily surpass the attendance figure from 1977 (10,771 per game).
“Like I said before, if we draw about the same as last year, there’s more likelihood that we won’t play any games down in New Orleans next season,” said Turner, who also noted that Washington was “out” as a possible Braves home site in 1979. “In fact, I will not move the team down there if we draw the same as last season.
“I was really scared right at the beginning of the season. I was scared to death. I mean, it looked like we would draw about 400,000 this year.”
And as with so many other situations during his tenure, Turner might have been bluffing all along. That same AJC story quoted Neil Gunn, vice president of operations of the Louisiana Superdome, as saying the whole idea was news to him.
“Personally, I have had no conversations about the Braves,” Gunn said. “Of course, we’re interested in having a major league baseball team here in New Orleans. So I’m sure if we’re contacted, we’ll be open for discussions.”
And anyway, the league still hadn’t approved anything. Feeney called Turner’s remarks “premature” and noted again that a vote of owners would have to be taken if the Braves were to play any games outside of Atlanta in 1979.
Around that same time, Turner promoted Bill Lucas from player personnel director to vice-president of baseball operations. It appears that Lucas was able to turn Turner away from challenging the team’s lease and trying to play Braves home games in New Orleans.
Lucas told the AJC on Aug. 11 that the New Orleans plan was now “non-existent.”
“I don’t think any thought has been given that idea since the time it was first mentioned,” Lucas said. “When all of it came out, I don’t think Ted had any intentions of carrying the team anywhere. Attendance then was so bad he was just desperate and thinking of alternatives. Right now, that’s just something in the past.”
The Braves had been able to cash in on some good fortune to boost attendance in late July and early August. The largest crowd of the season — 45,007 — turned out on July 31 to see Cincinnati’s Pete Rose tie the National League record by recording a hit in his 44th straight game.
The next night, 31,159 were in attendance to see Atlanta snap Rose’s streak in a 16-4 victory. The Wednesday series finale drew 26,812, meaning the Braves drew more than 11 percent of their 1978 season attendance in those three games.
Attendance declined sharply as August dragged on, with ticket sales not helped by a stretch in which Atlanta lost 14 of 17 games. Once the kids were back in school and football season had begun, the Braves were back to drawing 10,000 fans or fewer per game (the exception was a Sept. 9 series-opener against the pennant-bound Dodgers, which saw 26,777).
Turner had diverted his attention to other gimmicks by then, such as when he tried to hire famed mascot the San Diego Chicken (he reportedly offered Ted Giannoulas, who portrayed the chicken, $100,000 and an office next to Hank Aaron, who was at that point the Braves’ director of minor league operations). He also brought infamous 39-year-old pitcher-turned-author Jim Bouton, who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 1970, to the Braves for five up-and-down starts in September.
The Braves finished the season at 69-93, an eight-game improvement from 1977, but not enough to escape last place in the six-team NL West. Their season attendance of 904,494 (11,116 per game) was also up from the previous year, but also last in the league.
Attendance dropped even further to in 1979 — 9,499 per game, which was somehow not last in the league (the New York Mets — who finished last in the NL East — drew a paltry 9,379 per game to Shea Stadium). The 1980 team, which finished 81-80 for the franchise’s first winning record in seven years, finally got over the one-million mark in attendance (1.04 million, or 13,105 per game).
With the exception of the strike-shortened 1981 season, the Braves drew more than one million fans every year until 1988, when they finished an Atlanta-worst 54-106. The 1983 team, buoyed by a division championship the previous year, played in front of more than 2.1 million fans at home.
The Braves have drawn at least two million fans at home in every season since 1991, when they pulled off the famed “worst-to-first” pennant run. The 1993 club, which won 104 games and a third straight NL West title, drew a franchise-record 3,884,720 — 47,959 per game. (That’s a record unlikely to be broken, given that the team’s current home, Truist Park, seats a little over 41,000 at full capacity.)
Washington, D.C., finally got another baseball team in 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved south and became the Nationals. New Orleans, which saw a decline in local population and wealth along with its oil industry through the 1970s and 80s as it drifted toward more of a tourism-based economy, never did become a major-league town (though it was home to a Triple-A franchise from 1993-2019).
There have never been any serious rumblings about the Braves leaving Atlanta or even farming out home games since Turner’s very public brainstorm in 1978. No MLB franchise moved cities between the Senators leaving Washington for Texas in 1972 and the Expos/Nationals’ arrival in 2005, with expansions in 1977, 1993 and 1998 eliminating nearly all the markets that might be able to support a big-league team.
And by the time the Braves’ lease with Atlanta expired in 1990, the club was on the cusp of contending again. Soon enough, the Braves would fulfill Turner’s dream of capacity crowds at Fulton County Stadium on a regular basis.
Darryl Palmer is a contributing writer for Talking Chop. Email him at email@example.com. No, that’s not his real name.
Sources: Baseball-Reference.com; SABR.org; Newspapers.com; Sporting News archive (via PaperofRecord.com); Sports Collector’s Daily; Fangraphs.com