Mouth of the South Manages Braves (5/11/1977)
By Patrick Mondout
Outspoken cable TV mogul Ted
Turner purchased the rights to broadcast Atlanta Braves' games on his
superstation in 1973. The 37 year old bought the team itself three years
later for a reported $10 million.
Turner, who was always willing to speak his mind, ignore traditions,
and do things his own way, came along at just the right time. Free agency,
which began in earnest the same year as Turner purchased the Braves,
allowed owners with more dollars than sense the ability to go out and
overpay marginal players as if they were superstars. Indeed, some
well-known players are remembered more for the contracts they signed than
for their on-field production. And more than a few can thank Turner for
either signing them or at least driving their price up.
At least he was trying to build a winner. With Hank Aaron long gone,
Turner needed to build a respectable team to feature on his flagship cable
TV station, WTBS. The '75 Braves lost 94 games and the novelty of having a
major league team in the South was gone—attendance hit an all-time low
One of the first things he did was sign that mother of all free agents,
Messersmith. He had won 19 for the Dodgers in 1975, but he had less
than 19 victories left in his arm.
In June of 1976, he had new GM John Alevizes (inherited GM Eddie
Robinson had been demoted) make a trade with Giants that brought the
Montanez, among others, but also cost them solid first baseman Darrell
Evans. A week later he sent Elias
Sosa and Lee
Lacy to the Dodgers for struggling reliever Mike
Marshall, who had won the Cy Young award just two seasons earlier.
(Marshall did not truly regain his form until landing with the Twins in
By August and with the team performing no better than the year before,
Alevizes resigned and Turner hired Bill
Lucas—his third GM in six months. The Braves finished 1976 with 92
losses, a two game improvement over 1975. The team wasn't quite as much of
an embarrassment as the inexperienced owner himself, though. A
sportswriter had to explain what a balk was to Turner during spring
training and the overly enthusiastic owner led cheers from the stands and
even occasionally ran to home plate to congratulate Braves who hit home
The Braves two biggest transactions came after the season. On November
17th, the Braves signed promising Giants free agent outfielder Gary
Matthews to a multiyear deal for $1.75 million. Three weeks later the
Braves sent Ken
May, former Rookie of the Year Carl
Moret, and Adrian
Devine to the Rangers for former AL MVP Jeff
The Matthews signing proved controversial as Turner was fined $10,000
for tampering by baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the Braves were
forced to forfeit their first pick in the January draft as a result of
contacting the Giants outfielder before the season was officially over.
"I am a rookie in this business. I should be allowed a few
errors," said Turner. "Matthews came to us because he wanted to
play in Atlanta. What does free agent mean, anyhow? It means he is free to
go where he wants to."
Despite the influx of talent, the '77 Braves struggled. They started
out promisingly, winning 8 of the first 13 putting them only a game and a
half back of the Dodgers on April 22. But they gave up 54 runs in their
next four games and sunk into a 16 game skid that continued through a
doubleheader loss to the Pirates at Three Rivers on May 10th.
The time honored response of inpatient owners to losing is to fire the
manager and bring in someone else, but Turner was hardly an old school
owner. Instead he sent manager Dave
Bristol a 10-day "scouting mission" through the
Braves minor league system, which was really just an excuse to get him out
of the way without having to actually fire him.
"I'm getting tired of people saying 'Why are the Braves
losing?'" Turner said. "I'm getting tired of answering,
'Injuries.' I want to see for myself what is wrong. I've been in the front
office for about a year and a half, and I've learned how much you charge
for peanuts and cola, and how much the ground crew works, and how you
clean up the stadium, but I don't know anything about what happens down
And there's nothing like on the job experience, is there?
There's an old adage that says 'if you want something done right, do it
yourself.' Turner clearly believed in this and despite major league rules
designed to prevent such shenanigans, Turner indeed took the field on May
11, 1977 officially as the Braves skipper. Both NL President Chub Feeney
and Commissioner Kuhn were dumbfounded when informed of Turner's actions
while at a minor league stadium dedication. "Let's put it this way:
It's never been done before," said Feeney.
Well, that's note quite correct. Hall of Famer Connie Mack managed the
Philadelphia Athletics for half a century and was a part owner as well. He
may have been a mediocre owner, but he hired one of the best managers. But
it was not the well-dressed Mack that caused baseball to alter its rules.
It was the then 11-year-old son of White Sox founder Charlie Comiskey, who
famously strode out of the dugout in his mini-uniform one day in 1937 to
argue a call with an ump.
Not only did Turner not have any business taking the field that day as
manager or coach, but he was technically suspended from baseball
altogether by Bowie Kuhn for the Matthews tampering, though it was held in
abeyance while a judge looked into the matter. Turner, the soon-to-be
Captain of the America's Cup champion, clearly did not mind rocking the
The Pirates, in addition to sweeping the Braves in the doubleheader the
day before, were the hottest team in baseball winning 11 straight and had
undefeated lefty John Candelaria set to start against winless Atlanta
knuckleballer Phil Niekro.
Future Hall of Famer Phil Niekro (left) dropped to 0-7 while John
Candelaria of the Pirates improved to 4-0.
Photo by Lou Saurich/©BaseballChronology.com.
Since the outcome of the game is not the story here, I'll just tell you
that the Braves lost 2-1. (The Pirates' first run was scored by a man who
reached first while striking out (the third strike was a wild pitch). The
Braves potential tying run in the ninth was stranded at third: Darrell
Chaney's ninth-inning double with a man on first bounced over the wall and
was ruled a ground-rule double forcing the runner—who otherwise would
have scored—to stay at third.)
Though they played a close game with the hottest team in baseball, the
Braves lost their 17th straight, which had to be a sister-kisser (to use
the worst phrase available in the English language) for real Braves
manager Dave Bristol, who could at least feel some vindication. And no,
Turner did not make in-game baseball decisions. He left those to coaches Vern
Benson and Christopher
The occasionally philosophic Turner was so on this occasion:
"Well, you know, when you're snakebit, you're snakebit. Sure, I know
what a ground-rule double is, I'm not stupid. The only stupid thing I did
was buy the franchise." Turner had said earlier in the week that he
was going to lose $2.5 million on the team in 1977.
Turner thought he had covered his bases by signing a Braves contract as
a coach. No one was allowed to sit on the bench without one and he
couldn't sign as a manager because the rules prohibited a team from
employing two at the same time.
NL President Feeney spoke with Turner that night and asked him not to
be on the bench the next day pending a conversation he planned to have
with Bowie Kuhn. Turner agreed, so with Bristol still on his scouting
trip, Braves coach Vern
Benson took over for the last game
of the series. It was Benson's only game as a manager in the major
The Braves went out and beat the
Pirates 6-1 behind the seven strong innings of starter Max
Leon, who helped his cause by driving in three runs. The
seventeen game losing streak was over, and the team celebrated with
champagne as if they had won the NLCS.
After the game the expected call from Feeney came and at least
temporarily dampened the spirits of Turner. The NL President explained
that section 'E' of rule 20 prohibited any owner or part owner from
managing the team without approval from the commissioner. With Turner
locked in a court battle with the commissioner over the one year
suspension, approval was no slam dunk. In fact it would not have been
given in any case as it is strictly Bush league to have an owner managing
Turner was once again philosophical with the media after receiving the
news. "I don't know about all these procedures," he said.
"If you're smart enough to make $11 million to buy the ball club, you
ought to be smart enough to run it. This is like a game to me. This is
just a big Little League team."
He later added, "What I should have done is sign myself as a
player. Then I'd be under Marvin Miller's protection. The man people in
baseball fear the most is not Bowie Kuhn but Miller."
Bristol's job as a scout was then
declared over and he returned to manage the team. Including
Benson's win, the Braves won 7 of their next 11 games, so the shakeup can
be seen as effective. "Managing isn't that difficult, you just have
to score more runs than the other guy," said Turner of his one game
The Braves ultimately were not a contender and did finish with 101
losses, but perhaps the threat of having Turner in the clubhouse again
kept the team from losing more than 6 at a time the rest of the way.
Ted 'Mouth of the South' Turner went on to create CNN and CNN Headline
News, which for years were a news-only network before turning to
entertainment and promotion of Time-Warner artists. He also later famously
wed actress 'Hanoi Jane' Fonda and more recently pledged nearly a billion
dollars worth of AOL/Time-Warner stock to the United Nations.
He also later hired two of the most successful baseball managers of all
time in Joe Torre and Bobby Cox proving my old adage, 'if you want
something done right, hire good people.'