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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 of 534,672.

One of the first things he did was sign that mother of all free agents, pitcher Andy 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 Braves Willie 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 '78.)

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 runs.

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 Henderson, Dave May, former Rookie of the Year Carl Morton, Roger Moret, and Adrian Devine to the Rangers for former AL MVP Jeff Burroughs.

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 here."

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 boat.

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 Cannizzaro.

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 leagues.

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 his team.

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."

Aftermath

Dave 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 as skipper.

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.'



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--Patrick Mondout



 

TED

At least he looked the part.


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