Today in Baseball History: Ted Turner manages the Braves

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The 1976 Braves were not good. They lost 92 games and finished last in the NL West, 32 games behind the Big Red Machine. That year was more notable, however, for the fact that the team got a new owner. His name was Ted Turner and he basically bought the team — along with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks — in order to get programming for this local TV channel, WTCG.

At the end of that year the FCC began allowing WTCG to use a satellite to transmit its content to local cable TV providers around the nation. Cable was a nascent industry then and, given that Turner was programming a lot of old movies, sitcom reruns, cartoons, and now sports, it filled a niche that a lot of existing network affiliate and UHF channels couldn’t provide. WTCG, now re-christened “The Superstation” WTBS, quickly found its way onto cable systems all over the country. As 1977 dawned, Turner’s big plans to turn his network, and his new sports teams, into something way more than local enterprises was in full swing.

Turner was thought of by many as half nuts before he bought the Braves, but he was taking things up a notch now that he was a pro sports mogul:

  • Turner hyped his 92-loss team before the season, calling it, against all apparent evidence, “The Win Machine.” Turner was also putting up billboards around Atlanta with another slogan for the team he came up with: “Not Too Shabby,” which was a bit more realistic but still an exaggeration;
  • As spring training was about to begin Bowie Kuhn suspended Turner for a year for tampering with free agents — he promised he’d sign Gary Matthews “at any price,” and did so at a high price, and that’s the sort of thing other owners didn’t like then or now — but the suspension would eventually be successfully appealed;
  • On Opening Day, Atlanta Fulton-County Stadium debuted a new $1.5 million dollar video board Turner installed for the specific purpose of running replays of calls that went against the Braves that he felt were blown in order to rile up fans. It’d soon be banned after umpires complained.

There was just a lot going on with the 1977 Braves. One thing that was not going on, however, was winning.

After starting out a respectable 8-5, the team went into a tailspin. They lost game after game after game, and they did it in ugly fashion. I’ll leave the description of the stretch to Joe Posnanski, who wrote about Turner and that Braves team for NBC back in 2015:

The streak included a 16-6 defeat to Los Angeles — the Dodgers hit five home runs. The next day, the Braves lost to Cincinnati, 23-9, a day the Braves committed six errors, walked 10 batters and gave up 18 hits. There was a 9-1 loss, an 8-0 loss, an 11-1 loss, an 11-4 loss. In all the Braves were outscored 131-45 in the first 16 losses, meaning they lost by an average of six runs during that stretch.

Their putative ace reliever, Mike Marshall was taken out of a game by manager Dave Bristol during the losing streak. He bowled the ball to second base rather than give it to his manager, threw a bat onto the field from the dugout, and then just went AWOL for a couple of days.

Turner was likewise not doing a good job of keeping his head about him as the losses mounted.

After the Braves lost their 14th straight game, Turner told the press, “I’ve got a cocked pistol in my hand. Who can I give the Braves to in my last will and testament?” Even George Steinbrenner — the 1970s version of George Steinbrenner, who the following year would preside over the famous “Bronx Zoo” — told the press that Turner needed to dial things back a bit and gain some perspective.

With the losses mounting, Turner decided to join the team on a road trip through Chicago and Pittsburgh. On May 10, he sat behind the Braves dugout in Three Rivers Stadium and watched his team lose both games of a doubleheader to make it 16 losses in a row.

After the game Bristol told the press, “I’d do anything to help us win.” Turner called Bristol to his hotel room that evening. Bristol thought he was going to be fired. He wasn’t fired. Turner simply told him to take ten days off. Some personal time. Turner would manage the team in his place.

It probably says something for how crazy things were around the Braves at this time that nobody on the club really batted an eye about it. Here was Bristol’s reaction:

“He owns the team, that’s his prerogative. I tried to talk him out of it. It puts a man in a strange position. I must be doing something wrong. I’m going home for a couple of days to take a long hard look at Dave Bristol.”

Here was Phil Niekro:

“If you knew Ted Turner like we do, you’d understand what he’s doing. I respect him for it, and I think everybody else on the club does. He doesn’t like to lose.”

Braves outfielder Jeff Burroughs:

“You never know what to expect when you’re an Atlanta Brave.”

Infielder Rod Gilbreath:

“I think it was a good idea. He loosened everybody up when he told us about it in the clubhouse.”

Turner managed the May 11, 1977 game against the Pirates. The Braves lost, but it was actually a pretty close game: 2-1. The Braves even mounted a pretty decent rally that fell just short in the top of the ninth inning due to a ground rule double that stranded a runner on third who otherwise almost certainly would’ve scored.

After the game the press asked him how he felt he did and he, quite correctly, defended all the strategic decisions in the game. Which wasn’t terribly hard because, as it’d be reported later and as is usually left out of accounts of Turner’s tenure as manager, he left the decisions to his coaches. His suiting up as manager and going into the dugout was not, as commonly reported, a matter of him thinking he could do a better job. It was about motivation and about trying to get his brain around what was going on in his clubhouse. And because, well, Turner was just kinda impulsive.

Does that make him naming himself manager defensible? Not necessarily. But after the game Turner said “The only stupid thing I did was buy the franchise.” On that day he was right about him not doing anything stupid as he managed. Time would prove him wrong about it being stupid to buy the Braves.

That validation would come years later, though. In the present, Turner was in hot water again. This time with the league office.

The next morning National League President Chub Feeney banned Turner from managing, citing a rule in which anybody who had a financial interest in a team must get special approval from the commissioner to play or manage for that team. Which, fine, a rule is a rule. The problem was that both Feeney and Bowie Kuhn issued statements going beyond that, saying that Turner being banned from managing was specifically about his lack of skills as a manager.

Feeney:

“It’s not the contract. It’s the relative inexperience of the man managing the team that I’m concerned about.”

Kuhn:

“Given Mr. Turner’s lack familiarity with game operations, I do not think it is in the best interests of baseball to serve in the requested capacity.”

The Braves won in Pittsburgh on May 12, breaking their 17-game losing streak with coach Vern Benson acting as manager. The next night they returned to Atlanta for a home game against the Cardinals. Dave Bristol had, apparently, taken enough time taking “a long hard look at Dave Bristol” by then. He was back in the dugout managing the Braves that night. Before the game, Turner had his public address announcer read Kuhn’s statement to the crowd. They booed like crazy. Turner’s later forays into broadcasting professional wrestling showed the guy understood how to generate heat.

The Braves ended up going 61-101. The Win Machine they were not. In fact, it was a pretty shabby year all around, with Turner’s game as manager as the clear highlight.

The following year a young player who had had a couple of cups of coffee in Turner’s first two seasons in the owner’s box — kid by the name of Dale Murphy — would become a full time player. They’d have a new manager too. Fella by the name of Bobby Cox.

Things would, eventually, get a bit better.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1950: Connecticut Senator Abe Ribicoff introduces legislation for the observance of a National Baseball Day, which would be June 26. The bill does not pass. Like my mom used to tell me when I asked why there wasn’t a Children’s Day, every day is baseball day.

1963: Sandy Koufax, who had missed a few starts due to a circulatory ailment in his left index finger, is activated and throws a no-hitter against the visiting Giants. It’s Koufax’s second career no-hitter. He’ll toss four in all before he retires.

1972: The Giants trade Willie Mays to the New York Mets for right-hander Charlie Williams and $50,000 cash. The move was mostly a financial one. The club had promised Mays they’d never trade him — and promised him a post-retirement income — but they acknowledged that they could not afford him. The Mets promise Mays a retirement income. The Giants would, of course, eventually bring the Say Hey Kid back into the fold.

1980: Pete Rose, who is 39 years-old, steals second, third, and home in one inning for the Phillies. The last National Leaguer to do so was Jackie Robinson in 1954.

1991: Albert Belle throws a ball at a fan, hitting him the chest. Belle did so because the fan was heckling him by calling him “Joey,” which is name he had gone by until the 1990 but did not prefer to be called any longer, and referring to Belle’s problems with alcohol which led to a 1990 admission to rehab. Belle will be fined and suspended for one week. For the rest of his career, fans will call him “Joey” at games.

1996: In celebration of his 300th career save, notched a couple of days before, the Mets deem May 11 “John Franco” day. Franco, however, is ejected from the game after he ran out of the bullpen to participate in a benches-clearing brawl in the fifth inning. Because he’s ejected, the Mets use three other relievers in the ninth inning who combine to blow the save and allow the tying runs. The Mets come back and win in walkoff fashion, 7-6.