This much must be said, though: As big as Atlanta getting a baseball team was, Atlanta wasn’t immediately certain how to feel about it. Nobody down here had grown up rooting for these guys. They won the National West in 1969, but by the middle ’70s they were a bad team that couldn’t draw flies. (Or, this being the South, gnats.) In 1975, the year before Bartholomay sold the club to Ted Turner, attendance was 534,672.
Said Terry McGuirk, who started working for Turner in 1973 and is today the Braves’ chairman: “Bill took an awful lot of heat for moving – there were lawsuits in Milwaukee and two extra years of work – and getting a team was a huge accomplishment for leaders of Atlanta. They were able to bring and attract a major-league team. But the going was pretty difficult the first several years. We’d never had a team, and we didn’t know how to react to it.”
Then: “The last year before he sold it, they were in tough financial shape. You could drive up and park in the first row and go sit anywhere.”
>> Baseball world remembers Bill Bartholomay
Once the Braves were his, Turner put them on TBS 150 times a year. For much of the ’80s, the Braves were among the most-followed team in the land, even if home attendance didn’t reflect it. In the ’90s, when the Braves finally got and stayed good, Atlanta’s enthusiasm for the club finally met the interest stirred by basic cable.
Said McGuirk: “Nobody had ever put a lot of games on TV. This Petri dish was like any startup – it was rocky; there was a lot of experimentation; it was a brave new world. Bill lit the fuse and started it off and handed it off.”
Bartholomay sold the Braves, but he never left the Braves. He was their chairman until 2003, their chairman emeritus after that. He’d show up – he lived in Chicago – at big games, and sometimes at not-so-big games. Known as Mr. B, he bore a striking resemblance to Bob Hope, and not the Bob Hope who was once the Braves’ PR chief.
McGuirk: “Not only did he look like Bob Hope, he acted like Bob Hope. He was a swashbuckler. He lived life to the fullest. I told somebody yesterday, ‘He lived an outsized life.’ He would fly and cross oceans to be where the action was.”
His last direct contact with the Braves came in February at North Port, Fla., the team’s new spring training home. Said McGuirk: “We have an annual dinner before the first spring workout, and we bring the executive group together. Snit (manager Brian Snitker) and (general manager) Alex (Anthopoulos) were there, and Bill came. He shouldn’t have been there, but he came.
“He’d had terrible pneumonia. He was on a walker, and he could barely talk. He gave a few remarks, what his voice could allow, and then he just listened. We were perplexed at how to get him back to the hotel. He had to will himself to do this, almost as if he knew it was the last one.”
Bill Bartholomay wasn’t from Atlanta, but he changed Atlanta. He was, McGuirk said, “the nicest, kindest, most gentlemanly person,” and this non-Southern gentleman did a great service to the capital of the New South. He brought us the Braves.