The times were different. Baseball was different. And the Braves owner was different.
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“People say to me all the time, ‘Well, you could never get away with that kind of stuff in today’s world,’” Hope said last week. “Well, you could if you had Ted Turner as an owner.”
So on the list of Braves managers — 18 of them, including interims, since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966 — this entry jumps off the page: “1977, Ted Turner, 0-1.”
Wearing No. 27, with a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth, Turner managed the Braves in a game against the Pirates at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium on May 11, 1977.
The Braves had gone 70-92 in Turner’s first year as owner in 1976, losing 13 consecutive games at one point, and had finished in last place in the National League West. He had high hopes for improvement in 1977, but soon found his team in a losing streak even longer than the one the year before.
“After losing our 16th game straight, I decided to shake things up,” Turner recounted in “Call Me Ted,” his autobiography. “I thought about firing our manager, Dave Bristol, but instead I decided to just give him some time off. After telling the press that Bristol was away on a ‘scouting trip,’ I put on a Braves uniform and served as the team’s field manager.
“In the dugout, I really didn’t do a whole lot other than crack some jokes and yell encouragement,” Turner continued. “I didn’t know the signs, so I had to sit next to one of the other coaches, and when I thought we should steal or bunt, I’d have to tell him so he could relay the signal.
“Phil Niekro pitched a complete game that night, so I never even got a chance to walk out to the mound. Despite his strong performance, we lost 2-1, but we broke a lot of tension on the club.”
Ted Turner (27) cheers for his Braves as they play the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium on May 11, 1977.
Credit: R.C. Greenawalt
Credit: R.C. Greenawalt
Hope, the former Braves executive, remembers Turner holding court with the media before that game 43 years ago this month. During batting practice, Turner jokingly asked Niekro where he wanted to hit in the batting order. After some playful banter, Niekro told him ninth would be best.
The Pirates scored a run in the first inning. The Braves answered with a run in the second. The Pirates scored again in the third on a Dave Parker home run, the game’s final run.
Manager Turner — or the coaches working with him — deployed two ninth-inning pinch-hitters (Darrel Chaney, who hit a ground-rule double, and Rowland Office, who struck out) and one pinch-runner (Pat Rockett).
It was the Braves’ 17th consecutive loss, dropping their record for the season to 8-22.
The headline on the top of the front page in The Atlanta Constitution the next morning: “Skipper Ted Takes the Helm, But Braves Are Still Sinking.”
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And so ended Turner’s time as acting manager.
“The baseball establishment didn’t like the idea of me managing the team,” Turner wrote in his 2008 autobiography, “and I received a telegram from National League president Chub Feeney the morning after my debut, telling me that my first game would also be my last. I retired with a lifetime record of zero wins and one loss.”
Turner, then 38, had intended to manage the Braves for 10 days and had told Bristol to take a break of that length at his home in Andrews, N.C.
Turner wanted to use his time in the dugout to figure out what was wrong with the struggling team, he told reporters at the time. He figured most fans in the stands would do the same thing if they were the owner.
Ted Turner with pitching coach Johnny Sain in the dugout on May 11, 1977.
Alas, Turner’s managerial career was reduced to one game because Feeney found obscure MLB rule 20(e), which states “no manager or player on a club shall, directly or indirectly, own stock or any other proprietary interest or have any financial interest in the Club by which the manager or player is employed except under an agreement approved by the Commissioner…”
Turner was unimpressed. “They must have put that rule in yesterday,” the famously outspoken owner said after receiving Feeney’s edict. “If I’m smart enough to save $11 million to buy the team, I ought to be smart enough to manage it.”
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The rule against owners managing their team was put in place sometime after 1950, when Connie Mack’s 50-year run as manager and part-owner of the Philadelphia Athletics ended.
Anyway, Turner was forced back to the box seats as the Braves completed the series at Pittsburgh on May 12, 1977. Bristol was still away, so one of the coaches, Vern Benson, served as manager. The Braves beat the Pirates 6-1, finally breaking their long losing streak.
Even then, Turner hadn’t given up on the idea of managing the team. He appealed Feeney’s ruling to Bowie Kuhn, the baseball commissioner. Kuhn’s quick written decision was read by public address announcer Marshall Mann to fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium when the Braves started a homestand the next day: “Given Mr. Turner’s lack of familiarity with game operations,” Kuhn wrote, “I do not think it is in the best interests of baseball (for him) to serve in the requested capacity.”
The gathering crowd booed the announcement.
Ted Turner prior to his one game as the Braves’ manager.
Turner had run afoul of Kuhn months earlier. In January 1977, the commissioner suspended Turner from baseball for one year for violating anti-tampering rules in the signing of free-agent outfielder Gary Matthews. (Turner’s offense? At a cocktail party, he told the San Francisco Giants’ owner that he’d sign Matthews at any cost.) Turner filed a lawsuit against Kuhn in March 1977, putting the suspension on hold.
He was awaiting a court ruling when he made himself manager. About a week later, a federal judge let stand the suspension of Turner, but overturned another part of the punishment that would have stripped the Braves of their first-round draft pick.
Turner spent most of his suspension at the America’s Cup yachting competition in Newport, R.I., “without people wondering why I wasn’t at the Braves games,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Managing the Braves for a day was a mere footnote in the career of a man who built a Superstation, won the America’s Cup, founded CNN, was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year (in 1991), donated $1 billion to support the United Nations, became the nation’s largest private landowner (until being surpassed by Liberty Media’s Malone) and, yes, still owned the Braves when they won the 1995 World Series. But Ted Turner’s one day as manager underscored the passion and the utter unpredictability that endeared him to many Braves fans.
Turner lost control of the Braves through two corporate mergers — first Turner Broadcasting’s with Time Warner, then Time Warner’s with AOL. Now 81, Turner disclosed in 2018 that he had been diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a progressive brain disease.
Back in 1977, the Braves wound up losing 101 games and again finished in last place. Bristol, who returned from his brief absence to resume his role as manager, was fired after the season.
At that point, the Braves replaced him with a far more conventional choice than the guy who took the job for a day in May. In November 1977, Turner’s Braves hired as their manager, for the first time, Bobby Cox.