Hardy souls attempting conversation with Atlanta Braves Owner Ted Turner sometimes experience the same sort of bafflement miscreants did in the old radio days when speaking with Lamont Cranston. Not that Turner, who at 37 is also a television tycoon and internationally renowned yachtsman, enjoys the "hypnotic power to cloud men's minds so that they could not see him," that Cranston did in the guise of The Shadow. It is just that he, too, is never where you think he is when you are talking to him.
Take last Friday. When first seen, Turner was seated behind his office desk at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, nattering on about how he planned to maintain a somewhat lower profile from now on, his concept of a low profile approximating Jimmy Carter's. Then, poof, he was gone, his voice audible from two rooms distant: "Hey, Hope, I've got an idea. Hope, where are you?" When Turner disappears, it is generally to seek out Bob Hope, his eternally patient and calamitously named director of public relations, promotions and ticket sales, and burden him with his latest mad scheme. On this occasion, for example, he wanted Hope to use the phrase "Not Too Shabby" on the stadium message board to commemorate some act of Brave heroism—"not too shabby" being a clubhouse expression Turner now affects. But even when Hope is unavailable, Turner, in discourse, is largely invisible. He is not actually seeking to escape; he simply is too restless to observe the unspoken rule that one should remain within eyesight as well as earshot.
Apparently, only the sight of a Brave in uniform will root him to one spot, for in one of his flights from his office last Friday he passed a window that looked out upon the playing field. Turner stopped and stood before it smiling proudly, like a father gazing on his first-born. "Isn't that great?" he said. "Just look at 'em. Have you ever seen a happier bunch of guys?" To the untrained observer, the Braves, who were taking batting practice, shagging flies and performing calisthenics, looked no more ecstatic than most ballplayers do at their chores. But Turner sees in these quite average players visions of greatness, and indeed, if they can bring him to a halt, even for a moment, there must be more to them than meets the eyes.
That night the Happiness Boys defeated the Mets 5-3 on eighth-inning run-scoring singles by Willie Montanez and Ken Henderson. Turner was in his box alongside the Braves dugout, lustily chewing Red Man tobacco (a vice he picked up from his players), rising to his feet in ecstasy over the most routine Braves plays and happily signing autographs for his neighbors in the stands while thanking them for taking the trouble to be there. He did not, however, make use of the public-address microphone he keeps handy for those occasions when he feels compelled to address the multitudes.
At the last out, he vaulted the railing onto the field before usher Walter Banks could open a gate for him. He met the victorious athletes as they jogged into the dugout, slapping hands and shouting, "Isn't it great?" In the clubhouse he gathered up an armful of beer cans and distributed them, cooing, "Awwwrriight," with the proper inflection, further indication of his assimilation of the language. He commiserated with Andy Messersmith on some unfavorable publicity the pitcher had received that day in an Atlanta newspaper. "The papers would screw up a two-car funeral," he advised the player who had struggled successfully against the reserve system. "I don't read the papers," replied Messersmith.
It is fashionable among baseball's newer owners to make themselves much more accessible to the public than their lordly predecessors. San Francisco Giants co-owner Bob Lurie sits among the fans, daily risking their displeasure over the team's cellar tenancy. Bill Veeck, on his return to the game, is the same lovable eccentric, and Ray Kroc of San Diego, Brad Corbett of Texas and George Steinbrenner of the Yankees are hardly reclusive. Not to mention Charlie O. But Ted Turner, who is tall, lean, mustachioed and handsome, makes them all seem about as gregarious as Garbo. Braves Outfielder Ken Henderson has said, "The things he's done have never been done before."
In Atlanta's first home game, Henderson himself was startled to discover that among those greeting him at home plate after his second-inning home run was his owner. Turner has also appeared on the field to help the ball girls sweep the bases between innings. At such times, he is not above dancing with them. Following Brave losses, he has collapsed atop the dugout, arms folded across his chest as if mortally wounded. On Memorial Day he finished second in a pre-game race of motorized bathtubs, grousing about being crowded on the backstretch, and then in the eighth inning, when San Diego scored six runs, he reached for his mike and announced, "Nobody is going to leave here a loser. If the Braves don't win tonight, I want you all here as my guests tomorrow. We're going to be in big league baseball for a long time, and one of these days we're gonna start beating hell out of those guys who've been beating hell out of us." Some 1,140 accepted his invitation for the next night, and watched the Braves win 9-1.
During another pre-game promotion, Turner entered into a collegiate mattress-stacking contest, throwing his own body onto the human pyramid. On July 26 he will ride an ostrich in a race against "allcomers," an event his long-suffering wife, Jane, has vowed to avoid watching, burying her head in infield dirt if necessary. At Turner's bidding, he and his players filmed a singing commercial for local television—"Come on out and see the Braves at your Atlanta teepee." Low profile?
Turner's dogged efforts to be considered one of the boys in the clubhouse have done more than impoverish his vocabulary and stain his teeth with tobacco juice. They have also gotten him in dutch with National League President Chub Feeney, who in May summoned Turner to his office in San Francisco and importuned him to cease playing poker with the players, to stop jumping onto the field during games, to abandon his plan to give his athletes incentive bonuses and, for Heaven's sake, to do something about the lettering on the back of Messersmith's uniform shirt.
The shirt tale is long, but it comes out well. Early in the season a fan complimented Turner on the team's new uniforms but deplored the omission of the players' names above the numbers on the backs of the shirts. Turner, new to baseball and its ways, was thunderstruck by this oversight. Most teams, he learned, do have the names of the players on the shirts. After the game he hurried into the clubhouse and announced that from now on the players would have their names sewn on like everyone else. The reaction to this news was virtually imperceptible, save by Messersmith. The pitcher, acquired a few days earlier for a million dollars or so, explained that his name was too long for his shirt. The "M" and the "H" would appear on the sleeves, possibly impeding his pitching motion. What to do? Messersmith proposed an alternative. Instead of surnames, why not use nicknames?
Within the week, the Braves took the field with such sobriquets as "Wimpy," "Gallo," "Prof," "Heavy," "Bird Dog" and "Mo" on their shirts. Messersmith appeared with "Channel" above his number. Andy (Channel) Messersmith? Can that be a nickname? No, the pitcher wears number 17 and Turner, by the merest coincidence, owns the Channel 17 TV station in Atlanta. The owner was delighted by his star's show of affection for him. The league president was not. By appearing with Channel 17 on his back, Messersmith was acting as a kind of ambulatory billboard, said Feeney, and baseball does not approve of such blatant advertising. The "Channel" was out, Messersmith replacing it with "Bluto," which he insists is his nickname, although it is also the name of Olive Oyl's perennial abductor in the Popeye cartoon.
The issue was rendered academic a few weeks later when Messersmith, once again taking the lead, suggested to his teammates that maybe wearing nicknames on their backs had jinxed them. Their record at home with nicknames was an appalling 3-13. The players, forever superstitious, agreed. Off went the lettering. Since that day in mid-June the Braves have won 11 and lost eight at home.
Turner has said he will always bend to his players' wishes in such matters, because they are all "very good friends of mine," even those, such as Darrell Evans and Marty Perez, whom he traded away. His affection may not always be reciprocated, particularly at contract time, but many players feel rewarded by the buddy system. "Sure, he's a millionaire with a new toy," says Outfielder Jimmy Wynn, whom Turner acquired from the successful but much less lovable Dodgers. "I think he's gonna be good for baseball. He stands up and tells the fans, 'Thank You.' And he's created a family atmosphere around here.
"When you think about it, why shouldn't we be a family? We eat and sleep together for nearly eight months out of the year. Ted Turner is an exciting guy. He wants to do everything to bring a winner to Atlanta."
Not all of his efforts are appreciated, though. When Turner purchased the Braves last January for $10 million, he was acclaimed by the Atlanta press as a savior. The fifth-place Braves had attracted only 534,672 fans at home in 1975, the lowest ever in their 10 years in Atlanta. The team had been up for sale, possibly to interests that would take it out of town. Turner, the hometown millionaire, arrived bubbling with enthusiasm. "Losersville, USA," he pledged, would soon become "Winnersville."
But he quickly ran afoul of the media by first firing the four-foot tall Donald Davidson as vice-president and traveling secretary, then demoting Executive Vice-President Eddie Robinson to consulting and scouting duties. Davidson, who joined the Braves nearly 40 years ago as a batboy, was a media darling, a drinking buddy of the reporters, the sort of "character" newsmen prize. Davidson almost immediately found a job with the Houston Astros and thanked Turner for inadvertently driving him to "the best job I've ever had."
Robinson was also popular with the press, which credited him with engineering the off-season player transactions that greatly improved this year's team. His replacement is John Alevizos, a soft-spoken former Red Sox executive, who has himself proved to be a competent wheeler-dealer with his acquisition of Montanez from San Francisco and Mike Marshall from Los Angeles. But Turner's treatment of Davidson and Robinson seemed unusually lacking in compassion for an owner supposedly bursting with goodwill.
Turner's reputation for affability is well-earned, but as baseball fans are now learning and business associates and fellow yachtsmen have always known, he can be tough. He is at his most truculent on the telephone, as was illustrated recently by a conversation he had with another television executive who had overlooked Turner's station in the bidding for a new program. The poor man was treated to the full Turner repertoire of avowed reprisals and laments of bad faith: "We go back a long damn ways.... We're your biggest customers south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of California.... There's gonna be some butts roasted before this is over.... You haven't done right by a dear old friend who's always done right by you.... I'll be in your office tomorrow at one and you better have everyone there...." Was the show, some sort of country music vehicle, all that valuable, Turner was asked. "Oh, it's probably crummy," he said. "I'm not even sure I want it."
Turner, educated in private schools in Chattanooga and at Brown University, inherited his father's outdoor advertising business 13 years ago and has since expanded it to include, by his count, "two television stations, two radio stations, two outdoor advertising agencies, one electric sign company, one direct marketing company, six baseball teams (the Braves and their farm clubs), one stadium club and a partridge in a pear tree."
Besides his gift for baseball lingo, Turner has a formidable command of aphorisms, dropping freely such pithy observations as "Anyone who can run a ballclub can run General Motors" or "I don't feel like a big mucky-muck and I know four kings on a first-name basis" and "Some things don't need changing—the sunrise doesn't need changing, moonlight doesn't need changing, azaleas don't need changing, baseball doesn't need changing."
For a man who believes in the immutability of azaleas and the national pastime, Turner has done much to change the Braves. Of last year's starting lineup only Rowland Office in center field remains and, at 23, he looks to be around a while longer. From May 23 to June 24 he assembled a 29-game hitting streak, the longest in the National League this year. But newer people have made significant contributions, too. Montanez, unhappy in San Francisco, has driven in more runs in 28 games with the Braves than he did in 60 with the Giants. Marshall, unhappy in Los Angeles, has five saves in 12 games with the Braves as against eight in 30 with the Dodgers. And Messersmith, who missed all of spring training after liberating himself from his Dodger contract and shopping for a new owner, has returned to the form that has made him one of the game's finest pitchers. Tom Paciorek, another Dodger refugee, is hitting .331, and Darrel Chaney, a former Red bench-warmer, is hitting .261 and fielding brilliantly as a full-time shortstop.
After a bleak early season, during which they lost 13 straight games, the Braves have rebounded to within five games of .500. Manager Dave Bristol, a tough Southerner, says the improvement will be even more pronounced in the second half of the season. "We've made some changes and we'll make one or two more," he says. "I've gotten to know the players and they've gotten to know me. There is a good attitude on this club, and the front office backs you all the way."
Turner has promoted furiously. On Sunday, nine couples were married in a mass ceremony on the field before a come-from-behind 9-8 win over the Mets, and professional wrestling bouts were held afterward. Oddly enough, Turner was involved in neither attraction, although he had offered to wrestle sportswriter Frank Hyland of The Atlanta Journal, one of his proposed opponents in the ostrich race. Whatever he does, the fans seem to have responded to the Turner brand of show biz. In half a season, the team has drawn within 28,000 of last year's total attendance.
As a youngster, Turner played little baseball, preferring sailing, hunting and fishing. Until he bought the Braves he had seen but 20 games in his lifetime, and he did not become interested in the team until his television station began broadcasting the games. Such esoterica as the balk and the infield fly rule were beyond him. But he is learning. Before his recent low-profile decision, he made all the road trips with the team, asking questions of other owners and general managers, checking out stadium operations and polishing his knowledge of the rules.
He decided to disengage himself slightly in the belief that his fraternization with the players only added to the pressures on them. "They were actually trying too hard," he concluded. This past month he took several weeks off to race boats in Bermuda and Norway, though he was continually on the phone, asking for the scores.
Few fans are more vocal and physically active than the Braves' owner. He will even battle his seat-mates for foul pops in the stands. They seem to love him all the more for his involvement. During Friday's game, Turner was approached by a pudgy man in shorts and a rugby shirt. "I just want to thank you, Mr. Turner," the visitor said. "I want to thank you for the great job you're doing for the city of Atlanta."
Turner seemed touched by the tribute. "Thank you," he said and then turned to his wife. "Isn't that great?" He glanced up at the stadium message board. The words were there bold and clear: "Not Too Shabby."
"Awwrriight," said Turner. "Where's that Hope?" And then he was out of sight again.