- Doug Williams
- 0 Shares
Ted Turner was the "Mouth of the South," "Terrible Ted" and "Captain Outrageous," a brash, outspoken business mogul who had a golden touch.
He launched the first successful cable news network with CNN, sailed to victory in the America's Cup and used his cable empire to turn his Atlanta Braves into "America's Team."
But 36 years ago this month, Turner discovered there was one thing he couldn't do: manage his own baseball team.
After the 38-year-old Turner put on a Braves uniform and stepped into the dugout to manage his tanking team for one game on May 11, 1977, National League president Chub Feeney, supported by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, gave him the thumb. Anyone who owned stock in a team was forbidden to manage it, they told him.
"They must have put that rule in yesterday," Turner told a reporter the next day. "If I'm smart enough to save $11 million to buy the team, I ought to be smart enough to manage it."
• • •
Turner decided to skipper the Braves' ship because it was sinking. The Braves had lost 16 straight. A doubleheader sweep by the Pirates in Pittsburgh on May 10 dropped Atlanta to 8-21.
So the following afternoon, Turner told manager Dave Bristol to take 10 days off. He would manage the team for a while to see what was going wrong.
The move took the players and coaches by surprise. It also took Kuhn and Feeney by surprise -- Turner hadn't informed them, either.
Braves infielder Darrel Chaney, who was close with Bristol, remembers getting a call in his hotel room from his manager, asking him to meet him in the lobby.
"He said, 'I've just been fired for two weeks,'" says Chaney. "I said, 'What?' 'I've been fired for two weeks, come on down here.' I went down and he told me, 'Turner wants to find out what's wrong with the club so he's letting me go. I'll be back in two weeks.'
"So I went over to the ballpark later and the word was just starting to break. Before the game, everyone knew. And then Ted came in and put his uniform on, and it was 'Can you believe this?' It was something."
Braves pitcher Phil Niekro, who was due to start that night's game against John Candelaria at Three Rivers Stadium, was used to being around the Braves' owner. Often Turner would come into the clubhouse before and after games to talk baseball, and occasionally went on road trips with the team.
But on this day, Turner was on the field in a blue-and-white Braves uniform, wearing No. 27.
"I just got through swinging in the cage, and I came out and walked behind the batting cage for the next round and Ted came out of the dugout and he walked behind the batting cage," says Niekro, a Hall of Famer who would win 318 games in a 24-year career. "I looked at him and jokingly I said, 'Ted, what spot you got me hitting in today?' And he said, 'Hell, I don't know. You want to lead off? You want to hit second or third? We just lost 16 in a row. You've been around here long enough. Hit wherever you want to.'
"I said, ‘I don't think that's going to work, Ted. Put me in that ninth spot.'"
It was a crash course in managing for Turner, who leaned on third-base coach Vern Benson and bullpen coach Chris Cannizzaro, who spent part of his time in the dugout that night.
Though Turner was the manager and had final say, Benson was de facto manager that night, says Cannizzaro.
"Vern and myself tried to explain things to him, 'You can do this, you can't do that,'" recalls Cannizzaro, 75, who now lives in San Diego. "I didn't know anything about if it was legal or not [for Turner to manage], but apparently it wasn't, and he found that out the next day."
Cannizzaro liked Turner and says that "one-on-one, he was one of the nicest guys I ever met." But like the other coaches on the staff, he was angry that Bristol had been booted.
"But you have to do what you have to do," he says of that night. "You can't say, 'Ted, you made a mistake,' or something like that. He's the man."
Chaney remembers looking over into the Pittsburgh dugout and seeing the Pirates looking over to check out what Ted was up to. He also remembers watching Turner watch Pirates manager Chuck Tanner.
"Back then, everybody's chewing tobacco, so Ted had a big ol' chaw in his mouth and he was kind of looking over there," he says. "It looked to me that every time Tanner would cross his legs, Turner would cross his legs, you know? Like he was trying to figure out what to do."
• • •
There weren't a lot of moves to be made that night. The Pirates scored runs in the first and third innings and won 2-1 to extend the Braves' losing streak to 17 games.
Niekro pitched a complete game, and Turner -- or Benson -- didn't use a pinch hitter until the ninth inning.
There was no doubt Turner wanted to win, though. Chaney says Turner was a "rah-rah kind of guy" that night, clapping his hands and yelling encouragement.
"He wanted to win the game," says Chaney. "He wanted to win everything."
Niekro doesn't remember much about Turner's demeanor, because he was focused on his pitching.
"I think he just wanted to see what the reaction of all the players was in the clubhouse and the dugout," says Niekro, 74. "If we were winning and losing, the morale if we had it, and all that stuff."
In the top of the ninth inning, with the Braves needing a run to keep the game alive, Turner surprised Chaney, calling on the switch-hitter to pinch hit against the left-handed Candelaria.
"I wasn't much of a hitter, but I had never been asked to pinch hit right-handed in my whole career," says Chaney, 65, who lives near Atlanta. "So we get in that ninth inning and we get a guy on base and Turner says, 'Chaney, grab a bat.' I looked over at my roommate, Rod Gilbreath, and I said, 'Can you believe this?'"
But Chaney ripped a pitch to deep left-center field, the ball hitting the artificial surface and bouncing over the wall for a ground-rule double. On a dirt surface, the ball would likely have stayed in the park and the runner would have scored from first, says Chaney.
But Tanner then brought in Goose Gossage to close out the game, stranding runners on second and third.
"I can remember coming off the field, and of course 17 in a row is hard to take," says Chaney. "And Ted was walking into the clubhouse and, just as loud as he always was, 'How you like that move, I put Chaney in there!' We had lost the game. 'How you like that move putting Chaney in there, hitting that double!' you know."
After the game, Turner held court with reporters, and showed everyone the check he'd received for meal money that day.
But that would be his one and only day as a big league manager.
The next day, with Benson managing, the Braves won 6-1 to end the streak. Bristol was back for the next game -- when the Braves lost again en route to a 61-101 season.
A year later, Turner told a writer for Playboy magazine that he just wanted to see from the dugout what was going wrong.
"When things are gong bad, there are 10,000 guys in the stands who think, 'If I could just take over this ballclub for a while, I'd straighten them out,'" said Turner, who owned the team until 1996. "But Kuhn said I couldn't manage again. I asked him if it was OK if I went and managed in the minors for a year and really learned how to do it. He said, 'Nope.'"
To the Braves, Turner was unlike any owner in baseball. Niekro loved him for the way he didn't put on airs, showing up in the clubhouse after games in shorts and sandals. Cannizzaro knew Turner would do anything to bring people to the ballpark. And Chaney knew Turner always wanted to win, no matter what.
One of his lasting visions: Turner beating the Phillies' Tug McGraw in a race to see who could be first to push a baseball (reports at the time say it was an egg) up the baseline with his nose.
"It was really funny, because Ted got down on all fours to start rolling the ball with his nose, and Tug never did do anything," Chaney recalls. "He just stayed. When Ted got up from rolling the ball he had blood from his forehead all the way down the top of his nose. ... Those kinds of things he wanted to win, even something like that. He was all out."