The Win Machine

When it comes to meddling owners, Jeffrey Loria's got nothing on Ted Turner

AP Photo

On May 12, 1977, the Atlanta Braves broke out the champagne. Really. Champagne. They had beaten the Pittsburgh Pirates, 6-1, which broke two streaks. First, it broke the Pirates 11-game winning streak, but that wasn’t the important part. The champagne came out because it broke the Braves’ remarkable 17-game losing streak.

“Let’s play again right now!” Braves outfielder Jeff Burroughs said as he drank the victory champagne.

“We’re going to win 17 in a row!” Rowland Office shouted.

“It’s like we just won the World Series around here,” said the Braves public-relations director whose name (this, like everything you will read here, will sound like fiction but is 100 percent true) was Bob Hope.

And then there was this classic bit from Max Leon, a Venezuelan pitcher who picked up the win and drove in three runs:

“You win, you happy. You lose, you sad. You lose 17 times, you very sad.”

Yes, it was one big party … and in the next room to the clubhouse, in the manager’s office, there was no manager. But the man who would be manager listened happily.

“Geez,” said Ted Turner, “it sounds like Christmas Eve. The war is over.”

With Miami Marlins owner Jeffey Loria off on his latest bizarre quest to make his team worse and less likable — this time, he fired his manager minutes after a game and replaced him with Dan Jennings, his general manager and one-time Davidson High School skipper in Mobile, Ala. — it’s worth remembering the wackiest owner-manager trick ever pulled.

Loria: We’re supposed to be the Fish, not flounders  |  Calcaterra: This is a terrible idea

Understand, the Braves’ 17-game losing streak in 1977 wasn’t like any other in modern baseball history. Well, hey, that Braves team wasn’t quite like any other team. Ted Turner had just bought the team, and he was certifiable. He made all kinds of big moves in the offseason. He was suing the league so as not to be suspended. He labeled his team (which had gone 70-92 the year before) “The Win Machine.” He also had Braves billboards put all over town with the slogan he had personally come up with: “Not Too Shabby.”

But, you know, it was kind of shabby. The team started off 8-5, getting everyone a bit too excited, and then the losing began. And it was breathtaking losing. 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.

During one loss, Braves reliever Mike Marshall was pulled out of the game by manager Dave Bristol. Marshall responded by bowling the baseball toward second base and then he threw a bat from out of the dugout onto the field. He did not show up the next day. “Dave just has different philosophies from mine,” Marshall said. “That’s fine, he’s the boss. … But I have things to do other than sit on the bench and watch baseball games.”

During another loss, the Braves showed a replay of a close play on the new $1.5 million dollar video board Turner had purchased basically to embarrass umpires. Turner insisted, of course, that he did not want to embarrass umpires at all; he even had his staff put up a video message saying: “Please be considerate of our friends the umpires on any close calls shown on this board.” It was quite shocking to find that fans actually were not that considerate. After this time, the umpire walked off the field, leading baseball to ban replays of close plays (a ban that lasted for decades*).

*Funny thing how Turner’s video board anticipated instant replay in baseball a quarter-century later. But here’s something even crazier — one of those weird things that you run across during research that doesn’t really fit anywhere else but is too good not to mention. That year, National League president Chub Feeney kept pushing one of his lifelong baseball goals — interleague play. “I’ve advocated interleague play for years and I’m not going to stop now,” he said. “But I’ve got to say it’s far off — about 20 years away.

Exactly 20 years later, in 1997, baseball added interleague play. Feeney, unfortunately, did not live to see it. He died in 1994.

After the no-replay ban was put in place, reporters asked Turner what was left to show on his hugely expensive video screen. He did not hesitate.

“We’ll show X-rated movies,” Turner said. “We have kiddie days all the time … why not have an adult day with no one under 18 admitted without parental consent?”

Yeah, baseball was not crazy about Ted Turner. The commissioner then was Bowie Kuhn, and Kuhn was famously thin-skinned anyway — he was constantly flexing his muscles and throwing out disproportionate penalties (remind you of anyone?) And so during the streak, Turner went to court to fight the one-year suspension Kuhn had dropped on him for tampering with Gary Mathews before Matthews became a free agent. What was this tampering? At a party, Turner had told Giants owner Bob Lurie that he would sign Matthews “at any cost.” Then, he did actually sign Matthews at a very high cost. Lurie was outraged. Kuhn wanted blood. It went to court. The court refused to step in, but at least we got one fun exchange when baseball’s attorney went after Turner a bit too heatedly during cross-examination.

“Keep that up,” Turner said, “and when this is over you’ll get a knuckle sandwich.” This was shortly before he went into a delightful “Baseball is like the mafia” rant for reporters.

Oh, yes, it was one big looney-tunes adventure in Atlanta. After the eighth straight loss, Bristol gulped: “I’m doing all I can. I just don’t know what else I can do.”

After the 10th straight loss, Turner was admonished by — of all people — George Steinbrenner. “Nobody forced Ted Turner to buy the Braves,” Steinbrenner said. “We’re all over legal age and of reasonable intelligence. And when we bought these teams, we knew what the rules were.”

After the 14th straight loss, Turner said this: “I’ve got a cocked pistol in my hand. Who can I give the Braves to in my last will and testament?”

Turner then skipped out on a sailing vacation to join the team in Pittsburgh and see what the heck was going wrong. He sat behind the Braves dugout and watched his team lose a doubleheader. That made it 16 losses in a row. “I’d do anything to help us win,” a beleaguered Bristol told the press after the game.

Turner could not hold back now. He called Bristol into his hotel room the next day. Bristol fully expected to get fired. But Turner did not fire him. Instead, he told Bristol to take 10 days off, do a little reflection and maybe go scout the minor league teams.

“Who is going to manage the club?” Bristol asked.

“I will,” Ted Turner said.

“He owns the team, that’s his prerogative,” Bristol told reporters after the meeting. “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.”

Turner made it clear from the start — he would be manager in name only. He planned to let his coaches, Vern Benson and Chris Cannizzaro, make most of the baseball decisions. But Ted Turner felt like he knew people, and he wanted to understand what was happening with his players. He was coming to the rescue.

“It seems like I had done all I could sitting up in the stands,” he told reporters. “I wanted to see what it’s like down in the trenches. … When you’re setting records for losing streaks, it doesn’t hurt to change things.”

And then Turner offered another one of his classic quotes: “If things get sour in your love life,” he said, “you go get a new hairdo, don’t you?”

Man, sportswriters had all the fun guys to write about back in the 1970s.

There are so many fun parts to this, one being that the Braves were so far gone at that point that the players seemed perfectly in tune with Turner’s decision to give his manager a midseason vacation and become the skipper himself.

“You never know what to expect when you’re an Atlanta Brave,” Burroughs said with a shrug.

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

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

“Everyone on the team loves the guy,” Barry Bonnell said.

Think about that: The players were fine with it. At that point, having Ted Turner manage the team made about as much sense as anything else.The Braves lost the Ted Turner game, 2-1, which, to be fair, was about as close as they had come to winning in weeks. Pittsburgh’s Dave Parker homered in the third inning to give the Pirates the 2-1 lead. The Braves got a leadoff double in the fifth from Barry Bonnell, and he was moved to third by Phil Niekro’s bunt, but the Braves couldn’t score.

Then, in the ninth, Vic Correll singled, Turner had Darrel Chaney pinch-hit — and he crushed a ball that would have scored Correll. But the ball hopped over the fence for a ground-rule double.

“I know what a ground-rule double is,” Turner said when asked afterward about the bad break. “I’m not stupid.”

Then Goose Gossage came in and struck out Rowland Office to end the nonsense.

“The only stupid thing I did,” Turner said, “was buy the franchise.”

How about one more great Ted Turner quote? When asked his favorite part of managing, he said it was that he got to just spit out his chewing tobacco. “In the stands,” he said, “you need a cup.”

Then came even more fun as Major League Baseball lost its bleepin’ minds over this. On May 12, 1977 — the day the Braves broke that losing streak with champagne — they technically did not have a manager. MLB had banned Turner because, Chub Feeney said, anybody who has financial interest in the team must get special approval from the commissioner to play or manage for the team. Of course, the chances of Bowie Kuhn granting Turner special permission were … well, more or less the chances of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell overturning the Tom Brady punishment. But Turner made a good show of it.

“I won’t be bad for baseball,” he pleaded. “You know, I’m through fooling around.”

“If you’re smart enough to make $11 million to buy a ball club, you ought to be smart enough to run it,” he said a bit more angrily.

“This is like a man buying a new car and then being told by the president of General Motors that he can’t drive it,” was his big conclusion.

Baseball responded with similarly stupid counter-arguments. “It’s not the contract,” Feeney told reporters. “It’s the relative inexperience of the man managing the team that I’m concerned about.” Yeah, that was the problem: Turner’s inexperience.

Anyway, the next night Atlanta, the public address announcer read the telegram sent by Bowie Kuhn to Ted Turner. “Given Mr. Turner’s lack familiarity with game operations,” Kuhn had written, “I do not think it is in the best interests of baseball to serve in the requested capacity.”

The crowd booed angrily. Ted Turner responded as only he could.

“Am I crazy?” he asked. “Am I the only sane man or am I the only nut?”