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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?