It was College Night at Atlanta Stadium last Friday, and a raucous crowd of 20,000 turned out, not so much to watch the last-place Braves perform as to see if that eternal sophomore, Atlanta owner Ted Turner, would do what he had done in Pittsburgh two nights earlier—put on a uniform and manage his team.
Not since the days of Connie Mack had an owner prowled the dugout calling his own shots during a game, but Turner had been desperate. After all, his team had lost 16 games in a row.
There are sanctions against such a dual role. Baseball Rule 20-E, which wasn't intended to apply to a case like Turner's, forbids an individual from managing a team in which he owns stock, because it might result in a conflict of interest. But Turner is an impetuous sort who pays little attention to rules or higher authority. When he decided that the best way to stop the Braves' streak was to relieve Dave Bristol of his duties and put on the manager's cap himself, Turner consulted neither National League President Chub Feeney nor Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
"Take 10 days off," said Turner after summoning Bristol to his Pittsburgh hotel room. "I'm seeing too many long faces. We've got to take the pressure off. You go scout the farm system. I'll manage the team."
"You're crazy," said Bristol in reply, "but go right ahead. It's your team."
Although managers in Japan are sometimes given leaves of absence for prayer and meditation, Bristol had no interest in establishing that practice in the U.S. Feeling thoroughly humiliated, he headed home to Andrews, N.C., where he could ride his horses and not have to say what he really thought about the affair.
Turner reminded those critical of his decision that he, too, has been humiliated—by the Braves' pathetic play. He had sat still during a similar period of ineptitude last season, when Atlanta started out 8-5 under Bristol, just as it had this year, only to lose its next 13 in a row. And so, though he has no more managerial savvy than might be expected of a millionaire TV executive whose two sons play in the Little League, Turner put on a gray Atlanta road jersey with No. 27 on the back and led the Braves onto the field Wednesday night against the Pirates.
At 38 he still looked young enough to pass for a major-leaguer—an aging veteran, perhaps, like the erstwhile ace of the Braves' pitching staff, Phil Niekro, who is just a few months younger than Turner but undoubtedly feels a good deal older after beginning this season with a 0-7 record. But there was something about the awkward manner in which Turner ran wind sprints, the long, prematurely gray hair straggling from beneath his cap and his thin Howard Hughes-type mustache that revealed him to be an impostor. Even Connie Mack, a good player in his day, had the sense to put on a dark suit and a straw hat once he settled in as owner-manager.
By the crudest of fates, Pittsburgh brought a 10-game winning streak into Three Rivers Stadium and, needless to say, the Pirates were anything but daunted by the unfamiliar figure in the Atlanta dugout. The final score was a respectable 2-1, but the loss extended the Braves' streak to 17—the fourth longest of all time and within six of the major league record. During the defeat Turner did nothing more dramatic than run out to the third-base coach's box to confer with Vern Benson about pinch hitters. Yet by the next morning, sports pages all over the country had made Teddy Ballgame, as Ted Williams often referred to himself and as the Atlanta writers now call Turner, big news. That brought Feeney, an old adversary, into the fracas.
When Turner purchased the Braves last year from a group of absentee owners known in Atlanta as "the Chicago 12," he quickly turned a moribund franchise into one of the liveliest in either league. He dreamed up zany promotions, including motorized bathtub racing, and even took part in a mattress-stacking contest.