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Ranking Executives for the HOF: #3 – Ted Turner

8th August 2006

He’s been called “The Mouth from the South”, raced and won the America’s Cup, then showed up to the press conference drunk. He also founded CNN and TBS, which made him a media mogul.

Along the way, he has redefined Major League Baseball in terms of television broadcasting and created the seed for the now common regional sports network.

His road to media prominence started in 1963 at the age of 24 when his father committed suicide leaving Ted with his father’s billboard advertising business, Turner Outdoor Advertising, valued at that time at $1 million. In January of 1970, Turner shifted toward television by purchasing a UHF station in the Atlanta metro area with callsign WJRJ, which eventually became WTBS Channel 17 in 1979. It was one of the first stations that broadcast via satellite, thus starting the cable revolution.

Along the way, he purchased the floundering Atlanta Braves, along with the NBA Atlanta Falcons in 1976. In the case of the Braves he almost immediately became a maverick.

Turner also set about changing the face of baseball — most likely forever — by broadcasting the Braves on his cable station WTBS, where they marketed the team as “The Atlanta Braves: America’s Team”.

The Lords of Baseball were concerned about the reach of cable broadcasting. They went to Bill Bartholomay, a hold over from the prior ownership who was retained as chairman, and asked him to get a letter of intent from Turner on the matter of broadcast cable beyond his market. He replied, “It is Turner Communications’ and my personal intention to comply with the best interest of baseball in all matters, including baseball’s collective posting on cable television.” Obviously, he broke with that written intent.

Six months after taking the helm, Turner had a laundry list of “transgressions” that no fine upstanding member of the Lodge would ever undertake in.

  • He signed Andy Messersmith for $1 million and then promptly gave him #17 with the word “Channel” on the back of his jersey making Messersmith walking advertisement.
  • Once, when the Braves blew a 9th inning lead, Turner grabbed the mic for the PA and announced, “Nobody is going to leave here a loser. If the Braves don’t win here tonight, I want you all here as my guests tomorrow.”
  • He brought in a minister to lead the crowd in prayer during a losing streak, which failed.
  • He created an incentive system for the players. For every win over .500 at the end of the season he’d give each player a $500 bonus; for every 100,000 in attendance over 900,000 they’d get an additional 5% over their base pay.

And it didn’t stop there…

On May 11, 1977, Turner appointed himself manager, but was ordered to relinquish that position after one game due to MLB rules that forbid managers from holding a financial stake in any club they managed for. He continued to raise the ire of the Lords of Baseball, most notably National League President, Chub Feeney.

Feeney called Turner on the carpet, told him to remove “Channel” from Messersmith’s jersey, and stop the incentive pay as it broke with the CBA. He did so, begrudgingly.

Still, he couldn’t help himself, at one point blaring to Bill Giles, “I’m gonna conquer the world with television!” He also famously said at one owners’ meeting, “Gentlemen, we have the only legal monopoly in the country and we’re f#@*ing it up.”

The fans loved him and his aggressive style with player acquisition (in ’76 the Braves were fined $10,000 by Commissioner Kuhn for approaching the Giants outfielder Gary Matthews directly, a player the Braves dearly wanted, and eventually got) that started the Braves, albeit slowly, out of the mediocrity column.

The Braves long reach through cable finally got the rest of the owners in an uproar. MLB tried time after time to get Congress to scrap “Super Stations.” Kuhn would square off against Turner, and in every instance Kuhn was out matched by the Mouth from the South.

He was entertaining, none the less. Bowie Kuhn said of him, “They’d [the owners] would watch in fascination and some with affection. He was sort of an enchanting kid.”

In 1996, Atlanta hosted the Summer Olympics. The main venue constructed for the event was 85,000 seat Centennial Olympic Stadium. Immediately after the 1996 Summer Paralympics were held there, much of the north end of stadium was demolished to convert it to a 45,000-seat baseball facility.

In 1997, the Braves moved in and Turner Field was christened. Since that time, it has had the fond nickname The Ted.

In 1995, something that hadn’t happened since the Braves left Milwaukee occurred: they won the World Series. Turner, clad in Braves gear took the field and hoisted the trophy. While having an unbelievable run of 11 consecutive playoff appearances (’95-’05) and 14 appearances in total since 1990, they have not won a World Series since.

1995 also marked a change for Turner and the Braves.

On September 22, 1995, Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. announced plans to merge with Time Warner Inc. The merger was completed on October 10, 1996, with Turner as vice chairman, head of Time Warner’s cable networks division. In 2000 Time Warner merges with AOL.

In 2003, with AOL bleeding million of dollars in red, Turner stepped down as vice chair. Since that point he has been the listed on Board of Directors with the Braves. Since Time Warner has taken over the Braves, the team has always been in the hunt, but seems to lack the firey brilliance when Turner was directly at the helm.

For Turner’s profound impact on how MLB approaches television, and for his ability to gain The Ted and the ’95 World Series for the Braves, Turner slides in easily as my #3 of those that should be in the Hall of Fame as Executive one day.

SOURCES:

  • Lords of the Realm – John Helyar
  • Wikipedia
  • Numerous news article found through miracle of Google.

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