Anyone who has met a Braves fan in Boise, Idaho, has Ted Turner to credit. After purchasing the Atlanta Braves, Turner’s satellite television superstations offered the first nationwide sports telecast and made Braves fans out of people all over the United States, while setting a model for sports broadcasting in the twenty-first century.
Robert Edward Turner III (“Ted”) was born on November 19, 1938, in Cincinnati. He grew up in an affluent family: His father, Edward Turner, owned a billboard advertising company. Young Turner’s childhood was filled with loneliness that would eventually translate into youth rebellion.1 Still, out of tragedy, Turner took over his father’s small company and transformed it into a multibillion-dollar television empire.
Turner spent most of childhood growing up alone. Having lived with his grandparents for most of his adolescence while his father served in the military during World War II, his parents sent Ted to boarding school at the age of 6. While Ted was never close with his mother Florence, the family reunited in Cincinnati after the war while Ed established his billboard advertising company. Facing increased competition for advertising in the Ohio market, Ed moved the family to Georgia, where he had seen poorly designed billboards during the war.2 After the move, Ted was shipped off again, this time to the Georgia Military Academy. The young Northerner failed to fit in with the rest of the students and antagonized his peers. In one instance, he called Robert E. Lee a “traitor” and faced torment by his angry peers.3 During the summers, Ted worked at his father’s thriving advertising company. In 1950, as he entered the sixth grade, his father enrolled him at the McCallie School, the top prep school in the area. He continued his mischievous behavior resulting in a long disciplinary record and an average academic performance.4
Regardless of his C average, Turner gained acceptance into Brown University in 1956. Unlike McCallie or the Georgia Military Academy, Turner was not bound by strict institutional rules, but he stayed out of trouble despite his habit for partying.5 He also found a passion for the sea. In his spare time at the university, Ted sailed with his college friends. Additionally, he joined the Coast Guard Reserve. But Turner’s time at Brown was limited as he broke one of the university’s few rules (the one prohibiting women from staying in male students’ rooms). Brown expelled him and subsequently Turner rejoined his Coast Guard Reserve unit for the remainder of his duty before accepting a managerial position at his father’s company.
Through his service in the Coast Guard, Turner met his first wife, Judy Nye. He asked her to join him as he competed in the National Flyer sailing competition. Ted won the National Flyer, his first major sailing championship, and married Judy two weeks after the competition, on June 23, 1960, in Chicago. Returning to work at his father’s company, Turner excelled in the advertising business. He credited his ancestry for his success in saying, “[I got] my work ethic from the Germans, and my colorfulness from the French and the British. My judgment and conservatism from the Dutch.”6 Most importantly, despite his rebellious youthful behavior, Turner desired to please his father.7
However, tragedy struck in 1963. Ed Turner’s recent acquisition of General Outdoor Advertising Co. left him with a significant amount of debt. The burden of the financial challenges facing the company proved too much for Ed and he committed suicide six months after the acquisition.8 While his father had reservations about handing the company over to his relatively inexperienced son, his will gave Ted the company.9
Turner led the company through the financial challenges and established a sense of urgency within the organization to look for new business opportunities.10 The cash flow each month was enough to cover the debts, but instead of reinvesting the money into billboards, Turner invested in his future ventures in radio and television.11 While he remained focused on the business, the stress of his father’s suicide and relationship with his wife deteriorated. Judy and Ted divorced in 1964. Turner and Jane Shirley Smith, a Delta Airlines stewardess whom he met at a Young Republicans gathering, were married on June 2, 1964.12 Turner also began aggressively pursuing his passion for sailing. He competed at the Savannah Yacht Club and even entered in the Olympic trials that year. Balancing his life between sailing and managing the company, by 1970 he had paid off most of the company’s debts and it remained profitable.13
Two years earlier in 1968, facing bankruptcy, the Atlanta-based Rice Broadcasting Inc. sought to sell its local TV station, WJRJ-TV.14 The station used UHF signals to broadcast, which at the time could only reach about five percent of area TV viewers.15 However, UHF broadcasting was on the rise and in 1970 Turner hopped on the opportunity to purchase the company. Seeing television as the future of advertising, he used his billboards to advertise for the station.16 In the first year, the station lost nearly a million dollars, surviving on the revenues generated by billboards.17 In 1972 Turner hired a consultant, Kent Burkhart, to find ways to increase viewership of television. Burkhardt advised taking advantage of the launch of Satcom I, a communications satellite, into space.18 Satellites transmit TV signals into remote and rural areas, are not affected by weather, and remained cheaper to use than installing equipment to support the current cable infrastructure. HBO became the first company to use satellites to broadcast its signal, and by 1976 Turner’s WTCG followed. In just two years, WTCG reached nearly two million households and increased the value of the station to $40 million.19
With his expanded footprint in American homes, Turner saw a great business opportunity to expand sports. Turner had previously worked out a deal with the Braves to broadcast games on WTCG. He then resold the broadcasting rights in 24 other states, creating a network for Braves baseball across the South, the largest such network in the country.20 With a monopoly on the media rights for the team and plunging attendance, Turner purchased the ballclub along with the Atlanta Hawks basketball team. With his ability to broadcast anywhere in the country after the satellite purchase, the Braves received increased national attention. Locally, Turner gained publicity with bold comments including, “I don’t want to see any more ‘Loserville’ headlines in the paper. … Getting into the World Series within the next five years is my objective.”21
Turner proved to be an owner unlike any other baseball had seen, though he knew little about the game before purchasing the team.22 Sports pundits wondered aloud about who got the worst deal when the Braves fell to sixth place in Turner’s first year, and the owner himself sparked more media interest than the players. According to Braves player Phil Niekro, “There’s never been an owner like him. He enjoys it more than anyone in the ballpark. He’d really like to put on a uniform and play in the game.”23 Turner started his inaugural year in 1976 by rankling fellow owners with his signing of hurler Andy Messersmith. The Dodgers ace and Orioles pitcher Dave McNally had won free agency through a legal challenge to Organized Baseball’s reserve clause. While other owners reeled from the stunning legal decision, Turner penned Messersmith to a multiyear deal worth more than $1 million, a huge salary increase for a player considered one of the top pitchers in the league.24 In midseason Turner unveiled plans for a new television “superstation,” WTBS TV 17, to be broadcast via satellite from Atlanta, with Braves games at the core of its programing. The maverick owner then gave Messersmith uniform number 17 and the nickname “Channel” which was sewn above his uniform number. National League President Chub Feeney chastised the brash millionaire for his advertising ploy, but Turner gained national exposure for his team, increasing viewership and game attendance.25
The following year, in 1977, Turner tried to finesse baseball’s free agency again by agreeing to a deal with San Francisco outfielder Gary Matthews before Matthews’ contract with the Giants had expired. Already looked down upon by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and the other club owners, Kuhn suspended Turner for a year and fined him for contract tampering.26 Turner fought the decision in court and remained in control of the team. On May 11, 1977, with the Braves already in a losing streak, Turner further complicated the controversy when he appointed himself manager of the failing Braves. He relieved manager Dave Bristol and stepped into the dugout himself in full uniform. He presented his move as an attempt to get closer to his investment so he could see what the managerial job entailed before choosing Bristol’s replacement.27 The next day, the National League disallowed the move, reinstating Bristol. Later in the year, the league denied Turner’s appeal regarding his suspension and his sentence began. After Bristol finished the 1977 season, the Braves hired New York Yankees coach Bobby Cox as manager to help rebuild the team.
After Turner was reinstated with the Braves, he continued to balance a hectic schedule between growing his media empire, sailing in the America’s Cup competition, and serving an active role with the baseball team. With Cox selecting players, the owner invested heavily in promising talent, though the strategy did not pay off in the standings. Despite Turner’s victory in the America’s Cup in 1977, the Braves on the field did not replicate his seagoing success. In 1978, the team finished last in the standings, but attendance had doubled since Turner purchased the team and television viewership continued to increase, all contributing to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s market valuation of Turner’s company at over $50 million.28
With the success of his superstations, Turner saw another opportunity for the future of television. Just has he had brought baseball to more people by increasing broadcasting; he applied the same model to round-the-clock broadcasting of news. In the 1980s, Turner rebranded his WTBS-TV to Cable News Network (CNN), capable of reaching nearly 26 million households and placing the network on a par audiencewide with ABC News.29
After the 1981 season, Bobby Cox left the team to manage the Toronto Blue Jays. The talent that Turner and Cox had assembled synched well with new skipper Joe Torre in 1982. The Braves started the season with 13 straight wins for the best start in league history. Midway into the season the team looked as if it had the pennant already clinched. Instead, the Braves slumped in the worst imaginable way, losing 19 of 21 games and plummeting as the Giants and Dodgers gained ground. The three-way pennant race went down to the last week and then the final day, as the Braves led the Dodgers by one game. Inexperienced and cracking under pressure, the Braves lost their final game. But the Dodgers also lost and the Braves won the division title. Discounting the team’s ouster in the NLCS by the St. Louis Cardinals, their success reinforced Turner’s growing influence as a national media king and proved that the boisterous Southern businessman could not only sway public opinion but could also run a baseball team.
After 1982, the Braves slowly sank back down in the standings. In 1985, Turner rehired Bobby Cox from the Blue Jays as general manager, placed Chuck Tanner in the dugout, and quietly set to work rebuilding his team. Despite amassing the most promising talent available, the Braves finished last or next to last in every season from 1985 through 1990. Throughout the 1980s Turner slowly took a less active role in the Braves organization as he managed the growth of CNN, founded the Olympic-like Goodwill Games, and expanded his acquisitions further in purchasing MGM/US Entertainment studios (including the Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s library of more than 4,000 films).30 He also created the World Championship Wrestling, which began competing with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation on Monday nights. The league survived until March 2001, when Turner sold it to his competition. The late 1980s saw the end to his second marriage as he and Jane divorced.
By 1991, cable television had spread to every corner of the United States. More than half of American homes now subscribed. Suddenly, Turner’s baseball plans were developing as nicely as his other business ventures. The Braves climbed back to the top of the National League, becoming the first National League team to go from worst to first in a single season. As one of the nation’s most eligible bachelors, Turner wooed and married controversial movie star Jane Fonda, and the pair were often seen together at games rooting for his Braves. Although they lost the 1991 World Series to the Minnesota Twins, the Atlanta organization had a strong young team featuring the best pitching staff Turner’s money could buy. Atlanta was back on top in the National League in 1992, but the Braves lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays. They continued winning throughout the decade. They won the division title in every season from 1991 to 1999 (excluding the 1994 strike year), and not missing a beat when the franchise was switched from the NL West to the NL East. The Braves won the World Series in 1995, but lost twice to the New York Yankees in 1996 and 1999. As the club prospered, Ted Turner seemed to mellow, looking more settled and relaxed in his box seat than did the loud and ambitious man who once took over the team himself.31 During the 1991 playoffs, cameras even caught him dozing off once.32
In business, Turner continued to expand his footprint in the 1990s with the creation of the Cartoon Network in 1992 and Turner Movie Classics in 1994. He oversaw the purchase of two movie production companies, New Line Cinema and Castle Rock Entertainment. In 1996, Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting announced a $7.5 billion acquisition deal.33 As part of the agreement, Turner became a vice chairman of Time Warner and headed all the merged company’s cable TV networks. When Time Warner merged with AOL in 2001, Turner became vice chairman and senior adviser of AOL Time Warner Inc. He continued to work until 2003, when he resigned as vice chairman of the company.
After his marriage to Jane Fonda, Turner became a devoted philanthropist and environmentalist. He donated one billion dollars to establish the United Nations Foundation and created the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which sought to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction. He provided extensive funding to conservation efforts through his Turner Foundation.34 He also co-created and co-wrote the animated children’s series Captain Planet and the Planeteers, which centers on teenage environmental activists.35 Turner became America’s largest private landowner: 2 million acres, more than the land area of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Many of his ranches got involved in sustainability and ecotourism. He built up the largest private bison herd in the world, with 50,000 head. In hopes of increasing demand for bison, Turner co-founded Ted’s Montana Grill, a restaurant chain specializing in burgers and other entrees made from fresh bison meat.36
Turner’s philanthropy gained him numerous honors. He was inducted into the America’s Cup Hall of Fame in 1993, received the Peabody Award in 1997, was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College in 2001, and was inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame in 2004. On April 7, 2004, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2006, he received the Bower Award for Business Leadership from the Franklin Institute’s premier science and technology education and development center in Philadelphia. A year later, Turner was the recipient of the Junior Achievement Award, from the organization that provides hands-on business training programs to youth throughout the world. Also in 2007, Turner was inducted into the United States Business Hall of Fame.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the authors consulted Baseball-Reference.com.
1 Porter Bibb, Ted Turner: It Ain’t as Easy as It Looks (Boulder, Colorado: Johnson Books, 1997), 10-11.
2 Bibb, 11.
3 Bibb, 11-12.
4 Bibb, 24.
5 Bibb, 24-25.
6 Bibb, 6.
7 Bibb, 48.
8 R.S. Denisoff, “Ted Turner’s Crusade: Economics v. Morals,” Journal of Popular Culture 21, no. 1 (Summer, 1987): 27, 30.
9 Bibb, 48.
10 Bibb, 51.
11 Bibb, 52.
12 Bibb, 53.
13 Denisoff, 30.
14 Bibb, 71.
15 Bibb, 71-72.
16 Bibb, 65.
17 Denisoff, 30.
18 Denisoff, 30.
19 Denisoff, 30.
20 Bibb, 80.
21 Bibb, 109.
22 Bibb, 110.
24 Bob Warja, “Come to Think of It: The Day That Changed Major League Baseball Forever,” Bleacher Report, April 10, 2009, bleacherreport.com/articles/154265-come-to-think-of-it-the-day-that-changed-major-league-baseball-forever. See also Robert Goldberg and Gerald Jay Goldberg, Citizen Turner: The Wild Rise of an American Tycoon (New York: Harcourt, 1995).
25 Paul Lukas, “Uni Watch’s Friday Flashback: What’s in a Nickname?” ABC News, May 13, 2016, abcnews.go.com/Sports/uni-watchs-friday-flashback-nickname/story?id=39088122
26 Bibb, 117.
27 Bibb, 117.
28 Bibb, 136.
29 Denisoff, 31.
30 Bibb, 297-299.
31 Bibb, 367.
32 Bibb, 404.
33 Jeff Pelline, “Time Warner Closes Deal for Turner” San Francisco Chronicle, September 23, 1995. sfgate.com/news/article/PAGE-ONE-Time-Warner-Closes-Deal-For-Turner-3023794.php.
34 Tim Gray, “Giving as Good as He Gets,” Business Insights: Global, August 6, 2012.
36 Bibb, 384-388.