Clayton Trutor holds a PhD in U.S. history from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. He writes about college football and basketball for SB Nation. Trutor is also the Vermont state chairman of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and is a regular contributor to the SABR Biography Project. His forthcoming book is Loserville: How Professional Sports Remade Atlanta—and How Atlanta Remade Professional Sports (February 2022).
Last night was a special one in Georgia. The Atlanta Braves captured their second World Championship since arriving in the state more than fifty-five years ago. The ecstasy of the evening was made bittersweet by the absence of Hank Aaron, baseball’s true home run king and the most remarkable player in the history of the franchise. Aaron died earlier this year and his visage was ever-present during the regular season and the postseason, adding extra weight to everything the Braves did all spring, summer, and autumn.
At the same time, this World Series moment has a certain bittersweetness that comes from the passage of time in the places where this title matters the most. Championships have proven few and far between for Atlanta’s professional sports franchises in the six decades since the city became “Major League.” Atlanta has won a couple of professional soccer championships but the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, and the city’s two now-relocated entries into the NHL have never won a championship. Atlanta has been a city on the make like few others since its origins in 1837 as the end of the Western and Atlantic railroad line. For a city that regularly reinvents itself around grand aspirations, the limited success of its pro sports franchises has been a noteworthy anomaly.
This title run will be cherished not only in greater Atlanta but more broadly in Braves Country, a region first imagined by broadcasters and sports boosters in the 1960s. While the term Braves Country did not come into common usage until decades later, the conceptualization of the Southeast as a sports nation within a nation was a product of the heady days when Atlanta became a “Major League City” in the words of Mayor Ivan Allen, the foremost figure in the city’s push for professional sports. While there have been many detours along the way, the Braves’ championship run this October was in part the product of the efforts of Atlanta’s political and corporate leadership decades ago to transform their regional economic hub into a professional sporting destination.
Credit for last night’s success, though, belongs primarily in the present. Great victories like this one all have a great many authors. This year’s Braves team is no outlier. General manager Alex Anthopoulos, who rose from the dearly-departed Montreal Expos’ mailroom to become one of baseball’s best personnel men, deserves heaps of credit. So does the franchise’s consistently excellent farm system, which has been churning out top-notch talent since John Schuerholz took over in Atlanta’s front office in the early 1990s. As does Braves manager Brian Snitker, a 44-year veteran of the organization who piloted the Braves through this summer’s rough waters and shepherded his charges into and through the postseason. Not to mention the many fine players who have worn Atlanta across their chests this October and come up clutch at every turn.
If you are inclined to see this moment through the prism of the past, one man deserves more credit than any other for what the Braves accomplished last evening. Ted Turner is as much an author of this historical moment as anyone. Turner, now eighty-two years old and distant from the public eye, has authored countless extraordinary historical moments. Turner was one of the great polymaths and promoters of the late 20th century: cable television and news pioneer, philanthropist, sportsman, and ambassador for international cooperation. Within the confines of metropolitan Atlanta, though, Turner’s most lasting contribution may be the Atlanta Braves franchise you saw hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy last night.
In the mid-1970s, Atlanta was quickly losing its luster as a professional sports town. Less than a decade after a wave of municipal investment and civic boosting got two big league sports venues built and lured teams from the four major professional sports leagues, Atlanta had become “Loserville, U.S.A.,” in the words of Atlanta Constitution editor Lewis Grizzard. It was Ted Turner who saved the MLB and NBA franchises in Atlanta, purchasing the Braves in 1976 and the Hawks in 1977. Through his promotional guile and commitment to keeping Atlanta “big league,” Turner kept the moribund franchises going. Part of this was mere pragmatism.. The teams served as inexpensive programming for his emerging satellite television empire at TBS. Nevertheless, they also demonstrated Turner’s commitment to civically-minded capitalism. He lost money year-after-year on both franchises before finally turning things around over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. By the time Turner got out of the baseball and basketball business in the late 1990s, the Braves and Hawks had been established as genuine civic pillars. The Braves, in particular, became a regional favorite and a genuine national draw thanks to TBS, which broadcast virtually every Braves game to every state in the union long before nightly coverage of MLB games became commonplace. It also didn’t hurt that the Braves became perennial powers in the National League, winning 14 division titles, 5 NL pennants, and a world championship (1995) between 1991 and 2005.
When Ted Turner bought the Braves, he promised at his introductory press conference to make Atlanta “Winnersville.” And he did it. Eventually. And when reflecting on the Braves’ accomplishments this postseason, keep in mind the man that knew it was going to happen.