Oh Atlanta: Hank Aaron, Ted Turner And The Sounds Of Little Feat
1974. It was a rich year for Atlanta’s cultural scene and its place in the national spotlight. In January, the same month Bob Dylan played two nights at the Omni, Maynard Jackson was sworn in as the city’s mayor. Jackson, a singular and formidable politician, was the first black man elected to the top office of Georgia’s capital city. On April 8, another black man, Hank Aaron, the left fielder for the Atlanta Braves, took a swing off an Al Downing slider and put it over the left field fence of Atlanta Stadium, and in doing so became Baseball’s All-Time Home Run Champion. 715 Home Runs. One more than Babe Ruth. A headline on the front page of the next morning’s Atlanta Constitution proclaimed, “Yowie! Yowie! Yowie!”
That August, Atlanta fans of the rock group, Little Feat, may have also been shouting “Yowie!” The song that seemed to literally jump off Little Feat’s new album, Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, was a celebratory romp entitled “Oh Atlanta.” Little Feat, though from Los Angeles, had a devoted following in Atlanta, going back to their 3-night appearance in May ’71 at the Twelfth Gate, a legendary club in the city’s hippie district. “Oh Atlanta,” a celebration of love and good times in the New South’s shining city, was also Little Feat’s expression of gratitude to their loyal fans who packed the Twelfth Gate, Richards and Georgia Tech’s Landis Field and then bought their albums at the record shops along the “Strip” on Peachtree Street. “You can drop me off on Peachtree, I got to feel that Georgia sun,” went the words penned and sung by Little Feat’s keyboardist, Bill Payne. Oh Atlanta, got to get back to you … to the days when life in town was so promising.
Hindsight being 20/20, the days of promise often look brighter even when hopes and dreams are fulfilled. It’s the plotting and laboring for the life ahead that makes the early days so vibrant in our collective memories, despite any setbacks and stumbling blocks that slowed us. It happens with everyone. In August ’74, Hank Aaron appeared to be slowing down. The pace he set in catching and passing Babe Ruth no doubt exhausted him. As the month began, with 56 games left in the season, he had hit only 13 home runs, while compiling a .243 batting average. But the new Home Run Champion finished strong, adding 25 more points to his batting average and hitting 7 more home runs. Being 40 long before baseball’s steroids and HGH era, what Aaron did in his last season with the Braves, considering the various tensions as he approached and broke Babe Ruth’s record, was quite impressive.
Though he knew he could keep playing, what he really wanted was a front office job with the Braves: a position including responsibilities and salary commiserate with one who had observed plenty in over 3,000 big league baseball games. Sadly, the Braves were tone deaf to Aaron’s justifiable sensitivity. Therefore, since they had no serious plans for him in management, he decided to keep playing — elsewhere — at least for another year or two. So on November 2, 1974 ,the Braves ingloriously traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, back to the town and ballpark where he played his first 12 seasons prior the Braves’ move to Atlanta in ’66. But Aaron left Atlanta with a bang. He homered in his last at-bat as a Brave, against the Cincinnati Reds, before 11,081 fans at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on October 2, 1974.
Three days later, another intriguing event captured the attention of Atlantans as Randy Newman gave a world premier performance of his new album, Good Old Boys. Newman’s appearance was a dress-up affair for a slice of Atlanta’s rock and roll crowd gathering in Symphony Hall along Peachtree, a Hank Aaron blast away from the old Twelfth Gate. Emil Newman, Randy’s uncle, who served as Musical Director for at least 100 films from 1940 through the mid ’60s, including The Best Years of Our Lives, conducted the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as they played behind Newman, ensconced, as always, at his piano. On the night that was history-making for Atlanta’s rock scene, a Newman-skewed history of the South was presented, with Atlanta and Georgia receiving mentions, if not praise, in Good Old Boys. Lester Maddox, Huey Long and the South’s struggles with race, poverty and class were all part of Good Old Boys, which is still considered Newman’s best album in a career now spanning more than 50 years.
What’s Happened Down Here Is The Winds Have Changed … Lester Maddox, highlighted in “Rednecks,” the opening track of Good Old Boys, had been invited by Newman’s label, Warner Brothers, to the concert. According to an article by Art Harris in Rolling Stone, Maddox claimed not to have seen the invitation, as he was absorbed in the $500,000 debt he had run up in his recent unsuccessful campaign to be elected Georgia’s governor. Soon Maddox, then serving as Georgia’s lieutenant governor, would devote more time to his restaurant at Underground Atlanta.
Georgia’s governor, Jimmy Carter, who attended one of the Dylan concerts at the Omni and then hosted Dylan and the Band at the Governor’s Mansion nearly eight months earlier, would soon announce an improbable campaign for president. “President of what?” his mother asked him. The United States, he told her — and with his amazing White House run, Americans would learn more about good old boys, those from the various political and cultural camps of the Old and New South.
A good old boy from Georgia who also captured America’s attention, bewildering and delighting people all at once was Ted Turner of Atlanta. Turner owned Channel 17, Atlanta’s leading UHF station. He was also known as quite the yachtsman. In need of programming for his station, Turner bought the Atlanta Braves for $12 million after the ’75 season. “Are you sure you want to buy this turkey?” an Atlanta Braves exec asked Turner, who knew very little about the game at the time. Sure he did. Turkey or not, the Braves would be his big league baseball team playing 162 games and he’d televise every one of them on Channel 17. Turner went on in ’77 to win the America’s Cup, piloting his yacht, Courageous. He also showed up at most of the Braves home games, complaining about the price of beer and hot dogs, cheering wildly for his Braves and lining up at the stadium urinals with the rest of the guys.
In a way, Turner was Atlanta’s rock and roll executive, offending the old-boy network with his unconventional approach to business, all the while becoming more successful. Still, his Braves continued to lose at the same pace as they did in their first season without Hank Aaron. He tried to make the team a winner, aggressively going after free agents, a category of players then new to the game. Ted would throw millions at players who’d come to Atlanta; in fact he’d let it be known that he’d acquire another team’s player while that player was still under contract. That got him suspended by the commissioner of baseball. In a court case relating to the suspension, he asked a lawyer how he’d like a knuckle sandwich. Oh Atlanta, we had never seen anyone like Ted Turner. The same went for the nation and the world.
All That You Dream … By the mid to late ’70s, Atlanta was raking in more bucks as a concert town, but its rock scene had lost its creative edge. The hippies were gone. The Strip had an abandoned look. There were no more clubs like the Twelfth Gate or the Bistro. The Great Southeast Music Hall and Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom would soon close as well. The growing wealth of Atlanta guaranteed more records were sold in the metro area but the town’s so-called rock stations were more likely to play Journey and ELO than Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello. Atlanta and environs had established a Republican/country club atmosphere in the entertainment realm. Still, we had Ted Turner to keep us entertained. In ’85, Turner sought the advice of Senator Jesse Helms, the hyper-conservative senator from North Carolina. Helms referred to Turner as his “good friend.” Ten years later, no longer consulting Helms, Turner married Jane Fonda.
Turner seemed to have a bottomless bag of surprises. The biggest surprise was the transformation of his Atlanta Braves, who in ’91, went from “worst to first,” coming up just one game short of being World Champions and commencing a 14-season run of National League division titles. Outside of the success of the New York Yankees, there had never been anything like it. Most notably, the success took hold once Turner agreed the baseball decisions would be left to the experts. No more serving as manager as he did on one audacious day in 1977. He’d just sign the checks.
By then, Turner was involved with his most consequential innovation, CNN, as well as preserving land, buying approximately 2 million acres across the United States. He campaigned for environmental causes, raised the largest private herd of bison for his restaurant chain, Ted’ s Montana Grill,and pledged to donate a billion dollars to the United Nations, delivering $600 million of the pledge from his own pocket within 8 years.
But with Turner’s riches, the stakes got higher. The cable empire (CNN, TBS, TNT, TCM, Cartoon Network, etc) he had created merged with Time-Warner in ’96. Ted Turner, that maverick entrepreneur, was now Time-Warner’s largest stockholder. But five years later trouble arrived when AOL purchased Time Warner. AOL’s best days were already in its past, however, and the burst of the dot com bubble drained the Time-Warner properties. Turner is said to have lost $7 billion after the AOL-Time Warner merger. As part of the mess so familiar in modern day American capitalism, in 2007, Time Warner, which had owned the Braves since the merger with Turner’s company, sold the team to Liberty Media. This would be true corporate ownership for the Braves. Absentee ownership. No more colorful owner rooting on his team in between trips to the men’s room and hot dog stand.
Long distance corporate ownership wasn’t an unlikely fit for Atlanta. These days it isn’t the kind of town that exhibits much color, conveys its history well or displays a sense of unity. Atlanta is a hilly, verdant town with some swell neighborhoods that is surrounded by scads of suburban municipalities where shopping and sitting in traffic are the most commonly shared activities. Even the Braves’ success over the last 23 years, which a town like Chicago would die for, is often overlooked. Living in Atlanta’s metropolitan area can’t be good for the soul, especially when one isn’t well-grounded. It’s an acquisitive metropolis where people care more about trips to the malls and shopping palaces than preserving green space or soaking in the region’s rich history. Imagine yourself with just the worldview you took to the seventh grade. You’d be a perfect fit in Atlanta’s metro area.
Comes Through Shinin’ Silver Lining … But back in the early ’80s, things felt different in Atlanta. Revival was taking hold in some of the city’s older neighborhoods. Many of the young people who discovered the city when visiting the “Strip” in the late ’60s and early 70s were rehabbing century-old homes, reviving and renewing. And when a group of us would gather at Manuel’s Tavern or the Little 5 Points Community Pub, the talk would often be of the Atlanta Braves. While Ted Turner had failed to deliver on his 1976 promise to bring a World Series to Atlanta in 5 years, the team was making progress, much like the older neighborhoods. In ’82, the Braves started off like a house afire. They won their first 13 games of the season, then a major league record.
The young team developed by the late General Manager Bill Lucas and Bobby Cox (in his first go-round as Braves manager), was fulfilling its promise. On the night of April 21, the Braves came from behind with 2 outs in the 9th inning against the Cincinnati Reds for the record-setting 13th victory. The crowd of 22,153 at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium went wild. Braves manager Joe Torre headed to the clubhouse, landed in his chair and lit a victory cigar. In the stands thousands remained cheering as Little Feat’s “Oh Atlanta” blared throughout the stadium. Atlanta really did feel like a big league town. It was one of those rare moments in which real life felt as spirited and wide-open as a great song.
This is an excerpt from Jeff Cochran’s forthcoming book, Drop Me Off On Peachtree: A History Of Atlanta.
Author’s Note: An upcoming story, Stadiums Of The Damned, will cover more on Atlanta’s cultural scene, how Atlanta bungled the 1996 Olympics and the recent Atlanta Braves announcement regarding their leaving Turner Field in order to build a new stadium closer to a shopping mall. This story was written for the baseball site, Seamheads. Image from the National Archives.