Oh Atlanta: Hank Aaron, Randy Newman, Ted Turner, And The Sounds Of Little Feat

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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 only 13 home runs for the season, while compiling a .243 batting average. But the new Home Run Champion finished strong, adding 25 points to his batting average and hitting 7 more homers. Given that he was now 40 and having to live through the various tensions as he approached and broke Babe Ruth’s record, his last season with the Braves 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 in November, the Braves ingloriously traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers, back to the town and ballpark where he played his first 12 seasons prior to 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 long fly ball 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, still considered Newman’s best album in a career now spanning beyond six decades.

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 for a post-concert eat-and-greet 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 and 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 Senator Helms, Ted 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 mid-20th century success of the New York Yankees, there had never been anything like it. Most notably, the road to success began 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. No more lavishing big bucks on free agents that didn’t pan out (Hello Al Hrabosky). No more demanding that one of the team’s best hitters be sent to the minors after a slow start (Bob Horner, in 1980, the year he led the team in home runs). Turner would just sign the checks, something that would be easier for him in the years to come.

From the late ‘80s on, 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 meant 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 isn’t an unlikely fit for Atlanta. In ‘66, the owners of the Milwaukee Braves moved the team to Atlanta. The ownership group was based in Chicago. Liberty Media is based in Englewood, Colorado. They allow the Braves’ very capable group of baseball people to run the team with a free hand, although limits are set on the team’s payroll. Given that the Braves have won six straight division titles and are favored to win another in the coming season, the budget constraints are hardly a problem. The Braves and their fans have been very fortunate that the team’s baseball people are so clever with the money they have to spend. But with all the admiration for the team and its management, there is one problem: The Atlanta Braves do not play in Atlanta. They play in unincorporated Cobb County, just outside the perimeter, approximately two miles from the Atlanta city limits. The Braves realize the value in maintaining “Atlanta” in the team’s name, but given the cluster of shopping destinations near their new stadium, Truist Park, sometimes I think of them as the Cumberland Mall Braves.

When the Braves moved to Atlanta, it jump-started Atlanta’s emergence as an international city. The new stadium, the Braves, and the new NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, gave most everyone in the city and its metro area a sense of pride. If given the chance to do things over again, perhaps more thought and consideration would be given to the people living in the vicinity of Atlanta Stadium, as once again, Black people were uprooted from what had been a solid urban neighborhood for the sake of “progress.” But in the mid ‘60s, the concerns of the Black community were too easily cast aside for stadiums, venues, and highways that guaranteed white people could return quickly to their suburban homes.

Bringing professional sports to Atlanta was considered one of the greatest achievements of Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., who after a bumpy start, also became one of the more vocal supporters of civil rights legislation before the U.S. Congress. Looking back at Allen’s success as mayor, it’s difficult to imagine him losing a professional sports team to the suburbs, especially since he was so involved in every detail of the city’s development. The same goes for Maynard Jackson, Andrew Young, Bill Campbell, and Shirley Franklin, all who served at least two terms as mayor from the mid ‘70s into the first decade of the 21st century. But Mayor Kasim Reed, in 2013, appearing as a take-charge guy and going way overboard in helping the Atlanta Falcons secure a new stadium with taxpayer subsidies, gave the Braves little thought even as their lease at Turner Field would soon be up. The Braves, according to a report in Atlanta magazine in November 2013, were not, said a city official, getting the “high level attention” they needed “immediately.” So they headed for the ‘burbs.

The Atlanta Falcons, the George Costanza of professional sports, got their palatial and iconic Mercedes Benz Stadium. It’s a breathtaking facility, but ticket-holders wonder when pro football will actually come to Atlanta. The Falcons are an ignoble team, one that in its first 43 years had only two consecutive winning seasons. On that team’s behalf, Kasim Reed performed political and financial gymnastics in negotiating with the State of Georgia for tax subsidies and Friendship Baptist Church to sell its property so as to provide stadium visitors better access to public transit.

Reed first offered the church $13.5 million. Church leaders asked for nearly twice that much as a counter and settled for $19.5 million. Friendship Baptist was the church Hank Aaron attended and where Maynard Jackson’s father served as pastor for 8 years. The church is historically known for its benevolence and service to the nearby communities. Their securing $19.5 million is surely the most positive aspect of a story that involved a slippery mayor, a historically shameful football team, and its billionaire owner seeking tax subsidies. And oh yes — the departure of the Braves, who had played near Atlanta’s often-struggling downtown for 51 years. City leadership, as in the Kasim Reed Administration, was taken by surprise when the Braves announced they were accepting a sweetheart deal to relocate in Cobb County. The Braves no doubt felt they were being treated as red-headed stepchildren by Reed, given the lavish attention he paid to the Falcons. So they bellied up to the taxpayers’ largess bar, the one located approximately 2 miles from the city limits of Atlanta.

The Atlanta Braves playing their home games 13 miles from where Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. Situated in a gated community of commerce. While all but one other team (the Kansas City Royals) in Major League Baseball plays in a stadium adjacent to the downtown vicinity, the Braves disavow history and tradition. Yes, it gets under one’s skin, but the team itself is too exciting to put in the rear view. It’s a great lineup assembled by a group of great baseball minds.

Comes To Shine In 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. A new Atlanta was emerging. 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 smaller-than-expected 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.

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