America's Jiminy Crickett: The Ted Turner Story

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After my previous post mentioned Ted Turner's promotional antics as owner of the Atlanta Braves, a reader suggested I write more about the man who became known as "The Mouth of the South." In three decades of sports writing, I've never come across anyone quite so outrageous. So you don't have to twist my arm.

Moscow, 1986: We are in a downtown conference room to interview Turner along with the Soviet press and a lineup of grim men in dark suits and sunglasses (KGB?) along the back wall of the room. Turner's inaugural Goodwill Games are about to begin. Cynics believe he has launched them purely as programming for his Atlanta superstation, WTBS. Turner claims a deeper purpose.

After the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympic games in 1980 and the Soviet's right-back-at-you boycott of the L.A. Olympics in 1984, Turner believed bringing Soviets and Americans together would make for a good TV show, yes, but also that the Goodwill Games -- an event he trumpeted as "a major, major undertaking of colossal proportions" -- would in turn promote peace and understanding.

Or as Ted reminded us, "Friends don't bomb friends."

During the course of the next hour, it became clear the Soviets in particular wondered if Turner had arrived by plane or spaceship.

He welcomed a Soviet comrade by saying, "Sitski here, Sovietski."

And to a Polish reporter: "Hey, Poland. I like that Polish vodka. Here's my room number. Bring me some, Poland."

I worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. While some other American media outlets sent a reporter to chronicle Turner's Goodwill Games brainstorm, the AJC was there in force. Dave Kindred, our gifted columnist and future winner of the Red Smith Award, made an inventory of the people, places and things Turner mentioned in that single hour for a column the next day:

Hitler, Jiminy Crickett, Helmut Kohl, General George Patton, Robert E. Lee, Caspar Weinberger, Jacques Costeau, Carl Sagan, Gorbachev (naturally), JFK, Lester Maddox, Finland, the National League, Seattle, Cuba, Ceylon, the Middle Ages, F-111 Jets, Nigeria, Australia, oxen, nuclear weapons, mountain goats and elephants (that's not even Dave's complete list).

I remembered the main points of Turner's press conference. But Kindred saved it for posterity in a collection of his columns titled Heroes, Fools and Other Dreamers. The title wasn't specific to Turner but he certainly qualified on all counts.

Turner ended the press conference with an appeal for nuclear disarmament and self-reflection:

"If there's a nuclear war between our countries, we're killing everybody. That's Bermuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, Switzerland, Sweden, Nigeria, India, Ceylon. Ceylon? They call it something else now. Perez de Cueller said it. By what right do the superpowers feel they have the right to decide the lives and fates of all mankind?

"Carl Sagan said it in Breaking the Spell. We've been here millions of years, 10 million years, human existence, that we've slowly evolved, that our parents worked to make us better and send us to better schools and get better education and improve airplanes and communications.

All the things we've done, our books, our art, our literature. And what have we done with our opportunity? Get ready to blow ourselves up. And not just ourselves. What about the elephants?"

"What about the elephants" became a catchphrase among the American press during the remainder of the Goodwill Games:

"How did Carl Lewis do," one would ask another.

"Won his heat easily," came the answer.

"What about the elephants?"

Turner hit Moscow like a cyclone. He walked the streets and sports arenas trailed by his future ex-wife, Jane (not Fonda, that Jane would come later). She was usually 20 paces behind. Every so often, he'd turn around and wave his arm like a third-base coach sending a runner home: "C'mon."

At the spectacularly choreographed Opening Ceremonies, every spectator flipped their cards on cue, revealing an amazingly realistic portrait of Lenin.

The Soviet press could not wait to hear what Ted thought. They crowded around him on his way out.

Asked about the card display, Turner said, "It was great, great. This Lenin guy's a big deal...like Jesus Christ and George Washington all rolled into one."

The following summer Ronald Reagan challenged Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

Ted Turner never claimed he helped change the world with the Goodwill Games, though he most certainly did as a pioneer of satellite TV and 24-hour news. But he did administer a spanking to the two biggest kids on the block with another of his gems from Moscow, 1986:

"I think (the U.S. and Soviet Union) ought to be taken out behind the woodshed and some Big Daddy take a board and give it to us. You know, bend down, and hold your ankles. That's what I think. Speaking figuratively, I think it's just time we grew up."

Twenty three years later, Turner is America's largest landowner with over two million acres and a herd of 50,000 bison. He's in the Business Hall of Fame, the America's Cup Hall of Fame and is a winner of the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award for his philanthropy.

I can't watch the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" ad campaign without thinking of Turner. The character is shown bench pressing Asian women, playing jai alai, freeing a bear from a trap, engaged in a sword fight and other eccentric activities. He signs off by admitting he doesn't always drink beer but when he does he makes it Dos Equis.

Then he says, "Stay thirsty my friends."

At age 70, Ted Turner's had his fill.

Ted Turner's Memorable Moments (in no particular order)

"¢ Born in Cincinnati Nov. 19, 1938. Attended Brown but was expelled for having a woman in his room. When he announced he was going to be a Classics major, his father wrote him a letter. The elder Turner said he was "horrified" at the news and that he "almost puked" upon hearing it.

americas-cup-turner"¢ When 15 sailors died off the coast of England in the Fastnet Race won by Turner in 1979, Turner told the British Press: "It's no use crying. The King is dead. Long live the King. It had to happen sooner or later. You ought to be thankful there are storms like that or you'd all be speaking Spanish." (A reference to the troubled seas that foiled the Spanish Armada.)

"¢ In an attempt to turn his woeful Atlanta Braves fortunes, he sent manager Dave Bristol on a "scouting trip," put on a uniform and managed the team from the dugout. The Braves lost. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened, telling Turner that MLB managers could not by rule have a financial stake in the team.

"¢ Told Sports Illustrated in 1986, "I want to be Jiminy Crickett for America. Remember how Jiminy always told Pinocchio to go to school, to do wise things? That's what I want to be for America."

"¢ On male-run governments: "Men should be barred from public office for 100 years in every part of the world. The men have had millions of years where we've been running things. We've screwed it up hopelessly. Let's give it to the women."

"¢ To SI, on his plan to curb overpopulation: "It would take only a billion dollars a year to furnish birth control devices to all the women in the world who would use them. That would cut the world population growth in half. That's about the cost of one Trident submarine."

ted-turner-time
"¢ Founded the first cable superstation (WTBS) and the first 24-hour news station (CNN). Kuhn told him to cease and desist after he put the name "Channel" on the back of Atlanta pitcher Andy Messersmith's uniform No. 17.

"¢ Miss America 1983 said Ted Turner was the person she'd most like to meet.

"¢ Before becoming Braves owner he said, "What do you have to know about baseball? Both teams have 10 guys?" Or, more accurately, nine.

"¢ Turner took over Turner Outdoor Advertising at age 24 after his father's suicide. He grew a $1 million a year business into a media empire.

"¢ Called Christianity a "religion for losers" and abortion opponents "bozos." Issued an apology and later worked with church groups to fight malaria.

"¢ To Charlie Rose in April 2008, on the impact if we don't curb global warming: "Most of the people will have died and the rest of us are cannibals."

"¢ Stan Kasten, his righthand man with the Braves and Hawks, on Turner: "He has a hundred ideas a day, and only two of them are good. But how many people have two good ideas a day?"

"¢ After launching CNN, Turner said: "We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on and we will cover the end of the world. That will be our last event. And when the end of the world comes we'll play 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' before we sign off."

And with that, I'll sign off. See you next month.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read his mental_floss articles here.

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