The great Pat Buttram, who kicked at Gene Autry's side for so many years, was doing so again at a testimonial dinner in Autry's honor, and, after fishing a couple of telegrams from his inside coat pocket, he proceeded to read them in that unmistakable voice of his, which sounds like a sheep with sinus trouble.
"Here's one from the President," he read. " 'Dear Gene: Nancy and I are sorry that we cannot be with you tonight, but we wish you all the luck in the world. Signed, Ronald Reagan.' "
The Orange County audience applauded.
"Now, here's one from Sen. Joe Biden," Buttram continued. " 'Dear Gene: Nancy and I are sorry that we cannot be with you tonight . . . ' "
Nobody can put a smile on the old Cowboy's face like his old sidekick can, and it was nice to see Gene Autry smiling again, particularly with his wife, Jackie, and several of his favorite baseball players, Bob Boone, Brian Downing Wally Joyner and Mike Witt, also smiling from tables nearby, as Rotary International clubs honored Autry with their Pioneer Sportsman of Orange County award.
What would be even nicer, to go along with his many distinguished service awards, and his five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the new Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum that will be opening soon, is if the Angels could put another smile on this Cowboy's face by giving him what he wants most: an American League pennant.
To this day, Autry continues to call baseball "my first love," and even though the calendar insists that it is winter, another season happens to be upon him, because as soon as Mar. 4, the Angels have an exhibition game scheduled against the San Diego Padres, and they'll be back in the saddle again. Besides, in Gene Autry's heart of hearts, baseball season never ends.
He is no kid any more, though, so it's time for the Angels to stop all this fooling around and go give the cowboy another champion to ride.
"We're getting too old for this," Buttram said. "Gene's at the age now where Ovaltine is an upper.
"He's ready, willing and able--not necessarily in that order. And, as for myself, I know I'm getting old, too. This year my insurance company sent me half a calendar.
"Gene's wife, Jackie, though, was saying the other day: 'A man is like a fine bottle of wine. The older they get, the better they get.' And so, she locked him in the cellar."
Autry's baseball team, sad to say, also spent the winter in the cellar, having finished at the bottom of the AL's West Division standings, tied with the Texas Rangers, eight games under .500. These were the same Angels, give or take a Reggie and Bobby or two, who came within a third strike of going to the World Series the year before.
Patiently, more than patiently, the Cowboy has been crossing his fingers and waiting for his boys of summer to win a pennant. Just one. You cannot truly start a tradition without one. Until the Angels win a pennant, they lack a real sense of history, a story of glory.
The day before the Autry fete, the ballclub did take a step in the direction of recognizing its past, inducting Bobby Grich as charter member of the Angel Hall of Fame. Grich said he thought such a shrine would help establish a sense of pride in the Anaheim organization, especially for longtime fans who have no World Series memories to fondly recollect.
Among the players, they would like nothing better than to get to that Series, not only for themselves, but for the Cowboy from Melody Ranch.
As Boone said the other night: "This is a man who has done a lot of things in his life. He made a fortune. He's had all the fame there is. He has his five stars on the Walk of Fame. But, Gene Autry has something more important than that. He has the love of a lot of his players. He has my love, I know that."
Orvon Gene Autry was born Sept. 29, 1907, and, Angels and heaven above willing, there would be no better 81st birthday present than for his ballplayers to clinch his first pennant that night. After all, if that old cowboy actor Ronald Reagan can become President, anything can happen.
"I first met Ronald Reagan on one of my movie sets, I think it was 1937 or 1938," Autry recalled. "He was a baseball announcer for the Chicago Cubs back then. I want you to think about that. He went from the sports booth to the White House. Which scares the hell out of me, because just think where Jimmy the Greek might wind up."
All those years at Buttram's side had taught the cowboy a few things about cracking wise.
"I have to admit, I'm mad at Jim Bakker and Gary Hart," Autry said. "They stole my theme song: 'Back in the Saddle Again.' "
Gene Autry, political humorist?
"Aw, I hate to talk politics," Autry said. "I'm not even a member of any organized political party. I'm a Democrat."
The Orange County audience really applauded that one.