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JIM MURRAY

90 Years of Ridin' the Range

September 28, 1997|JIM MURRAY

They called him "The Cowboy" and everybody loved him.

He never went anywhere without a 10-gallon hat and snakeskin boots. A string tie, if it was formal. He was a legit son of the pioneers, born on the lone prairie of Tioga, Texas, where the deer and antelope play and the skies are not cloudy all day.

He was always a happy sort. He was a telegrapher by trade in Oklahoma in his youth and, one day, as he was sitting between wirelesses, playing his guitar, fate walked in. It was the greatest cowboy of them all, Will Rogers, and he was wiring in his daily newspaper column.

Rogers listened to a cowboy lament sung by the young man and he said, "Son, you're wasting your time sending copy. Go to New York and get yourself into show business."

So, Gene Autry did. Only he went west instead of east and became one of the most beloved show business figures in the history of the movie industry. He made 94 feature films as the original singing cowboy.

His pictures were a staple of Saturday matinees all over the world. He never killed anybody in his pictures, just lassoed the varmints and, at the fade-out, rode off in the sunset, singing about home on the range.

He never got an Academy Award. They usually gave that to some artiste whose picture lost a million at the box office. But the exhibitors loved him and complained that they wanted a Gene Autry picture instead of one of those costume dramas where everyone went around saying "Forsooth!"

Everything he touched turned to platinum. He was a canny businessman whose handshake was as good as a 100-page signed contract. He went away to war, even though his producer, Herbert Yates, threatened to make Roy Rogers a star in his stead if he went through with his enlistment.

He wrote blockbuster songs with collaborators. "Back In the Saddle Again" became almost as famous as "Home on the Range." He wrote "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" and the whole country cried. He was grand marshal of the annual Hollywood Santa Claus parade and he wrote "Here Comes Santa Claus," which almost rivaled "White Christmas." In fact, Irving Berlin stopped him on stage one night and told him he wished he could write cowboy songs too.

Autry pioneered what has become country and western music. But he was not infallible. One day, they brought him a Christmas song he didn't think had a chance and he proposed to put it on the flip side of a record he deemed better. But his late wife, Ina, protested.

"It's the song of the ugly duckling! It's beautiful!" she told him.

So Gene Autry recorded "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." It only became the biggest-selling record of all time.

Gene bought radio stations, TV stations, bankrolled movies. He had parlayed a guitar and a saddle into megamillions and, in 1960, when baseball was going to expand, he and his partner, the late Bob Reynolds, traveled to the winter meetings to see about a radio contract with the new expansion team in L.A.

Instead of the contract, he got the team. Baseball was overjoyed to have such an immensely popular and impeccable character. And Gene, a lifelong baseball fan, became not only the Angels' owner but No. 1 rooter.

He was in the locker room as often as the trainer. In a way, Gene remained a little boy all his life. I don't think anybody ever saw him mad. In all the years I knew him, I never even heard him curse. He never acted rich. He always acted as if he had just left the bunkhouse.

He was the first owner to move his team out of L.A. But he went only 36 miles down the road to the suburbs, Anaheim. He really just wanted to get out of Dodger Stadium, where his team was like the sister with the buck teeth rooming with her beauty queen sibling.

His baseball team didn't break his heart. Gene didn't deal in heartbreak. He was as optimistic as a kid on Christmas morning all his life.

But real disappointment struck on Oct. 12, 1986. In the pennant playoff against the Boston Red Sox, the Angels, leading three games to one, had two outs and a 5-4 lead in the ninth inning--Boston had a man on base--and needed only one strike to win the '86 pennant and get into the World Series.

Alas! The batter, a slumping journeyman named Dave Henderson, hit a two-run homer that gave the Red Sox the lead--and ultimately the pennant.

It was one of the few unhappy endings of Gene's career. Even that day, his team tied the score in the bottom of the ninth and had the bases loaded and only one out. All they needed was a fly ball to bring a runner--and the pennant--home. But his last two batters couldn't do it.

A terrible footnote to this ill-fated afternoon was that the losing pitcher, Donnie Moore, was to take his own life less than three years later.

Gene will be 90 on Monday. A gala fund-raising dinner will be held at the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage that night. Eddy Arnold, Rosemary Clooney, Willie Nelson, Roy Clark and Glen Campbell are on the bill.

I went out to see Gene the other day. We go way back--to the days when I was a young magazine reporter and he was the king of Gower Gulch.

Gene is in the capable hands of his lovely wife, Jackie, who protects his sunset days.

He and I struggled through mists of memory to recall the magical days of yore. The casts of characters of Westerns are as long gone as silent pictures. Jimmy Stewart, Hank Fonda, Duke Wayne, Tom Mix and Gary Cooper have all headed for the last roundup. Only Gene remains.

He's still the Angels' Angel. Keeps 75% of the club but Disney runs it. He still thinks of the one pitch that got away.

Maybe it'll always be 1945 again and he'll be whistling for Champion after struggling out of the bonds the rustlers put on him. Maybe it'll be the ninth inning again and this time Doug DeCinces will hit that long fly to center with the pennant flying on it.

Did he have any regrets? I wondered.

"Not a one," smiled the last cowboy. "I'd like to do it all over again!"

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