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Gene Autry 1907-1998

The Cowboy's Last Roundup : He Rode Tall Even Without World Series

October 03, 1998|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gene Autry detected the depression and devastation on the other end of the line. The World Series would proceed without Autry's Angels yet again, after a most excruciating elimination.

In 1986, the Angels needed one victory in three games to advance to the World Series. They lost at home, coughing up a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning. They flew to Boston and lost twice more to the Red Sox.

Mike Port, the Angels' general manager that year, could barely endure the pain as he telephoned Autry after the team returned home. Win one for the Cowboy? The Angels had failed again, and yet the Cowboy told his general manager to buck up.

"What's the matter with you?" Autry asked. "Aren't we going to play next year?"

Port shared the story with affection and respect Friday, as Angels past and present offered tributes to the founder and owner--and biggest fan--of the franchise. Autry died Friday at 91, without the championship ring that so many worked so hard to win for him.

"In 46 years of baseball, my only regret is not getting Gene into the World Series," said Buzzie Bavasi, who preceded Port as the Angel general manager after assembling championship teams for the Dodgers. "I have four rings. I'd love to give him one."

The mission will not cease with Autry's death.

"He'll always be a part of this franchise," Angel President Tony Tavares said. "The first time this team wins a championship, it will be dedicated to him."

Autry's unquenchable optimism for a team identified with failure reflected his love for the sport and for the promise of each spring.

"If being a great fan gets one into the Hall of Fame, he would have been there long ago," Bavasi said.

While a younger generation of fans and players was born too late to enjoy the legendary "Singing Cowboy" in music, film, radio and television--"Gene Autry was always my dad's childhood hero," outfielder Tim Salmon said--the whole world might have been deprived of those talents had Autry hit well enough to pass a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals.

"With all the great things he did in his life and all the lives he touched, I'm not so sure he wouldn't have rather been a good-hitting shortstop," Port said.

Autry found baseball, or vice versa, when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958 and agreed to air their games on his radio station. After Dodger owner Walter O'Malley shifted stations in 1960, Autry heard the American League planned to expand to Los Angeles. He headed to the baseball meetings in St. Louis, intending to acquire the radio rights to the new team. He got the rights--and the team.

Within six days, Autry hired Fred Haney as general manager and Bill Rigney as manager. On Dec. 14, 1960, eight days after the birth of the Los Angeles Angels, Haney and Rigney selected 28 players in the expansion draft, the first of them pitcher Eli Grba.

And, on April 11, 1961, four months into their existence, the Angels took the field. Grba pitched a complete game, and the Angels beat the Baltimore Orioles 7-2.

"I remember the look he had on his face that day in Baltimore," Rigney said. "I remember how proud Mr. Autry was. He looked like we had just won the World Series.

"Baseball lucked out when he became an owner. He had been a great Cardinal fan. He was a great friend of Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang. He was such a great fan that to end up an owner was something he loved more and more."

The Dodgers may have invented the promotion of Hollywood Stars Night, but Hollywood stars--Autry's show business buddies--joined the Angels every night. Outfielder Albie Pearson accompanied Marilyn Monroe in a pregame ceremony one night, in what Pearson believes was her last public appearance. Pitcher Bo Belinsky dated actress Mamie Van Doren.

"I was a big Gene Autry fan even before I got to the Angels. I loved his movies," Belinsky said. "I have fond memories of Gene. He was a sport, not some wound-tight, old fogie of an owner."

Autry staged spring training in Palm Springs, at a time when the desert resort was Hollywood's favorite hideaway. Catcher Buck Rodgers recalled the likes of Cary Grant, Lucille Ball and Dwight Eisenhower saddling up alongside Autry at the exhibition games.

"For a guy from Ohio to see all the stars from that era, especially in Palm Springs, it was amazing," Rodgers said. "We'd just say, let's get the workouts done so we can go see the stars."

Autry loved his players, strolling through the clubhouse to meet and greet and dispense good cheer. He relished the team barbecues at his Palm Springs hotel each spring. When Belinsky pitched the Angels' first no-hitter in 1962, Autry picked up the payments on his Cadillac, in a year in which Belinsky's salary was $7,500.

"I met a lot of owners, but he was one of the few I admired," Belinsky said.

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