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The Cowboy's Last Roundup : No. 26 on Wall, No. 1 in Their Hearts

I think the most joyous part of his day came when he walked through the clubhouse and said hello to his players and manager.

--Former Angel player and manager Buck Rodgers, on Gene Autry.

October 03, 1998|Ross Newhan

Amid today's sweep of corporate ownership in baseball, the images of Gene Autry remain vivid: keeping score in the owner's box, sharing the bench with his manager during batting practice, visiting with players in the clubhouse before and after games.

The former Angel owner who died Friday at 91 was a fan's fan, the antithesis of the impersonal Disney or Fox, the last of a breed before Peter O'Malley became the last of a breed.

"Of all the owners I've known in my career, Gene was the best fan," former Angel and Dodger general manager Buzzie Bavasi recalled.

For those who observed him, interviewed him and shared social moments with him during his 30-plus years as the club's owner, nothing stands out more than his grass-roots passion for the game--never diminished by the frustrations and disappointments in the Angels' star-crossed history.

The soaring cost of ownership might have contributed to his decision to sell, as it did with O'Malley, but as late as last year, Autry was still keeping score despite failing eyesight. And as recently as last month, he visited the Angel clubhouse in the remodeled stadium where he is remembered as the team's 26th man by the retired No. 26 above and beyond the left-field bullpens.

When Autry was contemplating the American League's request to become owner of the AL franchise in Los Angeles, show business sidekick Pat Buttram told him:

"Hell, Gene, on the sports page, a man can live forever. On the sports page, you never die."

Autry's teams might have, but his affection for the game and most of the men who played it never did.

He was once one of them, a talented enough American Legion prospect in Texas that the St. Louis Cardinals offered him a tryout.

Years later, however, Autry described himself as a banjo hitter whose purchase of an $8 guitar from a Sears-Roebuck catalog led to a film and recording career as the original singing cowboy.

Will Rogers, hearing him play and sing in his spare time as a telegrapher, steered Autry in that direction. Buck Rodgers came later.

"From the time I was a small piece of the roster in the first year until I managed, my relationship with Gene was always outstanding," Rodgers said from Cape Cod, Mass., where he is vacationing with former teammate Ken McBride and former Angel traveling secretary Tommie Ferguson.

"He was a players' owner for as long as I was there."

If George Steinbrenner is bombast, Autry was benevolence.

Each spring, before the Angels gave up their Palm Springs roots and moved full time to Arizona, he threw a team barbecue behind the hotel he owned and happily responded to the players' request that he sing "Back in the Saddle Again" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" or one of his other hits.

Jim Fregosi and Nolan Ryan were his favorites, but in the early years he could be found long after games chatting with Joe Adcock or Lew Burdette in the clubhouse, or talking ball in later years with Manager Gene Mauch on the bench.

He was there, but he wasn't, and maybe if he had to do it again he would have been more involved in the decision-making, which was his formula in building a multimillion-dollar broadcasting, hotel and real estate empire.

He entrusted the baseball operation to experienced and successful people for the most part, but there was always the compelling urge to win one for the Cowboy, always the compelling feeling that the only way to compete with the Dodgers was on the marquee--a misguided perception that disrupted continuity and the fundamental need to build from within.

"I suppose there are three kinds of owners," Autry told me while preparing a book on the Angels in the early '80s. "One is the type who puts up the money and runs the club himself, serving as his own general manager. The second is the type who hires a professional to run the club, then stays out of the way and keeps score. The third is the type who keeps such a low profile that the players and fans hardly know he exists.

"I like to think I belong to the second category. I have tried hard not to interfere with the men on the firing line. I am consulted on major decisions and the final approval is mine, but I don't recall ever overruling someone who felt strongly his way was right.

"I have also made an effort to know the players. I drop by the clubhouse from time to time, and I try to write personal notes to each player who is traded away after long service with the club. I have never had any desire to go on the field or be in the dugout. I have wondered often why a manager did this or that, but I have always tried to restrain my second-guessing. I have never ordered a manager to play a certain player, and I have never called a manager at 3 in the morning to ask why he didn't play the infield back with one out."

Maybe he should have, but that was the way he was.

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