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GENE AUTRY / 1907-1998 | BILL PLASCHKE

The Cowboy's Last Roundup : Forget Record: Autry Was a Real Winner

October 03, 1998|Bill Plaschke

The last time many of us saw Gene Autry was in the spring, at the Angels' home opener, after an entrance grand enough to also be the perfect exit.

Amid the cacophony of a Disney-ESPN pregame celebration that mocked the very traditions it was trying to hype, the Cowboy suddenly appeared in left field in a golf cart.

And everything stopped. The booing. The boredom. The complaints that the producers of this lengthy production had forgotten about the game.

Everything stopped, and everyone stood, and everyone cheered.

This was not just about what he was--a beloved proprietor stopping by the old store--but what he represented.

The Angels were about to start another season as if they were simply another local attraction and Gene Autry was offering a brief but wonderful reminder that things didn't have to be like this.

Owners can still be fans. Owners can still be people. Owners don't have to meddle. Owners don't have to be mean. Owners don't have to win to be winners.

That last reminder should be particularly comforting today as the Southland mourns Autry's death Friday at the splendid age of 91.

The obituaries will point out that, despite Autry's money and best efforts, in 36 years his Angels never won a postseason series.

Only the Chicago Cubs and White Sox have had longer droughts. Even the Boston Red Sox have at least won a championship series during that time, and don't the Angels know it.

Today we will be reminded that everyone around the organization would always say, "Win one for the Cowboy."

Everyone, apparently, except the Cowboy.

Which perhaps means more to his legacy.

For all his heartbreak, Autry never spread it around. Losing must have taken its toll on him, but he never shared that.

He never went on a firing rampage. He never publicly embarrassed those who had disappointed him.

Like all great owners, he poured his soul into the team. But when it let him down, he became like all great bleacher bums, simply rummaging around for more soul.

Before complaining that he never won, perhaps we should be thankful for the lessons he taught us about losing.

"He didn't act like an owner--he was a fan," said Gene Mauch, one of his managers. "He felt that if you did your best, you should have no regrets.

"He did so much for me, so much for everybody, and I did a lot for him . . . but unfortunately, I didn't do quite enough."

Maybe Autry did too much. Believed too much. Gave too much responsibility to those who did not deserve it.

"He was led by people that he trusted, and some of them might have taken advantage of him,," said Dave Niehaus, former Angel broadcaster who spent 10 years with Autry. "He was maybe too good to players."

Niehaus remembers his first opening day as a broadcaster for the expansion Seattle Mariners after leaving Autry. The Angels were in town, and he was nervous about his new job, and it was 30 seconds before air time, and . . .

"And I feel this tap-tap-tap on my shoulder," Niehaus recalled. "I turn around and it's Mr. Autry, and he says, 'David, isn't there a place in the Kingdome that a man can get a drink?' "

Niehaus took off his headset, rushed to a sponsor bar at the back of the booth, poured Autry a drink, handed it to him and jumped back in his seat just in time to give his first opening greeting.

"A few minutes later the tap-tap-tap is back," Niehaus said. "I turn around again and it was Mr. Autry, holding the cup and saying, 'David, I knew I never should have let you leave!' "

The incident relaxed Niehaus enough that he made a good first impression and has been broadcasting the Mariners ever since.

"An unusual piece of Americana is gone," Niehaus said.

The Cowboy would keep score at the games, but never told a manager whom to play.

"A great baseball fan, but not once did he meddle," said Dick Williams, another former manager. "He was so good to people, we all wanted him to get to a World Series even after we left the organization."

The Cowboy would spend millions on stars such as Reggie Jackson and Fred Lynn, but worry only about the little things.

"Once, he saw my wife [Norma] sitting alone in a phone booth outside the clubhouse, waiting for me," Williams recalled. "He called her a couple of days later, asked her about it, said he was worried about her out there, all by herself."

The Cowboy was a man of many businesses, but no employees.

"I never worked for Gene, and he never hired me," Mauch said. "We were friends."

Perhaps nothing is more revealing about Gene Autry than the identity of another of those friends, perhaps his closest companion.

This wasn't the sort of publicity guy or beefy thug favored by today's owners.

This was a UPS worker who moonlighted at the stadium as a press-box usher.

John Moynihan, 65, would accompany Autry around the country . . . or pick him up in Studio City for breakfast in Toluca Lake.

"He would always say, 'Hi, howarya' and we just became friends," Moynihan said. "Soon he started calling me, asking if I could go with him here or there, and I said sure."

Fittingly, it was this regular guy who was at the side of this regular owner during Autry's last visit to the ballpark in early September.

By then, the failing Autry needed a wheelchair, and he hated being seen in it, but he loved his players. So Moynihan wheeled him into the clubhouse for a pregame visit.

"He met with Gary DiSarcina, Chuck Finley, some guys he felt close with," Moynihan said. "He told stories, we had some good laughs."

After the game--a 2-1 Angel victory over Kansas City--Moynihan was wheeling Autry toward the exit when the owner told him to stop.

"I want to walk out," he said, pulling himself to his feet.

And so on his last departure from his beloved team, sickly Gene Autry walked, proudly, along the crowded concourse, to the curb, through packs of fans who stared, whispered and admired.

There wasn't a sunset, but there didn't need to be. In the end, it was only fitting that the Cowboy created his own.

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