YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

World Series

Cowboy Justice

Those who knew Angel owner Gene Autry say despite his film and singing success, these days might have been his happiest

October 20, 2002|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

If Gene Autry were alive to see this day, he might shower and shave and read the newspaper over breakfast, just like any other day.

With his Anaheim Angels playing in their first World Series, he and his wife Jackie might leave home in time to stop by the clubhouse and chat with the players, just as they would for any other game. From there, they would go to the owner's box, where he would sit with a customary scorecard in hand.

"He would be very calm," Jackie said. "If someone hit a home run, he might stand up and applaud. He never screamed and yelled."

But deep inside, behind that poker face, might be a different story.

The man they called "the Cowboy" spent almost four decades hoping to see his team play for the championship. He suffered through losing seasons. Even worse, he suffered through playoffs when the Angels came one game, one out, one strike, away from the Series.

For all the renown Autry enjoyed as an actor and singer, all the millions he made before his death four years ago, people who knew him suspect that -- even with the Angels down a game to the San Francisco Giants -- he might never have been happier.

"This was his ultimate goal," said Bobby Knoop, a former second baseman and coach for the Angels. "You just got the feeling he wanted it so badly."

The original singing cowboy, the one with the 10-gallon hat and a smile as broad as Texas, loved baseball since the days when he played it well enough to be offered a tryout by the St. Louis Cardinals. Though he chose another career -- Will Rogers discovered him plucking a guitar at his night job as a telegraph operator -- Autry never strayed far from the game.

Performing on a Tulsa radio show in the late 1920s, he befriended Dizzy Dean and other players who came through town for Texas League games. Later, while in Chicago to record albums, Autry frequented Wrigley Field.

His true involvement began near the end of a career that spanned about 94 films and more than 600 recordings. In 1952, Autry purchased the radio station that carried Dodger games and, when he lost that contract, sought the broadcast rights to an expansion club the American League wanted to put in Southern California.

By 1961, almost by accident, he was co-owner of the new franchise.

It was paradise for a baseball fan, recalled Johnny Grant, who met Autry in the Army Air Corps during World War II and later worked for his radio and television stations. At Lakeside Country Club, Autry traded barbs with Bob Hope, a part-owner of the Cleveland Indians. At a house Grant shared with several Angel players, Autry often stayed until the wee hours talking baseball.

"Gene was one of the biggest stars around, but he was like a kid when we would go out and have a meal with Stan Musial or Red Schoendienst," said Grant, who later became honorary mayor of Hollywood. "He loved it when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle came through town."

The admiration was often mutual because, as former manager Gene Mauch said, a lot of players "thought he was a god." Knoop collected his records, an autographed baseball, even a pair of his old boots emblazoned with a flying "A."

When minor league clubs needed a celebrity to raise money, they asked Autry.

"I'd drive him up to Bakersfield or San Jose," Grant said. "He'd sit in the passenger seat the whole way reading the newspaper, from cover to back, even the want ads. When we got to the banquet, he'd get up and tell a few jokes. He would do anything to support the game."

On one such trip, police kept stopping them even though Grant was watching his speed. The third time, an officer explained why. "They were radioing ahead, saying Gene Autry's in that car," Grant recalled.

Outfielder Tim Salmon, born long after Autry's heyday, learned of this fame when he was searching through his grandmother's house and found a stack of Gene Autry comic books that had belonged to his father. Salmon brought his dad and the comics to the ballpark.

"My dad was like a kid," Salmon said. "Here he was excited about me playing in the big leagues, but the biggest thing was that, through his son, he got to meet his childhood hero. For me, it was really finding out who Mr. Autry was through my father."

Even players who knew little of the singing cowboy became enamored of the owner who spent spring training with the team and threw lavish barbecues behind his Palm Springs hotel. They always asked him to sing his hits, "Back in the Saddle" and "Here Comes Santa Claus."

Once the season began, Autry stopped by the clubhouse before and after games.

"Mr. Autry loved his players and he loved to sit and talk," Knoop said. "He might talk about the game, especially if we won. If we lost, he'd find something else to talk about. 'How was your day?' 'Was everything else all right?' He was never, ever negative."

There were reasons to be discouraged. As Autry said years later: "In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball, I hardly ever won one."

Los Angeles Times Articles