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STYLE & CULTURE

Borne out by Angels

Once maligned, Jackie Autry is riding high now that the team she helped build is in the Series.

October 23, 2002|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

Nobody liked her. They slammed her as cheap and mean, a tightwad former banker with a teller's personality, married to the sweet old singing cowboy who would have done anything to see his team win the World Series. That was the rap on Gene Autry's wife, who essentially ran the Angels from 1991 to 1996, when the team was sold to Disney. And as the media turned on her, Jackie Autry, always a private person, simply retreated from the public eye.

Today, four years after the death of the Cowboy, with the Angels in the World Series for the first time, she's suddenly back in the spotlight.

"She has become a celebrity now that they don't own the team anymore," Stan Schneider, the Autrys' family accountant for 40 years, said with a cackle last week.

Angel fans went wild when she appeared on Edison Field after the team won the American League championship, and outfielder Tim Salmon sprayed her with champagne. She struggled to juggle the endless media requests following that win. And after donning her husband's number 26 jersey -- awarded to him by the team to symbolize the Angels' 26th man -- she stepped onto the mound on Saturday to throw out the first pitch of the World Series.

It was a sinker, but no one cared.

This time around, everybody loves her.

'Owner in training'

Jackie Ellam met Gene Autry when she was vice president at Security Pacific National Bank in Palm Springs, handling the Autry hotel account. Shortly after his first wife died, Gene asked Jackie on a date. He had married his first wife after just three nights out, and he quickly decided he wanted Jackie.

"About two weeks after we started dating, he asked me to come into his office and have a seat," she recalled. "He asked me, 'Do you believe in big weddings or small weddings?' "

Honorary Hollywood Mayor Johnny Grant, who met Autry in the Army Air Corps in '44 and later worked in his radio and television stations, said Autry called him on a Sunday morning and asked, "Tiger, do you know a preacher? Jackie and I want to get married today." Grant replied: "You want me to get you a preacher? It's Sunday. They're all working." But Autry persisted, so Grant went to services at his Methodist church and persuaded his clergyman to perform the ceremony afterward. It was July 1981. She was 39. He was 73.

From the beginning, Gene Autry groomed Jackie to take over the team, sometimes referring to her as the "owner in training."

Jackie was good raw material: She had played hardball herself as a girl, back in parochial school in Ironia, N.J., and knew the nuances of the game as a player. (She was a center fielder and an "excellent hitter -- the best on the team," she said.) She was a smart businesswoman who could read spreadsheets and make sound financial decisions. And she was a real sports fan. Before marrying Gene she was a football devotee, able to recite the names of players, their stats and their histories as well as any guy.

When the two of them would go to the games in Anaheim, it was Jackie who went crazy in the owners' box, while Gene stood by, outwardly stoic. "I'm the screamer and yeller," said Jackie, who admits she does not like to lose. "He would turn to me and say, 'Talk to 'em, baby.' "

Grant said it was a good thing Jackie liked baseball -- as did Autry's first wife -- because Autry wasn't about to give up the game.

"Being with Gene, and baseball, worked into a great love for her," added Monte Hale, a close friend of the Autrys and a fellow singing cowboy. Hale said that when they drove home after games, Jackie would put on western music -- Autry or Patsy Cline. "Win or lose, it didn't make a difference, the four of us would sing," said Joanne Hale, Monte's wife.

A 5-year plan

By 1991, Jackie carried the title of executive vice president and was a member of the board of directors. While her control of the Autrys' holdings had steadily increased, her public profile remained low -- until she began to try to curb the team's losses by favoring home-grown players over high-priced free agents.

"I sat down in the spring with the beat writers," she recalled. "I started talking about where baseball was going. I talked to them about the future of baseball, the economics of baseball. I used the word 'budget.' This word had never come up in baseball before."

The team was competitive. She and Richard Brown -- the team president from 1990 to 1996 -- knew there were only two courses of action: grow talent through the farm system with a five-year plan, or spend the money to buy a pennant, like the Florida Marlins did.

Jackie Autry opted for the former, and was brutally specific. "If we try to retain all of our young men that are going to be free agents in the off-season, and try to deal with arbitration as well, we're going to be losing $8 million to $10 million next year," she told the Los Angeles Times in a story headlined "Wife of the Angels' Owner Says Bottom Line Now Must Come First." "Gene has said, 'I refuse to raise ticket prices again.' Well, now you've got a problem."

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