The pre-Angelic Autryby Frank Jackson
May 10, 2012
If you can afford it, there is one very good reason why you might want to consider buying a major league baseball team. No matter how prosperous you are in your current occupation, chances are your name is not a household word. But if you own a baseball team, the media will seek you out and your public profile will grow apace, at least in your home town, and possibly nationally. As Senators/Twins owner Calvin Griffith once put it, “They’ve got so much money. But nobody knew who they were before baseball. Who the hell ever heard of Ted Turner or Ray Kroc or Steinbrenner?”
But what about the late Gene Autry? As the first owner of the Los Angeles Angels (the major league version), he was a longstanding celebrity before the Angels commenced play on April 11, 1961, with a 7-2 victory over the Orioles at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. As his fans proudly point out, he is the only entertainer in history to have five stars (one each for movies, TV, radio, records, and live performances) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Add to those pursuits his business empire, and one would think his plate was not only full but piled as high as the laws of physics would permit. Yet he remained the owner of the Angels from day one until his death in 1998, though admittedly his status was more titular than hands-on toward the end.
But what induced him to take on the Angels in the first place? And why did he hold on to them even though their exploits on the field of play were largely disappointing?
Autry himself acknowledged that buying a baseball team is at once “an ego rub, a boyhood dream, and a tax shelter.” I haven’t the qualifications to expound on the latter, but let’s explore the first two topics.
One might think that an ego rub would have held little appeal for someone who had enjoyed decades of public acclaim, but Autry was getting up in years when he bought the Angels. His last full-length recording and last public performance occurred in 1962 when the Angels were in their sophomore season. Perhaps he was looking for a way to remain in the public eye (hence an “ego rub”) after retiring from show business, and owning the Angels was one way to accomplish that. Giving up performing did afford him more time to travel with his new team, which would keep him in the headlines in American League cities.
The “boyhood dream” aspect of owning a team might also hold some water. “So this was the grand old cliché, the might-have-been pro who winds up owning a team,” Autry once observed. Indeed, as a young man, Autry was an avid baseball fan and played American Legion ball in his hometown of Tioga, Texas. Apparently, he and his cousins were the core of a very good team.
At age 19, Autry the budding shortstop went to a tryout and was good enough to be offered a minor league contract by the Cardinals back when Branch Rickey was attempting to corner the market on young talent for his growing network of Cardinal affiliates. But when Autry was offered a $100-a-month contract to play Class D ball, he was already making $150 per month working for the St. Louis-San Francisco (better known as the Frisco) Railroad—and getting free train rides as a perk.
So Autry’s theme song remained “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” as opposed to “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Though a 33-and-a-third percent pay cut is a predictable deal-killer under most circumstances, turning down an opportunity to play professional baseball can’t help but invite second-guessing. “If baseball paid as well as the railroads then, who knows, I might have a line or two today in the
Encyclopedia of Baseball,” Autry mused.
While he remained at his post with Frisco, he was also able to indulge his desire to play baseball, as the railroad had its own league composed of teams of employees. Autry played for the Sapulpa-Tulsa team in 1928. “I couldn’t wait at times to trade a telegraph key for a ball, bat, and a glove. I could swing a pretty good bat. I was a baseball ‘nut,’ and if I do say so myself, I did pretty fair in the semi-pro class of ball.”
The railroad job even afforded Autry the chance to rub elbows with ballplayers and other notables. He was acquainted with Jay Hanna Dean in Oklahoma before he was popularly known as Dizzy. As a Frisco employee, Autry made Dean’s acquaintance in Spaulding, Okla., where they took turns playing the local checkers hustler, a grocer/bootlegger, who purveyed a concoction called Jamaica Ginger, widely known to cause a type of paralysis popularly known as “jake leg.”
Autry also made the acquaintance of Will Rogers, who came into the telegraph office to check World Series scores as they came over the wire. Hearing Autry perform on the guitar which he always kept in his office, Rogers speculated that the young man just might have a future in show business.
Though Autry’s career as a baseball player never made the leap from semi-pro to full-fledged professional, he continued to follow the game and its players as he worked for the railroad, gradually developing his show business career to the point where he could leave his day job. The itch to play ball carried over to his performance tours, when he and the Range Riders, his backup band, toted along gloves, bats, and balls in addition to their instruments, taking advantage of time between engagements to play pickup games of baseball.
Autry’s link to baseball was abetted by Arch McDonald, the public address announcer for the Chattanooga Lookouts. McDonald started playing Autry’s 1930 opus “They Cut Down the Old Pine Tree” during the seventh-inning stretch of Lookout games. When McDonald moved on to the Senators in 1934 he took the song with him to Washington, and eventually to New York when he worked for the Giants and the Yankees.
As his fame grew, Autry found that his status in show business often gained him access to ballplayers that mere “civilian” status would never have afforded him. For example, in the early 1930s, when he was a radio regular on “The Barn Dance” on Chicago radio station WLS (an acronym for World’s Largest Store, since the station was owned by Sears-Roebuck), he lived about a mile north of Wrigley Field, and got to know some of the Cub players. Occasionally, he would take his guitar to the dressing room and perform for them.
Even after Autry moved away from Chicago, the Wrigley name loomed large in his career. During an August, 1939 visit to Ireland for an international equestrian event, Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley witnessed a mob of people (estimates vary from 500,000 to 750,000) turn out to see Autry in a Dublin parade publicizing his appearance at Theater Royale. When Daniel Danker, head of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, suggested Autry’s “Melody Ranch” show on CBS radio might be a great vehicle for Doublemint Gum sponsorship, Wrigley didn’t have to think twice. Doublemint’s “Melody Ranch” aired from January, 1940 to May, 1956—the longest continual sponsor-performer relationship in radio history.
In addition to his radio work, Autry filmed 100 half-hour television shows for Wrigley. Also, during the Angels’ first year in Los Angeles, they played in that city’s Wrigley Field, a former Pacific Coast League park, and also named after the chewing gum magnate.
Another famous name—not a player—from Cubs history also crossed Autry’s path in 1937.
While the Cubs were in spring training at Catalina Island, their play-by-play man, Ronald Reagan, ventured to mainland California and encountered Gene Autry on a movie set. He indicated to Autry that the moving picture business looked pretty interesting and he wouldn’t mind taking a fling at it himself. Autry tried to discourage him, pointing out, “Well, it seems to me you’ve already got one of the best jobs there is. You get into all the games free and you get to hang around with the players.”
But Reagan was not so easily dissuaded. As we know, he did pretty well for himself in the moving picture business, then decided there were even better gigs out there.
While Autry was a Cubs fan during his tenure in Chicago, he was also a fan of baseball in general. When he took to the road for personal appearances, it afforded him the opportunity to catch baseball games in season. Sometimes he could engineer his schedule accordingly. The annual appearance of his World’s Championship Rodeo in New York’s Madison Square Garden in New York conveniently coincided with the World Series.
Of course, there was no guarantee that a New York team would be in the Fall Classic, but no city offered better odds.
Though Autry had a soft spot in his heart for the National Pastime, his decision to be the inaugural owner of the Angels was not just a sentimental one. In fact, it was not his first foray into ownership, as he been a minority owner in the Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League. And he didn’t consider owning a baseball team to be that much of a stretch for a former entertainer. Notably, his press agent, George Goodale, made a smooth transition to public relations work for the Angels.
“Baseball is still a form of show business,” Autry noted, “[but] you wear a baseball cap and spikes [instead of a cowboy hat and boots].” On radio, of course, no one can see what the performers are wearing, yet that was the medium that indirectly resulted in Autry becoming the owner of the Angels.
When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, their games were broadcast on KPMC radio, part of Autry’s Golden West Broadcasters network. Autry had owned KPMC since 1952 and envisioned it as primarily a sports station (they had broadcast minor league games before the arrival of the Dodgers), so the Dodger broadcasts were a natural. But in 1960, Dodger owner Walter O’Malley acquired a summer home in the mountains above Lake Arrowhead. Unable to pick up his team’s games on the radio at his retreat, he decided to shift the broadcasts to station KFI for the 1961 season. Losing the Dodger broadcasts was a significant blow to KPMC’s prestige, but redemption was close at hand.
At the end of the 1960 baseball season, the National and American Leagues agreed to expand and the would-be Continental League disbanded. The American League announced that a team would be awarded to Los Angeles.
Hank Greenberg and Bill Veeck had the inside track on owning the franchise but were priced out of the market when Walter O’Malley set his price ($350,000) for allowing another major league team in his market. With the new franchise now open to prospective owners, Autry called up American League President Joe Cronin, who informed him that he needed to post a $1.5 million letter of credit by the following Monday. The conversation took place on a Friday, but Autry went to work immediately and had his letter ready on time.
The only other applicant for the team was a Chicago insurance man by the name of Charles O. Finley. Autry, however, won unanimous approval from the American League owners a few days later on Oct. 26, 1960 (less than six months before Opening Day), during a meeting at the Savoy Hilton in New York. He not only had a team for his KPMC broadcast schedule, he had a team! (Less than two months later, Finley acquired a controlling interest in the Kansas City Athletics from the heirs of former owner Arnold Johnson.)
Autry’s celebrity status undoubtedly helped his bid. His reputation as an astute businessman certainly didn’t hurt. As Autry himself noted, “It has always amused me when people seem surprised by my success in business. Actually, working with numbers was what I did best.”
Even so, he might have been more surprised than anyone to find that the skills that had served him so well in figuring out ticket prices and freight charges would eventually enrich him so greatly. Indeed, from 1983 to 1994, he appeared 10 times in the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans. When he died, his second wife, Jackie, had him buried with a $32 million check in his coat. The sum represented Forbes’ estimated net worth of Autry at the time of his death.
If any other recommendations were needed, Joe Cronin himself was in Autry’s corner long before expansion came to major league baseball. When Autry’s rodeo visited Boston Garden after World War II, Cronin asked if he could bring his kids backstage to meet Autry. Baseball fan Autry certainly knew who Cronin was and readily agreed. He even had some cowboy hats handy to bestow upon the young visitors.
Cronin never forgot the incident. “Anybody who loves kids that much,” said Cronin, “has got to be good for baseball.”
Probably no one would argue with that statement, but baseball was not so good to Autry once he became an owner. The Angels never seemed to rise to the occasion during the Autry years.
Almost as if to tease him, the team showed promise in the early going. In their premiere season, the Amgels finished ahead of Washington (also an expansion team) and Kansas City; in their second season (still known as the Los Angeles Angels, they were then playing in newly-opened Dodger Stadium), the Halos definitely turned heads by challenging the Yankees for the pennant before finishing third. In subsequent years, the Angels for the most part sank into mediocrity, even though they had their share of marquee players, such as Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, and Nolan Ryan.
Though not as familiar as the Red Sox’ Curse of the Bambino, the Curse of the Cowboy was sometimes mentioned in connection with a team that often seemed to have a dark cloud hovering over it. Not that anyone harbored any ill will towards Autry, but the theory was that since his life had worked out so well in his other pursuits, the Angels’ tragedies and underachievement were fate’s way of evening things out.
Perhaps that long relationship with the Angels, despite decades of disappointment, was sustained by love of the game nurtured during his formative years. Autry’s career moves were clearly successful and ordinarily would not motivate him to second-guess his choices.
But doubtless there were times when he wondered what might have happened if he had signed on with the St. Louis Cardinals. Whether he watched his Angels play in Los Angeles, Anaheim, or Palm Springs (their spring training home till 1993 and also Autry’s home away from home), he might have had some variation of a Damn Yankees fantasy running through his head. Never mind the fact that any success he enjoyed on a baseball diamond would be highly unlikely to match the success he attained in his real-world endeavors.
In 1978, after 18 years of ownership, Autry declared, “For sure, baseball has been the most exciting and frustrating experience of my life. In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball I have hardly ever won one. But I haven’t given up. At heart, I’m an optimist. No man would survive long in baseball if he wasn’t.”
So we might be justified in concluding that sheer love of the game was a key factor in motivating Autry to become the owner of the Angels—and kept him in the game till his dying day.
And that tax shelter thing? Well, that might have been a factor. After all, Autry did say he was good with numbers.
References and Resources
Autry, Gene, with Mickey Herskowitz, Back in the Saddle Again. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1978.
Cahan, Richard and Mark Jacob, The Game That Was: The George Brace Baseball Photo Collection. Chicago, Contemporary Books, 1996.
George-Warren, Holly, Public Cowboy No.1: The Life and Times of Gene Autry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Southern Methodist Oral History Project, Number 329, Gene Autry interviewed by Ronald L. Davis, July 24, 1984.
Calvinisms, published by Knothole Press, Minneapolis, http://www.efqreview.com
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.