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The 100 Greatest Angels: #46 Gene Autry

#46 - Gene Autry, Owner

Gene Autry built up a lifetime of goodwill with all of the things he did for the Angels. But he is #46 on this list for two deficiencies: 1. He could not seem to pick a front office that could develop a plan nor did he seem to stick with personnel to see a plan through. 2. He could not pick a wife, as Jackie Autry downsized the club after 1990 into her personal medium-market cash chow.

But Gene did a lot of great things and he will be remembered fondly for them. Without him there would be no team, but with him there was a start-stop-start again commitment to doing anything resembling marketing, management and winning.

On a personal note, Gene and I and Arte's wife were all born within a day of each other and when I shook his statue's hand (located near the 3B Gate), I slipped my head into the cowboy hat he had removed - I recommend you try this ritual after Angel losses, wear the founders hat to see what it is like before you criticize. I did, and since we are the same hat size, it was time to tell it like it is.

If that stadium statue is not enough and you want to visit Gene today he is, according to the factsheet, interred at Forest Lawn (Hollywood Hills), Los Angeles, California, USA, in the Sheltering Hills section, Grave #1048.

Rob McMillin of the 6-4-2 Southern California Baseball Blog tries on the hat first...

Gene Autry, it was said, had two loves: storytelling, and baseball, but he only made money with one of them. That he was good at the former allowed him to own hotels and a significant and sprawling broadcast empire that put his net worth at about $320 million as of 1995. His later success was a huge leap for the orphan from Tioga, Texas, where he was born on September 19, 1907. His mother died at the age of 45, unable to afford proper medical care; his father, an itinerant salesman, wandered off soon after. Baling hay on his Uncle Calvin's farm when he was twelve, he hired on as a baggage handler with the Frisco Line at 15.

By the time he was 19, he was earning $35 a month as a railroad telegrapher, playing the guitar and singing to keep himself busy during idle moments. Once, a stranger happened by to send a telegraph, and upon hearing him sing, said "You know, with some hard work, young man, you might have something. You ought to think about going to New York and get yourself a job on the radio." The stranger was Will Rogers, and Autry took the suggestion to heart, fleeing the Chelsea, Oklahoma wilderness for Gotham.

New York radio rejected him, but on his return to Oklahoma, he got a job with a Tulsa radio station, which in turn led to a contract in 1929, and a minor hit two years later with "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine." But his love of baseball -- still the national game in those days -- remained undiminished from the days when he was a sandlot player as a boy. Visiting his sister in Chelsea, he received an offer of $100 a month from the Cardinals as a promising no-hit, all-field shortstop. It wasn't enough money to pull him away from the telegrapher's bug, but it kept the recurring theme of baseball alive.

After his first early success at KVOO in Tulsa, Autry's string of hits were seemingly endless: he recorded 635 songs, 300 of which were written or co-written by him. He sold 100 million records, and owned over a dozen gold and platinum records, the biggest of which was "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", a song his first wife Ina Mae, had to talk him into. He had also started making movies, and by 1940, theater owners voted him the fourth-largest draw at the box office. He had several national radio programs, and had numerous personal appearance tours, becoming the first individual to sell out Madison Square Garden, performing twice a day, seven days a week, for 65 to 85 days at a time.

In 1950, Autry launched his television career, starring in the half-hour The Gene Autry Show, and producing five others as well. His shrewd business sense served him well in the broadcasting business, where he accumulated a small empire. He owned KMPC radio and KTLA television in Los Angeles, as well as radio stations in San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and Detroit, cable TV outlets in Memphis, Omaha, Dallas, Providence, Chicago, and Atlanta, and a UHF station in Oklahoma City, not to mention a separate company dedicated to selling radio airtime. "Whatever I own, whatever I have accomplished," he said, "didn't happen by chance. Even as a boy I planned ahead. When I was a baggage handler at 15 for the Frisco Railroad, and later a telegrapher, I still took correspondence courses and became an accountant. There has always been this kind of linkage in my life."

For Autry, the linkage to baseball returned -- rather rudely -- in 1960, when he read in Variety that the Dodgers were to drop their radio broadcasts with KMPC. O'Malley explained that KMPC's broadcasts didn't reach his mountain hideaway. Autry "was shocked", he later recounted.

"Bob Reynolds, my partner, and Stan Spero, my general manager at KMPC, had personally negotiated with O'Malley and believed they had his word on a contract renewal. We had spent all kinds of money in supporting his fight to build in Chavez Ravine. It was hard to believe. The ironic thing is that the Dodgers ultimately ended up on a station whose nighttime power is so weak you have trouble picking up the games even in Orange County. I guess those things have a way of evening up."

The American League was plotting a kind of revenge, though. After three years in Los Angeles, the Dodgers were so stupefyingly popular that the Junior Circuit had voted to open a new franchise in O'Malley's backyard starting in 1961. O'Malley, whose influence in baseball in those days made him a force equal to if not greater than the Commissioner, tried to kill the new team before it could get off the ground, demanding $450,000 indemnification from the proposed owners of the Los Angeles franchise, Hall of Fame hitter Hank Greenberg and consummate baseball showman Bill Veeck. Unable and unwilling to add this sum to their already appreciable startup costs, caught in the midst of what appeared to be open warfare between the two leagues, they eventually backed away.

That exit opened a void that Autry and business partner Robert Reynolds were about to fill. "You know, Bob," Autry told him, "I don't know why ... we shouldn't bid for the franchise ourselves, if only to protect the broadcast rights." Reynolds, who owned 30% of KMPC, readily agreed.

It was a decision that would change his life forever. "For sure, baseball has been the most exciting and frustrating experience in my life. In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball, I hardly ever won one." The team won only three division titles in the 27 years he owned the club; it had 20 managers over that span, and a list of freak injuries, collapses, and even homicides that at one point caused former Angels shortstop Leo Cardenas to consider tossing his slumping bats into the trunk of his car and driving through a cemetery to evict the evil spirits dwelling therein.

Toward the end of his life, Autry found himself in a predicament; unable to pay the rapidly escalating salaries accruing to free agents, increasingly in debt to Wells Fargo, and nearing the end of his financial rope, he came to an agreement with Disney to buy the team before he had to be bailed out, as the league had done with Detroit. Though he died without the Angels winning a World Series title or even a pennant, he knew his wife wouldn't need to pay off his baseball debts, and that the team was in the hands of an organization committed to keeping the team in Anaheim. For the Angels, the sale proved to be the best thing that ever happened to them.