His Horse Is Champion, His Angels Are Not, but Gene Autry Can Dream

updated 05/26/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/26/1980 01:00AM

I was 8 years old and wanted to be a cowboy when I saw a Gene Autry movie. I still do.—Ringo Starr

Gene Autry, however, does not. At 72, his speech slowed and his gait unsteady, Autry realizes he would no longer feel at home on the range. "But I never worry about that," he says. "I think it's kind of a crime to go back and daydream. You can't make yourself young again." That is not to say that all of his youthful fires have been banked. He remains as fiercely competitive as the movie cowpoke vying for the schoolmarm's hand. Championship baseball is the object of his desire now. After nearly 20 years as owner of the California Angels, Autry had his first winner last fall. Fielding a lineup of stars that cost him millions, his Angels won their first division championship ever, then lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League's pennant playoff.

His appetite whetted, Autry began to contemplate the Angel pennants ahead. They will not come easily. His best pitcher, Nolan Ryan, was lured away off-season by a $1 million-a-year offer from the Houston Astros of the National League. Autry recouped by signing Pittsburgh pitcher Bruce Kison, a free agent, for a reported $2.4 million. The 1980 season may yet live up to Autry's fond hopes, but it is threatened by a bizarre labor dispute involving millionaires on both sides. At issue is baseball's free-agent clause, which now allows a player to sell his services to any team after six years in the majors. Players are demanding the right to be free after four years and have set a strike deadline of May 22. The owners want to maintain the status quo; they are also asking for compensation from any club that signs one of their free agents. The players say this will inhibit their ability to bargain. "I don't blame the players," says Autry. "Some of them have no idea of business, of what it takes to field a club. But if they don't wake up, it may be the last roundup. I think we ought to lock them out."

Such harshness is uncharacteristic of Autry. During an earlier player walkout this spring his team sent a letter assuring him it was nothing personal. Ordinarily, he is one of the most generous owners in baseball, a man with a passion for the game. "I was always a fan," he says. "My friends back in Oklahoma were ballplayers, and in the early years I played sandlot and semipro. In fact, some scouts came to look at me in Tulsa, but I knew I'd never be that good."

The son of an itinerant horse trader, Autry was born in Tioga, Texas. After a nomadic childhood, he settled with his family in Oklahoma at the age of 17. Soon afterward he went to work as a railroad telegrapher. "When things got slow, I kept a little old guitar around that I would strum on," he recalled later. "One night this farmer-looking guy, with glasses on the tip of his nose, came into the office and gave me some pages to send. Then he spotted the guitar. 'You play that?' he asked. 'Some,' I told him. 'Like to hear you,' he said." Obediently, Autry picked his way through a couple of songs. "Hey, you do all right," the man said. "You ought to get yourself a job on the radio." The visitor was Will Rogers.

Flushed with enthusiasm, Autry traveled to New York in 1927 on his railroad pass, but returned home discouraged after a month of knocking on record company doors. Back in Tulsa, he signed on with radio station KVOO, then returned to Manhattan to cut some records on the now defunct Conqueror label. Later he was invited to appear on the National Barn Dance, a popular country music program, and cut a million-selling country lament called That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine, written with an old railroad buddy named Jimmy Long. En route to Chicago in 1932 he met Long's niece, Ina Mae Spivey, a 20-year-old music student. Three months and only four dates later Gene proposed, and they were married.

In 1934 the Autrys moved to Hollywood. Westerns were losing popularity because of their sheer proliferation, and the studios were casting about desperately for an idea to keep them alive. Enter the singing cowboy. Within three years Autry was the top Western star at the box office, and he held the title for six years. "I honestly never considered myself an actor," he admitted later. "An actor would be someone like Paul Muni or Spencer Tracy. I was more of a personality." Never one to deceive himself in assessing his talents, Autry applied the same uncompromising realism to his finances. He had taken a correspondence course in accounting when he worked for the railroad, and when he broke into show business he made it a point to check the ticket window receipts on his own. By 1941 he was grossing more than $600,000 a year from records, personal appearances, endorsements and movies. In July 1942, at the age of 34, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, soon becoming a $135-a-month sergeant. Autry was allowed to wear cowboy boots with his uniform—the only concession to his fame.

Flying cargo in the Far East during the war years, Autry had a chance to do some serious thinking. "I woke up to the fact that if it weren't for the royalties coming in from songs, the T-shirts and things like Gene Autry jeans—I must have had a hundred endorsements—I would have been in one hell of a mess," he recalls. "As long as I could work, as long as I was healthy, I'd be fine. But if I were in an accident, my voice could go and God only knows what could happen. I decided I ought to start right then and get into business."

His first move, in 1948, was to buy a radio station in Phoenix. That acquisition became the cornerstone of a financial empire that now includes eight other radio stations, a Los Angeles TV station, a Palm Springs hotel, a 20,000-acre cattle ranch in Arizona and the baseball team. Despite a cordial rivalry with another singing cowboy, Roy Rogers, Autry's show business career continued to flourish. He made one of his shrewdest, if most reluctant, decisions in 1949 at the urging of his wife. He had received a song in the mail but did not want to record it. Ina Mae disagreed. "It reminds me of the story of The Ugly Duckling," she said. "The kids will love it." Autry took the song to a session in L.A. where he was going to record four Christmas numbers for Columbia. After cutting three of them, he hesitated, then said, "Let's throw that Rudolph thing in." Autry raced through one quick take of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It sold two and a half million copies its first year and went on to become the second-best-selling single in history—runner-up only to Bing Crosby's White Christmas.

Though Autry continued performing until 1964 and played cowboy for a second generation of American kids in 91 episodes of TV's Gene Autry Show during the '50s, his career was troubled by rumors that he drank heavily. Finally, in a 1978 autobiography, he confronted the issue. "Without realizing it," he wrote, "I had grown dependent on liquor to relax. Drinking was a way to celebrate the end of a day or a deal. I was always on the go, fighting another deadline, racing to a studio or a business meeting, skipping meals. It is a hard habit to resist and, after a while, you really don't want to resist."

Autry still claims that his drinking never interfered with his work. His old TV sidekick Pat Buttram, now 64 and semiretired, agrees. "Gene and I hit it off right away," he says. "We both liked to drink and admire the women. But he never loused up a show. He knew it would cost him money. Once we got him on the horse, we knew we were safe." Buttram was fascinated by Autry's instinct for business. "His word was impeccable. You could put it in the bank," he says. "But Gene was always a horse trader. When he signed an autograph for a little girl, he saw dollar signs instead of curls. I remember he used to say on the radio, 'Send me 50 cents for the Gene Autry songbook.' Then he'd come in on Saturday and pick up his mail. He'd sit in front of a wastebasket, shake each envelope so the coins would slide down to one corner, and then hit it on the rim of the wastebasket. The envelope would break open, the money would fall out and he'd hand the envelope to his secretary. I'll always remember that wastebasket half filled with silver." Buttram shakes his head in wonder. "He told me once, 'Everybody is always grabbing good deals. But when a goddamn good deal comes along, they don't have any money left to grab it with.' "

Having heeded his own cautionary advice, Autry moved quickly when the Angels became available in 1960. The opportunity came about when Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley pulled his team's game broadcasts off Autry's radio station KMPC, complaining of poor audio quality. Autry immediately tried to tie up radio rights to the American League's California expansion team and found that the prospective owners of the new club had soured on the deal. Three days later Autry produced a letter of credit for $1.5 million and became a major league owner. "In the beginning," he recalls with a smile, "we didn't have any players, baseballs or bats. In fact, we didn't have a stadium." After playing for four years at Dodger Stadium, the Angels moved into a handsome 43,000-seat ballpark on the freeway in Anaheim in 1966. Last year they drew a club-record 2.5 million fans. By this season's end the stadium capacity will be expanded to 65,000.

Today Autry spends most of his time at a spacious bungalow on the grounds of the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs, where he and Ina Mae carefully follow the Angels' fortunes. "I've got a real good staff, so I don't put in that much time in the office," he says. "I'm in contact with the television and radio stations every day, but I spend about 25 percent of my day on the team." When the Angels are playing in Anaheim, Autry and his bodyguard, Les Bagwell, drive two hours through the desert to the stadium in the owner's air-conditioned Mercedes. Bagwell, who was once Autry's gardener, is armed with a Smith & Wesson .38 and never lets the boss out of his sight. "I get threats all the time," says Gene, "so I carry someone with me who has a gun. There are a lot of crackpots out there."

Despite the strike threat that has clouded this season, Autry has remained, above all, the indomitable fan. Next to his seat in the owner's box at Anaheim Stadium are a radio, a TV set for instant replays and a red telephone to the Angel dugout below. Virtually unapproachable when a game is in progress, he concentrates as intently on the telltale marks on his scorecard as he did on that long-ago harvest of quarters. "I never get impatient," he says of the vagaries of baseball. "I know how tough it is, and I've had a lot of thrills. But if I could win a World Series, I'd be very happy."

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