07/19/11 10:40 PM ET
Tribute precedes Autry's induction to Hall
Carew, Finley part of ceremony to honor Angels' first owner
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
So it is with the induction of Gene Autry into the Angels Hall of Fame, which formally took place Tuesday night at Angel Stadium, prior to the game against the Rangers.
Making personal appearances at the tribute to Autry were current owner Arte Moreno, Autry's widow, Jackie, Hall of Famer Rod Carew, Bobby Grich, Brian Downing and Chuck Finley. Messages from Nolan Ryan and Don Baylor were read by play-by-play broadcaster Victor Rojas.
Rangers president Ryan, unable to attend because of a health issue, passed along word that "the good news is everything is OK," adding, with respect to Autry, "I can honestly say he is among the greatest men I have ever had the pleasure to know."
Former Angels of distinction Grich, Carew, Downing and Finley addressed the crowd from a podium decorated, fittingly, with a white cowboy hat. Moreno presented Jackie Autry with a commemorative ring.The late Singing Cowboy, the team's original owner and longtime benefactor, is the Angels. His "number" was the first retired by the club, way back in 1982 -- No. 26, in honor of forever being the Angels' 26th player. Still, it is said that he became the ninth member of the Hall of Fame, which is of course wrong. The other eight actually are members of the Gene Autry Hall of Fame. The enduring legacy of Autry -- who saddled up for the 1960 Winter Meetings in St. Louis hoping to land broadcast rights to the American League's expansion franchise in Los Angeles and came away with the team itself -- is so revered, the Angels invoked his memory in their run to an overdue World Series championship in 2002, four years after his death at 91. In the raucous locker room after that triumph over San Francisco, it was hard to tell where the champagne ended and the tears began as manager Mike Scioscia, surrounded by his players, raised a bottle of bubbly to toast Autry. Tuesday night, a dry toast was joined by all in attendance during pregame ceremonies that unfolded with a tinge of gloom. In their season-long celebration of their 50th anniversary season, the Angels chose this date for Autry's induction to allow the attendance of Ryan, the franchise's historical pitching icon and now Texas' club president. But Ryan entered a Houston hospital on Monday, is undergoing tests for a pre-existing heart condition and thus missed the occasion. The Express was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, as well as accept the ring emblematic of his own membership in the Angels Hall of Fame. Carew and Finley, replacing Ryan, threw out the ceremonial first pitches as a recording of Autry's "Back in the Saddle Again" played over the loudspeakers. Also in the Hall is the late Jimmie Reese; Baylor (Arizona hitting coach) and Jim Fregosi (Atlanta advance scout) had commitments that kept them from attending. For the first 32 years, Autry was the face of the franchise. That did not make him unique in an era other teams were held by extroverted people named Finley and Kroc. The difference was that Autry's was a beloved face. "He was one of the best owners, in any sport," said Clyde Wright, the left-hander who began pitching for the Angels in 1966 and now is part of their speakers' bureau. "He didn't meddle in how managers did their thing, but he was always around. "He knew every player and knew everything about his players ... their kids' names, their wives' names." He had to, because when he made his daily clubhouse rounds, the conversation was never about baseball. Kids' school progress. Wives' shopping. Fishing or golf-course outings. "Anything you need?" This is what it must've been like if the Angels were owned by Santa Claus. Not a bad metaphor -- and not only because, the cowboy image aside, Autry's biggest hits were such Christmas classics as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Frosty the Snowman." He also emptied his sack -- or, as the press more appropriately kept putting it, his saddlebags -- for an endless parade of free agents from Joe Rudi to Reggie Jackson to Mark Langston. So he was George Steinbrenner, before Steinbrenner got off his boat. The difference was that Autry never had a bad word for anybody. And vice-versa. "He was the owner everyone identified with," said Tim Mead, the Angels' vice president of communications who started with the team more than three decades ago as a public-relations intern. "He tried to please the fans. That's all he ever wanted to do. In all his years, you didn't hear about the business side of baseball. For him, it was all about winning, about character." Autry's favorite horse, of course, was Champion. Throughout his decades of owning the Angels, Southern California newspapers must have had a standing headline ready to go to print: "Champion Rides Again." But that horse never got saddled during the Cowboy's lifetime. The Angels are a regional phenomenon in an Orange County that has become a global destination. Urban sprawl is a demographic mandate, so it probably would have happened, anyway. But the fact is, Autry accelerated the inevitable. Autry, a savvy businessman who by then was also a radio magnate, went to the 1960 Winter Meetings in search of new programming, because Dodgers broadcasts had been taken off his KMPC station, which possesses a signal too weak to reach Walter O'Malley's home in the San Gabriel Mountains. Taken with Autry's pitch, AL owners instead convinced him to buy the franchise. So humbly, it began. The Angels spent their inaugural season in Los Angeles' old Wrigley Field and when Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, began a doomed four-year tenancy. It wasn't so much their second-banana status -- although in the four seasons of sharing, the Angels drew a total of 3.3 million fans to the Dodgers' 10.1 million -- as a lease that gave O'Malley all of the Angels' concession sales. Casting about for an identity and place of his own, Autry considered Long Beach -- until that city's leaders insisted the team be called the Long Beach Angels. A deal-breaker. So Autry listened attentively when good pal Walt Disney told him about this far away place called Anaheim. And in 1966, he put his California Angels in Anaheim Stadium and put Orange County on the map. James Doti, president of Chapman University in Orange since 1991, says Orange County "would have developed more slowly and probably in a different way" had the stadium not instantly stamped the area as Major League. "Something needed to be a core in Orange County for it to be something other than simply a bedroom community to Los Angeles," Doti told the Los Angeles Times upon Autry's death in 1998. "When you have a baseball team, that's a symbol ... of an urban entity that is self-contained and has a life of its own." "Autry is up there with the Walter Knotts, the Walt Disneys, the James Irvines," said Jack Lindquist, Disneyland's president in the early '90s, taking the honor roll of OC pioneers. "People that in many different ways played an important role in the development of Orange County and Anaheim in the last half of [the 20th] century." Which is why in 2008 the city of Anaheim honored Autry with a star on its Walk of Stars -- old hat for the Cowboy. More precisely, old 10-gallon hat. Autry was never seen without the hat. In fact, he was never out of uniform: Boots, bolo tie, Stetson. The Texan drawl. Just the perfect picture. He already had five stars on the Walk of Fame, Hollywood's. No one else has as many, reflective of all the entertainment universes in which Autry orbited: Movies, radio, recording, television and theater. He owned broadcast properties, hotels and, of course, unimaginable international fame. As popular as he was here, among the sagebrush, he was even bigger abroad, in a Jerry Lewis vein, to people for whom he symbolized the limitless American West. His magnetism in OC might have been a derivative of similar sentiment. On the other side of the county line, you couldn't swing a bat without hitting a celebrity or a movie star. But OC treasured one who will cross the line. Autry faithfully took in every home game in his box adjacent to the Anaheim Stadium press box. Introducing him was never a formal part of the gameday program. But if something turned the spotlight on that box -- a foul ball perhaps, or a famous guest who did elicit an introduction -- the Cowboy would sweep his Stetson in salute, and the fans would go wild. Even when the Angels were horrible -- and there were many of those years -- and fans and media would scream invectives at players and general managers, there were only cheers and smiles for Autry. The Gipper never had as many people pulling for him to win one. "That's why, in 1986, that game hurt everyone so much," Mead said. "Even the media was pulling for Gene Autry, so he could finally get his World Series. He had experienced everything life could offer you, except a World Series." "That game" was Game 5 of the AL Championship Series, in which the Angels were within a strike of The Cowboy's Holy Grail. Dave Henderson took it away, and a few days later the Red Sox completed a comeback that had become inevitable. "On the flight back from Boston," Mead said, "everyone was crushed. But Gene took it better than anyone else." That figures. But it was one of the few times the Cowboy "took." Usually he was on the giving end. Time to take once more, a deep bow. Rudolph will be the only one with a red nose. Everyone else will have red eyes.