A Beloved Cowboy and His Baseball Team’s Long Drought

by Joe Guzzardi
[cartoon id="241685"] The Los Angeles Angels have endured a long drought in their quest to reach baseball’s post-season. The Halos last appeared in a World Series run in 2014, and this year was the futile Angels’ fifth consecutive losing season. Fans wonder if the time has come to revive the Angels’ old battle cry: “Win one for the cowboy,” a reference to former team owner Gene Autry. Long before 1960, the year Autry bought the Angels, he was America’s most beloved singing cowboy, a rodeo performer who parlayed his talents and popularity into a multimillion-dollar empire. Autry recorded 640 songs, including the classics, “Back in the Saddle Again,” and his biggest hit, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” In all, Autry’s recordings sold more than 100 million copies, and earned him gold and platinum records. Among Autry’s admirers were his singing peers, Jimmy Rogers, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, but also, improbably, Ringo Starr and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Autry seamlessly transitioned from yodeling into becoming a major film star alongside his trusty horse, Champion, and his faithful sidekick, Pat Buttram. Eventually, Autry expanded into ranching, oil wells, real estate and radio station acquisition, all of which contributed to a fortune so vast that he appeared for ten consecutive years on Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans. As Buttram told a Desert Sun newspaper reporter: “Gene Autry used to ride off into the sunset. Now he owns it.” But as the Angels’ owner, Autry was never able to match his cowboy successes. As a youth, Autry played semi-pro baseball, claimed that the St. Louis Cardinals invited him to a tryout and organized pick-up games at spring training camps. Despite his willingness to pay big salaries to the superstars of the era - future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, Joe Rudi, Don Baylor and Bobby Grich - the Angels consistently finished out of the money. Finally, in 1979 after adding seven-time batting champion Rod Carew to the lineup, the Angels won the American League West crown. By then, fans and players hoped to spur the Angels on to baseball’s greatest peak with their lament, “Win one for the cowboy.” Autry had a strong bond with fans, players and his managers. In a Society for American Baseball Research article, Warren Corbett wrote that Autry mingled freely with his fans and took pains to learn the names of his players, managers and their kids. One player recalled that in his pre-game rounds through the club house, Autry would ask, “Anything you need?” And Nolan Ryan, who pitched four of his seven career no-hitters for the Angels, said, “I can honestly say he is among the greatest men I have ever had the pleasure to know.” As Autry aged, he turned management responsibility over to his wife, Jackie. But the cowboy lived long enough to see his Angels repeat as Western Division title holders in 1982 and 1986. Each year, they lost the league championship, by one game in 1982, and one strike in 1986. Sadly, cancer took Autry in 1998. The cowboy missed seeing his Angels beat their intra-state rival, the San Francisco Giants, in 2002 to finally win the World Series. By then, however, Jackie had sold her Angels’ shares to Disney, giving the conglomerate full control. In 1947, Autry, who served during World War II as a U.S. Army Air Forces Flight Officer, wrote the “Cowboy Code,” his recommendations for living a rewarding life. The code is worth rereading today. Autry wrote that people should always tell the truth, and be gentle with children, the elderly and animals. He advised to help people in distress, respect women and parents, work hard, disavow radical ideas and obey the nation’s laws. Finally, Autry’s 10th commandment, “the cowboy must be a patriot,” deserves special attention. Nearly 75 years after Autry wrote his code, Americans now more than ever should embrace and practice Autry’s wise words. - Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at [email protected]