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WHITEY, BUCK AND THE SINGING COWBOY

April 13, 1992
April 13, 1992

Table of Contents
April 13, 1992

Books
The Final Four
Inside
Oriole Park
The Tradition
The Cowboy
Raymond Floyd
Horse Racing
Hurricane Carter
Point After

WHITEY, BUCK AND THE SINGING COWBOY

Gene Autry, whose Angels have not won a pennant in their 31-year history, has corralled a pair of old sidekicks to help him in his quest

Early in spring training, California Angel pitcher Don Robinson emerged from the visitors' clubhouse at Tempe (Ariz.) Diablo Stadium, and a bold spectator bellowed virtually in his ear, "Hey, I hope you guys have a good year, 'cause the Cowboy sure needs one. Let's win one for the Cowboy!"

This is an article from the April 13, 1992 issue Original Layout

Robinson looked distinctly puzzled by this exhortation. In his 14 major league seasons, all in the National League, no one had ever called upon him to win one for the Cowboy. What exactly did this rooter want? Robinson shrugged and walked on.

As a newcomer to Gene Autry's team, Robinson may be forgiven his ignorance of Cowboy mystique, but as he would learn soon enough, "Win one for the Cowboy" has become a familiar refrain in Southern California over the years. Autry, the 84-year-old owner of the Angels, the movies' first singing cowboy, the star of Boots and Saddles and countless other oaters of the 1930s and '40s, is also the last of another vanishing breed: founder and sole owner of a major league baseball franchise.

And in 31 years of riding herd over his club, Autry has yet to watch the Angels play in a World Series. He has won three division titles—in 1979, '82 and '86—but no cigar. And to make matters worse, his '82 and '86 teams came within a hair's breadth of winning before vile calamity overtook them. In '82, when only three Championship Series wins were needed for a pennant, the Angels won their first two playoff games against the Milwaukee Brewers and then lost the next three. The '86 team was within one strike of heading to the World Series when Dave Henderson of the Boston Red Sox homered to send the Angels into an extra-inning loss and an eventual playoff defeat.

The Cowboy has suffered these frustrations with characteristic forbearance, but there is the real sense now that time is running out on him. Maybe that's why he brought west to Anaheim a couple of old sidekicks named Whitey and Buck to help him beat the black hats once and for all. If the Angels do win this year, however, it will be a miracle comparable to the one the Cowboy has so long celebrated in song—the famous flight of the red-nosed Rudolph.

Whitey Herzog, Autry's quasi-general manager, and Bob (Buck) Rodgers, his manager, are all too keenly aware of trouble ahead. And yet Herzog willingly left a cushy job as a vice-president of the St. Louis Cardinals last September to, he says, "help the Cowboy turn this thing around."

He and Autry go back to 1974, when Herzog, fired the year before as manager of the Texas Rangers, joined the Angels' coaching staff. "At spring training," Whitey recalls, "I was the only coach there who didn't have his wife with him, since my Mary Lou was taking care of some business back home." Autry observed that one of his employees was lonelier than the rest. "So the Cowboy came up to me and said"—and here Herzog shifts into a facsimile of Autry's nasal Texas drawl—" 'Dammit, Whitey, let's you and me go out for a drink.' "

Well, as these things are wont to happen. Whitey and his convivial boss soon became boon companions. Whitey was the Cowboy's kind of guy, a fellow who liked a taste or two of an evening and who enjoyed nothing more than talking baseball until the cows came home.

Not all of the talk was about baseball, of course. "This was the time of Watergate, you know," says Whitey. "So one day we're sitting there, and the Cowboy says to me"—more drawling—" 'Whitey, I had a feelin' that fella Nixon would screw things up ever since he came out to our ballpark one day and, nice as you please, said to my wife, "Hi, Dale, how's Trigger?" ' "

If that anecdote is not apocryphal, then it would seem that the beleaguered chief executive had mixed up his singing cowboys. Autry's wife back then was Ina, and his horse, of course, was Champion, both now deceased. These days the Cowboy rides a golf cart, and in July 1981 he made Jackie Ellam, who had been his banker in Palm Springs, his second wife. She is now the Angels" executive vice-president.

Ever since Whitey left Anaheim in 1975 to become manager of the Kansas City Royals (three division titles in four full seasons) and then manager and, briefly, general manager of St. Louis (three National League pennants, one World Series championship), the Cowboy has wanted him back in Anaheim. So when Herzog quit as manager of the Cardinals in July 1990, the Autrys came after him in a serious way. At first Whitey stoutly resisted "getting back in the damn rat race. I was fishing in the morning and playing golf in the afternoon and making a helluva lot of money." But last summer Jackie called with a sweetheart deal: Whitey could name his own job title and his duties, and he could work out of his Missouri home during the winter.

So Herzog, at 60, is now senior vice-president, player personnel for the Angels, which means he's the guy in charge of finding the talent who will win one for the Cowboy. So far he has had a rough time doing that. Over the winter the Angels lost Wally Joyner, their best hitter, to free agency, and failed to sign either of two other prize free agents they had set their sights on, Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull. "I still haven't got a handle on this thing," Whitey laments, "but, hell, I didn't get here until September."

What he has in April is an offense that was 13th in the league in run production last season and might be even worse this year. Herzog says glumly, "We're gonna have a helluva time scoring runs."

To plug some of the holes in the roster, the Angels traded for outfielders Von Hayes and Hubie Brooks, and acquired free agent Alvin Davis. But all three represent an Angel tradition that Herzog deplores: the signing of older players on the downside of good careers. California's alltime roster is a veritable galaxy of fading stars—Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winlield—who failed to win one for the Cowboy.

About all the Angels can pin their hopes on are the three superb lefthanded starters—Jim Abbott, Chuck Finley and Mark Langston—so, in Whitey's view, "we'll be good at least three days out of five, and that won't make us doormats." It will be up to Buck, the other hired hand, to get through the rest of the week.

Rodgers, 53, is an impressively burly but agreeable man who spent his entire nine-year big league playing career as an Angel. After getting canned as manager of the Montreal Expos last June, he was hired on in Anaheim in August. "It was always my dream to manage the team I started with," he says. "I do believe there is some sentiment left in the game." But he entertains few illusions about his team's prospects. "We've got a lot of older guys with great track records who are coming off bad years," he says. "If we can get two thirds of them to have average years, we'll be all right. If they all have bad years, we're in the outhouse." And, once more, the Cowboy will be out of luck.

At the Angels' spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz., Autry, though frail, looks chipper and, as always, dapper, outfitted this day in a beige 10-gallon hat, checked sport coat, tan slacks and brown cowboy boots. He recently underwent a corneal transplant, so he wears dark glasses much of the time, indoors and out. Six years ago he broke his hip in a fall, so he now walks with an ominous-looking gnarled cane that is actually the petrified penis of a Brahma bull.

Later that day Autry watches his team play from a box in the San Francisco Giants' fancy new spring ballpark in Scotts-dale, Ariz. He had visited with the Angels before the game in their clubhouse, calling most by their first names. Now, as the game progresses, visitors drop by to wish him well. Autry has a word for everybody. The Cowboy is a courtly man who obviously enjoys company.

"I grew up in Tioga, Texas, a little town north of Dallas," he says between interruptions. "My dad, Delbert Autry, was a horse trader. Oh, he did other things, but at heart that's what he was: a horse trader. I played baseball in high school and loved the game. I always sang and played guitar, too, and after school I'd work on the railroad. Did all kinds of jobs, but eventually I learned how to be a telegraph operator. That got me to traveling around north Texas and Oklahoma, and wherever I went, I brought my guitar.... Now, will you look at that down there. Line drive right through the box. Nice to see that young fella [Lee] Stevens hit like that....

"Anyway, I started singing around Tulsa, and I met a lot of ballplayers. The Waner brothers, Paul and Lloyd, and Pepper Martin, too. And a pretty fair country pitcher name of Dizzy Dean. I don't know what it is, but I think ballplayers like being around a fella who can sing and play the guitar.

"Then I moved on to Chicago. Sang on the air and made records for the Scars station there, WLS—which stood for World's Largest Store. And that led to a part in a Ken Maynard movie, In Old Santa Fe. And that led to a 13-part serial I did, The Phantom Empire, where I go into a cave and discover a lost world full of people far ahead of us. It was the first of that kind of science fiction serial. And when Republic Pictures was formed, John Wayne and I made their first two pictures. That was in 1935. Wayne's picture was Westward Ho. Mine was 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds, and that was the song I sang.... Now there's a pretty fair hitter coming up now. Will Clark. We could use him...."

Jackie Autry is sipping a glass of Chablis in the lounge of the Hilton Pavilion Hotel in Mesa. She is a tall, robust, auburn-haired woman who, at 50, is 34 years younger than her husband. She moved from her native New Jersey to California in 1959 and went to work as a switchboard operator at the Security Pacific National Bank in Palm Springs. She stayed at the bank for another 22 years, fashioning a career there that was, for a woman at that time, meteoric. Among her accounts was the Gene Autry (now Autry Resort) Hotel, and over the years she became close friends with both Ina and Gene. After Ina died in '80, Jackie and Gene began seeing each other socially, and in July '81 they were married, effectively ending her career as a bank vice-president and launching a new one as a baseball executive.

"I first called Whitey about coming to work for us last July," she says. "It took a little time to get his juices flowing again. I don't think Whitey was much interested in becoming strictly a general manager, because he didn't want to deal with agents. He's a kind of quasi-G.M. Most of the administrative work is done by Danny O'Brien [senior vice-president, baseball operations]. And Rich Brown is the president and CEO. People say our organization is complicated, but there's nothing complicated about it at all. I guess I'm sort of overseer, and that means, Don't call me unless it's absolutely necessary."

She is the picture of self-assurance. "What we have to do here," Jackie says, "is tighten our belt. The Angels lost $5.5 million in 1990, but that was with the collusion penalty. The estimated loss for '91 is $3.5 million, and in '92 we are expecting to lose between $5 million and $6 million. People ask if these arc real losses. But I must tell you that the California Angels are solely and totally owned by Gene Autry. There aren't many places where we can hide our money."

The Autrys also own four radio stations, the hotel in Palm Springs and a music publishing company. All of those businesses—including the Angels—Jackie says now "stink."

As Jackie talks, her husband, leaning heavily on his anatomically correct cane, enters the lounge with Rodgers and Gene Mauch, who, as manager of the Angels during the mid-'80s, presided over both of the team's near misses. Though out of baseball now, Mauch remains close to the Autrys. The three men sit at an adjoining table, and Jackie raises a glass to them. Her voice, all business before, softens.

"What I mean is, Whitey has full authority, but not if it means putting Gene Autry into bankruptcy. My husband is a living legend, but he's also an old shoe. He's gentle and kind, one of the sweetest human beings you'll ever meet. He's also an 84-year-old man, and I'm very protective of him." She leans forward. "My goal in life is to make Gene Autry as free of care as he can be at his age. The man deserves it. He's worked hard since he was 17." She laughs as she watches him gesticulate at the next table. "Look at him just schmoozing away there with his old buddies. Talking baseball, I'm sure."

Autry's nasal voice can be heard clearly. "What was the name of that catcher who grew up in Arkansas?"

"You mean Bill Dickey," says Mauch.

"Yes," says Autry. "Now let me tell you about him and Lefty Grove...."

Win one for the Cowboy? It's easy to see why they try.

PHOTOV.J. LOVEROFlanked by Rodgers (left) and Herzog, and with the season not yet begun, Autry had reason to be of good cheer.PHOTOV.J. LOVEROJackie convinced the reluctant Herzog to return to Anaheim...TWO PHOTOSV.J. LOVERO...where he and Rodgers (below left) will labor with a number of veterans, like Hayes, who are on the downside of good careers.PHOTOLOOMIS DEAN/LIFEIn his cinematic heyday, Autry, here astride Champion in 1948, was always the winner.