One of the saddest moments in Angels history occurred when Darin Erstad squeezed the final out of the 2002 World Series. What? A long-suffering franchise finally makes it to its first World Series in 42 years, and wins it? Where are the tears in that? Gene Autry wasn't there to see it, that's where. Crocodile tears. Every step of that championship trek had been dedicated to the Singing Cowboy, who had traded in his guitar for a true angel's harp a decade earlier, and when it ended in celebration, it was hard to tell where the champagne ended and the tears began.
With his players gathered around him in the soggy clubhouse, one of manager Mike Scioscia's first toasts was to Autry. The Cowboy hadn't been the only owner of his time with a dominant personality. In a sense, fellow Major League club owners always toasted Autry, and are doing so again by having the 81st All-Star Game grace Angel Stadium, on July 13. This will be the third Midsummer Classic in the park formerly known as Anaheim Stadium, encoring the 1967 and 1989 games. No other park has been awarded as many All-Star Games, and the recurring gesture certainly was intended to honor Autry the man, as it now honors his memory. For the first 32 years, Autry was the face of the franchise. That did not make him unique in an era in which 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," says Clyde Wright, the left-hander who began pitching for the Angels in 1966 and still "suits up" for them, for 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," says Tim Mead, the Angels' vice president of communications who started with the team 30 years ago as a public-relations intern. "He tried to please the fans; 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. Not in his lifetime, anyway. In his legacy ... well, as they say on the range, that's a horse of an entirely different color. 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 made it happen. The Cowboy went to St. Louis for the cow, and wound up with the whole herd. Autry, a radio magnate, attended baseball's 1960 Winter Meetings to vie for the broadcast rights to games of the expansion team the American League had committed to putting in Los Angeles -- and only because Dodgers broadcasts had been taken off his KMPC station, whose signal was too weak to reach owner 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. Rather, Autry listened when good pal Walt Disney told him about this faraway place called Anaheim. And in 1966, he put his California Angels in Anaheim Stadium, and put Orange County on the map. Dr. 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 1992. "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," says 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. There is no star for baseball, which clearly was only one dimension of Autry's life and career. A very tiny dimension. Today, you can go to his website, or even Google him, and amid all the pages and hits not see a single mention of baseball or of the Angels. He owned broadcast properties, hotels, and, of course, unimaginable international fame. As popular as he was 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 we will treasure 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 game-day 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 says. "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 American League 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 recalls, "everyone was crushed. But Gene took it better than anyone else." Figures.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.