Name: Gene Orvon Autry
Nickname: The Singing Cowboy
Number(s): 26 (retired)
Years As an Angel: 1961-1998
Angels’ Regular-Season Records (1961-1998): 2917-3109
Angels’ Post-Season Records (1961-1998): 6-10
How He Was Acquired: He bought the team on December 6, 1960.
Why You Should Know Him: As the founder and owner of the Angels, Gene Autry was the beloved man for whom most of the Angels players played and in whom most of the fans placed their hopes and dreams of seeing a championship team. Considered to be the 26th man on the team, the number 26 has been retired by the Angels in his honor.
Prior to coming to the Angels, Gene Autry had an impressive career in the film, radio, recording, and television industries. As the story is told, one summer night in 1927, Gene was working the four-to-midnight shift in a telegraph office in Chelsea, Oklahoma when he set about playing the guitar to pass the time. A customer strolled in and told Gene to keep playing and then asked him to play some more. When Gene finished, the customer said that Gene should go pursue a career in radio, and with some hard work, it might pay off for him. That customer was Will Rogers, one of the most famous actors, comedians, and singers of the day.
Gene did pursue a career in radio and music and on October 9th, 1929, he cut his first record with the songs “My Dreaming of You” and “My Alabama Home” for RCA Victor. Gene’s first breakthrough record came in 1931 with the song “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” co-written with his friend Jimmy Long. That record sold 30,000 copies within its first month, and, by the end of the year sold over 500,000 copies. To honor the occasion, American Records presented with Gene Autry with a gold-plated copy of the record. When sales of the record reached the 1,000,000 mark, American Records presented Gene with a second gold-plated record. And thus, the tradition of the Gold Record Award was born.
Over his career, Autry recorded, wrote, or co-wrote over 300 songs including his theme song “Back in the Saddle Again” and has sold over 100 million records. But, Gene’s most memorable and popular songs include his children’s song “Peter Cottontail” and his Christmas songs including “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty the Snowman”, and, “Here Comes Santa Claus (Down Santa Claus Lane”.
In an effort to help bridge the gap between B-movie Westerns and “talking movies” Autry made the jump into the film industry in 1934 and appeared in the movie “In Old Santa Fe” where he sang a song and called a square dance. The combination of a professional musician in a movie worked, and Autry soon appearing in 8 movies a year for Republic Pictures appearing under his own name and riding his horse, Champion. In total, Gene completed 93 movies during his career.
Like many of his generation, Autry’s movie and recording career was interrupted by World War II. On July 26, 1942, Gene enlisted during a live radio broadcast as a Technical Sergeant. Not one to shy away from a fight, Gene rose to the rank of a Flight Officer (having had a private pilot’s license) and served in the China-India-Burma theatre of operations. Gene flew many harrowing missions during the war, including flying supplies over the “Hump”—the treacherous route of the Himalayas. Additionally, during the war, Gene continued his radio show and helped with war-bond drives.
After the war, Gene was one of the first major motion picture stars to appear in a television series. On July 23, 1950, Gene became a pioneer in the new medium with his weekly show, “The Gene Autry Show”.
By 1960, Gene had expanded into a number of business ventures including several radio stations. One of those stations, KMPC, based in Los Angeles, had the broadcasting rights for the Dodgers. However, in 1960, Walter O’Malley, the Dodgers’ owner, decided to switch stations. At the same time, the American League decided to expand from eight teams to ten. In order to shore up his radio station’s broadcasts, Gene Autry went to the Winter Meetings to try and secure the radio broadcasting rights for one of the expansion teams.
Over the course of those meetings, it became evident to Autry that he would be far better off buying the team outright rather than trying to secure just the broadcasting rights. After many twists and turns, Autry emerged as the new owner of the first American League franchise on the West Coast, the Los Angeles Angels.
Baseball had always been a passion for Gene. Growing up, he played shortstop for some semi-pro teams and had even been offered a professional contract to play in the minor leagues for the St. Louis Cardinals.
As an owner, Autry was the Cowboy. He was well known for going down and spending time talking with the players. He never shied away from the fans, but, at the same time, he didn’t go running to the publicity hounds.
On April 11, 1961, the Angels won their first game ever, beating the Baltimore Orioles in Memorial Stadium. Playing their home games in Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, he Angels finished 1961 with a 70-91 record—the highest winning percentage for any expansion team.
In 1966, Gene changed the name of the team to the California Angels, and relocated the team to its present location in Anaheim. Having played second fiddle to the Dodgers in both Wrigley Field and Dodger Stadium as tenants, Autry was free to finally develop the team and fan loyalty in Orange County.
In 1979, the Angels under Autry won their first ever American League West Championship. This was followed again by championship seasons in 1982 and 1986. Unfortunately, the Angels were never able to win a World Series for the Cowboy. In tribute to him, after Angels won the World Series, Jackie Autry brought out his cowboy hat during the post-game festivities.
In 1988, Gene and Jackie Autry opened the Museum of Western Heritage (now renamed as the The Museum of the American West) in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. Gene’s vision was to “build a museum which would exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced America and the world.”
Gene Autry died on October 2, 1998. He died just a few months after Roy Rogers, another celebrated cowboy, had passed. Gene is the only person to have 5 separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—one each for radio, records, film, television, and live performances. During his lifetime, Gene received numerous honors and awards, including being honored as a 33rd Degree Mason. He did not have any children.
Memorable Moments/Games: The Angels first ever game played and first ever victory on April 11, 1961. The Angels’ first American League West Title in 1979. Their second American League West Title in 1982. Their third American League West Title in 1986.
Anecdotes and Quotes: Gene Autry is best known for his Cowboy Code in which he set forth the themes and rules for his movies, television and radio shows. The ten rules of the Gene Autry Cowboy Code are:
1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
10. The Cowboy is a patriot.
Where is He Now?: Gene Autry is resting comfortably at Forest Lawn-Hollywood Hills, singing, riding his horse Champion, and playing ball with the Angels.
Contributed by David Saltzer - AngelsWin.com Columnist