Posts Tagged ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’

The Hall of Fame Case for Gene Autry

Saturday, April 15th, 2017

Gene Autry wore many hats, proverbially speaking, besides the cowboy dome piece in his movies:

  • Owner of Los Angeles television station KTLA from 1963 to 1982
  • Original singer of the Christmas standard Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
  • Army Air Corps officer and Air Transport Command pilot during World War II
  • Owner of Melody Ranch, a 110-acre site formerly known as Monogram Movie Ranch (bought in 1953, sold nearly 100 acres and used the remaining land for Western movies and television series)
  • Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch radio show
  • The Adventures of Champion radio show (about Autry’s horse Champion)
  • Radio stations
  • Television stations, in addition to KTLA
  • Rodeo
  • Record company

Baseball fans, however, knew Autry primarily as the man who planted a Major League Baseball flag in Orange County, California; Autry, once a part-owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Hollywood Stars, was the first owner of the California Angels ball club—originally named Los Angeles Angels—which had its first season in 1961.

Autry’s journey to ownership began, as financial successes often do, in the wake of disappointment.  When the Los Angeles Dodgers switched radio broadcasters from Autry’s KMPC to rival KFI in 1959, an opportunity emerged.  A new American League franchise in Los Angeles would be a ripe opportunity for KMPC, particularly because of its sports broadcasting pedigree.  A former ballplayer raised the ante.  “Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier.  Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A.,” wrote Robert Goldman in the 2006 book Once They Were Angels.  “Autry jumped at the opportunity.  It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity.”

And so, the mogul who grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma pioneered American League baseball on the West Coast.

And yet, the icon born Orvon Grover Autry is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Autry’s tenure as the Angels’ owner spanned decades, from the last days of the Eisenhower presidency to the first days of the Internet becoming a mainstream tool for information.  When Autry sold the Angels in 1996, he left a legacy difficult to match and easy to applaud.  His length of time made him a baseball fixture.  His integrity made him a model of comportment for businessmen.

Tom Yawkey is in the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so—he spearheaded the renovation of Fenway Park in the 1920s.

Walter O’Malley is in the Hall of Fame, which causes havoc in the hearts of Brooklynites, who see O’Malley as a betrayer for moving the Dodgers to Los Angeles.  His transit to Los Angeles after the 1957 season paved the way for Autry and other owners to establish teams west of St. Louis, theretofore the westernmost metropolis with a Major League Baseball team.

Barney Dreyfuss is in the Hall of Fame, a membership for the former Pirates owner resulting from many achievements, including being a proponent of the World Series; the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates played in the first World Series in 1903.

Gene Autry is not in the Hall of Fame, despite his steadfast ownership.

Devotion to the fans stands out.  Not content to simply have a financial ledger in the black.  Autry poured “his vast millions on players who made the club a winner if not a world champion.  He attended his final Angels game only 10 days before he died,” wrote Myrna Oliver of the Los Angeles Times in Autry’s 1998 obituary.

In 1982, the Angels retired 26 as Autry’s number to reflect being the “26th Man” on the roster, which has a limit of 25 players.  It was a sign of respect that Autry also earned from owners, fans, stadium workers, players, and baseball executives across Major League Baseball.  Such is Autry’s emotional connection to Angel Nation that the phrase “Win One for the Cowboy” resonates from Angel Stadium to Aliso Viejo, from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano.

Cooperstown awaits.  Patiently.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 2016.

The First Angel

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

William Shakespeare, like other innovators, warned of worries that could prevent success—”Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt,” wrote the Bard in Measure for Measure.

It is a certainty, of course, that achievement in any endeavor requires a trio of curiosity, discipline, and persistence to defy doubts, exceed expectations, and create greatness.  California’s Orange County exemplifies, boasting a lineage of leadership responsible for inspiring us to dream, resetting our standards, and easing our lives.

Henry Huntington, owner of the Pacific Electric Railway, spearheaded the rail and trolley connection between Los Angeles County, Orange Count, San Bernardino County, and Riverside County.  Because of his transportation innovation, Huntington Beach bears his name.

Walter Knott, the berry mogul, saw prosperity where others saw dearth in Buena Park.  World-famous amusement park Knott’s Berry Farm stands on the site where Knott amassed a fortune based in berries, preserves, and pies; a Ghost Town created for customers became the genesis for the park.

Walt Disney made Anaheim a household word when he constructed Disneyland.  It came to fruition because of a deal struck with Leonard Goldenson, head of the nascent television network ABC—Disney needed financing; Goldenson needed programming.  Thus was born The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland.

In this pantheon of progressive thinkers in Orange County belongs Gene Autry, an icon of success in radio.  And recording.  And movies.  And television.  And personal appearances.  And rodeo.  And business.  And broadcasting.  And baseball.

Fans of the Angels, a team with many monikers since its major league début in 1960—Los Angeles Angels, California Angels, Anaheim Angels, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—know Autry, primarily, as the team’s founder.  The First Angel.

Autry’s career is an American success story.  Born near Tioga, a town in north Texas, Autry assimilated into Hollywood’s show business culture as a western star—America’s Favorite Singing Cowboy—with a guitar, a horse named Champion, and a signature song.  Back in the Saddle Again was to Autry what Happy Trails was to Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

One of Autry’s assets was the Monogram Movie Ranch, which got a name change to Melody Ranch—a tribute to Autry’s eponymous movie.  Melody Ranch was also a song title and the name of one of Autry’s music companies.

Christmastime offers Autry’s voice as a mainstay—he was the first to record Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerHere Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane), and Frosty the Snowman.  Additionally, he co-wrote Here Comes Santa Claus.

Besides his success in music, movies, radio, and television, Autry was an astute businessman.  Investments in rodeo stock and the World Championship Rodeo Company resulted in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association’s Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame inducting Autry in 1979.

Los Angeles television station KTLA was another prize asset in Autry’s portfolio.  “When he was a kid in the 1920s, his family struggled financially, so he always had a work ethic,” explains Maxine Hansen, Executive Assistant to Jackie and Gene Autry from 1981 to 1998, when Autry passed away.  Since then, she has worked exclusively for Mrs. Autry.

“You always found him working.  Mr. Autry was close to his Uncle Cal, so he worked on his uncle’s farm.  He also worked in a Tioga barbershop run by Sam Anderson.  He did whatever he could to make money and help his family, including leaving school as a teenager and working for the Frisco Railroad as a baggage handler and later, a telegrapher.  He was determined to work hard and succeed.”

On December 7, 1960, Autry led a group of investors to establish the American League’s expansion team, named the Angels.  Frank Finch of the Los Angeles Times reported that Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley said, “Gene Autry and Bob Reynolds are the kind of people that will be good for the game.  We are delighted that they have been awarded a franchise, and I hope that the Angels can bring an American League pennant to Los Angeles very soon.”

Baseball was an outlet for Autry, like millions of other boys, rich or poor.  “He enjoyed the game immensely,” says Hansen.  “Childhood friends said he was a good player.  He played on the Frisco Railroad team and he was pretty fair in semi-pro baseball.  Mr. Autry got an offer from the Cardinals organization’s Class D team, but the salary was only $100 per month.  So, he stayed with the railroad.”

Gene Autry is the only person to have all five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—Radio, Recording, Motion Pictures, Television, Live Theater/Performance.  Although he was one of the biggest celebrities of the 20th century, Autry never let stardom, money, or power outshine his ideals, values, or management style.  “Mr. Autry put people that he trusted in positions of responsibility,” says Hansen.  “He had a good eye for business talent.  He expected them to tell the truth, especially if they made mistakes.  And he left them alone to do their jobs.  He was always willing and open to business opportunities.”

Autry purchased KTLA in the fall of 1963, connected his properties to make it the broadcaster of Angels games, and formed Golden West Broadcasters to bring his television and radio assets under one umbrella.  KTLA was the Angles television broadcaster until 1995.

For Orange County’s baseball fans, the Autry asset with the highest significance was the major league team represented by a stylized A with a halo around it.  The Angels played their first game on April 11, 1961—it was a 7-2 victory at Memorial Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles.

Wrigley Field in Los Angeles was the Angels’ first home; the team moved to Dodger Stadium for four seasons, then moved to its own ballpark in 1966—Angel Stadium.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on March 21, 2016.

Mad Comedians and Mad Monsters

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Baby boomers and Generation Xers most likely recall Rankin-Bass as the studio responsible for the stop-motion animation television specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.

Rankin-Bass also produced two specials that were quite mad.  Literally.

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