The First Angel

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.

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