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!"
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.