"Then I moved on to Chicago. Sang on the air and made records for the Scars station there, WLS—which stood for World's Largest Store. And that led to a part in a Ken Maynard movie, In Old Santa Fe. And that led to a 13-part serial I did, The Phantom Empire, where I go into a cave and discover a lost world full of people far ahead of us. It was the first of that kind of science fiction serial. And when Republic Pictures was formed, John Wayne and I made their first two pictures. That was in 1935. Wayne's picture was Westward Ho. Mine was 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds, and that was the song I sang.... Now there's a pretty fair hitter coming up now. Will Clark. We could use him...."
Jackie Autry is sipping a glass of Chablis in the lounge of the Hilton Pavilion Hotel in Mesa. She is a tall, robust, auburn-haired woman who, at 50, is 34 years younger than her husband. She moved from her native New Jersey to California in 1959 and went to work as a switchboard operator at the Security Pacific National Bank in Palm Springs. She stayed at the bank for another 22 years, fashioning a career there that was, for a woman at that time, meteoric. Among her accounts was the Gene Autry (now Autry Resort) Hotel, and over the years she became close friends with both Ina and Gene. After Ina died in '80, Jackie and Gene began seeing each other socially, and in July '81 they were married, effectively ending her career as a bank vice-president and launching a new one as a baseball executive.
"I first called Whitey about coming to work for us last July," she says. "It took a little time to get his juices flowing again. I don't think Whitey was much interested in becoming strictly a general manager, because he didn't want to deal with agents. He's a kind of quasi-G.M. Most of the administrative work is done by Danny O'Brien [senior vice-president, baseball operations]. And Rich Brown is the president and CEO. People say our organization is complicated, but there's nothing complicated about it at all. I guess I'm sort of overseer, and that means, Don't call me unless it's absolutely necessary."
She is the picture of self-assurance. "What we have to do here," Jackie says, "is tighten our belt. The Angels lost $5.5 million in 1990, but that was with the collusion penalty. The estimated loss for '91 is $3.5 million, and in '92 we are expecting to lose between $5 million and $6 million. People ask if these arc real losses. But I must tell you that the California Angels are solely and totally owned by Gene Autry. There aren't many places where we can hide our money."
The Autrys also own four radio stations, the hotel in Palm Springs and a music publishing company. All of those businesses—including the Angels—Jackie says now "stink."
As Jackie talks, her husband, leaning heavily on his anatomically correct cane, enters the lounge with Rodgers and Gene Mauch, who, as manager of the Angels during the mid-'80s, presided over both of the team's near misses. Though out of baseball now, Mauch remains close to the Autrys. The three men sit at an adjoining table, and Jackie raises a glass to them. Her voice, all business before, softens.
"What I mean is, Whitey has full authority, but not if it means putting Gene Autry into bankruptcy. My husband is a living legend, but he's also an old shoe. He's gentle and kind, one of the sweetest human beings you'll ever meet. He's also an 84-year-old man, and I'm very protective of him." She leans forward. "My goal in life is to make Gene Autry as free of care as he can be at his age. The man deserves it. He's worked hard since he was 17." She laughs as she watches him gesticulate at the next table. "Look at him just schmoozing away there with his old buddies. Talking baseball, I'm sure."
Autry's nasal voice can be heard clearly. "What was the name of that catcher who grew up in Arkansas?"
"You mean Bill Dickey," says Mauch.
"Yes," says Autry. "Now let me tell you about him and Lefty Grove...."