As a motion-picture cowboy Gene Autry was something of a schnook. The girl would come out from the city to take over a ranch she usually inherited from an uncle, and she would fall big for Gene and flutter her eyelashes at him. But he would botch the whole scene through his bashfulness and she would return, brokenhearted, to the city.
Away from the cameras, in those days, Autry was noticeably sharper. The deals he made in radio, television, land, livestock, hotels, music publishing and other enterprises were so rewarding that he was invited one day to address the New York Stock Exchange on the subject of prudent investment. Even now, as a business manipulator, Autry is a flaming success. His only source of frustration is baseball, and that's because of an Irish dry-goods merchant's son named Walter Francis O'Malley, who understands manipulation, too.
As proprietor of the Los Angeles Dodgers, O'Malley leases space to Autry, the principal owner of the Los Angeles Angels. A mile from City Hall, in something less than complete togetherness, they share O'Malley's stadium, on part of 300 acres that belong to O'Malley, too. The location, called Chavez Ravine, has become better known recently as Golden Gulch. For Autry the arrangement is ideal, except for a) stiff rent, b) lack of attendance, c) loss of identity in a place named Dodger Stadium and d) poor prospects for improvement of a, b and c in the immediate future. Between lessor and lessee, there are also a few minor but annoying differences of opinion, such as who should pay for the toilet paper, who should wash the windows and how the tab for gardening should be split.
Autry, who has delivered many a screen maiden from the clutches of a grasping landlord, has been offered his release from O'Malley by the smallest community (pop. 140,000) ever to make a serious bid for a major league franchise. Anaheim, Calif., the mailing address of Disneyland, hopes to steal the Angels from its smog-spewing neighbor, Los Angeles, by raising $20 million for a stadium to seat 42,400. And the Mickey Mouse city has some important backers, among them Yankee Co-owner Del Webb, who agrees that Autry needs a new home and whose construction company—surprise—has been promised the job of building that home if Anaheim can come up with the bread.
The pioneer of big-league baseball in Los Angeles, O'Malley was asked to share his territory in 1961 when the American League voted to place a franchise on the West Coast. Faced with an $18 million bill for a stadium, O'Malley needed a competitor like a hole in his infield, but he agreed to the request with certain ground rules. First, he would not let the Angels share Memorial Coliseum, which his team was using during the construction of Dodger Stadium. The Coliseum accommodated 94,500 for baseball; he consigned the Angels to Wrigley Field, capacity 20,500. Second, he told the American Leaguers that their rent in the new park would be $200,000 a year, or 7�% of the gross, whichever was higher, that he would take half the profits from concessions and all of it from the parking, and the two would share in the park's upkeep.
Autry agreed to these terms, but refused to accept the name of the new stadium. In correspondence, in press announcements, in advertising and on radio and TV, the Angels still refer to their location as Chavez Ravine. A practical man, O'Malley observes, "They can call it anything they want, as long as they pay their rent."
For reasons that baseball scientists cannot comprehend to this day, the Angels fielded a team in their first year (1962) at Chavez Ravine that was challenging the Yankees for the league lead as late as Labor Day. Ultimately, the Angels finished third, but drew a remarkable 1,144,000 in home attendance for the season. Running more to form last year, Autry's club finished ninth, and attendance fell to 822,000 compared to 2,538,000 for the Dodgers. When the Dodgers beat the Yanks four straight in the World Series, Los Angeles fans were so stirred up that they bought more than $4 million worth of Dodger tickets before the start of the 1964 season, a record advance sale for baseball, and the Angels were buried, financially, by this avalanche of Dodger business. They got off poorly at the gate this year and have not improved much since. They expect to draw less than 800,000, while the Dodgers probably will hit 2,500,000 again.
In public, Autry and O'Malley have never gone for each other's jugular, but the Dodger president admits to private battles on several occasions. Last year, for instance, Autry complained that while the Dodgers drew roughly 76% of the total attendance in Chavez Ravine, the Angels were assessed for 50% of the toilet tissue. The bills were adjusted to Autry's satisfaction, as they were after he discovered that the Angels were paying half the charges to clean the windows of the Dodger administrative offices in the stadium, despite the fact that the Angels maintain offices in Hollywood.
There are other points of friction. The Angels claim O'Malley keeps the infield grass high to help the weak Dodger defense, and that the uncommonly deep outfield dimensions also are keyed more to Dodger personnel than to the Angels'. A swift, banjo-hitting group, the Dodgers take advantage of the tall grass and the vast acreage to squeeze out extra bases. "Some of the Angels' grievances are no doubt justified," says O'Malley. "In a dual occupancy the landlord must dominate the decisions, even though they aren't always popular with the tenant."
The proposed Anaheim stadium, in which the decisions would be dominated by the Angels, lies 30 freeway miles south of Chavez Ravine, and Webb promises a park that will outstrip Dodger Stadium in beauty, comfort and convenience. He has repeatedly criticized Chavez, describing it as hard to get around in, but many Dodger fans credit Webb's attitude to the fact that he submitted a bid to build the Chavez park and was turned down.