JACKIE AUTRY: HITS & MISSES OF HER ANGELS
Posted May 13, 2023
On the 27th anniversary of this Orange County Register newspaper article, Gene Autry Entertainment wanted to share this in depth piece on Jackie Autry and Major League Baseball.
Monday, May 13, 1996
Story by Michele Himmelberg
Guardian Angel PROFILE: For years, Jackie Autry has been one of the few women running a professional baseball team. As she prepares to turn over her ball club to Disney, she looks back at her Angels - and her devils.
Jacqueline Ellam Autry entered the burly world of baseball with three strikes against her: She was woman, she had married into her position, and she was an outsider to the game.
Between the white lines, it mattered little that she had come from the banking industry, where she was a vice president and respected financial adviser.
Women in baseball are wives, girlfriends, fans. Women in baseball are the babes projected onto the stadium big-screen. Women in baseball are food servers, ticket-takers, front-office help.
Women in baseball are not agents, announcers or executives. You won't even see women hawking peanuts in the aisles.
An unwritten rule says there's no crying in baseball. But more tears flow through the game than women through the power structure.
Autry and Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, are the only women operating major-league teams. Schott will be alone when the Walt Disney Co. assumes daily operations of the Angels in the next few weeks. Disney has a deal on the table to purchase 25 percent of the team, making the Autrys happy and silent partners.
As Jackie Autry prepares to step down as executive vice president, she talked openly about her hits and misses in baseball, the public scrutiny and the pain of "personal attacks" by the media. She wishes now that she had grown a thicker skin.
"Lots of things have been written and said about me. 'Ah, she's a woman, what could she know about running a baseball company?' They suggested that I don't spend money just so I can feather my own nest. It's hurtful," she said recently at the Studio City home she shares with her husband, famed TV cowboy Gene Autry.
"In sports, a woman has a difficult time because she's immediately stereotyped. That has to change. Any person, regardless of race, gender or nationality, shouldn't be labeled."
Jackie Autry accepted her lead role with the Angels in 1990. Gene, who bought the expansion team in 1961, asked her to stem the club's losses and guide it in a new direction. She hired a president, set a five-year plan to rebuild through the farm system, and out payroll from $45 million to $25.7 million.
In the spring of '91, she held a rare rap session with reporters. She taught Autry's Baseball Economics: escalating salaries, expenses and hikes from salary arbitration threatened to bankrupt teams. She even said — to the fans' horror — that, given the financial turmoil, it was probably good the Angels hadn't signed superstar Bobby Bonilla.
It was typical Jackie Autry, candid and — in her opinion — misunderstood.
"They didn't like the message," she said, "so they shot the messenger."
The media interpreted her business views as having no passion to win, the ultimate insult in sport. They hammered that message and their words shaped an indelible image with the fans: "Tightfisted Boss Jackie."
"I showed them the big picture on baseball and where it was headed," she said. "They only focused on the Angels. I've been straightforward with the press and that's been my downfall. Being a diplomat is not one of my strengths. I say it like it is. That's why I've gained respect and loyalty from people."
Other owners embraced Autry's fiscal policies, appointing her to baseball's powerful executive committee — a first for a woman.
But when the Angels failed to keep Wally Joyner and Jim Abbott, the team's most beloved players, Autry was cast as the Queen of Stinginess. The media said her banker's mentality was ill-suited for an industry where winning sells the game.
She stuck to her plan, but grew reclusive. She focused on her life's goal, to protect Gene and his legacy. The Cowboy — a free-spender in the past — grew disenchanted with the game as contract haggling displaced old-time camaraderie.
"An owner of a sports franchise is in a difficult position," said Todd Boyd, a sports and media expert who teaches at the University of Southern California School of Cinema. "Unless the team wins all the time, owners are going to be criticized by the people who pay for tickets.
"And a woman in that position is almost asking for it. There's a very clear double standard.... Society is not yet embracing women's ascent to power."
Baseball agent Scott Boras has been critical of Autry's methods, but he sympathized on the matter of women in baseball: "It's really a boy's club, and baseball hasn't done much to rectify that."
WINS AND LOSSES
Looking back, Autry noted the irony: She fought for the fans, yet they scorned here. They wanted victories that boosted the Angels in the standings. But Autry herself counts her victories this way:
She kept the game affordable. Angels fans pay the second-lowest ticket price in baseball, despite the club's deep losses.
Critics say the team wouldn't lose so much if it were operated better.
She protected the game's future. She and a core of owners pushed for leaner payrolls, to hold the line on prices, keep kids in the ballpark and preserve the next generation of fans.
Critics say owners protect only their profit margin.
She kept the Angels in Anaheim: In an era in which teams are scurrying to the next rich cash-rich communty, Autry ensured the Angels will stay in Anaheim for 20 years, at least. She used her leverage to bring the city, Disney and Major League Baseball together to solve the stadium economics problem, rather than flee the problem as the Rams did.
Critics say the deal benefits Disney and the Angels, but hurts the Anaheim taxpayer.
THE AUTRYS AT HOME
Gene, 88, and Jackie, 54, conduct the interview in the dining nook of their ranch-style home near the base of the Hollywood Hills. The house is simply decorated, with fine attention to detail. Flying A's, the Autry insignia, adorn the gate on the driveway and the guest towels in the bathroom.
Gene sits in this sunny rom nearly every day, reading his newspapers with a magnifying glass. He interacted playfully with Jackie a few times during the interview, but was more guarded with a reporter. Even when he was out of the room, her steel-blue eyes kept watch for him.
TEAM BEHIND THE TEAM: Jackie Autry, 54, and husband Gene, 88, attend a home game in their box at Anaheim Stadium. After years of running the club he acquired in 1961, she'll step aside as Angels' executive vice president when Disney takes over later this summer.
Jackie, 5-foot-10 and broad-shouldered, wears jeans, sneakers and a Jackson Hole, Wyo., sweatshirt. No makeup at home.
She retired from banking in 1981, when she married Gene, her first marriage. She had plans for lots of golf and tennis, but has played only nine tennis matches in 15 years. Instead, she has supervised Gene's holdings, allowing him to retire fully in the mid-'80s. His vision is failing, so she drives their 1992 Mercedes 96 miles round-trip to Anaheim Stadium for about 75 games a year.
They're a comfortable pair, she the number-crunching sidekick to the free-wheeling Cowboy. Gene, a famed singer and television actor, enjoys the public end still signs autographs graciously while his wife hovers nearby, helping him keep his balance in a crowd.
Jackie folded her arrms on the table and started to answer the reporter's question. She stopped and tossed it to Gene: "Honey, why did you marry me?"
Gene, whose frailty belies his quick wit, smiled this wife: "I married you for your money," he quipped.
She grinned, but pushed for a direct answer: "Do you love me?"
"You're doggone right I love you," Gene said, indignant now. "I tell you that every day." Usually 10 times a day.
INGRAINED WORK ETHIC
She grew up in rural New Jersey, competing in lacrosse, fencing and horseback riding. Struck with polio at age 8, she swam to strengthen her legs.
Her father, George, a semi-pro baseball player, died when she was 4. Her mother, Madeline, re-married and they moved to Palm Springs when Autry was 17. But she was raised mostly by her grandmother, Nettie Smalley, who grounded her with a strong work ethic and lessons from the Depression.
"Never live off your future income," Grandma Smalley said, so Autry got in the habit of paying cash. Her first house was furnished one room at a time. She still runs a frugal household and has a habit of turning off lights in empty rooms. She likes to shop at Price Club.
"That's fun even if you're not frugal," she said.
If Autry were raising children, there is one lesson she wouldn't repeat: You can't play until your work is done.
"I don't know how to play," she said, looking away, "because your work is never done."
She worked as a bank teller and liked it so much she skipped plans to attend University of California, Berkeley. At age 32, she became vice president, the 13th female vice president in the Security Bank system. Gene met her at the bank in 1963 and they consulted about once a year.
They were business acquaintances until that night in December 1980, when she said hello to him at a charity ball.
They were married seven months later. Her palms sweated all the way to the ceremony. She was in love, she said, but she was afraid she wasn't ready to get married.
DEVOTED AND DERIDED
Say what you will about Jackie Autry, she stands by her man.
They will celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary this summer, and rare is the day she isn't at his side.
She is part physical caretaker because of his age, part the devoted advocate of Gene's "best interests." His passion for the West is preserved in the $100 million Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles, a project his wife nurtured. His love for baseball is embodied in the Angels, a team that should have filed for bankruptcy, Jackie said, but she wouldn't let that happen to Gene.
Instead, she brought in a partner, one with deep enough resources to chase the World Series dream. She still expresses frustration that fans didn't support the team better.
Lee Hamilton, talk-show host for sports radio station XTRA, knows the pulse of the vocal fan. He said : "The fans view Gene as a man with a big heart, who spent, spent, spent in free agency to bring a winner to Orange County. When fans talk about Jackie, it's as a cold-hearted person whose bottom line was dollars and cents."
The Angels haven't been to the playoffs since 1986, reinforcing arguments that Jackie Autry's decisions have hurt the club. But it finished one game away last year, and the '96 Angels are considered one of baseball's best young teams. The critics counter: If the Angels had stretched payroll further this year, signing one more starting pitcher, they could have been contenders for the next decade.
Gene is the first to defend his wife. In 1992, he stunned fans when he phoned a radio talk show and angrily told callers to stop assailing her. They blamed her for "penny-pinching."
"Tell me this," she said, puffing a Marlboro Light 100. "If I was pinching pennies, why did this club lose $38 million the past five years?"
In her defense, Angels president Richard Brown said "A lot of owners (cut payroll), but Jackie seemed to get the blame for it. Actually, what she did allowed Gene to own the team for many more years than he might have been able to."
Bud Selig, the interim commissioner of baseball, has mentored Autry. He said "She's blunt, sometimes impatient, but a very logical, rational force."
Jerry Reinsdorf, influential president of the Chicago Cubs, said Autry made it clear that the Angels would be competitive and fiscally sound — and that the two were not mutually exclusive. He liked her courage.
"She tried to win. Don't let anyone say differently," Reinsdorf said. "She also tried not to lose a lot of money."
Agent Boras countered, saying people view Autry as a fortress of the assets, rather than an investor growing the portfolio. Boras has never met Jackie Autry, which he finds stunning considering how much breathing space he shares with other executives.
Joanne Hale, director of the Autry Museum and Jackie Autry's close friend, said that no matter what Autry does, she is attacked: "Jackie was crucified by the press .... If it hadn't been Gene's wife — if it was Gene's brother or nephew who was working side by side with Gene — there never would have been the nastiness."
Backlash is common when women break into all-male territory, said Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation. It might be miserable for Autry, but it's a stage of growth for baseball.
"The first reaction to change is anger, then backlash," Lopiano said. "The next step is acceptance. Not until fans see women at all levels of sports organizations will public pressure die down."
Autry said her "credibility and integrity" dissolved in the public criticism.
"I don't want to go through that anymore, and neither does Gene," she said. "It's been painful for me, and for him to see me go through it."
Gene's worth is estimated at $320 million, though he fell off the Forbes 400 list last fall after several companies were sold.
Nearly all Gene's assets are bequeathed to a trust, the Autry Foundation, which has donated an estimated $54 million to the Autry Museum and $26 million more to various charities, including Rebuild L.A. and the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert.
"Jackie's trying to preserve the assets for the Autry Foundation," said Jeff Smulyan, who sold the Seattle Mariners after years of losing money. "It's one thing to say Jeff or Joe runs the club as a business because he wants to make a profit. But Jackie's protecting it for charity."
"She is a tough, demanding individual," said Brown. "She also has a very large heart. What puts most people off is she is so straightforward. She doesn't have time to sugar-coat things."
Friends say she is loyal to a fault.
John P. Singleton, former CEO of Security Pacific Bank, has debated many decisions with Autry as a member of the Angels Board of Directors. He urged her to fire an executive; she delayed the move. He urged her to get a young player in the starting line-up; she agreed he should play, but refused to tell the manager how to do his job. Her philosophy is firm: hire good people and let them do their work.
"Even when she's right, she doesn't have the ego to demand the credit," Singleton said. "She should."
Over the years, Autry has urged stadium officials to keep prices down, from parking fees to the cost of a soda.
"She and Gene don't want to lose the relationship with Joe Fan," said stadium manager Greg Smith. "A different person could have raised prices and made more money. But Jackie said, 'We can't lose a generation of fans by pricing kids out of the park.'"
With Disney on the verge of hiring a new staff, Autry has made her final decisions for the Angels. She said she is most proud of developing a sound plan and providing the resources for Angels employees to build the team.
"It was our job to get the train back on track when it squirted off," Autry said. "And today, we have a young, aggressive, mostly home-grown club."
PRIVATE VS. PUBLIC
In a file photo from 1985, Gene and Jackie Autry mark the Angels' 25th anniversary with a slice of a 6-foot cake served during a pre-game ceremony at Anaheim Stadium. They married in 1981.
Whether the Angels win the World Series or not, Gene will come to the stadium each night and score the game. Jackie will he nearby.
Bob Pollock, who lives with the Autrys as household help, said people ask him all the time: What's the biggest misconception about Jackie Autry?
He answered: "She idolizes Mr. Autry. People don't believe it. If you write it, they won't believe it.
"Mrs. Autry has to give up her own life to take care of him. The museum, the Angels, his legacy. There is no time for her. But that's the deal: She gets to live with Gene Autry."
There's a Jackie Autry the public has never known. A glimmer of it came through as she told this story about the man she loves.
In 1980, they chatted at a Christmas charity ball. She wore an elegant white gown, and her coloring — the fair skin, red hair — was much like his late wife Ina's. He called soon afterward and invited her to a party.
"You can bring your husband, or a date," he said, coyly fishing for information.
She accepted but told him she wasn't married and would be coming without a date.
Gene, remembering the moment, jumped in to repeat his reply: "Hot diggity dog."