Autry's War (Part Five)

By Seymour Hersh
Click to read part one
Click to read part two
Click to read part three
Click to read part four
Click to read follow-up interview with Don Delillo

Gene Autry's Cowboy Code:

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
3. He must always tell the truth.
4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
6. He must help people in distress.
7. He must be a good worker.
8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation's laws.
10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

As devious as it might have been, Autry's secret agreement with the owners of the Cleveland Indians, San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos did not infringe on any of the rules of his beloved Cowboy Code. In fact, Autry often justified the pact with Cowboy Code No. 6, say associates of his from the early '80s.

"At heart, Gene believed his actions to be altruistic," says one former California Angels executive. "When [Major League Baseball] came down hard on him during [the 1981 labor stoppage], Gene was honestly confused. He couldn't understand why anyone would be upset."

But Gene's view was a minority opinion. As St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog told reporters around that time, "Before long, you can look for some teams to go bankrupt, like the Minnesota Twins. The Twins and some other clubs just can't afford to compete for salaries the way things are set up. I think the bankruptcies will start in two or three years."

Like many uninformed forecasts, Herzog's was found faulty by the slow march of history, but it's important to recognize the sentiment that prevailed in baseball at the time, just as it did recently with the "contraction" fiasco brought about by current Commissioner Bud Selig. The sky was falling — on everyone but the Angels, Expos, Indians and Padres, that is.

Yet in terms of the Autry pact, the most that ever came out of the 1981 stoppage was a stern talking-to by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. In July of 1981, Kuhn called Autry, Nick Mileti, Charles Bronfman and Ray Kroc to his office and asked them if they were sharing revenue, which was against baseball rules at the time. All but Autry denied the charge; the Angels owner simply demurred, and somehow he escaped the meeting without answering the question, say sources familiar with the meeting. Short of a long and public investigation that could upset the uneasy peace that was beginning to prevail between players and owners, Kuhn had little recourse, and took the men at their word.

Autry was so shaken by the meeting that he implored the other three owners to nix the agreement. "This has gotten to be too much," he wrote to Mileti several days after the meet. "We have to stop this before it gets out of hand. If that hasn't happened already." While Mileti sympathized with Autry's doubts, he couldn't turn his back on the profits they were making. "I understand, Gene," he wrote in reply, "but there is just so much at steak [sp] here. Without our pact, you'd have to sell the Angels, and I can't allow that to happen." Mileti's letter convinced Autry to remain in the group, but his interest and influence would never be the same.

Ray Kroc, who made untold millions through his McDonald's franchise, responded to the meeting very differently. "[Kohn] has no power over us," he told Mileti according to sources in the Padres front office. "Screw that guy. We do what we want." While Bronfman and Mileti didn't share Kroc's hard-line stance, the restaurateur (to be generous) had made himself the leader of the pact in the wake of the Kuhn meeting. For better or worse, Bronfman and Mileti were hitching their wagons to Kroc.

Over the following two years, Kroc became more and more aggressive about courting new teams to join the pact. He had taken to fondly calling the group "McBaseball" to friends and associates within the Padres organization. As time went on, actual baseball became secondary to "McBaseball," as Kroc approached the game the same way he had the food industry: with strong-arm tactics and a showman's flair.

One owner reluctant to play "McBaseball" remembers how aggressive Kroc could be. "Ray and his people had been calling me over and over," he remembers, "and sending me color TVs, bicycles, even a bunch of French fries. But I just wouldn't budge... Ray got more insistent as time went on, until late one night I get a knock on my door at home. I answer it to find [the owner's team's mascot] hanging from a noose in my front lawn, and the damned San Diego Chicken was setting it on fire. I wanted to call the cops, but I didn't know how far Ray would go."

The rumor mills abound with other stories of Kroc's hostile behavior, but he still managed to rope the Philadelphia Phillies into the cabal in 1983, and was close to bringing in the Baltimore Orioles later that year. But Kroc died in January, 1984, and the deal was left unfinished.

When Kroc's "reign of terror," as a baseball executive called it in a conversation with me, ended, the intimidation tactics stopped overnight. It was once more a gentleman's game, and the Orioles deal was completed in 1984, the Milwaukee Brewers in 1986, the Cincinnati Reds in 1988, the Kansas City Royals in 1989, the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1990, the Detroit Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates in 1991 and the Colorado Rockies, Florida Marlins and San Francisco Giants in 1993. It was no longer about statistics (though all who entered the pact agreed that they would not allow a pitcher to win twenty games out of respect to Autry, a decision that was calamitous for Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina). It was about money.

In 1994, Major League Baseball went on strike. At baseball's helm was acting Commissioner Bud Selig, the longtime owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, who had joined the Autry pact in 1986. Selig had been a proponent of a salary cap in the '80s, and made it his mission as commissioner to bring it into being. Yet members of the cabal were staunchly opposed because Selig's proposal would bring about league-wide revenue sharing, thereby ending the biggest advantage the group enjoyed. The two sides reached an impasse, putting the players and fans squarely in the middle. But when Selig threatened to go public with the group's entire history, they finally backed down. With that, the strike was over and Autry's war was lost.

Four years later, Gene Autry would die, on October 2, 1998. He was buried a hero, an All-American Cowboy. Four years after his death, his beloved Angels would win their first World Series title — and without a twenty-game winner either.

After the strike ended, the members of Autry's pact scattered to the winds like the former Soviet Union territories. The bond that they once held was gone. But at Autry's funeral, they gathered again to reflect on his life and their group, which had consumed his last thirty years. Never again, they each vowed, would one of their hurlers win twenty games. Autry would win after all.

Seymour Hersh, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of several best-selling books.