Autry's War (Part One)
By Seymour Hersh
"Just about the time you think, 'What else can he accomplish?,' he comes up with another milestone. Some of my fondest baseball memories involve Nolan from his days with the Angels. He is one of those rare individuals who will be admired for generations to come." Gene Autry, the famous singing cowboy and owner of the California Angels, once said this about Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan. Autry, a fierce individualist to a fault, admired the pitcher so much that, in the fall of 1974, he began a quest to ruin baseball to preserve Ryan's legacy. It's the backroom history of the game, the story you won't hear in "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a tale that has never been told — until now.
Those in baseball's front offices and in the commissioner's chair know this story too well. Autry's quest led to the 1994 strike and has spoiled numerous careers. It involves a seemingly infinite amount of baseball executives, many of whom continue to work in the game today. Full of cheating, lying and disrepute, Autry's war — whose beginnings coincide with Watergate — confirms baseball as America's national pastime, even more than the infamous Black Sox scandal in 1919.
In 1974, Nolan Ryan had one of the greatest seasons a major-league pitcher has ever had: a miniscule 2.89 ERA, 367 strikeouts and 22 wins. Yet Ryan was not included on the All Star team, and finished a disappointing third in the Cy Young voting, an award given annually to the best pitcher in each league. California Angels owner Gene Autry was livid at the snub. "This has shaken my fundamental belief in baseball to its very core," he wrote in a confidential memo sent to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn at the time. "We need to drastically reconsider how awards are given in the future. This is worse than the whole Steinbrenner mess." (George Steinbrenner, owner of the New York Yankees, was suspended from the game for two years because he gave illegal campaign contributions to President Richard Nixon.)
Kuhn ignored Autry's memo, which further fueled the former entertainer's anger. "Somebody needs to stick a Bowie knife in that son of a bitch," he once remarked to Dick Williams, according to sources close to the former Angels manager.
But there are limits, even for a cowboy. Autry recognized that it would be impossible to strip Oakland A's pitcher Catfish Hunter of the Cy Young Award, and knew that Kuhn was imbued with tremendous power within the game. And so he sought an alternative solution to his new obsession. He found his answer in the most unlikely place.
The 1974 Angels were not a good team. With 94 losses, they were never in contention for the pennant, and the club was short on talent. There was Ryan, future star Ed Figueroa, Frank Tanana and slugger Frank Robinson, who was on the downside of his career. There was also a 24-year-old mediocre utility player with a funny name and a devilish personality who would go on to manage the New York Mets some twenty years later. His name was Bobby Valentine.
Though Valentine refused to speak on the record for this story, sources close to him were more forthcoming about his tenure with the Angels.
"Bobby was a nobody then," one former teammate says under the condition of anonymity because he fears the repercussions of speaking out, "but he seemed to hear everything. He was good at two things: beaver shooting [voyeuristically leering at women] and gossip." The former player goes on to explain that one day while snooping around Angels headquarters, he overheard an Autry tirade about Kuhn and Ryan's snub. "Knowing a golden ticket when he saw one," my source goes onto explain, "Bobby got to plotting."
Valentine hit upon a clever thought. Since a pitcher's win-loss statistic is based upon not only the amount of runs a pitcher has allowed, but the amount the other team has scored, one could persuasively argue that it was not an individual statistic, but a team statistic. If Catfish Hunter's 25 wins could be discarded, Valentine further surmised according to a source in the clubhouse, then Ryan would have been a lock for the 1974 Cy Young Award.
Armed with his theory, Valentine went to see Autry, and related his idea. Autry was impressed with the suggestion, and immediately began to conspire as to how he could accomplish the difficult task of convincing Major League Baseball to eschew one of its most important statistics. If he were to do this, he quickly realized according to a source in Autry's country club, he was going to need help.
(Continued in part two)
Seymour Hersh, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of several best-selling books.