Autry's War (Part Three)
By Seymour Hersh
Click to read part one
Click to read part two
Former Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck was one of the most creative executives to ever work in baseball. It was he who signed Satchell Paige, turned baseball games into bazaars of promotional goods and sent midget Eddie Gaedel to bat in 1952. Veeck was a man who knew how to make money, and — as his wounds from the South Pacific showed — win a fight. Although Veeck had sold his interest in the Cleveland Indians years before, his spirit lived on in the team, which, in 1972, had almost been moved to New Orleans and bought by George Steinbrenner. It wasn't a good year in Cleveland.
Fearing that his adopted hometown would lose its baseball team, a 41-year-old well-connected Italian businessman named Nick Mileti stepped in and, along with a group of investors, purchased the team. Although Mileti seemed like small potatoes to the other baseball owners when he first met them back in early 1972, he was actually well-connected. He had persuaded Frank Sinatra to open his Richfield Coliseum, and even had contact with John Volpi, the first American ambassador to Italy.
Through Sinatra, who had known California Angels owner Gene Autry for decades, Mileti was introduced to Autry in late 1971, when he was first considering bidding for the Indians. The two men got along immediately. "Gene was a legend," Mileti says now from his home outside of Cleveland. "It was like meeting John Wayne, only better." (Mileti refused to answer any further questions about his dealings with Autry.)
But as excited as Mileti was about owning the Cleveland Indians, civic pride could only take him so far — the Tribe had not finished with a winning record since 1968, and attendance was starting to wane. Mileti needed to improve, and fast. On the top of his wish list were a new manager (Ken Aspromonte had been a spectacular failure) and a hitter, as was commonly known around baseball in 1974. Sensing that Mileti's status as an outsider in baseball would make him particularly open to his point of view, Autry went to the Indians owner with a simple offer: "I will give you future Hall of Famer Frank Robison to be your manager and player, and in return you will pledge your support in a disagreement I have with the commissioner's office," he told Mileti according to confidential sources within the Cleveland organization.
Trusting Autry as a peer and as a personal hero, Mileti agreed before even asking what the disagreement concerned. It was several months before they finally got around to discussing the specifics of their deal.
The first of many pacts to dramatically change the game of baseball was struck sometime in January of 1975, at Autry's Melody Ranch in Newhall, California. Present were Autry, Mileti and several underlings from each of their organizations, who were brought in to brainstorm as to how best address the Angels' issue with Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Proposals included sending erroneous statistics to the commissioner's office to skew Major League Baseball's official tallies and bringing in their best pitchers in "win" situations to tamper with the stat.
Both of these ideas were eventually nixed, because they would be too obvious to the team's fans. They finally decided on a much simpler and more conniving idea: so long as they owned their teams, they would never allow one of their pitchers to win twenty games.
It was an odd form of protest, for sure. Ultimately self-destructive and likely to draw the fans' ire if discovered, it was not particularly well-conceived. But at a certain point, say others who were present at the meetings, it didn't matter whether the final decision was practical, it just had to be devious enough to keep these two very rich men interested.
The conspiracy began in earnest in the 1975 season. In 1974, Gaylord Perry had won 21 games; a few months into the '75 season, he was unceremoniously jettisoned to the Texas Rangers, where he would, interestingly, play next to outfielder Mike Hargrove, who would have his own part in the plot as the manager for the Cleveland Indians years later. (One source suggested that the Indians job was a bribe because he had learned of the collusion, but this remains, as of press time, unconfirmed.) As for the Angels, Autry convinced Nolan Ryan to fake injuries so that he would miss starts, and Valentine — who concocted this web in the first place — was occasionally brought in to boot a grounder or two, keeping Ed Figueroa and Frank Tanana from hitting that now-dreaded twenty-win mark.
Autry and Mileti made sure that Commissioner Kuhn was well aware of what they were doing. "Looks like Tanana just missed another 'win,'" Autry wrote Kuhn in June 1975. "When will these boys ever learn to turn a double play?" Shortly after Mileti dealt Perry to the Rangers, he sent Kuhn a note saying, "Seemed like a 'winning' trade to me!" Kuhn was strangely silent in the face of this blatant disrespect. To this day men who worked closely with him cannot figure out why he didn't go public immediately with the information. Some suspected blackmail, others that Kuhn was ultimately sympathetic to their odd cause. We shall never know why Kuhn stayed silent, but it would prove to be the first of his many mistakes.
(Continued in part four)
Seymour Hersh, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of several best-selling books.