Autry's War (Part Two)
By Seymour Hersh
Click to read part one
Some conspiracies, like the assassinations of Kennedy and Caesar and the entire thrust of the Bush regime, are plotted in advance. Others, like My Lai, are hastily spun webs of deceit used to conceal an impulsive decision gone awry. Gene Autry's war on baseball began as a mix of both, but as decades went on, its scope would make even the KGB flinch.
That Autry's efforts have gone completely unreported until now proves the scope of the conspiracy. Back when it first began — before the conspirators had tightened their muzzles on all who threatened them — there were rumors of the plot. Working at the New York Times in 1974 as a reporter, I remember R.W. Apple stumbling across some information about it at a post-season dinner event celebrating Henry Aaron breaking the all-time home run record.
President Gerald Ford and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn were on hand to praise Aaron, and Apple was sent to gather a quote or two from the newly named Commander in Chief. Apple was up to his usual tricks and was drunk, ending up sick over the toilet. At the same time, Ford and Kuhn happened to enter the washroom and were engaged in a heated discussion about "crazy Gene" "going ballistic" over something. Apple, being the ace reporter that he was, assumed they were talking about Gene McCarthy making another presidential run, and quickly wrote a piece saying so. Never trust a columnist to do a man's job, I remember thinking at the time.
That brief flirt with the harsh light of an American journalist (or even R.W. Apple) was the closest the press has ever come to the truth of the matter. That is, until a whistleblower decided to step forward and detail the entire affair.
The individual who has decided to set this story to paper is by no means innocent in this mess. In fact, he was intimately involved from the get-go, and has aided and abetted the plot countless times. After Gene Autry heard of Bobby Valentine's idea to "juice" the numbers, to use a contemporary term that seems especially applicable, he began to consider who would help him destroy the win statistic, and how he could best frame his argument.
Autry and some other high-level executives eventually decided that their pitch would be that "the win statistic... spoil[s] the epic battle between the individual batter and the sole pitcher [and] cheapens the very heart of our game," according to a draft of the report that they sent to the commissioner's office soon thereafter. Liking the nice round number and the mystique that it holds, the Angels took specific issue with the concept of "the twenty-game winner," pointing out that "by no means is it a pure or even useful measure of success, especially when there are so many other factors that determine a win: the pitcher's own offense, both team's defense, even the whether [sic] that particular afternoon."
Even today, it's a compelling argument, one likely to become popular in this age of statistical baseball favored on the Internet. But the commissioner's reply was swift and merciless: "A win is a win. -Bowie." Autry knew that he alone could not win this battle. For a sane man, that lone fact would have quelled the resistance. But Autry perhaps thought of the cowboy songs he used to sing, about the posses who would take on entire Native American tribes and slaughter them despite the odds. And so when he set about constructing his own posse, he knew the first place to look: the Cleveland Indians.
(Continued in part three)
Seymour Hersh, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of several best-selling books.