I played golf recently— Wait. Let me begin again. I was invited, for the 19th consecutive year, to play golf in the Annual United Cerebral Palsy of the Inland Empire’s Dennis James Golf Classic. I brought my clubs and I flailed around mightily; every now and again actually striking the ball. But, despite my failing game and the pain it often brings to my body and, subsequently, my psyche, the day with friends was quite a bit of fun.
I played with John and David Narz, sons of legendary game show host, Jack Narz. Their father was a long-time friend of Dennis James and, back in the day when I produced a monthly TV show for UCPIE, was always kind and gracious in giving me tremendous interviews. John and David have adopted me into their foursome the past few years and have made me an honorary brother.
We were also paired with Ron Masak, who most will remember from Murder She Wrote. Ron has been an entertainer on stage, TV and film for hundreds of years and has more stories and jokes than anyone you’ll meet.
But on one hole I got to tell a story that took me back to my early radio days and beyond. As we approached a certain tee box, the Tee Sponsor sign said, “Jackie Autry.”
I’d only met Mrs. Autry once… and I didn’t really meet her. Back in the early-to-mid-1980’s—I think it was ‘84—I was Program Director at a radio station in Palm Springs. One day I received a phone call from someone at the Los Angeles Times, asking if I had anyone at the station who would go to the ten Spring Training games being played at Palm Springs Angel Stadium that spring.
I told the guy that I’d do it.
The Times has just launched a 900-number phone line that they called a Sports Wire or something like that. Their idea was to update it every 10 to 15 minutes with the latest scores and sports news. They were sure people would call up and pay 50-cents per call to know what was happening with their team. (Remember, this was long before the internet.) I was to be paid $25 per game to get sound-bites from players and recap the games. The gig obviously came with a press pass and that meant I could grab a sandwich in the press area. So I got to watch ten baseball games, talk with the players and get paid 250 bucks. Not a bad (long) lunch hour.
The Angels had some pretty big-name players that season and it was cool to rub elbows with them. Some were really nice guys and others were total jerks. But, heck! It was baseball and I got a good seat. Well, I got a seat. And that’s what this story is about.
I’d never covered a sports team and, at first, I bumbled my way along; watching other sports writers and learning the ropes. I met another young man named George Isaacs who was in his first year with the Pasadena Star News. He was assigned to be the beat writer for the Angels that year and he knew a bit more about procedures than I did. George showed me the ropes, as well as he knew them at the time, and we began hanging out together.
As it neared game time for the first game, George and I went up to the press box. Right. The stadium wasn’t that big and the press box seated about ten guys. Every seat was filled or reserved for the “big” names. The beat writers for the LA Times and the OC Register and the Los Angeles TV stations were all there and as George and I approached the door, some executive (or junior executive or junior weenie) who was probably the media liaison with the Angels said, “Where do you think you’re going?”
George and I exchanged glances and said, “Uh…” We indicated the passes dangling from our necks. “We’re press?”
He didn’t care who we were and brusquely said, “Well, these seats are reserved for the top writers. (Or something like that.) “You need to find another place!”
Sufficiently intimidated, George and I looked at each other and then turned away and started down the stairs. From behind us we heard his voice say, “Why don’t you go down in the tunnel and watch.” That was followed by snickering from others in the box.
Once down the steps, one of us said, “Well, do you know where the tunnel is?”
We decided that we’d at least give it a try.
The stadium was designed with both locker rooms across from the other with exits into the same hallway. The hall lead down a flight of stairs to dugout level right behind home plate. From that point the “tunnel” split, each direction leading to a dugout. The entire area was enclosed with chain-link fencing so you could stand off to one side or another. We weren’t in a dugout and we weren’t blocking the stairs so we decided to try to watch the game from there; our chests at ground level. It wasn’t comfortable standing for the entire three hours or so of the game, and we had to make notes onto our notebooks pressed against the fence, but we were ready to begin!
Just to the left, to the third base side of the tunnel, was a bar stool. Both of us looked at it and exchanged questioning looks as to if to ask if the other had any idea why it was there, but it was our first day and we decided not to sit in, nor move it. Let’s just not ask why there’s a bar stool in the tunnel between the dugouts and watch the game.
Warmups were completing and the players were taking their places within their respective dugouts. A slow-moving older gentleman made his way deliberately down the stairs, passed behind George and me and swiveled the bar stood around and lifted himself into it.
I was closest to the bar stool, which was about a foot to my left, and I didn’t turn my head to face the man. But my eyes grew to saucer-size and I shifted them to George who had the same expression as I. And both of our expressions betrayed the same thought. “Holy bleep! That’s Gene Autry!”
I was immediately five-years-old.
In my career in radio and TV, I’ve grown accustomed to being around celebrities. Once you have Frank Sinatra stop and chat with you in your office, pretty much nothing fazes you after that. So I did think it was a bit odd that I was nervous to have Mr. Autry sitting next to me. I guess that, when I saw him, I immediately became the five-year-old watching him on Saturday morning TV.
Before I had time to do or say anything stupid, I heard his distinctive voice say, “Howdy young fellers, I’m Gene Autry.”
We turned to him and he was extending his hand. George and I shook his hand and introduced ourselves. At least I think I did. It could have been incoherent babbling but because he continued to talk with us and ask us about our jobs and talk about his team, I must have said something comprehendible.
George and I stood next to Mr. Autry in that damp, half submerged tunnel for the entire game. What an experience! A couple of times some junior executive or another came to check on Mr. Autry and each of them gave us a squinty-eyed look of “What are you doing here?” But, since Mr. Autry was chatting with us, no one said a word.
The next day George and I made our way down to the tunnel and discovered the empty chair. We were almost immediately joined by a junior executive who barked, “You can’t be down here during the game!” We had press passes and that entitled us to access to the stadium and the press box and the locker rooms and that tunnel. But he ended his statement with, “…during the game,” so we knew we had to leave.
George and I exchanged exasperated glances and shuffled off to the stairway and back around into the stadium proper. There were plenty of empty seats, so we just sat in the stadium. A few moments later, the same junior weenie walks slowly past us and says, “These seats are for paying fans.”
With nowhere else to go, we again made our way up the stairs that lead to the press box. Neither of us spoke of our hope that there might be two open seats because we knew it wouldn’t happen. It was as if we were just wandering around in hopes of landing somewhere.
At the top of the stairs, opposite the entrance to the press box, we saw that that there was a long table along the back row of seats. We later learned that it was the same on the other side of the press box. Apparently it was designed as an overflow press area. We’d probably not noticed it the first time we’d gone up there because we were focused on the press box.
We first looked at each other and then to the open door of the press box; subconsciously, I think, looking for the junior dickwad liaison to see if he would be standing there and allow us to sit. He wasn’t, so we sat. I saw someone in the press box see us and he turned his head to the next guy. I turned away but soon there were a few snickers. It was obvious that we were, again, the butt of their joke, entertaining them with the fact that the first day we hadn’t known the overflow tables were there and, when we’d sulked down the stairs, they were laughing for that reason. Okay. It was a rookie hazing.
For the next few days, George and I watched games from our seats and kept score and had a great time. After the games I tried to get sound-bites and he conducted his interviews. Then I headed back to the radio station and he went to his hotel room to write. And since he was in town for ten days, staying in a hotel without his new wife who’d remained at home, I took him out one evening to my favorite pub. (I usually made it down to the tunnel before the games just to accidentally run into Mr. Autry and get another handshake and “Hello, young feller…”)
The game that was scheduled on Saturday was with the Chicago Cubs. There were many residents of Chicago who had retired to Palm Springs for the warmer climate. So they came out to see their team. Also, all of the games were 1:00PM games and working people could only come out to the two weekend games. So the place was packed. The President of the American League, Bobby Brown, was there. Chuck Connors, TV’s Rifleman and former professional baseball and basketball player, was there. It was a zoo.
George and I, being the grizzled (five-day) veterans that we now were, sensed that seats would be a premium and we took our places at the back row table about an hour before game time. We talked and filled out our score sheets and made additional notes and scribbles so that anyone who saw us could tell we were working.
As game time approached, there were a lot of people going in and out of the press box. They were all dressed in suits and were obviously VIP’s. Many shook hands with Chuck Connors or Bobby Brown. George and I remained glued to our seats but didn’t make eye contact with anyone lest some junior-executive-dickwad saw us and booted us out.
But that didn’t happen. No. The General Manager of the Angels, Buzzie Bavasi, himself, stood next to us and said, “You boys get out of here! We need these seats!”
George and I were scrod. The bleeping GM of the team was kicking us out. We weren’t allowed in the press box, which was jammed to overcrowding, we weren’t allowed in the tunnel and every seat in the stadium was taken. There was nowhere for us to go but we had to move. With slumped shoulders we both rose in unison.
Then we heard her.
“No!” came a female voice. Who would be countermanding the GM?! We looked up to see Jackie Autry ascending the remaining few stairs to the top landing. “No!” she repeated. “Those two boys have been kicked out of every place they’ve tried to sit. They have a job to do and these are their seats! They’re not going anywhere!”
The table was the only thing that kept our chins from hitting our knees. We hadn’t met Jackie Autry. I can’t recall if we’d even seen her. But she knew that we’d not been allowed in the press box, had been kicked out of the tunnel and told not to sit in the stands.
Buzzie Bavasi didn’t say anything to her, but turned and left us in our seats. George and I slapped our chins back into place and, with bulging eyes said something like, “ThankyouMrs.Autry! ThankyouThankyouThankyouMa’am! Thankyou!”
Mrs. Autry had been moving towards her seat but she looked back over her shoulder and winked, giving us an “I’ve got your back, boys,” look. I’ll never forget it.
I told a much shorter version of this story to my foursome that morning on the golf course, but added that when the Angels won the World Series in 2002, I wrote to Mrs. Autry to congratulate her on the Angels victory. I told her that, though she no longer owned the team, I knew that she and Mr. Autry had given so much to build that team. I told her that I wasn’t a fan of the team, but she and Mr. Autry had been so kind to George and me, I was sorry that he had not lived to see his beloved team win a championship. I also told her the story of how she’d helped two rookie reporters at one crowded game.
Ron Masak said, “And she wrote back to you, didn’t she?!”
I said, “Yes she did.”
She did write back and thanked me for taking the time to write to her. She told me that she remembered that event and hoped that I was doing well.
So, I never actually met Jackie Autry, but she was an Angel to George and me that day. And seeing her name on that tee sponsor sign brought back that happy memory and informed me that she is still helping others.