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3 Heavy-Hitters’ Roles in Disney-Angels Tale : Business: Autry and Eisner elbowed aside Ueberroth group, which had been odds-on favorite for a deal.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months, conventional wisdom had Los Angeles Olympics czar Peter Ueberroth and his group of investors buying a stake in the Angels and eventually succeeding Gene Autry as the baseball club’s owners.

Ueberroth had been deep in negotiations with Autry and his wife and co-owner, Jackie, reviewing the company’s books. But the numbers gave him pause. The team had lost $11 million in 1994 and was heading for an estimated $12.5 million in red ink this year.

Ultimately, that pause contributed to his losing the deal altogether. In early May, Ueberroth confessed that he sensed competition. And he got it.

Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael D. Eisner began calling Jackie Autry in earnest about purchasing the team, renewing general discussions they had begun in February. Flush with the box-office success of the two-seasons-old Mighty Ducks of the National Hockey League and backed by Disney’s formidable resources, Eisner swept in and, in a matter of days, sealed a deal the Autrys had been trying to close for five years.

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In the end, Eisner made an offer “that was overwhelming enough that we felt it was in Gene’s best interest to go that route,” Jackie Autry said.

The inner workings of the deal were revealed in interviews with several of the key players, including Jackie Autry, and Ueberroth, a former commissioner of baseball. Eisner declined to comment.

The sale, giving Disney a 25% stake in the Angels, was announced Thursday--only one hour after team officials were given notice. But the roots of the deal can be traced beyond last week or last month, to 1990.

Major League Baseball was in the midst of yet another labor dispute, and Gene and Jackie Autry had begun to sour on the business side of the game. Jackie approached Disney at Gene’s request to talk about the possibility of selling the Angels, but Eisner said the company did not want to get involved.

“They thought the timing was not beneficial,” she recalled.

Instead, her husband effectively retired from the day-to-day operation of the Angels and appointed Richard M. Brown, the club’s longtime legal counsel, to handle that side of the business. It proved to be the beginning of the end of Autry’s hands-on business dealings. Now 87, “The Cowboy” has slowly but surely sold many of his holdings accumulated after a highly successful film and music career, including radio and television stations and a hotel in Palm Springs.

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Jackie Autry said she talked off and on over the next few years with Jack B. Lindquist, then Disneyland president and still a member of the Angel advisory board. He told her repeatedly: “Disney really ought to own the team.”

Disney finally took Lindquist’s advice in February. This time, Eisner approached Jackie Autry about buying the team.

“He inserted himself into the situation and said this was something we needed to do,” she said. “Things then began to move forward. He was really the driving force behind the deal.”

There was a catch, however.

“We were far down the line with Peter Ueberroth and didn’t have permission [from a baseball ownership committee] to talk to Disney, so I told them there might be problems,” she said. “I don’t like playing one group against the other; I have too much respect for Peter. I didn’t know whether it was doable at the time, because we had started the process with Peter.”

Gene Autry personally liked Ueberroth and had asked the Laguna Beach resident to put a group of investors together late last summer. Ueberroth, a member of the Angels’ board of directors, spent two months looking into the team’s financial records and conducting marketing surveys. As the talks progressed into May, it became clear that Ueberroth might have a set of demands too imposing for the Autrys to accept; a key issue was the question of who would assume the Angels’ debts.

In stepped Eisner. Gene Autry and Walt Disney had been friends, and the cowboy liked the idea of having the Disney Co. on board. But there was one major area of concern. Would Disney and Eisner treat Autry with the kind of respect and deference he believed he deserved? Although Autry no longer handles day-to-day management of the Angels, he still wants to feel involved.

“That was important to him,” according to a source familiar with the negotiations. “The deal was structured over a long-term buyout to make sure that happens. If Eisner talks to Gene Autry [about the team and its plans], he won’t have any problems.”

Jackie Autry met at last with Eisner at his home for about three hours Sunday, and he laid out a deal she said was simply better than Ueberroth’s.

Ueberroth “made an offer that was everything we could ask for, and then some,” Autry said. “But Disney came in and overwhelmed us at the 11th hour.

“Not to take anything away from Peter--he has been outstanding and performed at every level. It’s just that Disney offered more for the club in some respects than Peter was able to justify.”

Legal documents were drawn up Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and Autry signed papers solidifying the deal Wednesday night. She spent much of Thursday contacting fellow baseball owners for permission to announce the agreement.

Autry didn’t inform the Angels staff of the decision until 3 p.m. Thursday. An hour later, the formal announcement was made: The company would spend $30 million to purchase 25% of the club Autry bought for $2.45 million in 1960, pending the approval of major league owners in a vote that could take place at a special meeting or through a conference call, but will most likely be taken in a regularly scheduled meeting in September. There is an option to buy the remainder of the team after Gene Autry’s death.

The deal stunned even those who have worked most closely with the Autrys over the years.

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Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly said that he knew the two parties had been in discussions but that he didn’t expect any kind of announcement to come “for at least three or four more weeks.”

Said Anaheim City Manager James D. Ruth: “We’re only in the loop in terms of what the interested parties would share. We’ve had very limited involvement. But Disney has always expressed a strong interest in owning the Angels and saw an opportunity to put their best foot forward. There really was no magic to it. I know they had had discussions from time to time. I know there was strong interest on the part of Disney.”

At Anaheim Stadium, home of the Angels, General Manager Greg Smith was surprised at the speed of negotiations.

“I knew that Disney was interested,” he said, “but I didn’t know that there were real serious discussions going on at that point in time. When we heard the announcement, we were very surprised and pleased.”

Times staff writers Mike DiGiovanna, Greg Hernandez and Greg Johnson contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Key Players

Four people either played key roles in the Angels-Disney drama or are likely to be most affected by the purchase:

Michael D. Eisner: Walt Disney Co. chief executive officer. Engineered Angels deal in a three-hour meeting at his home Sunday. Purchase extends his influence into a second major league sport and continues his philosophy of diversifying Disney’s corporate portfolio.

Tony Tavares: President of Disney Sports Enterprises. Had no team-management experience before being named to run the Mighty Ducks hockey team in 1993. Probably will assume presidency of Angels, giving him control of both franchises. Does not rule out Disney seeking a pro football franchise.

Jackie Autry: Angels’ executive vice president. Has run the team for husband and fellow owner, Gene Autry, since 1986. Her desire to retire and previous discussions with former Disneyland President Jack B. Lindquist, who told her Disney ought to own the team, figured in sale decision. Will relinquish day-to-day operations of the club when Disney takes over.

Richard Brown: Longtime legal adviser of Gene and Jackie Autry. Joined Angels board of directors in 1986 and became team’s president in 1990. Because of the expected restructuring of the front office by Disney, Brown’s future with the club is uncertain, as is that of other front-office personnel.

Source: Times reports

Sealing the Deal

The Disney-Angel marriage has its roots in baseball labor problems that took place five years ago. How the deal came about:

1990:

* Disenchantment: The Autrys sour on baseball after a 32-day lockout shortens spring training and causes the season to start a week late.

* Disney approached: Angels Executive Vice President Jackie Autry talks with Disney CEO Michael D. Eisner about purchasing Angels.

* Bad timing: Eisner declines, says timing is wrong.

1994:

* Strike: Angels say they lose $11 million when strike shortens season.

1995:

* More losses: Angels projected to lose $12.5 million for season.

* Sales talk: Peter Ueberroth emerges as potential purchaser of minority share of the Angels but is unwilling to assume some of the team’s losses.

* Enter Disney: Jackie Autry meets with Eisner on May 14 to outline agreement.

* Last step: Disney and Autrys sign “agreement in principle” May 17.

Source: Times reports


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