A famous cowboy, a construction visionary, a devoted pitchman and a Valley civic leader … all helped build Valley baseball and are 2016 inductees into the Cactus League Hall of Fame.
The four were announced Wednesday at the Cactus League Breakfast and will be honored in a free public ceremony beginning at 6:45 p.m. March 5 as part of the Scottsdale Spring Training Festival.
Gene Autry, Del Webb, Robert Brinton and Jim Bruner came from vastly different backgrounds and professions, but they were bound together by their love for baseball and community.
Bruner, a banker by trade, has a long history as a Valley civic leader. He’s a life member of the Scottsdale Charros, a volunteer group that helps support Scottsdale spring training. He served two terms on both the Scottsdale City Council and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
As a supervisor, he cast the deciding vote for a stadium that would become home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bruner also served as chairman of the Maricopa County Stadium District and was instrumental in developing a plan with then Gov. Rose Mofford to stabilize and expand the Arizona Cactus League.
Bruner is the only living member of the 2016 Hall of Fame class and will attend the March 5 ceremony.
The Hall of Fame was established in 2014 by the Arizona Spring Training Experience, which is owned and operated by the non-profit Valley History Inc.
The other members to be celebrated March 5 are:
Known as "America's Favorite Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry is the only entertainer to have five stars on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, one each for radio, records, film, television and live theatrical performance (including rodeo).
In 1960, the Singing Cowboy, turned radio station owner, became interested in acquiring the broadcasting rights of the new American league expansion team slated for southern California. Baseball executives, however, convinced Autry that he should pursue ownership instead and the Los Angeles Angels (later known as the California Angels) baseball team was born.
Autry made promotion of the Angels his priority and became one of the most recognizable owners in baseball history. Autry owned the Angels from 1961 until his death in 1998.
The Angels first trained in Palm Springs, California, but in 1982 and ’83, Autry split the spring training schedule between Casa Grande and Palm Springs. The Angels moved their entire spring training operation to Arizona in 1991 when Autry signed a 25-year lease for the use of Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Autry was instrumental in leading expansion efforts for the Tempe Diablo complex in 1997. After Autry died, the Angels retired the number 26 in his honor. The chosen number reflected that baseball’s rosters are 25 men strong, so Autry’s unflagging support for his team made him the 26th member.
In 1999, the Angels named Tempe Diablo Gene Autry Field in his honor and Autry’s theme song, “Back in the Saddle Again” continues to play after each game.
Robert Brinton, never worked under the bright lights of Hollywood but he still cast a long and influential shadow across the Cactus League.
A lifelong baseball and Chicago Cubs fan, Brinton worked tirelessly to improve, expand and support Arizona spring training.
It was, after all, in Robert’s blood. His father, Dilworth Brinton, and Mesa rancher Dwight Patterson were among the businessmen who helped lure the Chicago Cubs to Mesa in the 1950s.
Robert grew up selling Chicago Cubs spring training programs at Mesa’s Rendezvous Park and also pitched in watching the players’ cars in the parking lot. A longtime member of the Mesa Hohokams, Brinton later served as President of the Cactus League and the Mesa Visitors and Convention Bureau. Robert was instrumental in helping to preserve Major League Baseball through his political efforts to prevent the migration of Cactus League teams to Florida and through his leadership on the 2012 Mesa bond campaign that helped secure a new Mesa stadium for the Cubs.
Throughout his lifetime, Brinton shared his passion, personal insight and foresight to promote the importance of the Cactus League as an economic engine and tourist draw to the Grand Canyon State.
While Brinton helped to figuratively build the Cactus League, developer Del Webb played a pivotal role in establishing Arizona spring training and in literally constructing several landmarks of the Southwest.
Webb was the co-owner of the New York Yankees from 1947 to 1964 and a Phoenix resident. He was president of the Del Webb Construction Co. -- a thriving company that built the famed Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas and created the concept of the desert retirement community of Sun City.
Webb is also credited with making one of the most interesting trades in baseball history. In 1951, he convinced Giants owner Horace Stoneham to swap spring training sites. The one-year only swap took the New York Giants to Florida and brought the Yankees to Arizona.
The Yankees’ defending World Championship lineup that year included Joe Dimaggio in his last season, 19-year-old rookie Mickey Mantle, Manager Casey Stengel and catcher Yogi Berra.
Much excitement surrounded Webb bringing the Yankees to the original Phoenix Municipal Stadium at Seventh and Mohave streets near downtown Phoenix. Not only was he able to showcase the Yankees to other Arizona brass as he was building Sun City – he gave fans a close-up look of a national market team years before Major League Baseball’s westward expansion.
Del Webb may not have invented the Cactus League, but bringing the Yankees to Arizona for spring training and his promotion of our state certainly helped build the foundation.