Newhan: Reflections on Bo Belinsky, Author of the First No-Hitter at Dodger Stadium
Amid the hallowed pitching history of Dodger Stadium, from Koufax to Kershaw and all the home team studs in between, it is mostly forgotten that the first no-hitter there was thrown by a left-hander best described as a brief shooting star and whose team was a mere tenant in the Ravine.
Bo Belinsky of the Los Angeles Angels pitched it on May 5, 1962, defeating the Baltimore Orioles, 2-0, on nine strikeouts and four walks. This was about five weeks before Sandy Koufax pitched the first of his four no-hitters.
As Koufax etched his Hall of Fame career, Belinsky’s career might qualify for the Hall of Shame, if there was such a thing. However, for that one May night, for about the first two months of that rookie season, he was probably bigger than Koufax and the biggest thing in headline type.
I was there for the fame and the flameout. I was a 25-year-old second-year baseball writer for the Long Beach Independent, Press-Telegram, six years before I moved to the Los Angeles Times.
Belinsky was a young writer’s dream, a self-described street-smart pool hustler from New Jersey, who would date some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, leave Angel management exasperated with his night life and attract an array of sycophants, including the famed radio and newspaper personality Walter Winchell, who couldn’t get enough of Bo, often becoming part of the Angels traveling media corps.
Who could blame Winchell? Belinsky was a wellspring of dynamite quotes. This, for example, is what he told me in reflection several years after his no hitter:
“The night before…I met this (attractive lady) out at a place on the Sunset Strip. We had a couple drinks and I wound up making it with her at her pad. I got home about four a.m. and that night pitched my no-hitter. I went back to look for her after the game and couldn’t find her. I never found her again. She was my good-luck pitching charm, and when I lost her I lost all of my pitching luck.”
It wasn’t for a lack of trying to find a replacement, luring into the process a young Angel right-hander named Dean Chance, a farm boy from Wooster, Ohio, and a future Cy Young Award winner. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which Chance’s own career was damaged as he and Belinsky often chased the neons in tandem, further annoying Angel management.
The Angels were in Season 2, born from American League expansion in 1961 with the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry, as owner. Two future All-Stars and future managers—shortstop Jim Fregosi and catcher Buck Rogers—were acquired by the Angels in the expansion draft. Chance had been selected by the new Washington Senators in that draft and then traded to the Angels.
Belinsky and Chance had at one time been prospects in the Baltimore system. They didn’t know each other; only of each other. The Angels selected Belinsky in the minor league draft after the 1961 season, the 63rd player taken, and sent him a contract for the major league minimum of $6,000. Belinsky scoffed, told Fred Haney, the Angels general manager, he wouldn’t report for less then $8,500 and told everyone else who inquired that he had plenty of things going in Trenton, that he could stay “play pool and fool around with the girls.”
That made headlines in Los Angeles, and Haney recognized the publicity value for a second year team who would be playing in the shadow of their Dodger Stadium landlord. He advised Belinsky to report to spring training in Palm Springs where they could continue to negotiate. The Angels welcomed him with a poolside press conference, maybe a first for a pitcher who had yet to appear in a major league game.
“He was the greatest thing to ever to happen to us, at least for a time,” the late Irv Kaze, the Angels former publicity director, would say in reflection. “He put the Angels on the map but I don’t think he ever really cared about pitching and winning. He could have been a star, but other things got in the way.”
Belinsky signed for the minimum with the Angels saying they would look at his contract situation again in mid-season. He went out and won his first four major league decisions, making headlines on and off the mound, and then raised his persona to its highest level with the no-hitter before a crowd of 15,886, a bonanza for the Angels, who would reward Bo with a $2,500 bonus and cherry red Cadillac. Most of the ride after that was downhill. From 5-0 Belinsky finished 1962 at 10-11. He was engaged and disengaged to the actress Mamie Van Doren and went 11-17 in his final two years before being traded to Philadelphia after a last-straw incident in which he used either a can of shaving cream or hair tonic to slug it out with Los Angeles Times writer Braven Dyer, a man three times his age.
Belinsky would finish his career with a 28-51 record, admitting in later life to alcohol addiction and saying before his 2001 passing that he went from the highs of major league life to the lows of a “brown bag under a bridge.”
“I had my moments and I have my memories,” he told me. “If I had the attitude about life then that I have now I would have done a lot of things differently. But you make your rules and you play by them. I knew the bills would come due and I wouldn’t be able to cover them.”
The Angels checked out of the bright lights of Los Angeles about the same time as Belinsky, having known from the start they would have to find a home of their own, which they did, of course, in Anaheim. For three years they had put up with a windowless executive office in the left field corner of Dodger Stadium where the groundskeepers kept the fertilizer.
The air has been cleaner in their own home but whether they have escaped the Dodgers shadow has seemed to be a haunting question at times.
Ross Newhan covered baseball for 35 years at the Los Angeles Times, the last 15 as the National Baseball Columnist. He was recipient of the 2001 J.G. Taylor Spink Award as voted by his peers in the BBWAA and is honored in the media wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He can be read regularly at newhanonbaseball.com.