All we gotta do," Dean Chance of the Los Angeles Angels shouted to his teammates last week, "is beat Roger Mustard and Mickey Mayonnaise and we can win this American League pennant." In the last month, as Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees have floundered and fumbled, the Angels of Los Angeles have become a big noise in the big leagues. "There ain't a soul who really believes in 'em," says Dizzy Dean, "but they got everybody all shuk up just the same."
By winning 27 of their 46 games since May 18 the Angels have played the best baseball in the American League and have clawed their way into a four-way pennant battle with the Yankees, the Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians. "You'd have a real good chance to beat the Angels," says Cal Griffith, president of the Twins, "if they would just stop swinging their darned bats."
The Angels, not yet two years old, don't seem to want to stop swinging their bats, using their good pitching and holding on by their fingernails. Organized in December of 1960 as one of two clubs to expand the American League to 10 teams, the Angels have suddenly become un-welcomed hoboes in the AL's high-rent district. In 1961 they were supposed to be incapable of winning 40 games. They won 70. The players made available to them in the draft were supposed to be rejects or retreads. Yet next week two Angels will be in the starting lineup of the American League's All-Star team.
The Angels have changed more than a little since December of 1960. They are still owned by a singing cowboy. Gene Autry; still have Walt Disney on their Advisory Board; still play Albie Pearson, a midget, in center field. But of the 28 players they started with in 1961, only 10 remain. Among the additions is something called Bo Belinsky, an aficionado of girls and pool, who has given baseball some of its most exciting moments and loudest laughs since Ring Lardner's marvelous rookie, Jack Keefe. But there is more to the Angels than Belinsky. They also have a slugging outfielder named Leon Wagner, who is leading the American League in home runs (23) and runs batted in (61). They have an excellent 23-year-old catcher named Bob Rodgers and the best second baseman in baseball this season in Billy Moran. They also have halos superimposed on their caps.
"I've never seen a ball club like this in my life," says Bill Rigney, the manager. ' "Even riding in the bus with them is an adventure. The hitting has been a huge surprise and the bullpen has been so good at times it's almost shocking." Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Angels, however, has been Belinsky.
"I've read enough about Belinsky the character," says Earl Battey, the fine catcher of the Minnesota Twins. "The story is that Belinsky the pitcher is something. He's won seven games, is third in the league in earned run average (2.79) and is tied for third in strikeouts. He's got four pitches—a fine fast ball, a curve, a slider and a good screwball."
"Yeah," says Bo Belinsky, "I got four good pitches. I'm not afraid of throwing any of them at any time. When I first came to the Angels I said that I could help them. I figured that if I won 12 and lost eight or something it would help them out real big. I think I'm gonna win 15 and that we got a good shot to win the pennant. A lot of people think I'm some kind of nut or something because of all the crazy ink I been getting. Sure, when I got out to California I went real Hollywood. There wasn't any reason for me not to. I'm single and a big league ballplayer and there are a lot of girls in that town. I bought a Cadillac. [The Associated Press recently described it as "lipstick colored."] Then I pitched a no-hitter and everybody went wild. I got in trouble for staying out late. The ball club fined me $250 but I got $105 of it back by hustling a guy in a pool hall in Kansas City.
"Last week I went up to Boston and the papers had a story on me. Something about THE BRIGHT-LIGHTS BOY COMES TO BOSTON. I looked Boston over pretty good. The only bright lights they ever had in Boston was the lantern in the Old North Church."
Belinsky and Co.
The impact that Belinsky and Co. has had on baseball was perhaps best reflected on the Fourth of July in Prospect, Ohio. Prospect has a population of 1,067 and is the home of Bob Rodgers, the Angel catcher. A float, sponsored by the businessmen of Prospect, went through the city. On the float was a pitcher's mound, home plate and a screen behind the plate. Two Little Leaguers were wearing Angel caps. According to a reporter, "The float made its way down Main Street from the schoolhouse and on to Water Street and to its destination at Prospect Community Park." There wasn't a word about Bob Rodgers or Los Angeles on the float. Everyone in Prospect knows who the float was for. And everyone in baseball is beginning to know about Bob Rodgers, too.
Luís Aparicio of the White Sox knows. Four times he has tried to steal on Rodgers and three times he has been thrown out. The pitchers know too; Rodgers is hitting a strong .285 and getting more comfortable at the plate every day. "I first came up near the end of last season," Rodgers says. "All my life I'd been an American League fan and I used to make up my own dream teams. The first time I got into a ball game Billy Pierce of the White Sox was pitching. I couldn't move my arms or my legs when I saw him on the mound. I could hear everything that everybody in the ball park was saying and finally I swung with my eyes closed and hit the ball to the first baseman. I haven't been nervous or afraid since. But don't you ever let anybody tell you that you don't sweat it out the first time in the major leagues."
Billy Moran has been the happiest surprise of all for the Angels. He is playing superb second base, has made only four errors all season and is hitting .300. "Last year," says Moran, "my wife and I decided that if we didn't do any good in 1961 that we'd quit baseball and try something else. I'd been playing for seven years and going to college since 1952 trying to get a degree. Last June the Angels called me up and I did O.K. They were good to me and so I stuck it out for one more year." Last week Moran was voted to the All-Star team.
Much of the Angels' power has come from Leon Wagner, their 28-year-old outfielder who holds his bat almost the way a child would. "I hold my hands about an inch apart," says Wagner. "I always have and nobody is going to change me. Last year I used to have these crazy thoughts that someday there would be an All-Star outfield with Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and Leon Wagner. It was a silly thought. I'd have to be the 'out' man. But the players voted for me and I got my wish—Maris, Mantle and Mr. Leon Wagner.
"Guess the reason I been playing so good is that I don't let the pitcher work me. I'm working him. This fellow for the White Sox, Joel Horlen. he fooled me several times one day on curves and then my last time up he gets two curves over for two strikes. I know he can't come in again with the curve. I had him set up. He's got to come down Broadway with the fast trolley. Down he comes and I smile and slap the ball right out of the park and we win the game 1-0."
The Angels, for all their brilliant play this season, will probably not continue long as pennant contenders. The schedule calls for them to play the Yankees. Detroit. Baltimore, Chicago and Cleveland in 54 of their next 84 games and they have neither adequate enough fielding nor strong enough pitching to withstand such a schedule. They might even finish as low as fifth or sixth. Who cares? Without them, the American League pennant race would have been even duller than it usually is.