Wilmer Dean Chance sat in this little cafeteria filled with giggling office girls, the smell of sauerkraut and the mumbling of old men hiding from the cold rain, and destroyed a hill of mashed potatoes. His pants, white flannel, were cuffless and tight, and they hung about three inches above a pair of alligator shoes, which he said he should be saving for Los Angeles, where people are more accustomed to such flash. A white knit tie rested comically short on a white shirt, and his pale-blue summer sport coat seemed a size too small. The customers stared at him, not because of his costume or the ferocity with which he attacked his lunch, but because—next to producing the first Christmas tree and a small Presbyterian college—producing Dean Chance is the biggest claim to identity that Wooster, Ohio has ever had. For better or—heaven forbid—for worse.
Chance, for those who may remember him only because of his widely chronicled nocturnal gambols with Bo Belinsky, his flamboyant teammate on the Los Angeles Angels for the past three seasons, was the best pitcher in the big leagues last year. After being only 5 and 5 in July at the All-Star Game break, he won 15 of his last 19 games to finish with a 20-9 record and a 1.65 earned-run average. He shut out the Yankees three times, beat them four times and allowed them only one run in 50 innings—a home run by Mickey Mantle. In all, he pitched 11 shutouts during the season. "Walter Johnson," said Dean, "was the last in the league to get that many shutouts."
For these and all his other accomplishments ("I gave 100 less hits than innings pitched, and ain't nobody done that before") he won the Cy Young Award, presented annually to the outstanding pitcher in the major leagues. From the Angels, who finished in fifth place, largely through his efforts, Chance last week received a contract for $42,000, which would seem enough to help him support his wife, Judy, a Wisconsin farm girl he met when playing minor-league ball in Fox Cities, Wis., and his 2-year-old son—plus 60 head of cattle and 100 pigs that lounge on the 80-acre farm near Wooster that he bought several years ago. All of this, the success, the money, the family, the farm and another year of age, will serve to bring about, the people of Wooster hope, a sharp change in Chance's character—from something near Frank Sinatra, say, to nothing more extreme than Henry Aldrich.
To many in his audience in Wooster, a slightly puritanical community in which pool is still considered by some to be a nefarious distraction, a new Chance would be welcomed with a sigh of relief. His past conduct, which to conservative Wooster people has been only a shade short of cutpurse, has been an embarrassment. People here ain't used to those sort of things, one is likely to hear from voices that sound remarkably like that of Lamar Gene Gumbody, a Jonathan Winters invention. They ain't used to the way he's acted, always in a pool hall, always carrying a pool stick around everywhere he goes, always saying things he ought not to be saying, always getting in trouble with that Belinsky.
March 8, 1965
They seem to be asking whatever happened to the big kid who pitched on the sandlots wearing street shoes and street socks and bottle caps on his hat, the boy who used to walk home from 4-H competition with blue ribbons all the time. Other citizens of Wooster, more worldly, wonder why in his big-city travels he has never acquired sophistication and discretion, and why he remains a heedless clod (Chance has many advisers in Wooster) stumbling into one fuss after another.
Still, none of these views appeared to hurt the attendance at a Dean Chance testimonial dinner this winter in Wooster that Chance seemingly created and produced himself. Dean sold tickets and newspaper ads and arranged for the appearances of other stars (free) as well as for the distribution of baseballs, bats, Los Angeles Angel yearbooks, photos and 50 pounds of bubble gum. The Wooster Daily Record published a special section devoted to the dinner and the life of Dean Chance. Chance volunteered his profile for 23 ads ("No Need to Take a Chance when Buying Your Meat") and his thoughts to a number of interviewers, like Ernie Infield, who concluded: "There can't be too much wrong with a kid who prefers to spend the hours of his greatest triumph with his home folks—and for their benefit." A big crowd turned out "for their benefit." Tickets were $6, and all of the proceeds were contributed to the Northwestern High athletic fund. Chance was visibly elated by the town's response, and the town was pleased to see that there was a lot of the farm still left in the boy.
"Look, he's only 23," explained a sympathetic friend. "Who was any different at 23? Especially a farm boy loose on the town!"
"I just like to have a little fun now and then," Chance said. "I do what I want to do, and I pick my own friends. Belinsky is the best friend I've ever had. He's never tried to influence me."
Much of the criticism of Chance's personal conduct is provoked by his relationship with Belinsky, who this winter was traded away from Los Angeles and Chance to Philadelphia. The names Belinsky and Chance had a vaudeville ring, and Los Angeles was more than suitable for their act. With Bo as his sponsor, Chance plunged into the social swirl of the city. Parties and introductions to "big, important people" followed. It was a long way from Wooster, where the manager of the bowling alley might well be considered a celebrity. "Bo sure knows his way around," said Chance. Dean found fun with Bo—and trouble. Curfew infractions, absence from a spring training practice, a nebulous involvement with a woman who, sporting a black eye and cuts, railed about them to a policeman, and other activities not considered particularly uplifting to Little Leaguers caught the disapproving eye of Los Angeles General Manager Fred Haney. For the episode with the woman, Chance, along with Belinsky, was fined $250, despite Dean's plea that he was being victimized for just being there. For missing the practice, Haney relieved him of $500. "Five Cs!" ranted Chance. "That's a lot of dough. I could buy five cows with that." And then he said, "I don't understand it. Other guys get in trouble, and they give 'em a small fine. But with Bo and me they gotta make a federal case out of it."
Naturally, Belinsky emerged from all this as Chance's Svengali. It was Bo, critics contended, who was responsible for Dean's behavior. Dean, they said, was just a dumb old farm boy who did not know any better, and Dean was just a caddie for Bo. Someone said Chance trailed behind lugging Belinsky's collapsible cue. Leon Wagner, the hip and outspoken outfielder who has since been traded from the Angels to the Cleveland Indians, disagreed. "Dean isn't any starry-eyed hanger-on," said Wagner. "Compared to Chance, Belinsky is a quiet guy. Dean knows his way around, and he can show Bo a few things."
There is partial truth in what Wagner said. For instance, Chance was not un-oriented to the pool room before he met Belinsky; pool and cards have always been his favorite diversions. But though Chance is not the bumpkin so many think he is, he is still a big kid oscillating between two widely disparate environments—the austerity of life in small-town Wooster and the swinging world of a young man with a "big name" in a huge city.
Chance might be described as a blend of Brett Maverick—television's bungling and handsome gambler—and Cecil (Highpockets) McDade, a less glamorous character who appears in a book by John R. Tunis. Bo appealed to the Maverick in Chance, and Maverick, at times, is all that Chance would like to be—slick, picaresque and cavalier. Skip the bungling. Action! Gambling in Las Vegas, wheel and deal and let the good times roll. Suddenly all his friends were show people, the world's greatest pool players, the richest men in town. Maverick (Dean's son is named Brett) travels with the best. But more often than not Chance is only Highpockets—practical, plotting, egocentric, intractable, brutally candid and, after a while, a bore. It is Highpockets who is the baseball pitcher, and it is Highpockets who has got him into as much trouble as Maverick, and Highpockets who has been the dominant part of Chance from the beginning.
Chance was born in the little township of Wayne, just outside Wooster, on June 1, 1941. Until he entered Northwestern High in Wooster he had spent most of his young life helping his father Wilmer with the daily routine of their family farm. At that time it was farming first, and then baseball. In high school the two were reversed. At Northwestern High his coach was Roy Bates, and Chance never misses an opportunity to stress Bates's contribution to his development as a baseball pitcher. "He taught me how to win," Chance says, "and he gave me the desire to beat the other guy's brains out in competition." Bates, a little man with a crippled arm and an overwhelming sense of obligation to the boys in his charge, is a tough, dictatorial coach who brooks no bad deportment from his athletes. In fact, he has been known to make a boy practice in a dress if the boy has given a woman teacher a difficult time in class.
"Dean was in the fourth grade when I first ran into him," Bates said recently, reminiscing. "I'd come out of church, and he'd be outside waiting for me. He used to tell me about himself, and even then he told me he would be a star in the majors one day. 'Yes, sir, Mr. Bates,' he used to say, 'I have a snake ball and a super snake ball.' A few years later I saw him pitch a sandlot game. What a sight! He had bottle caps on his hat, and he was wearing street shoes and socks. He pitched a no-hitter, and he was quite the hero. I left to go to the car, and he came running up, saying, "What'd ya think of that?' I told him, and he didn't like it. I told him he'd have to learn how to dress before he could pitch for me. When he came to me in high school, he showed up the first day of practice with those street shoes on again. He always claimed that spikes hurt his feet. I told him to take 25 laps after the workout, and then take the balls and bats in.
"Actually, he was never much trouble," Bates said. "Though there was one thing about him. If you said please, you'd never get anywhere with him; he'd run you right out of school if you gave him a chance. Once in a basketball game, after being held scoreless in the first half, he complained that his pants were too tight. I told him to go get dressed and let me know the next day if his pants were still too tight. He didn't, and he scored 20 points in the second half.
"The best things done to Chance as a player were the things that were not done. We never tampered with the way he threw—you know, the way he turns his back to the plate before he pitches? We never allowed him to fool with a curve or a slider. We just made him throw fast balls, and we told him to work on keeping the ball low. He always had great control. In his first year we only allowed him to relieve. In his second we started him in spots. As soon as he began to get hit, we pulled him. He was never humiliated in a game. And from his third year on he was unbeatable. Oh, he'd loaf now and then. He'd get ahead, and he'd take it easy. Once he did that, and I walked out to him in big, high steps. He said, 'What are you walking like that for?' I said, I just don't want to step on your guts.' Naturally, he was furious, but he bore down again."
I can do anything
"Dean always had a lot of confidence in himself. As far as he was concerned, nothing was impossible. One time a kid needled him about not being able to play anything but basketball and baseball. That was a mistake. Chance practiced for a week and then won the school table-tennis championship. Another time he bet a boy a milk shake that he could strike out nine men in a row, and he did. Another time, before we started in the first round of the state baseball tournament, he said flatly that we'd win it. 'How can we miss,' he said, 'if we don't give up any runs?' We weren't really that good, but Chance kept his promise. He gave up only two runs, and we won it. He was always like that. There never was anything modest about him. When the scouts came around, he said—after winning 51 games and losing one and pitching 18 no-hitters—'I'd have a better record if I'd have been with a better club.' When he graduated he could have taken his choice of 30 basketball scholarships, and there were over a dozen major league scouts waiting for him."
Chance says, "I was the greatest high school pitcher in the history of Ohio."
The Baltimore Orioles agreed, and they signed Dean for a $30,000 bonus. "The thing that impressed me about the boy," said Farm Director Harry Dalton, "was his attitude. There was never any doubt in his mind that he would be a top pitcher in the big leagues. You could see that the first time you met him." Chance was sent to Bluefield, W.Va. in the Appalachian League, and only occasionally did the manager have to caution him about late hours. "We knew," said Dalton, "he wasn't an average-type kid. He was a strong individual. We knew he liked to gamble and have a good time, but he didn't take too much handling." For Chance (he does not drink or smoke) a good time was simply meeting people, and if it required staying up past the curfew he would do it. He loved to be around people.
At Bluefield, Chance became annoyed easily. After not being picked to start either the first or second game of the season, he went to see Dalton, who was traveling with the team. "Mr. Dalton," he said, "if I'm not going to pitch for this here club, I'd like to go with some other organization."
The Orioles had to part with Chance later, in 1961, when the American League expanded to 10 teams and the eight existing clubs were required to put players into an expansion draft pool, but they did so reluctantly. Either Arne Thorsland, whom the Orioles considered a "great prospect," or Chance had to go on the list, and Chance was finally chosen. There are a number of opinions concerning the Orioles' decision. Some believe that the Orioles had been disappointed in Chance's "breaking stuff." Others claim that Paul Richards, who had been a dominant figure in the Baltimore organization, had been disturbed by Chance's attitude—his swagger and his boasting. At any rate, Chance was drafted by the brand-new Los Angeles Angels. Thorsland came up with a sore arm in the spring of 1961, and he has not pitched for the Orioles since.
Chance spent the 1961 season in the minors at Dallas-Fort Worth and then joined the Angels in 1962. If the Angels were to be rankled later on by his Brett Maverick behavior, they were initially piqued by Highpockets. From the start, Chance was the prototype of every brash rookie who ever appeared in sports fiction. He was 14 and 10 in his first season. Manager Bill Rigney was impressed, but the players looked beyond his performance. "He should get a trophy for mouth-flapping," said one. Leon Wagner said, "You can't tell him anything. You say, 'Now, don't pitch high to this guy,' and he asks you why. He says, 'He can't hit my fast ball.' I say, 'Man, this is the big league, and they hit everything.' So he throws high, and wham! So then he says, 'Oh, that was an accident, because nobody can really hit my fast ball.' That boy is some stubborn."
In 1963 Chance had a 13-18 record, and he always seemed to be right smack in the middle of a controversy. When Chance is not winning ball games he is not exactly the stoic type; he does not see games being lost, he sees dollar bills falling out of his pocket. All during the season he irritated his teammates with cutting remarks. In one game he struck out 12 batters and later told the press: "I had to strike 'em out. I didn't dare let 'em hit the ball to anyone." In Washington he wailed because he was credited with a five-hitter instead of a four-hitter. "Don Lock should never have got a triple on that ball," he said. "Albie should have had it easy." Later in the season, a bad one all round for the Los Angeles club, he growled: "I'm getting the shaft. There's not a clutch hitter on this whole lousy team. I can't make a living this way." His teammates retaliated bluntly but effectively by filling his locker with garbage. Above it they put a sign that read: "I'm not naturally stupid. I'm just practicing."
A man who had never been so humiliated previously, Chance brooded and plotted during the winter. He was continually rumored to be involved in one trade or another, but the rumors were always started by Chance, and it was always Chance being traded for a star. General Manager Fred Haney was not impressed by the rumors. Chance then shifted the campaign to the subject of money. In his rookie year he had made the minimum major league salary of $7,000, and he was raised to $15,000 for 1963. After Chance lost 18 games, Haney offered him the same salary for 1964. Chance balked, reeled off his other pitching statistics. Despite the losses, they were impressive. "I think they are fantastic," Chance said. Haney did not agree, but eventually he relented and offered a $3,000 raise.
Chance signed. "That's all right," he said. "If I pitch well and show a good attitude, Fred says he'll give me an extra $7,000." Chance had a poor start in 1964, and Rigney sent him to the bullpen for a while. After superb relief work he was again made a starter, and he pitched well—though without luck. The promised extra money was not forthcoming. "Haney's gone back on his word," Chance complained. "I want my $7,000, or I want to be traded." He showed up one day washing car windows at a service station. "My family has to eat," he said. Haney laughed—for a while, anyway. Skillfully using the press, Chance kept attacking Haney. "There's no room for me and Fred on this here club," he said finally. "I hate that man and I'll never speak to him again, not about salary or anything else." At this point, Chance was invited to talk things over with the Angels' top officials, Gene Autry and Bob Reynolds. Dean was given his extra money and responded with brilliant pitching the rest of the season. Now, after receiving a $42,000 contract for 1965, Chance says he is extremely fond of Haney. "There's nothing in the world," he says, "that I wouldn't do for that man. He's a fair and generous man."
Money and me
Chance was really not being inconsistent. Haney's generosity with the 1965 contract pleased him immensely; if there is one thing that fascinates him more than himself, it is money. The mere mention of money brings a glitter to his eyes and a pounding beat to his voice. Riding around Wooster with one of his many advisers, a lawyer named Henry Critchfield, the conversation, which Dean dominated, held fast to money.
"Look at that house, Hank," shouted Chance. "How much you think that cost?"
"Oh, about $60,000," said Hank.
"Hey, look at that bank," said Dean. "My, what a pretty bank."
"Yeah," said Hank, unimpressed.
"Hey, about that farm, Hank?" asked Chance. "How much you think he'll take for it? Four hundred acres. He'll probably want $150,000. You think he'll take $100,000, Hank?"
"Maybe," Hank said.
"Hey, look at that nice bank," yelled Chance, passing another monument to bland architecture.
"Just have another good year," Hank smiled. Chance had better, because there are plenty of people hoping he will be unable to back up his brag and bluster.
"If he doesn't keep making it big," says one friend, "I'm afraid he'll end up being just a bitter, big-mouth farmer."
Chance does not think so. "If I never have another good year, and if I'm out of the majors in two years, I'll feel bad, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I'd just plunge into farming, and I wouldn't even look back. I might think of the money I missed, now and then. But I'm just a farmer. I belong on the farm because that's what I know best. I never want to live anywhere but on a farm here in Wooster. I like the people here, and you can depend on them. Some of the people here don't like me for the way I acted, but I'm a changed man after last season. No more cards. No more late hours. No more pool."
"No more criticism of other players, either?" he was asked.
"Look, sure I knocked 'em, but really they deserved it," he said. "And you'll never hear me knock a guy behind his back like the others do. Anyway, I only knock the guys that don't put out. Take last year. I can't say enough good things about Bobby Knoop and Jim Fregosi and Joe Adcock. They were a big help in my winning 20 games. In fact, the players named Knoop the most valuable player. I didn't even vote for myself."
"Did that bother you?"
"No," he said, "I'm not popular. I'm a bad loser."
"No, you're not," a friend protested. "You're just honest."
"Well, anyway," Chance said, "I'm gonna keep my big mouth shut this year. I really am a changed man."
"Where do you think the Angels will finish?" he was asked.
Chance paused a moment, and then he said, "Well, not too good. Without me out there, they'd be even worse. The only way they could move up is if they trade me."
"What could they get for you?"
"Five front-line players," he said.
Everybody laughed, but not Dean.
"Trouble is," he moaned, "nobody appreciates me for what I really am."
Ring Lardner would have.