Bill Rigney, manager of the brand-new 1961 Los Angeles Angels, was entertaining a distinguished Palm Springs visitor just before the start of a spring training game there when the idea hit him.
"Say, Mr. President," Rig said to Dwight David Eisenhower, "why don't you manage this team for a couple of innings?"
"Oh, no," Ike protested. "I can't do that."
"Why not?" responded Rig. "You managed the entire country for eight years."
"But I don't know your signs."
"No problem," said Rig, gesturing toward the greenhorns, misfits and has-beens that formed the nucleus of his expansion team. "Neither do they."
And so the 34th president of the United States did, in fact, manage the fledgling Angels—without incident—during the middle innings of a spring training game, an event largely unrecorded by Eisenhower biographers. And though managing this team without incident may not have been an accomplishment comparable to the invasion of Normandy, which Ike also managed, it was, as Rigney knew all too well, no mean feat.
Doing his job that year gave poor Rig an ulcer, which he pacified by ingesting milk and cake in the dugout, at least on those increasingly rare occasions when he could get to his "medicine" before his players wolfed the stuff down. Not that milk and cake were ballplayer staples in the early 1960s; whiskey and pretzels were more like it, for this was perhaps the last generation of a hell-raising baseball breed that dated to a time when the salaries were low and the living high. The after-hours shenanigans of his happy warriors kept Rigney's ulcer in business.
There was the time, for example, when a fire in the team's Boston hotel routed guests at four in the morning. As Rigney and hundreds of others stood shivering outside on the sidewalk in various stages of undress, he spotted Art Fowler and Ryne Duren, road roommates and key members of the Angel bullpen, bemusedly taking in the spectacle. Both were dressed to the nines in suits and ties and neither looked especially discomfited by the conflagration. Fowler, smiling mischievously, approached his manager. "Well, Skip," he said in his Carolina drawl, "I bet you don't know whether we're just getting up or just coming in."
"No," admitted Rigney, "and I don't want to know."
Rigney was 43 in 1961, and the humor and forbearance that have distinguished him in his long baseball career sustained him through that first season in Los Angeles. Angel owner Gene Autry had originally asked his pal Casey Stengel to manage the new expansion club, but Stengel finally informed the old movie cowboy that he had other commitments. So Autry hastily turned to Rigney, who had recently been fired as manager of the San Francisco Giants. At a team banquet before the start of the season, Autry first apologized for not hiring Stengel and then introduced Rigney as "Phil Wrigley," an excusable lapse, perhaps, since the Angels would play their first season at Los Angeles's Wrigley Field, a ballpark previously owned by the chewing-gum family.
Rigney, a career National Leaguer, was hired only two days before the expansion draft. But Rig got his hands on the Giants' American League scouting reports and, together with Fred Haney, the Angels' general manager, was able to pluck some young prospects—Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, Bob (Buck) Rodgers—out of the refuse heap. The Angels also made some astute early-season trades, one of which brought the inimitable Duren west from the New York Yankees.
The 32-year-old Duren had long terrorized American League hitters, partly because of his 95-mph fastball but mostly because the hitters never knew where he was going to throw it. Duren wasn't always so sure either, although his habit of Hinging his first warmup pitch against the backstop was all show. He did, however, have extremely poor eyesight—his bottle-thick glasses were legitimate cause for alarm.
Duren also had another pitch, a tricky sinker, that mystified hitters. Tom Ferguson, the Angels' first clubhouse man, soon learned the source of this dipsy-doodle. On Duren's first day with the team he took Ferguson aside and, in a conspiratorial voice, whispered, "I want you to get me two boxes of Ivory Flakes." Ferguson looked at him blankly; Duren just didn't strike him as the fastidious type. "And," the pitcher continued, "don't tell anyone."
Ferguson duly returned with the soap and then watched in amazement as Duren, looking anxiously about the laundry room for spies, rubbed the flakes into his uniform trousers. The pitcher put a cautioning finger to his lips and then, smelling liked a laundromat, took the field. Soon thereafter Ferguson witnessed the wonders of the Duren soapball.
Rigney had a genuine affection for his eccentric reliever, and when, on June 28 at Wrigley Field in L.A., Duren asked to start against his old team, the Yankees, the manager gave him the ball. "And," says Rigney, "he pitched his butt off into the sixth inning. Then I had to manage. We're behind 1-0, and we've got the bases loaded, two outs and my pitcher, who can hardly see behind those Coke-bottle glasses, coming up. Now, I don't want to take Ryne out of the game the way he's pitching, but it's a pinch-hit situation. So Duren turns to me and says, 'Do what you have to do, Skip.' And I say, 'Go on up there and hit a single to centerfield.' So Bob Turley throws him a slider for strike one, then a slider for strike two, then another slider, which Duren drills into centerfield for a base hit. Two runs score. We win the game. You think I'm not managing good?"
After the game Rigney gave a reasoned explanation of his strategy to incredulous sportswriters. He told them he had known all along, overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the myopic Duren was a good hitter. At which point Duren himself appeared in the manager's office. "Boy," Duren said of his big hit, "that's a first for me."
Everyone on this team played together—off the held; and that included the sportswriters. The early '60s may also have seen the last of the raffish newspaperman of Front Page vintage, his disreputable ilk soon to be displaced by the sobersided scholars of these less adventurous times. "We were like a family then," says Ferguson. "The writers protected the players, and the players protected the writers."
Indeed, the writers could scarcely expose the players' sundry peccadilloes without risk of implicating themselves. It was, after all, from the front porch of the press bungalow during spring training in Palm Springs that Duren, limbering up after an all-night session inside, decided, at 5:30 a.m., to work on his golf swing. Cheered on by the press corps, the pitcher launched drive after errant drive off the porch, one of which shattered a window in the upstairs room of pitching coach Marv Grissom. As Duren looked up apprehensively, a sleepy-eyed Grissom peered through the broken glass and called down to him, "Got an early starting time, eh, Ryne?"
Somehow, in all the tumult of 1961, Rigney coaxed his crew to a stunningly successful season. The Angels finished their inaugural campaign with 70 wins, still a record for a first-year expansion team. But they didn't make much of a dent in the Southern California baseball market, as the Dodgers, who had arrived three years before the Angels, maintained their hold on the region, pulling 1.8 million fans into their temporary home at the massive Los Angeles Coliseum.
In 1962 the two L.A. teams would share the luxurious new Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine. As Dodger tenants the Angels seemed even further below the salt and couldn't match such Dodger drawing cards as Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Maury Wills. The Angels were amusing, but the Dodgers were winners, and there seemed to be no way to crack the older team's grip on the fan base. But on Nov. 27, 1961, the Angels had drafted out of the Baltimore organization a heretofore obscure career minor leaguer named Robert (Bo) Belinsky. After that, even Koufax would be hard-pressed to get his name in the local papers.
Belinsky was a street kid from Trenton, N.J., and pool, not baseball, was Bo's game. Unlike so many other city kids of the time, he had never longed to be a big leaguer. "No aspirations, no inspiration," he would later say. Instead he contented himself with pitching for small change in sandlot games, hanging out in billiard halls and indefatigably pursuing la femme.
Then, in 1956, he was "discovered" by a Pittsburgh scout and signed for $185 a month to pitch at Class D Brunswick, Ga. Belinsky pitched, with moderate success, in the minors for six years and was 25 when the Angels' Haney finally offered him a major league contract at the minimum salary of $6,000. "That isn't much money," Belinsky responded, accurately enough. "Why not make it $8,500?"
Haney was aghast. Belinsky had a 32-35 career record in the minors. And though he was lefthanded, threw hard and had developed an effective screwball, his chances of making the Angels' major league roster were considered minimal. When the club opened camp in Palm Springs on Feb. 24, 1962, Belinsky stayed home in Trenton.
Bud Furillo, who was then covering the team for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, was immediately intrigued by an AP dispatch in which Belinsky reaffirmed his resolve to hold out and said he would happily pass the time that spring shooting a little pool by day and spending his evenings with "a lot of broads." By the time Bo finally did report to Palm Springs for further contract talks, he had been established in the public's eye as a rakehell of Errol Flynn dimensions.
With uncommon aplomb, Belinsky appeared—much to Haney's irritation—at his own poolside press conference, at which he expounded on his salary demands as well as on his plans to ravage every available starlet in Hollywood. The assembled reporters and team publicity director Irv Kaze recognized at once that in this impulsive lefthander they had a public relations bonanza, even if all he could pitch was bull and woo. For his part, Bo liked the attention. He quietly signed at Haney's price after first extracting a promise that there would be a midseason renegotiation of the contract if he did well. Haney thought the chances of that happening were about as promising as Belinsky's dating a movie star. He badly underestimated the young man on both counts.
Belinsky and Chance, an Ohio farm boy and country slicker who was as clever at cards as Bo was at pool, were the two rookies on the pitching staff, and together they quickly developed an affinity for the Hollywood life-style. Chance, a righthander with a blazing fastball and a bewildering peekaboo delivery, was considered a can't-miss prospect. Belinsky, on the other hand, was just one step away from the minors when he got his first start, on April 18 against the Kansas City Athletics at Chavez Ravine. He prepared for this momentous event by entertaining a young woman on the eve of the game. But he held the A's to two runs in six innings, with Fowler closing out the win.
Belinsky then beat Cleveland twice to run his record to 3-0. His fourth straight victory, on May 5, was a no-hitter at Chavez Ravine against Baltimore, the team that had let him go. "Oh, the irony of it all," said Belinsky in the locker room as he groomed himself for a night on Sunset Strip. It was the first no-hitter pitched for any California team and the first ever in the new Dodger Stadium. (Koufax would pitch the second, on June 30.) Just like that, Bo was famous.
A delighted spectator at the no-hitter was the renowned syndicated gossip columnist Walter Winchell; with his keen sense of ballyhoo, Winchell instantly recognized possibilities in the young pitcher that not even the sportswriters had perceived. "Walter Winchell invented Bo," says Rodgers, then the team's catcher and now the Angels' manager. "From then on, all you read in his column was "Bo Belinsky of no-hit fame was cooing last night at the Coconut Grove with Tina Louise' or some other starlet. Every out-of-work actress in Hollywood got introduced to Bo by Walter."
It would be the ruin of him, but Bo embraced Hollywood as no ballplayer ever had. "He inhaled it," Ferguson says. Says Belinsky today, "It was a fantasy world for me. When Walter Winchell wrote about you, pretty girls came out of the woodwork—Connie Stevens, Ann-Margret, Tina Louise, Mamie Van Doren [an off-again-on-again fiancèe of Belinsky's]. I took one look at Hollywood and said, 'This is where I'm going to live.' "
And so he did, in a penthouse provided for him by some of his new show-business friends. "Picasso had stayed in the place," Belinsky says, "and he painted the ceiling—a Michelangelo type of thing. Dean Chance took one look at that ceiling and wanted to drill a hole in it so he could put a card spotter up above for one of his big poker games. That way, he figured, he could make a killing. Can you imagine anybody drilling a hole through a Picasso so he could cheat at cards?"
After his no-hitter Belinsky bought a candy-apple-red Cadillac (he got a deal); he parked his gaudy machine every night on the Strip, where he and the latest starlet went nightclubbing. The press adored him. Rigney and Haney merely endured him. Bo won a fifth straight game, then predictably lapsed into an irreversible decline, losing six of his next eight decisions. He would finish the year at 10-11 with a 3.56 earned run average. Chance, who started the season in the bullpen, became the staff's big winner, with 14, and his 2.96 ERA presaged a Cy Young season two years down the road.
To the utter amazement of baseball experts everywhere, the Angels, playing only their second season, were solidly in the pennant race with the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins. And they were catching on in Los Angeles. Win or lose, Belinsky was a drawing card, and the team began attracting crowds of 50,000 or more to Chavez Ravine. Rightfielder Leon (Daddy Wags) Wagner would hit 37 home runs, and outfielder-first baseman Lee Thomas would belt 26 that year. Rodgers would finish second to the Yankees' Tom Tresh in Rookie of the Year balloting. Thomas, Wagner and 5'5" centerfielder Albie Pearson would all play 160 games. "I couldn't get those guys out of the lineup," says Rigney.
On the Fourth of July, after a doubleheader sweep of the Senators in Washington, the Angels were in first place by half a game. Naturally, there was a team party that night, at Duke Ziebert's famous restaurant. The Angels showed no signs of faltering after the heady experience of being on top, and they clung tightly to the leaders through July and into August. Then on successive days they lost the heart and soul of their pitching staff. On Aug. 6, Fowler, who had pitched in 48 games and had a 2.81 ERA, was struck on the side of the head by a batted ball while he was chatting with a fan during batting practice in Boston. He was finished for the year and never regained sight in his left eye. The next day Ken McBride, the staff ace, with 11 wins, was diagnosed as having a cracked rib, the result of an attack of pleurisy. He would have only one more decision in the season's final seven weeks, a loss.
Still, the Angels held on and were only 3½ games behind on Sept. 12, when they began their final home stand. Then the championship bubble burst. They lost six in a row and won only four of their last 16 games.
"Maybe the pressure finally caught up with them," says Furillo of the sudden collapse. "But if they hadn't lost McBride and Fowler, who knows? Anyway, for a team just a year old to be in a pennant race that long was just incredible."
In a sense, that remarkable season did more harm than good. Autry and Haney, instead of seeking new talent, foolishly thought they had the makings of a championship team. It did not take long for them to realize their mistake. Hollywood quickly did in Belinsky, not that he minded much. He would win a total of only 28 major league games in a diminished eight-year career; become, in his own words, "a falling-down drunk"; and fail three times at marriage. But he is nothing if not resilient; sober now for 17 years, he is, at 56, living comfortably in Las Vegas and working as a promotions director for an automobile agency. "My psychiatrist won't allow me to have either a telephone or a wife," he says. But he has few regrets in life.
"I've gotten more mileage out of 28 wins than anybody in baseball history," he says over dinner at a Vegas hotel. He looks trim and fit. "Sometimes I can't believe it myself. I was sitting once with Steve Carlton, and this little kid comes up to us and says he wants an autograph. I point to Steve, but the boy says, 'No, my dad says he wants Bo Belinsky's autograph.' All Carlton had done was win 329 games. I don't think he was amused." Bo laughs, then says, "Oh, I could've probably hung on a little longer in baseball if I'd passed up the nightlife. But what difference would it have made if I'd won another 60 or 70 games? No amount of money in the world could take the place of being a star in Hollywood for one year. And I had that."
In 1964 Chance would become according to Rigney, "the best right-handed pitcher I've ever seen." He won 20 games that year and had an ERA of 1.65. He would win 20 only once more, for Minnesota in '67, and be out of baseball by the time he turned 30. Fowler would never be quite the same after his eye injury but would later achieve both fame and notoriety as Billy Martin's pitching coach in Oakland. McBride would last only three more years. Wagner and Thomas enjoyed career years in 1962 that they rarely approached thereafter. Pearson would never again score as many as the 115 runs he scored in '62. Duren would eventually drink himself out of baseball, then, like Belinsky, recover and lead a useful life, much of it spent counseling alcoholics.
Rigney would continue as the Angel manager until 1969, then win a division title in his first season at Minnesota, in 1970. He is now an executive with the Athletics. But 1962 remains his favorite year. "What a cast of characters we had," he says. "But believe me, those characters had character."
After the 1965 season (in which they lost 95 games) the Angels moved into their own new Anaheim Stadium. Removed from Los Angeles proper, they became the somewhat more geographically grandiose California Angels. They would not win a division championship until 1979 and have yet to win an American League pennant.
But back then, in the beginning, when they were very young, the Angels had an unforgettable run for glory. And nobody ever had a better time doing it. "We were just a bunch of ragtag guys who hung out together," says Rodgers. "But we sure stirred 'em up a little." That they did.