A Devilish Angel

Fifty years ago, a rakish, flaky, and talented lefthanded pitcher, who thought he’d reached his final end in the Baltimore Orioles organisation, sat at his parents’ home in Trenton, New Jersey. He’d just returned from pitching winter ball in Venezuela, helping lead his team to the playoffs. Now, he pondered a meager, minimum-salary contract offer from the Los Angeles Angels, who’d plucked him from the Baltimore Orioles organisation in a minor league draft the previous November.

Through early 1962, Bo Belinsky was an up-and-down minor league pitcher, after having signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1956 just to escape a Trenton in which he’d come to feel hemmed in. When a sympathetic Orioles executive suggested Venezuelan winter ball, he took to it, convinced the Orioles now thought nothing more of him, despite leading his minor league in strikeouts in 1961.

One moment a live prospect, the next a skirt-chasing head case, or so baseball people came to think of him. Now, with five weeks to go before spring training, Belinsky takes a call from Angels general manager Fred Haney, formerly a back-to-back pennant-winning Milwaukee Braves manager. He’s demanded something better for compensation than the $6,000 major league minimum salary. “I’ve been around,” says Belinsky, whose pastimes also included pool hustling, after having grown up the son of a Trenton television repair expert and winning numerous neighbourhood sports trophies while shying away from organised school sports. “I want eighty-five hundred. Not a penny less.”

The Angels open spring training without him, and Los Angeles Herald-Express sportswriter Bud Furillo smells a rat. Chafing because his paper, like just about all Los Angeles and southern California papers, boosted the Dodgers without much thought to the Angels otherwise, which didn’t bode well for him on the Angels’ beat, Furillo calls Belinsky in Trenton. The pitcher repeats his contract demand to Furillo. When the veteran reporter asks how he was passing time, Belinsky doesn’t flinch. “I’m shooting a lot of pool and laying a lot of broads,” he replies.

With a little cleanup on the comment about the girls, Furillo writes a story that makes Belinsky seem too tied up in a big-money pool tournament, and making too much money otherwise, to think about baseball.

The Herald-Express does Furillo one better: they slam it on page one, complete with a very vivid photograph of the handsome lefthander. It launches a flood of publicity for Belinsky and the Angels alike, even if some stories side with the Angels in the contract dispute. Belinsky becomes an overnight sensation on a Los Angeles sports scene that already has star power to burn with the Dodgers. And Belinsky had never thrown a major league pitch in his life to that point, other than previous springs’ exhibition games if that much. Thinking he’d have a better chance of getting what he wanted if he was in camp instead of on the phone from Trenton, Belinsky decides to report to Palm Springs, where the Angels train, after all.

His family's only known studio portrait of Bo Belinsky.

It was like an Edward G. Robinson movie. They sat me down against the [Desert Inn Hotel] pool, poured me a drink, and took off. They wanted names, dates, and phone numbers of all the broadies I had laid. I told them there wouldn’t be enough room in their papers for any other news if they printed that. They wanted to know about the pool tournament. Hell, there was no pool tournament, I was shooting some friendly games, and they got the idea I was in some great contest. I let it ride. They had heard about some of the fights in the minors and some of the adventures in Venezuela. I built it all up a little . . . I realised that from the first day these guys didn’t want the truth. That wasn’t as good a story as something I could make up. So I went along with them. I answered all their questions the way they wanted. When they asked about broadies, I built it up. When they asked about pool, I made out to be the best player that ever picked up a cue. When they asked about my contract, I made it sound like I wouldn’t sign under any conditions unless [Angels owner Gene] Autry asked me personally.”

—Bo Belinsky, to Maury Allen, for Bo: Pitching and Wooing. (New York: The Dial Press, 1973.)

After three days of that whirl, and a promise from Haney to renegotiate his contract if he makes the team and pitches well, Belinsky signs. He gets to within inches of being released or sold, however, when he struggles to come around; the winter pitching in Venezuela has exhausted his arm. It takes Haney and pitching coach Marv Grissom (he was the winner in relief, when Willie Mays’s stupefying catch and Dusty Rhodes’ pinch-hit home run meant Game One of the 1954 World Series) to persuade manager Bill Rigney to keep Belinsky at least for that part of the season in which a team could carry more than 25 players.

Belinsky finally gets his chance to start in late April 1962, at Dodger Stadium. (Oops. The Angels call it Chavez Ravine, for the three years of their tenancy there.) The Angels’ only other reliable lefthanded starter, Ted Bowsfield, turns up with a sore arm, and Rigney is anxious to send a lefthander out for the second of three games with the Kansas City Athletics. Belinsky on the outside is as cocksure as the day was long; inside, he will admit in due course, he may be  shrinking, knowing he’ll be gone for good if he bombs in this game. All the razzle, all the dazzle, all the cool stories and nights on the town with the hottest honeys in Hollywood, won’t save him if he blows this one.

Once upon a time, believe it or not, Bo Belinsky actually could pitch.

He falls behind 2-0 in the first inning but that’s all the Athletics would get off him. Belinsky strikes out the side in the second inning, pitches out of trouble in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings, helps his own cause by singling home Eddie (The Walking Man) Yost with what would prove the winning run, and yields to Art Fowler, who saves it for him with three innings of solid relief.

A week later, Belinsky gets his second chance. This time, he goes the distance, throwing a four-hitter to beat the Cleveland Indians, 6-2. Six days after that, he’s sent to face the Indians again, in Cleveland. This time, he goes five and a third, the Angels up 6-1 when he gets shaky enough in the sixth that Jack Spring relieves him, after he’s plunked Tito Francona with the bases loaded, Spring escaping the jam but running into trouble an inning later, forcing Eli Grba to finish that inning, before former Yankee star Ryne Duren relieves Grba in the eighth to finish and save it.

Four days later—with a 3-0 record and a 2.21 ERA to launch his major league career in earnest, and the Los Angeles sports press who’d built him into a star going nuts—Belinsky gets the starting assignment against his former organisation, the Baltimore Orioles.

“He could challenge anybody with that fastball. He got the screwball over early, but the fastball set up everything . . . When Bo was on, he had that electric kind of stuff,” his catcher that day, Bob Rodgers, later a major league manager, would remember.

“The worst thing that ever could have happened to Bo,” Rigney would remember, of the game and its aftermath, “was pitching that no-hitter.”

[W]ithin days after his no-hitter, Belinsky . . . would be heralded as sport’s most original and engaging playboy-athlete. His name would become synonymous with a lifestyle that was cool and slick and dazzling, epitomising not only the lifestyles of such later athletes as Joe Namath, Ken Harrelson, and Derek Sanderson, but also those of an entire, ephemeral decade—the Sixties. But in time the name Belinskly would become synonymous with something else. It would become synonymous with dissipated talent.

—Pat Jordan, “Once He Was an Angel,” Sports Illustrated, 1972; republished as “An Angel of His Time” in The Suitors of Spring. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1973.)

Belinsky’s date book now includes some of Hollywood’s prime glamour women, including but not necessarily limited to Tina Louise, Ann-Margret, and his eventual fiancee Mamie Van Doren. He tools around famously—or infamously, depending on your point of view—in a stylish Cadillac convertible; he’s seen at least as often in Los Angeles’s most delicious nightspots as he’s seen on the mound, often as not with his Angels roommate and best friend, pitcher Dean Chance; fading but still influential show business columnist Walter Winchell becomes his patron.

Twisting the night away: Bo Belinsky with Mamie Van Doren.

But he will go from that no-hitter to finish 1962 with a 10-11 won-lost record, a 3.56 ERA, 2.2 wins above a replacement-level player, a 1.45 walks/hits-per-inning-pitched rate, and the American League lead in walks, the only time he would ever lead his league in any category. After an off-season of cool among the southern California demimonde, Belinsky’s 1963 would be interrupted by a spell in the minors—on the Angels’ Hawaii farm team—and a final major league record of 2-9/5.75/-1.9/1.47.

Without changing a single thing, however, Belinsky in 1964 will seem as though he has found the right stuff at last, all things considered. By the time he finishes 11 August with a very tough loss to the Indians—Cleveland third baseman Max Alvis whacks a three-run bomb off him in the ninth, after he spends the first eight innings swapping zeroes with Luis Tiant—Belinsky stands at 9-8 (it might have been 12-8; he’d had two losses and a no-decision in which he pitched well enough to win) with a 2.86 ERA; he’d cut his WHIP down to 1.29; he’d be two wins above a replacement-level player; most important, he’d seem to have quit trying to finesse or embarrass hitters, a flaw Rigney would later affirm.

Like many pitchers in similar straits, following two seasons of promise turned to struggle, Belinsky would cry in a reporter’s beer a day later, in this case  Associated Press reporter Charlie Maher. Maher would write a fine, sensitive story in which he’d address Belinsky’s expressed inclination to hang it up and observe it was only the expression of a pitcher who’d just pitched one of his best games and come up short in the absolute end. But elder Los Angeles Times writer Braven Dyer, already a Belinsky nemesis, would see the story in print, after the Angels make a cross country flight from Los Angeles to Washington for a set with the Senators. Dyer will barrel to Belinsky’s hotel room, demanding a story for his own paper. While Chance prepares a bath to relax after the long flight, Belinsky answers the door. Possibly inebriated, Dyer will appear ready to swing at Belinsky, and the lefthander will deck him with a single punch.

The Angels will suspend and then trade him, after he finishes the season in Hawaii, to the Philadelphia Phillies. Belinsky will feud with manager Gene Mauch over his pitching role and a rib injury. The Phillies will send him to the minors in June 1966, where he will seem to recover his out pitch; the Houston Astros will draft him out of the minors for 1967; he will go from there to undistinguished turns between the minors (though he’d pitch another no-hitter, in Hawaii, a place he comes to love almost as much as southern California) and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the St. Louis Cardinals (who would cut him in spring 1969), and the Cincinnati Reds, whom he’d make out of spring training 1970 but work eight innings before being banished to the minors (in Indianapolis, a comedown for him compared to Hawaii) for the final time.

In the interim, he will swap his playboy lifestyle (in part by attrition, when his funds can’t equal his digs, his rides, or his taste in the ladies) for marriage to Playboy Playmate of the Year (1965) Jo Collins. When that marriage and a second (to paper heiress Janie Weyerhaeser) produce three daughters but fail miserably otherwise, Belinsky will try to rekindle his former lifestyle but end up an alcoholic.

When a Houston sportswriter asked him how sport’s most notorious playboy felt upon reaching thirty, Bo replied with a smile, “Babe, it’s no fun knowing that in every home in America your birthday is celebrated as a day of infamy.” An exaggeration, perhaps . . . [but] one still had the annoying suspicion that Bo Belinsky felt his remark contained more truth than wit. Whether this was the overblown self-pity of a too shallow man or the heightened perception of a too sensitive man was not clear. What was clear was only that Belinsky had dissipated a promising career, that people had grown tired of him, and that most of his difficulty could be traced to his personality. He did not have the knack of later athletes—the Namaths, the Harrelsons, the Sandersons—of consciously cultivating his personality precisely up to, but not beyond, that point at which the public becomes bored with it.

—Pat Jordan.

At peace in Las Vegas: still handsome; now clean and sober, but bravely battling cancer.

I came to the Angels as a kid who thought he had been pushed around by life, by minor league baseball. I was selfish and immature in a lot of ways and I tried to cover that up. I went from a major league ballplayer to hanging onto a brown bag under the bridge, but I had my moments and I have my memories. If I had the attitude about life then that I have now, I’d have done a lot of things differently. But you make your rules and you play by them. I knew the bills would come due eventually, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover them.

—Bo Belinsky, to Ross Newhan, for The Anaheim Angels: A Complete History.

He will clean up, enter periods of introspection, and finally become first an alcohol counselor in Hawaii and then a car dealership promoter in Las Vegas. He will also become a born-again Christian (“Can you imagine finding Jesus Christ in Las Vegas?”), an occasional baseball card show presence, and live a sober, quiet life in Las Vegas until his death—of a heart attack, apparently, though he’d also be fighting bladder cancer—at 64. In November 2001. Half a century to the month after the Angels drafted him out of the Orioles’ organisation in the first place.

Bo was a one of a kind guy, and there won’t be another one like him. He was full of cancer, his heart was bad, and his hip was hurting him terribly at the end. He had slipped and fallen, and it was really tough on him. But he had made his peace with the Lord, and he is probably better off today than he was last week. He’s not suffering terribly anymore.

—Dean Chance, reacting to Belinsky’s death.

He went from a long minor league life to throwing a rookie no-hitter for his fourth straight major league win in 1962. In 2002, almost a year after he died, his inability to reconcile to his three children his only lingering black mark, his former Angels broke their own longtime demons and curses, actual or reputed, and won their first World Series rings.

Too free spirited to make a successful professional athlete, too guileless for all his street smarts to make a life beyond baseball for long enough. Yet Bo Belinsky put the Angels on the map for keeps, half a century ago, when he drove the prudes mad with his slick, dazzling, playboy style. Neither side understood, quite yet, that a time would come when Belinsky’s rakish lifestyle at the height of his fame would seem tame, even genuinely romantic, compared to the debaucheries into which future sports stars would sink with little comparative shame.

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