Wednesday, July 25, 2012

By Rob Goldman - Historical Writer

Angel publicist Irv Kaze knew it was Bo the moment he laid eyes on him—the swagger, the shades, and that slicked backed hair. Bo was easy to spot in a crowd, even at Los Angeles International Airport. It was Belinsky. Had to be. His reputation preceded him. For an entire month, the rookie pitcher had driven management crazy with his outrageous demands, including a hold out for $2,000 more than the standard $6,500 contract for rookies. Hard to believe it, but $2,000 was a lot of money in 1962.

At last Bo had arrived. Kaze didn’t budge from the terminal window, fearing that if he took his eyes off Bo, he just may lose him. He watched as Belinsky disembarked from the plane like a crown prince, and once he was safely inside the gate, the publicist approached him.

“I’m Kaze, welcome to California,” he said with his friendliest smile.

“Christ, I was expecting Autry,” replied Bo.

And with that, the Belinsky era had arrived.
Kaze drove Belinsky to the Angels camp in Palm Springs where a press conference awaited him at the posh Desert Inn. The place was decked out like a Hollywood premier: caterers, bartenders served mixed drinks and hors’ de ‘oeuvres. No expense was spared for Bo’s arrival. After all, the Angels hadn’t had many reasons to hold a press conference during their first season. Belinsky’s arrival was a major event for local sports scribes, who correctly anticipated that Belinsky’s audacious behavior and sophomoric antics would keep them entertained for years to come.

Writers peppered the pitcher with questions. “How good a pool player are you?” asked one. “How many women have you had?” wondered another. Bo fielded them like all like a true pro, charming everyone with his wit, giving them what they wanted to hear, always with a twinkle in his eye.

“Before I even put on a big league uniform, I was already the biggest story in the south land,” Belinsky would recall later. “I stepped off the airplane into a poolside press conference. … All the writers in L.A. had heard about this character, ‘Bo Belinsky,’ so I went along with it. It was something!”

For reporters covering the Angels, Belinsky’s arrival was a breath of fresh air. To be a member of the Los Angeles press corps in 1962 competing against the Dodgers and their reporters was a job few wanted. A writer covering the Dodgers in the early‘60s could expect preferential treatment. The club catered to the press in hope the Dodgers would be written about in a good light. Reporters covering the Angels, on the other hand, were lucky to get a cold sandwich and stale chips in the pressroom. The Angel beat reporters were dying for headlines they could blare at the public, and, with the 25 year-old Bo, they hit the jackpot. For a month preceding his arrival, there had have been stories about this pool-hustling womanizer from Trenton, New Jersey. “Million dollar arm, ten cent head,” someone said of him. True or not, the press just ate it up.

The homecoming continued for Bo continued a few more days, but then Angels general manager Fred Haney got down to business. “Sign now, or we send you home,” was his right-between-the-eyes message for Belinsky.

“They wanted to send me back to New Jersey, and for me to pay the plane fare,” Bo recalled later. “They were making it very difficult for me. Under adverse conditions, I signed for the $7,500 instead of the $8,500 I wanted, with the stipulation I could renegotiate later if I made the club.”

Belinsky’s pitching that spring was, for the most part, ineffective. By the end of March, Haney even tried to sell him back to the Baltimore Orioles for half of the $25,000 the Angels had originally paid for him in the draft. Baltimore nixed the idea and the Angels were stuck with the lefty.

Gene Autry had been watching all of this unfold from the sidelines. As a former entertainer, Autry knew box office when he saw it. He had a hunch this young man with the attitude and roguish charm had star power and Autry realized with the team moving into O’Malley’s brand new Chavez Ravine, a strong drawing card could help the team rake in big profits. He urged Haney to stick with Belinsky a while longer. Haney agreed, with gritted teeth.

On April 18, Ted Bowsfield came up with a sore arm, forcing Rig to give Bo his first assignment against the Kansas City Athletics. The skipper must’ve been taking elocution lessons from Haney, because his message was as subtle as a hooker’s perfume: “Win or you’re gone.” For Bo, the stakes had never been higher. To relax himself before his big debut, he picked up a “broadie” on the Sunset Strip and stayed with her until four o’clock in the morning. Then he went to the ballpark for the game.

If Bo was nervous, he certainly didn’t show it. He won 3-2, with a little help from Art Fowler, who pitched the game’s final three innings for the save. In his next start a week later, Belinsky beat the Cleveland Indians, pitching a complete game in the process. He followed that outing up by defeating the Indians a second time. Belinsky was off to a 3-0 start, and the press was going nuts. “Rookie of the Year” blared one headline. “Angels to Win Pennant” declared another. Suddenly the girls got prettier, their legs longer. As Bo partied hard while the press feasted on his every action on and off the field, Kaze and Autry beamed from afar. The Angels were legitimate media darlings. For all that, nobody could’ve predicted what would come next.

On the night of May 4, in what had become his pre-game ritual, Bo picked up a dark-haired beauty on the strip. They danced to Mexican music for a few hours, went to her pad, and after just a few hours of sleep, Bo left for the park. That night at Chavez Ravine with the brunette’s perfume still lingering on his skin, Belinsky pitched the first major league no-hitter on the West Coast. Bo shut down the Orioles, striking out nine and walking four, as his offense scored two runs for him. The City of Angels went ballistic.

More than 30 years afterward, Belinsky recalled the evening as “my happiest moment. From the time of the no-hitter, I was a star in Hollywood. Millions of dollars could not buy that experience.” Bo became an overnight sensation, the talk of the baseball world. He was no longer just a local story—he now belonged to the nation at large. Baseball fans everywhere were intrigued by this delightful rogue in white flannels who, notwithstanding his devilish behavior off the field, wore a halo on his cap. “Where he’s from?” the public asked. “How did this obscure minor leaguer who quoted Shakespeare and read Playboy magazine achieve such astounding success in such a short amount of time?”

More than 50 years later, people are still asking.

© Rob Goldman Once They Were Angels 2006

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