The Founding of the L.A. Angels-1961
By Rob Goldman, AngelsWin.com Historical Writer -
Gene Autry, a crooner of prairie melodies and star of 1930s and ’40s Hollywood Westerns switched horses in mid-stream to enter the lucrative field of TV and radio. By the 1960s, Autry—recognized for his famed white cowboy hat—owned dozens of radio stations up and down the California coast. He called his radio group Golden West, and his flagship station, KMPC, carried the play-by-play for the Dodgers when they relocated to Los Angeles in 1958.
Autry was a frustrated, onetime semi-pro shortstop from Tioga, Oklahoma who moved to the Midwest—guitar in hand—and befriended many St. Louis Cardinals, including Pepper Martin, Lon Warneke, Dizzy Dean, and Tex Carlton. After he moseyed West and started riding Hollywood’s idea of the range, Autry became a fixture at Pacific Coast League ballparks. Gene loved the game of baseball, and having the Dodgers’ games broadcast on his station made him feel like a part of the big leagues.
Then, in the fall of 1959, the Dodgers dropped KMPC to go to KFI. Autry couldn’t have been more devastated if he’d learned that his horse Champion had come up lame. But just a year later, major-league baseball decided to add several teams, and Los Angeles was deemed large enough to support two ball clubs. Stanley Spero, general manager at KMPC, decided to explore the possibility of securing the broadcast rights to the new American League franchise to cheer up his disappointed boss.
Hank Greenberg and Bill Veeck were the front men for the new L.A. franchise, and they had no problem with granting the broadcast rights to Autry. But at the 11th hour, Greenberg dropped out of the deal and all bets were off. Just as Autry was ready to toss in his chips, out of the blue an old friend called to offer something much grander than the opportunity to broadcast baseball games on the radio.
Joe Cronin had known Autry since Gene’s barnstorming rodeo days over two decades earlier. Cronin, now president of baseball’s American League, wondered if Autry was ready to tame the Wild Wild West’s newest franchise in L.A. Autry jumped at the opportunity. It was a perfect fit, as not only did Autry love baseball, but he also had an impeccable reputation as a businessman and a person of integrity. The Singing Cowboy really had something to sing about, and with his business associate Bob Reynolds and advisor Fred Haney in tow, he hurried to St. Louis to close the deal for 2.1 million. Within days of Cronin’s phone call, Autry was owner of his own major-league baseball team.
But as all this unfolded, Walter O’Malley brooded. The president of the Los Angeles Dodgers was far from thrilled about a second franchise imposing on his territory. He liked having the Dodgers as the only game in town, and if he couldn’t prevent an expansion team from setting up shop there, he made sure that nobody would profit more from the deal than himself. Autry got his team, but it would have to play in O’Malley’s ballparks, with O’Malley earning all of the parking and concession proceeds over the first five years. Autry swallowed hard and signed on the dotted line.
A larger challenge loomed: building a ball club from the ground up in just three months. Autry began wisely by naming Fred Haney as his general manager. Haney gave the new franchise instant credibility, bringing 50 years of experience in baseball to the party. Haney had managed the minor-league Hollywood Stars of the Pacific Coast League, and was as familiar around L.A. as the Brown Derby restaurant or the Coconut Grove. Everyone liked Fred, and he had the best double-play combo going: integrity and brains.
Haney’s first move was a beaut. The new team needed a name that would connect instantly with the public, so Haney suggested “Angels,” the name of a longtime Pacific Coast League team in Los Angeles. Fans remembered the old Angels with fondness, and maybe their loyalty would transfer to the new big-league Angels. The only fly in the ointment was that the rights to the name were owned by one Walter O’Malley. After acquiring the PCL Angels from William Wrigley in 1957, O’Malley had the baseball market briefly cornered in Los Angeles. The matter was settled when Autry forked over an additional 350 grand for territorial rights, at which time O’Malley threw in rights to the name.
The rosters of the two new expansion teams, the Washington Senators and the Angels, were to be filled by a draft. The existing 18 major league clubs were allowed to keep all of their A-list players, potential A-list players, valued subs, and anybody who could walk and chew gum at the same time. Everybody else was made available in the draft. Naturally, the pickings were pretty slim, but Haney’s solid baseball connections again came to the rescue. One of his good friends was Buzzie Bavasi, general manager of the Dodgers, who, unlike his boss, saw no reason to make things hard for Haney just because he was working for the Angels.
A week before the draft, Bavasi gave Haney the team’s scouting reports. “We had a pretty good scouting staff at the time,” Bavasi says, “and I’d say 60 percent of the people [Haney] drafted were our recommendations, including Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, and Bob Rodgers.”
In another astute move, Haney hired former San Francisco Giants skipper Bill Rigney as the Angels’ charter manager. Rigney was perfect for Los Angeles. Part showman, part strategist, “Rig” could relate to everybody, from the batboy to the superstar, and would be the perfect ringleader for the gang of misfits heading his way. Like Haney, Rigney also had friends in high places. Giants General Manager Chub Feeney had been ordered to fire Rigney in 1960, and it may have been some lingering guilt that moved Feeney to slip Rigney the Giants’ scouting reports at San Francisco Airport as the Angels’ manager departed for the draft in Boston.
In Haney’s hotel suite, he and Rigney spread their prized scouting reports over the floor like kids opening new packs of baseball cards, and set about culling the best players from both lists. The following day in Joe Cronin’s office, they formally selected, among others, Fregosi, Chance, Rodgers, and Ken McBride, who would all become franchise fixtures over the next few years. In the process, Haney and Rigney kicked the Washington Senators’ butt in the first-ever expansion draft in professional sports.
According to the deal made with O’Malley, the Angels would play their inaugural season, starting just three months after the draft, in city-owned Wrigley Field in south-central Los Angeles. Then, in 1962 they would move to the brand new, spacious Dodger Stadium at Chavez Ravine for the next four years. Meanwhile, Marvin Milkes, Haney’s assistant, began scouting around for a spring training facility. A few sites in Arizona were considered, but Palm Springs got the nod because it was only a two-hour drive from L.A., which meant less money and time spent on travel. For a new ball club with serious budget constraints, every penny counted.
On April 9, the Angels opened to a packed house in Baltimore. Number-one expansion draft pick Eli Grba went the distance on the mound, allowing only six hits and two runs. First baseman Ted Kluszewski slammed a first-inning homer that scored right fielder Albie Pearson for the team’s first runs. Left fielder Bob Cerv homered later in that same inning, and Kluszewski hit a three-run homer in the second as the Angels cruised to a 7-2 victory over the Orioles. From that point on, Gene Autry always swore that winning that first game was his biggest thrill in baseball.
© Once They Were Angels 2006-20013 Rob Goldman