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ONCE HE WAS AN ANGEL
BY STEVEN TRAVERS

“Once He Was An Angel” was the name of Pat Jordan’s chapter – excerpted in Sports Illustrated – about Bo Belinsky in his masterful book, The Suitors of Spring. It was one of the names of this author’s screenplay, based on Maury Allen’s book, Bo: Pitching and Wooing. Other life forms included “Fallen Angel,” among other things.

            For several years Bo and I went through the odyssey of trying to get that script made into a movie. Getting to know Bo Belinsky personally turned out to be one of the most fascinating experiences of my life. I re-visited the Belinsky epic in 1999 when, as a columnist for the L.A. sports magazine StreetZebra, I wrote a “Distant Replay” about Bo.

            The story of Bo and the Angels in those early years is so interesting because the team’s character was utterly different from what modern fans came to know about the team in Anaheim. It was night and day. In 1962 they rented Chavez Ravine and were owned by “The Singing Cowboy,” Gene Autry, who was old Hollywood all the way. Autry thought that cocksure rookie southpaw Belinsky might just sell tickets. Belinsky had garnered his “15 minutes of fame” holding out for the enormous sum of $6,500. Writer Bud Furillo captured some of Bo’s choice comments about women, sex and hustling pool on a slow news day.

            Fred Haney tired of negotiating with Bo over the phone. He sensed that if he were brought out to Palm Springs, it would create needed publicity in the shadow of the mighty Dodgers. He was right.

            “He was the greatest thing to ever happen to us,” said publicity director Irv Kaze, who enthusiastically supported our movie efforts in his later role of sportstalk host. Kaze showed up at the airport and, without having to ask, immediately recognized Belinsky, oozing charisma in an open-collared shirt, sportcoat, long, slick hair, and “the biggest pair of sunglasses you’ve ever seen.”

            “Damn,” said Bo when Kaze introduced himself, “I expected Autry.”

            Bo was immediately driven to the Palm Springs Desert Inn, where Kaze arranged for a poolside press conference complete with a full bar and strategically placed bikini-clad girls lounging about. For a couple of hours Bo regaled them with stories of his pool-hustling exploits, which he made out to sound like “Minnesota Fats.”

            His sexual descriptions were explicit. Nobody had ever heard anything like this guy, and in reality nobody has ever heard anything like it since. As a “kiss and tell” artist Belinsky put Jose Canseco, Derek Jeter, even Joe Namath to shame. The bizarre poolside scene; part carnival act, part “true confessions,” part striptease show, was “the greatest thing I’d ever seen,” recalled Kaze. All of this was over between 1,000 and 1,500 1962 dollars for an unproven career minor leaguer who said he would not sign “unless Autry begged me personally.”

            For three days Belinsky never suited up or came close to “training” for baseball, preferring instead to seek out those bikini-clad “chickies” by day and night. Finally Haney called him and said, “this is enough.” A gentlemen’s agreement to re-negotiate if he made the club and proved himself was hammered out.

            “Don Hoak when he was managing in the Winter Leagues down in Latin America once held up his finger and thumb just this far apart,” Bo said while interviewing for the screenplay. “ ‘Boys,’ he said. ‘There’s only this much difference separating you from ‘big league p---y!’ ”

            Thus did Bo have his motivation. Out of shape, and continually distracted by the Palm Springs “scenery,” Bo inspired nobody on the mound, however. Rigney wanted to ship him out. Haney tried to trade him back to the Baltimore organization, where he had been before getting plucked in the expansion draft. They had seen all of Bo’s act they could handle.

            While in the Oriole chain he had to be snuck out of one town when an underage girl whose mother was, uh, “seeing” the chief of detectives, threatened rape if he not marry her.

            Earl Weaver watched in despair when Bo and Joe Pepitone would somehow find hot nightspots in Aberdeen, South Dakota. In Miami Bo hooked up with a married woman. Later he found himself drinking with her husband, an Army general, and in a moment of supreme honesty owned up to being the guy she had left with, offering a toast with the statement, “we sure had a helluva time with your money.” He had gone AWOL in Mexico. Oriole pitchers Steve Dalkowski, Steve Barber and Bo were fined by Baltimore manager Paul Richards for drilling holes in Belinsky’s hotel room to sneak a peak at the reigning Miss Universe, staying next door.

            Like Rod Steiger rejecting Sidney Poitier’s offer of “pity” in The Heat of the Night, the Orioles said, “No, thank you,” to Haney.

            Autry stepped in and, in a rare act of ownership control, informed his employees that Bo was to make the squad, at least for the first few weeks of the regular season. His hope was that the Spring Training publicity might sell a few tickets. Rig was none too pleased but carried out the orders. Then injuries depleted his rotation. On April 16 Bo was given an emergency start against Kansas City at Dodger Stadium.

            Given the news of his start the next day, Bo went out to the Sunset Strip, made “friends”, and finally fell asleep at four or five.

            “Sex always relaxed me, nobody ever died from it,” Bo told Maury Allen in 1972.

            In the locker room Rigney handed him the game ball and said simply, “Win or be gone.”

            Bo won 3-2. It earned him a second start, which turned out to be a brilliant 3-0 shutout against Washington. When he won in his next start, the publicity was enormous, and of a national character. Furillo’s original story had made the wire services. His Palm Springs quotes received major attention. Suddenly Bo was the subject of every media report. He was invited to major Hollywood parties. Actresses and starlets were calling him.

            Then, on May 4, 1962, the Strip was hopping with Mexican festivities for Cinco de Mayo. Bo, scheduled to pitch the next night, made the scene, where he met a lovely brunette. They spent the evening at her pad. Bo departed with dawn’s early light, but this encounter inspired him. He asked for her phone number and meant it.

            “I’ll see you again,” she assured him. Bo told her he was leaving tickets for that night’s game against Baltimore and insisted she make it, because “You’re my lucky charm.”

            “I never saw her again,” Bo told Pat Jordan in 1972. “It was like she was my lucky charm and once she was gone that was the end of that.”

            Eventually, maybe, but first Bo Belinsky was about to skyrocket to the heights of Hollywood fame and glory. That evening he threw a no-hit, no-run game against his old team.

            “I did it first,” he told Jordan in a drunken fit, “before Marichal or Koufax or any of those f-----s.”    TOP 10 BASEBALL BOOKS OF ALL TIME

 

 

1. Ball Four by Jim Bouton

2. The Summer Game by Roger Angell

3. The Glory of Their Times by Lawrence Ritter

4. The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn

5. Bo: Pitching and Wooing by Maury Allen

6. False Spring by Pat Jordan

7. October 1964 by David Halberstam

8. The Wrong Stuff By Bill “Spaceman” Lee

9. Moneyball by Michael Lewis

10. The Suitors of Spring by Pat Jordan

HONORABLE MENTION: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella; The Bronx Zoo by Sparky Lyle; Men at Work by George Will

 

DID YOU KNOW . . .

 

That one of Bo Belinsky’s favorite Sunset Strip haunts was the famed Whisky? The Whisky gave rise to such 1960s L.A. acts as The Doors, The Byrds, Jan and Dean, and Jefferson Starship, among many others. Belinsky once played pool with Jim Morrison of The Doors and rubbed elbows with numerous superstars, usually before they were famous.

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