Franchises at Birth:  The Angels and the Senators

We often refer to a ball club as being in a “rebuilding” phase. Focusing on the future and eschewing present competitiveness, such a team is attempting to wipe the slate clean, to make a fresh start, to begin anew. Of course, in truth, such descriptions aren’t truly accurate. These teams, try as they might, aren’t really beginning anew; they’re prisoners of their legacy (as we all are). They might wish to be making a fresh start, but in fact all they’re doing is taking another step along a path they can never leave, forging another link in their unbreakable chain of events.

In reality, each of us gets one and only one chance to truly start fresh. And in the baseball realm, it’s only expansion teams getting those chances. Expansion teams are living baseball laboratories, public demonstrations of how to build a baseball team—not “rebuild,” but genuinely build. Each newborn franchise has the opportunity—literally, once in a lifetime—to create itself from scratch, unburdened by historical legacy. They venture forth into the unknown, propelled by dreams of victory, energized by fresh plans and bold expectations.

This week’s article will be the first in a recurring series in which we examine each of the 14 MLB expansion teams that have been launched since 1960—what kind of an approach each took, how well or poorly each did in assessing, acquiring and developing talent, and how it compared with its peers in these regards. This edition will focus on the first two expansion teams of the modern era: the Los Angeles Angels and (new) Washington Senators, which formed in the fall of 1960 and took the field for the first time in 1961.

The Angels: Expansion Draft

Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, had made a fortune from his movies and records, and he had extensive holdings in the broadcasting business. When he became aware that the American League was planning to place a franchise in Los Angeles, Autry attended the 1960 baseball winter meetings hoping to secure a broadcasting contract for one of his radio stations. He walked away from the meeting as the owner of the expansion Los Angeles Angels.

The 1960-61 AL expansion was so slapdash that the franchise was awarded to Autry on December 6, 1960, and the expansion draft was scheduled for just one week later, on December 13th (though poor weather forced postponement of the actual draft until the next day). Nonetheless, in that span Autry was able to hire a general manager, Fred Haney, and Haney and his choice of field manager (Bill Rigney) would do an exceptionally good job of identifying and deploying the available talent.

The Angels selected 28 players in that draft (the minimum required by the league). Those 28 players had accumulated a total of 912 career Win Shares, but that’s a bit misleading since three of their picks (Eddie Yost, Ted Kluszewski and Ned Garver) were long-time veteran stars with 260, 198 and 165 career WS respectively. A fourth, Bob Cerv, had accumulated 78 through 1960. Of the Angels’ remaining 24 draft picks, no player had more than 33 career WS, and the median total was 5.5. Eleven of the Angels’ 28 draftees were either outright rookies or young players with minimal major-league experience with either zero or one career WS.

It was among those 11 prospect picks that the Angels acquired the two best players by far among any selected in either the American or the National League’s original expansion; 18-year-old shortstop Jim Fregosi was plucked from the Boston Red Sox’s organization, and 19-year-old pitcher Dean Chance was selected from the Baltimore Orioles’ system. By 1962, both were enjoying excellent rookie seasons for the Angels, and both would be major stars throughout the decade. Fregosi’s 261 post-draft WS remain far and away the most achieved by any player yet selected in any of MLB’s expansions (although Bobby Abreu will likely surpass him in a couple of years).

Two other Angels’ draft picks, center fielder Albie Pearson (84 post-draft WS) and catcher Bob Rodgers (68), would prove to be first-rate regulars for a few years, and two more, pitchers Ken McBride and Fred Newman (40 and 32), would post a couple of seasons of excellent contribution before succumbing to arm trouble. All told, the Angels’ draftees would achieve 806 post-draft career WS, significantly more than any of the other four original expansion teams.

The Senators: Expansion Draft

It’s a fair question to ask whether the new Washington Senators should have been created in the first place. To say the least, it was a curious turn of logic by the American League. The owner of the existing Senators franchise, Calvin Griffith, had claimed that Washington wasn’t a viable site for him to operate, yet the league placed a brand new franchise there. The message to baseball fans in the capitol city was unclear; did the establishment of the expansion team represent compensation for the loss of their long-time ballclub or some sort of punishment for supporting it poorly?

If the new Senators were based on a murky premise, their operational soundness was equally uncertain. The Senators weren’t thrown together quite as hastily as the Angels, but it was close; on November 17, the new Washington franchise was awarded to a group of 10 local investors, headed by General Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada, the director of the Federal Aviation Administration. However honorable Quesada’s intentions, his degree of baseball acumen is indicated by a question he once posed: “Why should I be paying guys who aren’t good enough to play in the major leagues?”

Under the direction of GM Ed Doherty, the Senators selected 31 players in the expansion draft. Like the Angels, 12 of their picks had either zero or one career WS under their belts, but in general the Senators chose a slightly more veteran group, with a median of 8 career WS. Seven Washington picks (Gene Woodling, Bobby Shantz, Dick Donovan, Dale Long, Johnny Klippstein, Billy Klaus, and Tom Sturdivant) had 42 or more career WS.

Among the Senators’ 12 untested picks, only one panned out with any kind of a substantial major-league career at all: Chuck Hinton, who was an outstanding player (118 career WS). The next-best future career would belong to journeyman outfielder Jim King (69 post-draft WS). A couple of others would become good players (Bob Johnson and Hal Woodeshick, with 56 and 54 post-draft WS respectively), but both of those careers would be spent mostly with teams other than Washington. The 31 Senators’ draftees accumulated 619 post-draft WS, or about 75% of the total value produced by the 28 Angels’ selections.

The Angels: Years One and Two

The Los Angeles Angels won 70 games in their inaugural season, more than any other first-year expansion team, not only among the original four, but also among any of the other 10 expansion teams since. And in their second year, they stunned the baseball world by finishing 86-76 in third place, and their attendance skyrocketed to third in the league as well.

A few of the Angels’ expansion draft picks were essential to their initial success—Pearson and McBride, joined by Rodgers and Chance (and Fregosi late in the year) in 1962—but other acquisitions also stood out. The Angels picked up two players in separate transactions with Toronto of the International League (one of the last remaining independent minor league teams) who had struggled in previous major-league opportunities, but both of whom blossomed under Rigney’s patient guidance: left fielder Leon Wagner and second baseman Billy Moran. Lee Thomas, who had languished for seven years in the Yankees’ farm system with only 55 games as high as triple-A, was grabbed by the Angels and contributed 50 home runs in 1961-62.

Another key to the Angels’ success was Rigney’s innovative handling of the pitching staff. Recognizing his dearth of quality starters, Rigney eschewed the complete game and relied on his bullpen to an unprecedented degree. In 1961 the Angels pitched just 25 complete games, the fewest in major-league history up to that time, and in 1962, while jumping to 86 victories, they broke their own record by throwing just 23 complete games. Rigney allocated the resulting bullpen burden among a large committee without a particular ace—in 1962 seven Angels pitchers had more than 25 relief appearances, a completely novel arrangement. Rigney was named American League Manager of the Year for 1962, and as his approach was quickly noted and copied by other managers the complete game, which had already been in some decline for decades, saw its demise hastened.

The Senators: Years One and Two

Through June 15, 1961, it was the Senators who were the surprisingly good expansion team with a record of 30-30, tied with Baltimore for fourth place. The Angels, meanwhile, were at 21-41, mired in last. Harsh reality immediately set in, however; Washington would lose its next 10 in a row, and after June 15 the Senators went 31-70, while the Angels went 49-50. Washington finished 1961 with 100 losses, tied with the Kansas City A’s for last place, and in 1962 they would lose 101 and hold the cellar all by themselves.

The Senators featured a few strong individual performances in 1961. Pitcher Bennie Daniels, acquired from Pittsburgh in a trade for Bobby Shantz a couple of days following the expansion draft, was 12-11 with a 117 ERA+ in 212 innings. Veteran Dick Donovan led the league in ERA at 2.40 (168 ERA+) in 169 innings. Gene Green and Gene Woodling, while both poor defensively, hit very well in part-time roles (121 and 134 OPS+, respectively).

But none of these assets was sustained or leveraged moving forward. Daniels never had another year nearly as good. Donovan and Green were traded to Cleveland immediately following the 1961 season to acquire Jimmy Piersall, who would prove to be over the hill. And Woodling, 39 in 1962, could still hit, but he had such limited mobility that all he could yield in market value was a sale price to the New York Mets.

In 1962, two longtime minor leaguers would emerge as standouts for the Senators: 28-year-old expansion pick outfielder-infielder Chuck Hinton, with speed, power and defensive versatility, and 27-year-old pitcher Tom Cheney (acquired from Pittsburgh in a trade for Tom Sturdivant in mid-1961), with erratic control but wicked strikeout stuff. Twenty-eight-year-old Dave Stenhouse, another minor-league veteran picked up in a trade with Cincinnati, was 10-4 with a 2.75 ERA through July of 1962; he made the All-Star team but then collapsed to 1-8, 5.54 the rest of the way.

Three rookies, all leveraged in trades of expansion draft picks, performed fairly well for the ’62 Senators. Twenty-two-year-old lefthander Claude Osteen, acquired from Cincinnati in late 1961 for cash and reliever Dave Sisler, held his own in 150 innings. Another southpaw, 26-year-old Steve Hamilton, showed promise after being picked up from the Indians in May 1962 as part of a trade for Willie Tasby, who had been the regular center fielder in 1961. And 25-year-old outfielder Don Lock was acquired from the Yankees in July of ’62 exchange for Dale Long and proceeded to hit well in 71 games.

But overall the Senators’ roster remained unimpressive, and they finished an aggregate 35 games behind the Angels through 1962.

The Angels: Years Three Through Six

In 1963, three players who had been at the center of the Angels’ 1962 surge—Lee Thomas, Bob Rodgers and wildly quotable southpaw Bo Belinsky—all slumped badly, and the team lacked the depth to compensate. They fell all the way back to 70 wins and finished ninth.

The Angels rebounded to 82-80, fifth place in 1964. But perhaps because expectations had been set unrealistically high by the sudden success of 1962, in general the next few years would deliver mounting frustration. The organization continued to make good decisions, building a strong farm system and committing to a large contingent of promising young players: Tom Satriano, Ed Kirkpatrick, Paul Schaal, Jose Cardenal, Marcelino Lopez, Rick Reichardt, Jay Johnstone, and many more, but none turned out to be as nearly as good as either Fregosi or Chance. With those two young stars at their core, the Angels remained a competitive team through 1966 but were never the contender they had threatened to be back in 1962. In 1964-65-66, the Angels settled in as a fixture in the middle of the American League standings, featuring young lineups full of promise but unable to deliver more than overall mediocrity.

Rigney did continue to display a particular knack for identifying and nurturing talent in obscurities:

- Bobby Knoop had toiled in the minors without distinction since 1956, but Rigney installed him as the Angels’ undisputed regular second baseman in 1964 (displacing Billy Moran, who had been doing very well), and Knoop proved to a good player for several years—brilliant defensively and a so-so bat.

- Bob Lee was a big, strong, wild fastballer who had also knocked around the minors since 1956. Rigney gave him a spot in the Angels’ bullpen, and Lee responded with spectacular seasons in 1964 and 1965, before beginning to wear out in ’66.

- Willie Smith was a left-handed pitcher good enough to make the majors, but Rigney saw more value in him with his bat, and boldly converted Smith into a regular outfielder at the major-league level in 1964. Smith hit well in ’64 and ’65 but then suffered a bad slump in 1966.

- George Brunet (whose most famous appendage was introduced to us here) was a nomad who had made no fewer than 28 minor- and major-league stops before the Angels called him up at age 29 in late 1964. Under Rigney, Brunet blossomed into a very solid major-league pitcher.

Still, every Angel strength was balanced by a hole someplace else, and the team couldn’t get over the middle-of-the-pack hump. They changed their name to the California Angels in an attempt to escape the looming shadow of the Dodgers and opened a brand-new ballpark in Anaheim in 1966. But frustration at being unable to match their early success was the defining mode of the franchise, and by the end of 1966 they were losing patience.

The Senators: Years Three Through Six

Principal owner Pete Quesada’s failure to comprehend the value of a strong farm system led to an organizational decision to eschew developing one. Even after Quesada sold his controlling interest in the club to the brokerage house of Johnston-Lemon in 1963, for much of the time the Senators operated without a dedicated triple-A affiliate, and in general the organization’s investment in developing young talent was chronically lacking.

With only the rudiments of a farm system in place, they couldn’t commit themselves to young talent as the Angels did. Neither did they focus on pitching, nor did they attempt to build a team around speed and defense; the only particular plan the Senators appeared to follow was to attempt to fashion themselves as a power-hitting club.

The most notable illustration of this was the Senators’ December 1964 decision to trade Claude Osteen—who in 1963 and 1964 clearly emerged as their best pitcher, one of the better young pitchers in baseball—to the Dodgers for a package that primarily featured the huge slugger Frank Howard. “Hondo” was only one of many swing-from-the-heels types the Senators deployed. In deal after deal, the Senators acquired former minor-league home run kings (Gene Green, Don Lock, Bud Zipfel, R.C. Stevens, Bobo Osborne, Ken Hunt, Bob Chance, Ken Harrelson, Mike Epstein) or veteran big-league sluggers on the decline (Dale Long, Bill Skowron, Roy Sievers, Willie Kirkland, Woodie Held). Some of these long-ballers performed well for the Senators and some didn’t, but the one thing they all had in common was a propensity to strike out a lot and not hit for average. Thus the emblematic feature of Senators’ ball clubs (along with poor pitching) was decent power, lots of strikeouts and a very low team batting average.

The formula didn’t yield a competitive ball club. The 1963 Senators were the worst edition yet, losing 106 games, and in 1964 they lost another 100, and although they escaped the A.L. cellar, through 1966 they had never finished higher than eighth.

Still, all things considered, the Senators could have been worse. They made a key move in May of 1963, trading Jimmy Piersall to the Mets for Gil Hodges. The Senators immediately retired Hodges as a player and named him manager. Widely respected as a quiet leader in his long career with the Dodgers, Hodges’ appointment didn’t immediately improve the team, but he took on the challenge of managing with predictable calm confidence. Under Hodges, the rag-tag Senators slowly but steadily began to improve. Their winning percentage for Hodges was .344 in 1963, .383 in 1964, .432 in 1965, and .447 in 1966. Never in these years was the Senators’ roster impressive, but almost imperceptibly they were working themselves out of the status of patsy.

The Angels: Years Seven Through 12

By the end of 1966, Angels’ GM Fred Haney was no longer willing to accept his team’s middle-of-the-pack status. That offseason he rolled the dice and traded away his brilliant-but-enigmatic young ace pitcher Dean Chance in a deal that netted the Angels two veteran power hitters, Don Mincher and Jimmie Hall. The bold move signaled a change in direction: the Angels’ period of patiently building with youth was over. The organization wanted to win now.

The big trade didn’t yield any particular results in the win column—the 1967 Angels were again .500-ish—but it began a pattern that would repeat itself over the next several years. The once methodical Angels were now aggressive, wheeling and dealing for the big bopper, the proven slugger who would transform them at last into a contender. In November of ’67, they traded young center fielder Jose Cardenal for veteran power hitter Chuck Hinton, a move that completely backfired, and the Angels struggled through their worst two seasons yet in 1968 and 1969, finally firing Rigney after a disastrous 11-28 start in ’69.

Nevertheless, the cycle continued. In November of 1969, Dick Walsh, Haney’s successor as GM, traded young starting pitcher Jim McGlothlin to Cincinnati for Alex Johnson, an extraordinarily talented line-drive hitter, though a player who did nothing else well. Moreover, there had been some questions about Johnson’s work ethic and cooperativeness; it might have been seen as a red flag that when the Angels acquired Johnson he was not yet 27 years old, had a .295 career major-league batting average, and was already being traded for the third time.

But Johnson became the AL batting champion in 1970, hitting .329, and the Angels surged to an 86-76 record, matching their high-water mark from 1962. Heartened, in October 1970 Walsh threw his chips down again on another high-stakes roll; he sent his young ace reliever Ken Tatum and highly-regarded second base prospect Doug Griffin to Boston in exchange for none other than Tony Conigliaro.

Many pundits predicted a title at last for the Angels in 1971. Instead what ensued was a nightmare, one of the most unpleasant seasons any team has ever endured, aptly summed up by Neft & Cohen in their Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball as “a whirlpool of dissension and controversy.” Dick Miller’s year in review article in TSN’s Baseball Guide, headlined “Johnson Center of Celestial Storm,” put it this way:

The season opened optimistically with odds out of Las Vegas quoting the Angels as favorites in the American League West, talk of a second successive batting title for Alex Johnson, jokes about Tony Conigliaro’s next-door neighbor Raquel Welch, and the spectacular trades of General Manager Dick Walsh. It closed with Johnson suspended (then traded), Conigliaro retired, reports of gun incidents in the clubhouse, a record number of injuries and the manager and general manager fired.

Out of the ashes of that charred ruin came something good for the Angels. In December of 1971, new GM Harry Dalton traded Jim Fregosi, the team’s longtime star—to this day the best player yet produced by an expansion draft—to the Mets for Nolan Ryan. The deal would go down in history as one of the all-time heists, as Fregosi was washed up and Ryan was accelerating onto the on-ramp of the Cooperstown Freeway. The mileage the Angels received from the draft selection of Fregosi is staggering.

Yet the resulting Angels ball club of 1972 was depressingly familiar even though the lineup was retooled. They featured a terrific young star in Ryan, and some impressive talent at other positions as well. But each strength was still balanced by a hole someplace else. It added up to the old Angel routine: a .500-ish record, neither good nor bad. No other expansion team had started out as strongly as the Angels, but after 12 years, they had proven able to achieve nothing more than sustained mediocrity.

The Senators/Rangers: Years Seven Through 12

The Senators’ incremental climb toward respectability continued in 1967, when Hodges squeezed a 76-85 (.472) record out of their Frank-Howard-and-precious-little-else roster. They tied for sixth and were on the outskirts of the pennant race as late as August. It wasn’t much, but it was the best the young franchise had ever been.

But following that season, the Senators allowed Hodges to return to the Mets. In his absence the steady progress of the past several years evaporated; under rookie manager Jim Lemon in 1968 the pitching collapsed, and despite a major-league-leading home run performance from Howard, the Senators dropped back into last place.

In December of that year, the franchise was sold to Bob Short, a Minnesota trucking magnate who had previously owned the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers. Short had moved the Lakers to Los Angeles and then sold them a few years later at a huge profit. He assured Senators fans that he had no such plans for this ballclub. “I did not buy the Washington team to move it…Tell the Washington people that like Winston Churchill said of the British Empire, I did not buy the Senators to preside over their dissolution,” he said.

Indeed Short’s first action as owner was very encouraging; he stunned everyone by signing Hall of Famer Ted Williams to a five-year contract as manager. Under Williams in 1969, the Senators’ performance was startling: they recorded their first winning season at 86-76 (fourth in the American League East), as lost causes all over the roster suddenly discovered success.

However, a few key players regressed in 1970, and the team reverted to a 70-92, sixth-place finish. Short panicked, and rarely has a panic move by an owner been as fateful. He orchestrated a trade with the Detroit Tigers that surrendered two defensive stars in third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and shortstop Eddie Brinkman, as well as a stalwart young pitcher in Joe Coleman, in exchange for sore-armed, scandal-plagued former ace pitcher Denny McLain. The deal made no strategic sense; even if McLain reverted to his Cy Young Award form, the Senators had no shadow of a replacement for either Rodriguez or Brinkman. The left side of the team’s infield, whose only defensive peer had been the celebrated Baltimore duo of Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger, was eviscerated.

McLain proved to be a wreck: completely ineffective, at odds with Williams, frustrated and bitter. He lost 22 games for the Senators in 1971; no American League pitcher had lost more since 1928. The infield was a shambles. Howard began to show his age, and the 1971 Senators slogged through a 96-defeat disaster. Short spent the year complaining to the city of Washington D.C., and to his fellow American League owners, about his team’s financial distress. He demanded a bailout from his stadium rental obligations, or he would be forced to move the franchise – in stark contradiction to his stated intentions of two years earlier.

It isn’t clear whether Short was sincere in his desire to negotiate a way to keep the Senators in Washington, but regardless on September 21, 1971, he addressed the league’s owners and said, “You know what I want. I want to move to Texas.” The league voted in his favor, and the Washington Senators had seven games of existence left. The team’s fans felt terribly betrayed, and their anger boiled over in the final game at RFK Stadium on September 30. An evening punctuated by bitter chants and banners expressing rage against Short finally deteriorated into a near-riot, as the field was overrun in the ninth inning, and the Senators were declared losers by forfeit.

It was a miserable, pathetic scene, a low point in the history of major league baseball. The new Senators had completed a dreary trudge from uncertain conception, through dismal struggle, to pitiful demise. Their initial season in Texas was hardly any more uplifting. They finished dead last at 54-100, as the plainly weary and dispirited Williams — quite possibly the greatest hitter in history, and who had performed miracles coaching the Senators’ hitters in 1969 — oversaw a feeble offense that sputtered to a .217 team batting average, and a .290 team slugging average, the worst in the major leagues since 1914. Five-year contract notwithstanding, Williams was not asked back for 1973, and a managerial career that had appeared destined for greatness died quickly and bitterly. The franchise itself was in a new locale, but more than a decade since its inception, the product on the field was drearily reminiscent of its most hapless early editions.

Summary: The Angels and the Senators

Baseball’s first expansion in modern times produced a startling early success in the 1962 Los Angeles Angels. But after a dozen years, neither new franchise had yet to produce a contender, and one remained as fully on its knees as it had begun.

The Angels’ promising start was based on more than just the ’62 team’s winning record: the organization demonstrated a knack for talent assessment and a commitment to talent development. But perhaps the flash of 1962 was ultimately unfortunate, as it may have prompted the franchise to lose patience with its methodical approach, and blunder into a blind alley of quick-fix gambles.

As for the Senators, there is a sense in which the franchise never really had a chance. Perpetually underfunded, the team was constructed and operated without a compelling strategic direction. It seemed that somehow a cosmic script required the American League to always have a doormat in Washington, and when the previous actor tired of the role, a replacement was hastily invoked, as though no one would notice: the new Senators were Dick Sargent to the Griffith family’s Dick York. The weird final episode, guest starring Ted Williams and ending on a dead sour note, still seems a bit surreal. All in all, the new Senators can be described as little more than a failed expansion franchise.

References & Resources
An excellent resource on the ill-fated Senators’ franchise is by James R. Hartley, Washington’s Expansion Senators (1961-1971) (Germantown, Maryland: Corduroy Press, 1997).

Big thanks to Studes for supplying the expansion team Win Share database. It will be put to use again and again.

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