When the American League expanded for the first time in 1961, the league was in uncharted waters. During the 1950s, some franchises had relocated, but eight teams had been the norm since the league’s inception in 1901.
Branch Rickey’s proposed Continental League had prompted Major League Baseball to act quickly to avoid outside competition as well as any Congressional tampering with baseball’s exemption from antitrust laws. Attempting to get the jump on the National League, the AL announced it would add teams to Washington, D.C. (also a way of safeguarding that antitrust exemption, since the previous franchise had relocated to Minneapolis-St. Paul) and Los Angeles, for the 1961 season, while the NL was going to wait till 1962.
At the Major League Owners Meeting, held in Louisville in early December 1960, Gene Autry was probably as surprised as anyone in attendance to find that he had bought a baseball team (for $350,000). A former minority owner of the Pacific Coast League Hollywood Stars, he also owned TV and radio stations and was interested in acquiring broadcast rights for Angel games, since Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley had terminated his rights to Dodgers broadcasts.
O’Malley might have been dissatisfied with Autry’s radio station, but he had no problem with his ownership of a competing franchise. As overlord of the Los Angeles market, he had veto power over prospective owners of the new franchise and turned thumbs down on Bill Veeck and Charlie Finley. Autry, as highly respected as a businessman as he had been as an entertainer, was persuaded to become the inaugural owner of the Los Angeles American League franchise.
Autry had very little lead time, as the expansion draft was scheduled for Dec. 14. He had to move fast to hire front officer personnel. Then there was the little matter of finding cities looking for minor league affiliates, not to mention stocking those teams with players. And spring training (Autry chose Palm Springs where he had a second home) was right around the corner.
The AL’s motivation for putting a team in Los Angeles was to establish a beachhead on the west coast, where the NL Dodgers (and Giants) had relocated after the 1957 season.
The Dodgers’ three seasons in Los Angeles had vindicated Walter O’Malley’s decision to vacate Brooklyn. In three seasons in the L.A. Coliseum, the Dodgers had drawn 1,845,556 (second in the NL) in 1958 and led the league with 2,071,045 in their title year of 1959, and 2,253,887 in 1960. The Southern California market was second only to New York, and the American League was betting it could support two major league teams.
Like the 1961 Washington Senators, the Angels inherited an old nickname and an old ballpark (Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, built in 1925) from a previous franchise, albeit minor league. Ironically, O’Malley had considered expanding Wrigley Field (the capacity was only 22,000) as a home for the Dodgers, since he had to buy the ballpark anyway when he purchased the territorial rights from the Pacific Coast League Angels. In 1957, Wrigley’s final year of minor league ball, the affiliation shifted to the Dodgers. Interesting to note that the team roster that year included three future Hall of Fame inductees: Sparky Anderson, Monte Irvin and Tommy Lasorda.
For whatever reason, O’Malley left the structure standing after 1957. Wrigley Field did serve other sporting purposes, such as prize fights and soccer matches. Also, the ballpark served as a convenient location for movies and TV shows involving baseball (Hollywood’s Gilmore Field, another PCL park, had been demolished in 1958) and was also the locale for Home Run Derby, a syndicated TV series spotlighting the game’s best sluggers.
At any rate, Wrigley Field was still available for the Angels in 1961. The local fans didn’t turn out in droves (603,510, only a tad better than the Senators who drew 597,287 to Griffith Stadium), but the Angels made themselves at home. They finished the season at 70-91, outplaying the Senators and the Kansas City A’s, who both clocked out at 61-100.
A few players even appeared on the leader board. Albie Pearson was fourth in OBP at .420. Leon Wagner was eighth in home runs (28) and slugging (.517) and ninth in OPS at .865. Ken McBride was fifth in strikeouts (180) and was third in the league in WAR for pitchers at 5.2, though nobody would know what that meant in 1961. The team also had two of the top 10 in saves (Art Fowler with 11 and Tom Morgan with 10).
Notably, five Angels hit more than 20 home runs (in addition to Wagner, Earl Averill, Steve Bilko, Ken Hunt and Lee Thomas). All in all, seven players were in double figures, as Ted Kluszewski chipped in with 15 in his final season, and George Thomas added 13. Admittedly, the modest power alleys (345 feet) at Wrigley Field were a factor. If the confines were friendly at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, they were downright flirtatious at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field!
Visiting teams also took advantage of the venue, as 248 home runs were hit at Wrigley in 1961. The Angels’ total of 189 home runs was second (albeit distant) only to Mantle, Maris, and the rest of the Yankees, who cranked out 240, a record total at the time. (If you’re wondering, Maris hit just two of his 61 home runs, No. 3 on May 6 and No. 50 on Aug. 22, at Wrigley Field.)
All things considered, it was a commendable showing for a rookie major league franchise. Considering how little time Autry had to get his act together, it was almost miraculous. In fact, of all the 14 expansion teams in major league history, that 70-91 record remains the best of any first-year franchise.
Of course, this article is about the Angels’ sophomore year, not their freshman year. But to understand the events of the 1962 season, the back story of 1961 was a necessary prelude. Now let’s flash forward to April 1962.
Despite the Angels’ satisfying 1961 season, no one was picking them to contend in 1962. In those days, pundits wrote in “Yankees” for first place in their preseason AL predictions and saved their lucubrations for determining the order of the also-rans. To be sure, every season has its share of surprises, but who would have guessed that the Angels’ second season would be more remarkable than their first?
The Angels got a big upgrade in facilities, moving into brand new Dodger Stadium. Of course, the stadium’s very name overshadowed the Angels’ presence, which is why the Angels preferred to call it Chavez Ravine, after the stadium’s location. As antiquated as Wrigley Field had been, the Angels had it all to themselves.
The Dodgers not only had a three-year head start on the Angels in Los Angeles, they arrived in town with a long and storied history from their tenure in Brooklyn, and the attendance figures at Dodger Stadium in 1962 reflected the status differential.
The Angels’ first game there (a 5-3 loss to the KC A’s) drew just 18,416 compared to the Dodgers’ Opening Day crowd of 52,564. O’Malley was under no legal requirement to offer Dodger Stadium to the Angels, though he might have been subject to some informal pressure from AL owners and local politicians. Dodger Stadium had been financed with private funds, so renting the facility to the Angels provided an ancillary source of revenue to help pay off the loans.
In the opening weeks of 1962, the Angels did not set the league on fire. They didn’t venture too far one side or the other from .500. They found themselves at 15-15 after defeating the Red Sox at Fenway Park on May 18. The Angels didn’t actually go on a tear after that, but they started winning more often than they lost and kept it up. Amazingly, after sweeping the Senators in a July 4 double-header at their new digs, D.C. Stadium, the Angels’ record was 45-34, and they were in first place.
Meanwhile back at the Ravine, the Dodgers, having swept a double-header from the Phillies, were at 56-29. At midseason, the prospect of an all-Dodger Stadium World Series in the park’s inaugural year was not far-fetched!
The Angels continued to play good ball, though the Yankees (largely due to a 13-game winning streak at the beginning of September) had blown past them. By Sept. 11, after defeating the Twins at Met Park in Bloomington, the Angels’ record was 82-64. They had clinched a .500+ season, which was a big accomplishment in itself; more importantly, the Angels were still in contention. Unfortunately, the next day they embarked on a six-game losing streak which dropped them to 82-70. They went 4-6 the rest of the way to finish at 86-76, 10 games behind the Yankees and five games behind the second-place Twins.
A disappointing finish? Yes. Curiously, the weak link in the Angels’ season was their home record. Apparently, they never felt at home at Dodger Stadium, where their record was 40-41. The Angels finished at 46-35 on the road, as did the Twins, while the Yankees were 46-36. The home records made all the difference.
Still, the team did have memorable moments at Dodger Stadium. For example, rookie Bo Belinsky, a pool hustler of some renown, won his first three starts, then pitched the first no-hitter (2-0 over the Orioles) in stadium and franchise history on May 5 (the stadium’s second no-hitter occurred just eight weeks later when Sandy Koufax handcuffed the Mets on June 30).
Though the Angels played second fiddle to the Dodgers, they did find themselves in the limelight on occasion. Walter Winchell was in attendance for Belinsky’s gem and wrote him up in his syndicated column. Thanks to Belinsky, the Angels started to receive more media attention.
Belinsky had a reputation as a playboy, so his exploits went beyond the sports pages. Celebrity sightings occurred at Angel games as well as Dodger games, and Belinsky took a personal interest in the more nubile celebs. He dated Ann-Margret, Tina Louise and Connie Stevens, and was engaged to Mamie Van Doren. When he finally decided to settle down, he married a Playboy centerfold.
Belinsky was not the only colorful character on the roster. For better or worse, the Angels had their share of hell-raisers, boozers and skirt-chasers. Had Jim Bouton spent his rookie year with the ’62 Angels instead of the Yankees, his literary imagination might have been fired up much earlier. And the team definitely had esprit de corps. The team bus bore the sign “A Bus Named Desire.”
Among the Angels’ most memorable characters was outfielder Leon Wagner, popularly known as Daddy Wags. An offensive threat and a defensive liability, he owned a clothing store with the memorable advertising line of “Get your glad rags from Daddy Wags.” Not only did he make the AL All-Star team, he was named MVP of the second game, played in Wrigley Field (Chicago, not LA) on July 30, after he went 3 for 4 with a home run and two RBIs. This was not only the first year an All-Star MVP was named (Maury Wills won the award for the first game at D.C. Stadium on July 10), it was the last time two All-Star games were played, a practice that began in 1959.
The Angels had three position players on the AL All-Star team in 1962 (the others were first baseman Lee Thomas and second baseman Billy Moran). Ironically, pitching was the team’s strength.
In 1962, the pitching staff gave up just 118 home runs, fewest in the AL. The Angels led the league in saves (47) and shutouts (15). The staff ERA of 3.70 was a match for the Yankees and just a smidgen behind the league-leading Orioles (3.69).
The pitching staff was solid, yet there were no big names on the staff. The top winner was rookie Dean Chance at 14-10 with a 2.96 ERA. Ken McBride went 11-5 with 3.50. Belinsky was the only other pitcher in double figures in wins with 10, but he tailed off badly. On May 11, he won the next start after his no-hitter to go 5-0, but he went 5-11 the rest of the season. In fact, after those first five victories, he went only 23-51 the rest of his career.
Having yielded 602 earned runs, the staff matched the White Sox for second lowest total in the league and was barely behind the Yankees (600). The total of runs yielded, however, was 706. This 104-run differential was the worst in the league, indicating that defense was a problem that year. As confirmation, the team .972 fielding percentage was the worst in the AL, and the Angels’ 175 errors led the league. That was 19 more than the second-place Tigers accrued.
In terms of offense, there was a minor drop-off in scoring from 1961, as the team scored 26 fewer runs. The home run total plummeted to 137, which dropped the Angels to eighth place in the AL. The offensive fall-off was predictable, given the dimensions of the new home field. Even so, the team’s 718 runs scored in 1962 was a match for the league average. They scored 4.43 runs per game while the league registered 4.44.
Offensively, there were several outstanding individuals. Center fielder Albie Pearson led the league with 115 runs scored. Billy Moran went deep 17 times and drove home 74 while hitting .282. Lee Thomas hit 26 homers and drove home 104 to go along with a .290 batting average. Leon Wagner led the team with 37 homers and 107 RBIs.
If the Angels could have plugged their porous defense and played as well at Dodger Stadium as they did on the road, they might have squeaked past the Yankees, and the Giants, after defeating the Dodgers in a three-game playoff series to determine the NL pennant, might have returned to Dodger Stadium for the World Series.
As it turned out, there was no World Series in Los Angeles in 1962, but thanks to the Angels’ surprising run and the Dodgers’ 101 victories, it certainly had been an entertaining season in SoCal. The Dodgers attendance improved to 2,755,184, their best showing in franchise history and a major league record at the time. The Angels were way behind at 1,144,062, yet that was good enough for fourth place in the AL. So 3,899,246 fans witnessed big league ball at Dodger Stadium in its opening year. In the 54 seasons since then, that figure has never been surpassed, though it has been approached in some of the Dodgers’ better seasons.
To appreciate the Angels’ run for the pennant in 1962, it must be remembered that in 1962, to finish first, a team had to surpass nine others. Today, with six divisions, finishing first means out winning just four other teams. Thanks to the Wild Card innovation, you don’t need to finish first to advance to the postseason. That’s not to say that a second-year expansion team finishing first or earning a Wild Card slot wouldn’t be a big deal these days, but it wouldn’t be as big a deal as in 1962 when finishing first was synonymous with winning the pennant.
Pennant contention was probably as surprising to Autry as it was to the Angels’ AL opponents. Given the time constraints he had to contend with, just getting a team on the field in 1961 had been a remarkable achievement. Subsequent expansion teams were more fortunate. The most recent expansion teams (Tampa Bay and Arizona, launched in 1998), were awarded their franchises on March 9, 1995, so they had plenty of time to set the table. Also, unlike in the early 1960s, expansion franchises can take advantage of free agency to upgrade their rosters.
A lot of the credit for the Angels’ early success must go to manager Bill Rigney, who had piloted the Giants in New York (1956 and 1957) and San Francisco (1958-1960). Strangely, he had been dismissed by the Giants in 1960 when the team had a 33-25 record. His replacement, Tom Sheehan, fared far worse, so when Rigney was named 1962 Manager of the Year in the AL, one suspects the Giants had second thoughts.
Rigney remained on the job with the Angels through 1969, then moved on to the Minnesota Twins for three seasons. He rounded out his managerial career with a second tour of duty with the Giants in 1976.
Another key contributor to the Angels’ success was GM Fred Haney, who was named 1962 Executive of the Year. Haney had managed the Milwaukee Braves during their salad days of the late 1950s but had never been an executive before. He had grown up in Los Angeles, and had served as a player and broadcaster with the local PCL teams.
After the 1962 season, a bright future seemed in store for the Angels, but in 1963 the Angels backslid. Their 70-91 record was a match for their 1961 record. In 1964, they improved to 82-80. In 1965, their final year at Dodger Stadium, they finished at 75-87 and drew just 577,727 fans. Toward the end of the season, they announced they would henceforth be known as the California Angels.
With that new moniker in 1966, the team’s record improved to 80-82, and attendance increased to 1,400,321, tops in the AL, thanks to the opening of Anaheim Stadium. In 1967 the team improved to 84-77. With a winning record and a home of its own, perhaps the franchise’s early promise would finally be fulfilled.
Unfortunately, the fans would have to wait. The Angels did not win a division title until 1979. That team, as well as the 1982 and 1986 division winners, went no further. Owner Gene Autry went to his grave (in 1998) without the Angels ever winning a pennant, much less a title. In fact, some Angels fans made reference to the Curse of the Cowboy.
As difficult as it might be to explain away the Angels’ post-1962 woes, it is perhaps even harder to explain their early success. Second-year expansion teams just don’t contend for pennants. Can it be chalked up to beginner’s luck? The Washington Senators of the early 1960s would likely disagree.
In a sense, Bo (I’m no angel) Belinsky just might be the ideal symbol of the Angels franchise. For individuals, or sports franchises, peaking too early may be a curse, albeit one that appears to be a blessing.