Bo knew, almost too late

Bo Belinsky

Bo Belinsky delivering during the 1962 rookie no-hitter that accelerated his Hollywood lifestyle.

The easiest supposition to make in the wake of still-rookie lefthander Reid Detmers’s no-hitter this past Tuesday is that the Angels hope he doesn’t go the way of the lefthanded rookie who pitched the franchise’s and southern California’s first major league no-hitter at age 25. They’re separated by a mere sixty years and five days.

The Angels pray Detmers is separated from Bo Belinsky by a lot more than time.

So far, Detmers seems the polar opposite of the fellow who preceded him all those decades ago. He seems grounded well and aware of himself, lacking the taste for the demimonde, the thirst for the high life (in more ways than one), the self-destruction that sank the Angels’ first no-hit pitcher.

“In short, within days after his no-hitter, Belinsky, a former pool hustler from Trenton, N.J., would be heralded as sport’s most original and engaging playboy-athlete,” wrote pitcher-turned-writer Pat Jordan, in a 1972 Sports Illustrated profile

His name would become synonymous with a lifestyle that was cool and slick and dazzling, one that was to be a trademark of those athletes who appeared later in the ’60s—Joe Namath, Ken Harrelson, Derek Sanderson. But, in time, the name Belinsky would mean something else. It would become synonymous with dissipated talent.

Belinsky became an Angel in the first place because the team picked him during the 1961-62 minor league draft; he’d been in the Oriole system for several years, showing on-and-off promise on the mound, before making a splash pitching winter ball in Venezuela, where he developed a nasty screwball to match his riding fastball.

“When Bo was on,” said his Angels catcher Buck Rodgers, “he had that electric kind of stuff.” In more ways than one. A Belinsky biographer, Maury Allen, recorded (in 1973’s Bo: Pitching and Wooing), recorded that the first thing Belinsky said to Rodgers, accepting congratulations for that 5 May 1962 no-hitter, “Hey, look at the blonde with the big tits!”

Belinsky began the game by striking out former longtime Reds second baseman Johnny Temple and future World Series-winning manager Dick Williams in order before getting future Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson to ground out on a ball deflected by Belinsky to Angels second baseman Billy Moran.

He ended it by striking out flaky Orioles outfielder Jackie Brandt, luring catcher Gus Triandos into a ground out to shortstop Joe Koppe, and getting right fielder Dave Nicholson to pop out to third baseman Felix Torres. When the game ended, Belinsky’s ERA stood at a sparkling 1.53 with a respectable 3.47 fielding-independent pitching rate.

Reporter: Bo, when did you start thinking about a no-hitter?

Belinsky: This morning at about five o’clock.

It was nothing compared to the sparkling that became Belinsky’s off-field lifestyle. As girl crazy as the night was long already, Belinsky’s date book now came to include such as Tina Louise, Ann-Margret, Juliet Prowse, Connie Stevens, and Mamie Van Doren, the fifth of whom became his fiancee for a spell. Hollywood embraced the street kid from New Jersey who’d made his way hustling pool before becoming a minor league pitcher.

Belinsky was as quick with a quip as he was with a wink and with bringing his roommate and fellow rookie Angels pitcher Dean Chance, an Ohio farm kid, along for the ride. He even got himself name-checked by then-popular song parodist Allan Sherman, on Sherman’s landmark 1962 album, Allan Sherman’s Mother Presents My Son, the Folk Singer.

The lefthander with the wicked screwball and the personality to match returned the embraces with a curious balance between enthusiasm and alienation. For the rest of 1962, Belinsky cavorted between the bright lights and beds of Hollywood and back-and-forth success on the mound; he finished that season with a 3.56 ERA/4.06 FIP, while the second-year Angels surprised observers by making pennant race noises.

He struggled enough in 1963 to be sent to the Angels’ Triple-A farm in Hawaii, posted a splended 2.53 ERA/3.14 FIP, and returned to finish a dismal major league season. Hawaii, though, proved a Belinsky haven. His engagement to Van Doren ended but he seemed inordinately happy there. His return to the Angels wasn’t successful at first but he seemed to have a new balance.

Dean Chance, Mamie Van Doren, Bo Belinsky

Belinsky (right) and Mamie Van Doren (center) on the town with Belinsky’s Angels teammate and best friend Dean Chance (left). “I’m returning his engagement ring,” Van Doren was quoted as saying after their engagement ended. “I’m afraid if I don’t, he’ll cut my finger off and take it—or worse, make me take over the payments.”

“Belinsky had fashioned a persona as both bon vivant and rapscallion,” Steve Oney would write in Los Angeles in 2005. “He possessed the brio of a Dean Martin, yet he also bore the antiestablishmentarian markings of a Jack Kerouac. In him, the lounge lizard and the free spirit commingled.”

In 1964 he rediscovered his better pitching side, too. He stood with a 2.86 ERA/3.25 FIP after a tough 11 August loss to the Indians . . . and after an interview he had no idea would change his career and his life irrevocably. Frustrated by the loss and the Angels’ faltering, Belinsky at 27 told wire service reporter Charlie Maher he was thinking seriously about leaving the game.

According to most who remembered the story, Maher wrote it up somewhat sympathetically, indicating as best he could that Belinsky’s thoughts were nothing more than out of frustration over a spell of solid pitching gone little-to-no reward. When the Angels landed in Washington after a long cross country flight, Belinsky learned the hard way that he wasn’t the only frustrated one.

Los Angeles Times writer/editor Braven Dyer, who wasn’t exactly a Belinsky admirer as it was, was furious over the Maher story. He demanded Belinsky give him a story about whether he was going to quit. He even went to Belinsky’s room at around 3 a.m., possibly drunk, to pursue it further. The confrontation ended with Dyer on his can after Belinsky flattened him with a punch.

The Angels suspended him at once. Belinsky’s celebrity back in Los Angeles seemed to heighten at first, but then when the offseason came the club traded him to the Phillies for first baseman Costen Shockley and pitcher Rudy May. After Phillies manager Gene Mauch—who actually coveted him—couldn’t convince him to abandon the screwball and lean on his fastball, he exiled Belinsky to the bullpen. Fatal mistake.

Bo Belinsky, Bud Furillo

Belinsky and Los Angeles Times writer Bud Furillo look at the headline announcing his trade to the Phillies after the ill-fated 1964 season.

The ’65 Phillies pen was riddled with the red juice amphetamine variant and Belinsky got hooked. Unadaptable to the regimen of long relief and spot starting as it was, Belinsky was sent back to the minors in early 1966. His career dissipated further (despite some minor league successes, including another no-hitter pitching for Hawaii), but the amphetamine addiction would stay along with his taste for alcohol.

Belinsky’s star dissipated likewise. He married Playboy‘s 1965 Playmate of the Year, Jo Collins but the marriage eventually ended in divorce. His final major league hurrah was a trio of relief appearances for the 1970 Reds after he’d worked hard to make the team out of spring training. Sent back to the minors yet again, Belinsky called it a career.

Two years earlier, turning 30 during a turn with the Astros, Belinsky observed, “It’s no fun knowing that in every home in America your birthday is celebrated as a day of infamy.” Jordan would remember the remark well enough when profiling Belinsky in 1972:

[T]he remark was telling. It was characteristically cute. It seemed to have been delivered more for its effect than its truth by a man more concerned with style than substance. It was tossed off, discarded really, with that ironic smile of disavowal—as if it were nothing but the surplus from a warehouse of such remarks, remarks he must unload whenever he felt the occasion deserved not truth but wit. Yet the annoying suspicion remained that Belinsky felt the remark contained more truth than wit. Whether this feeling was nothing more than the overblown self-pity of a too shallow man or the heightened perception of a too sensitive man was not clear. It was certain only that Belinsky had dissipated a promising career, that people had grown tired of him, and that most of his difficulty could be traced to his personality. He did not have the knack of later athletes—the Namaths, Harrelsons and Sandersons—of cultivating his personality precisely up to, but not beyond, that point at which the public becomes bored with it.

He eventually sobered up for keeps, especially after his second marriage (to lumber/paper products heiress Janie Weyerhaeuser) collapsed, and went to work helping other alcoholics and addicts sober up, including his former Angels teammate, pitcher Eli Grba. “Bo and I had never been that close,” Grba told Oney. “He was too Hollywood. But he came and got me and took me to an AA meeting. I was nervous, but Bo said, ‘Don’t worry, Eli, they’re all drunks just like you and me’.”

After a third failed, brief marriage, and continuing estrangement from the three children (one with Collins, two with Weyerhaeuser) his marriages produced, Belinsky finally ended his wandering ways to match his hard-won sobriety. By the 1990s he’d relocated to Las Vegas, where he worked in public relations for a pair of automotive dealership groups and became a born-again Christian involved deeply with Trinity Life Church.

That might have been the last thing his old Hollywood crowd would have predicted. “Can you imagine?” he said, almost typically, “I had to come to Las Vegas to find Jesus Christ.”

Bo Belinsky

Clean, sober, born-again, and looking a little wiser in Las Vegas.

Belinsky even reconciled to the Angels, appearing at Old-Timers Day events at the team’s invitation, his place in their early history secured at last. In due course, he would say of the Dyer incident that ended his Angels days and his days as a toast of Hollywood, “I screwed myself out of a job with the Angels.”

More than that, a son born out of wedlock in 1963 met and got to know him pleasantly after Belinsky settled in Las Vegas. Don Carroll not only resembles a less-dissipated version of his father but he even named his own son Beau, after the man he finally met and liked and understood.

Too much, too little, too late. Belinsky died at 64 in 2001. Almost a full year before the Angels won their only World Series to date.

“Bo was a one-of-a-kind guy and there won’t be another one like him,” said Dean Chance at a Dodger Stadium memorial he arranged for his old friend, fourteen years before his own death of heart failure. “He was full of cancer, his heart was bad and his hip was hurting him terribly at the end. He had slipped and fallen and it was really tough on him. But he made his peace with the Lord and he is probably better off today than he was last week. He’s not suffering terribly any more.”

“Nobody could ever figure me out,” Belinsky said years after his baseball career dissipated.

I wouldn’t show what was really inside me, inside Bo Belinsky I was just a facade I’d carried along all my life . . . I was born apart. My mother was Jewish, my father Polish Catholic. To Jews I was a Polack. To Poles I was a kike. I was removed—removed from people in my family, people in my school. Even in my youth, I didn’t know where to park myself.

By the time he could and did show enough of his real self, heart failure claimed him after he’d already been battling bladder cancer and diabetes, the net result of a baseball youth that brought him to the stratosphere but crashed him even more profoundly long before. In Las Vegas, Belinsky found a home, a purpose, and salvation at last.

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