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Those Were the Days : Bill Rigney, Now 66, Can Look Back on Those Years When He Was Angels' First Manager and Find Lots of Fond Memories

June 16, 1985|ROSS NEWHAN | Times Staff Writer

It is February, 1961. Palm Springs. A ballroom at the Desert Inn Hotel.

Gene Autry, awarded the American League's Los Angeles franchise just two months earlier, is at the podium, introducing the Angels' first manager to a banquet crowd welcoming the new team to its spring training base.

Obviously as excited as when he first left Tioga, Tex., to join the Fields Brothers Marvelous Medicine Show, Autry is saying how he had wanted and offered the job to Casey Stengel but that he is certain his managerial selection will do a good job.

He then introduces his new manager as Phil Wrigley.

Bill Rigney is now 66.

The home he shares with his wife, Paula, is on the third fairway of the Round Hill Country Club in the San Francisco suburb of Alamo.

He carries a six-handicap on the golf course and the title of "Assistant to the President, Baseball Matters" with the Oakland A's, an involved consultant to President Roy Eisenhardt and General Manager Sandy Alderson.

It has been 25 years since Rigney rebounded from that inauspicious introduction and left his impact on a team of character and characters.

Many of them are now in Anaheim to play in today's Silver Anniversary Old-timers Game, a prelude to the game between the Angels' current crop of old-timers and Chicago White Sox.

There was a reunion dinner Saturday night, and there will be a round of golf Monday.

Joe Adcock, Earl Averill, Bo Belinsky, Bobby Bonds, Ted Bowsfield, Rocky Bridges, Dean Chance, Ryne Duren, Art Fowler, Jim Fregosi, Eli Grba, Ken Hunt, Ted Kluszewski, Bobby Knoop, Joe Koppe, Bob Lemon, Billy Moran, Tom Morgan, Albie Pearson, Rick Reichardt, Frank Robinson, Tom Satriano, Lee Thomas, George Thomas and Clyde Wright are just some of the returning alumni.

Rigney is back, too--a still vibrant link to the expansion years and more.

He is back among men he considers some of his all-time favorites, remembering and reliving years he considers some of his all-time best.

"How about Frick and Frack?" he asked the other day. "Was that a match made in heaven?"

He alluded to the unholy alliance of Belinsky, the street-smart pool hustler from Trenton, N.J., and Chance, the naive farm boy from Ohio. Two talented pitchers whose most consistent performances were illuminated by neon. Rigney tried everything, but ultimately traded both. A time of mourning on Sunset Boulevard.

"People used to ask me why I roomed them together," Rigney said, "and I told them that it was because I didn't want to screw up two rooms.

"What a waste. Chance may have had the best right arm I've ever seen (he won the Cy Young Award with a 20-9 record and 1.65 ERA in 1964). He could simply overpower a club.

"The other guy, if he ever wanted to put baseball first, could have won 15 to 18 games a year easy (Belinsky pitched a no-hitter en route to a 5-0 start with the Angels in 1962, then won only 23 games the rest of his career). He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hollywood loved him and he loved Hollywood. He was always thinking about what he was going to do after the game rather than what he was doing during it. I'm not putting him down, it was the way he was.

"I can look back now and say I loved both of those guys, but there were times then I wanted to shoot them."

Rigney seldom hid his emotions, a gregarious, gesticulating disciple of Leo Durocher, The Lion, his manager and mentor with the New York Giants.

Now, nearly 40 years since the halcyon years in New York and a swift 25 since his debut with the Angels, Rigney's personality and demeanor haven't changed, though his stomach has found peace in its time. The ulcer that the Angels kept igniting is now dormant.

There was a period, however, even in his first year with the Angels, that a doctor advised Rigney to keep sponge cake and milk near the dugout as a mid-game retardant for his flaming stomach.

The milk and cake began to disappear, however, before Rigney could get to it. He ultimately discovered that catcher Averill had been pilfering it.

"Hell, Rig," Averill said when apprehended, "I thought it was a treat for the players."

It was this same Averill who once tapped Rigney on the shoulder during a tense moment in a game at Washington and said, "I wanted you to know, Skip, that I just counted and found there are 80 lights out in this stadium."

The expansion Mets, born a year later, were no more amazin' than the early Angels.

"The lunatics," Rigney observed, during one desperate moment, "have taken over the asylum."

Consider:

--Shortstop Fritz Brickell fielded a double play grounder in a game at Minnesota and threw it into right field, where Pearson retrieved it and threw it wildly to the middle of the infield, where pitcher Ron Kline retrieved it and threw it wildly to third base. There had been three errors on the same play and now the ball was bouncing toward the dugout, where Rigney fielded it, stared at it, considered, he said, "taking a bite out of it," then put it in a secure place, his hip pocket.

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