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BASEBALL PREVIEW : HALO HIGH JINKS : From Belinsky to Polonia, Angel History Has Had Its Lighter Side, Too

April 07, 1991|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It hasn't all been pennant-losing home runs, September swoons, free-agent flops, career-ending injuries, broken promises, tears, fears and the morbid trail of tragedy that has guided the team since its inception.

Believe it or not, the Angels have been good for some laughs, too.

Born 30 years ago, one year before the New York Mets, the Angels were never going to become amazing or lovable, but they took a stab at it at the outset. Realizing they weren't going to be good for some time, the expansion Angels hoped to settle for fun and tried to lure Casey Stengel, the Old Perfessor, out of retirement to become their first manager.

Angel owner Gene Autry made Stengel an offer, but Casey said he couldn't consider it. Stengel had just signed a contract to serialize his story in the Saturday Evening Post and a clause in the contract prohibited him from taking another job in baseball until the story was published.

So the Mets got Stengel in 1962 and the Angels hired Bill Rigney for 1961. As second choices go, Rigney wasn't bad, but while Stengel had 'em rolling in the aisles as the inaugural Mets bumbled their way through 120 glorious losses, Rigney squirmed on the Angel bench with a newly ignited stomach ulcer.

Which leads us to a story . . .

On doctor's orders, Rigney used to keep a piece of spongecake and a glass of milk near the dugout so he could quench his fires during the middle innings. A month went by and suddenly, the cake and milk disappeared. Rigney began asking around and finally discovered that catcher Earl Averill had been stealing and scarfing.

"Hell, Rig," Averill innocently explained, "I thought it was there as a treat for the players."

Averill was a real treat for Rigney. Once, during a tense late-inning moment in the Angel dugout, Averill leaned over and tapped Rigney on the shoulder. "I just counted, skipper, and there's 80 lights out in this stadium." Another time, Averill was called on to pinch-hit and he walked to the plate wearing a football jersey.

Pinch-hitting can be tedious work; Averill was just trying to stay awake. Another time, Rigney called for a pinch-hitter and found his man, Fabulous Faye Throneberry, brother of the Mets' Marvelous Marv, sawing logs on the bench.

The '61 Angels lost 91 games, often by creative means. Shortstop Fritz Brickell turned one routine double-play grounder into three quick errors. Error No. 1: Brickell throws wildly past second base. Error No. 2: Right fielder Albie Pearson fields the ball and throws wildly back to the infield. Error No. 3: Pitcher Ron Kline fielded the ball and threw wildly past third.

There would be no fourth error because the ball bounded all the way to the Angel dugout, where Rigney snatched it and shoved it in his hip pocket. Finally, safe keeping.

Rigney lasted 8 1/2 years as Angel manager, remarkable in itself but even more so when one considers that none of his successors lasted four.

Impressive, too, that Rigney never walked away after watching catcher Hank Foiles lunge for a pitch in the dirt, race to the backstop, look here, there and everywhere for the ball and still come up empty while three Minnesota Twins come around to score.

The last place Foiles looked?

His mitt. The ball had been there all along.

BO-DEAN Rigney showed great imagination whenever drawing up rooming lists for his players. The first year, he had 5-foot-7, 140-pound Albie Pearson room with 6-foot-2, 240-pound Ted Kluszewski. Kluszewski promptly told Pearson, "I get the bed, you get the drawer."

The next year, Rigney made pitchers Bo Belinsky and Dean Chance roommates because, the manager explained, he didn't want to ruin two rooms.

Belinsky and Chance were the Angels' first two stars--Belinsky pitched the franchise's first no-hitter, Chance won the franchise's only Cy Young Award--and remain their most memorable characters. "He's got a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent head," one scout said of Belinsky. "The dumbest I ever caught," Bob Rodgers said of Chance. Belinsky and Chance couldn't care less. Their motto: "What we don't know won't hurt us . . . will it?"

Belinsky dated actresses Ann-Margret and Tina Louise, was engaged to Mamie Van Doren and bragged that he spent the night before his no-hitter at a woman's apartment, finally returning home at 5 a.m. "Sex always relaxed me," Belinsky said with a shrug. "Nobody ever died from it."

Chance tried to keep up the best he could. "I never enjoyed his secret," Chance once said of Belinsky, "but I enjoyed trying." Chance spent five years with the Angels, finished his career with Detroit in 1971 and took his plunge into the business world as a carnival operator, which makes enough sense.

Belinsky's Angel career ended shortly after he allegedly punched out a sportswriter with a can of shaving cream. The Angels responded by first demoting Belinsky to their triple-A club--"I'm their best pitcher. How can they ship me out?" Belinsky asked--and then trading him to Philadelphia after the season.

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