by Steven Travers
American Reporter Sports Writer
Los Angeles, Calif.
January 14, 2008
JOHNNY GRANT PLAYED FOR THE ANGELS
LOS ANGELES -- Yankees manager Ralph Houk had a unique challenge to deal with in 1961. With the expansion of the American League to include the Los Angeles Angels, his New York Yankees faced 7,700-mile road trips. So, prior to an 11-day, 12-game swing to the West Coast, Houk advised his charges prior to the first stop, in Minnesota, not to turn their watches back.
"East and sleep like you do in New York," he told them.
The team maintained "Eastern time" in Minnesota and won three straight, then made their way to Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. It was a bandbox of a park and the big Yankee sluggers figured to feast on the Angels' expansion-quality pitching and short porches.
But the club ran into something else in Los Angeles, and it would continue to hold them back in successive years in L.A. They were "Johnny Grant parties."
Johnny Grant, who on Jan. 9 passed away at 84 of natural causes in his permanent suite at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, was the unofficial Mayor of Hollywood," a local celebrity who became internationally known as he presided over ribbon-cutting and hand-printing ceremonies along the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard, and entertaining U.S. troops through four wars as a volunteer for the U.S.O..
But not so well-known beyond the inner world of celebrities were the wild shindigs Grant threw in the '60s at his plush home in the Hollywood Hills.
The New York Yankees were as big as they come, in the sports world or any other world. The arrival of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford and company was tantamount to the arrival of presidents, astronauts, religious leaders, or any other kind of superstar.
They were especially big deals in those early days. The Yankees had been to Los Angeles on numerous occasions during Spring training, when they would play exhibitions against Pacific Coast League clubs or coach Rod Dedeaux's USC Trojans. But in 1961 and after, they came out to play for real.
Grant invited the entire team to his place, promising to have his swimming pool stocked with bathing beauties and starlets. Mantle, who loved to party and had a real eye for the chicks, took to Johnny Grant parties with great fervor. Of course, where Mickey went, so too did his teammates. As a result, the Yankees were hung over whenever they played the Angels; much to Houk's consternation.
In 1961, most of the Angels' pitching staff could not contain them, drowning in alcohol or not. But in 1962, the Angels would move to Dodger Stadium and feature a rookie sensation named Dean Chance. The Dodger Stadium location made the young Angels more prominent and therefore helped make the Johnny Grant parties even more special. Chance's offerings would be especially hard to deal with the day after those parties.
Houk had a temper. His face would puff up and get red, his cheeks - already bulging from an incessant tobacco plug - bulging. He got like that when his authority was challenged, especially by young players or upstarts accusing the Yankees of treating them unfairly, but he especially blew up when arguing with umpires. As a player, he was always bandaged up from some fight. He and teammate Hank Bauer - a gruff ex-Marine - were cut out of the same cloth.
Houk's wife, Betty extracted a promise to pay her the same amount as the fines he received for being thrown out of games. Houk, after regaining his composure, would come back to their Saddle River, New Jersey home with his tail between his legs. Gone was the huge tobacco plug, and he was suddenly a house-broken husband. Betty always knew when he had been fined. When the club paid Ralph's fines, he still had to pay Betty.
On May 4, 1962, the Sunset Strip of Los Angeles was hopping with Mexican festivities for Cinco de Mayo. Bo Belinsky, a rookie left-handed pitcher for the second-year Angels, was scheduled to pitch the next night. Never one to favor rest and preparation when he could make the scene, Bo ventured to the strip where he met a lovely brunette. They spent the evening at her pad. Bo departed with dawn's early light, but this encounter inspired him. He asked for her phone number and meant it.
"I'll see you again," she assured him. Bo told her he was leaving tickets for that night's game against Baltimore and insisted she make it, because "You're my lucky charm."
"I never saw her again," Bo told writer Pat Jordan in 1972. "It was like she was my lucky charm and once she was gone that was the end of that."
Eventually, maybe, but first Bo Belinsky was about to skyrocket to the heights of Hollywood fame and glory. That evening he threw a no-hit, no-run game against his old team, the Baltimore Orioles.
But 1962 was not supposed to be a memorable year for the Los Angeles Angels. An expansion team in 1961, the Angels were a creditable 70-91 in their first year, playing at dilapidated Wrigley Field in south-central L.A., at the corner of 42nd Place and Avalon Boulevard. In '62, they rented Dodger Stadium from Walter O'Malley, who "nickel-and-dimed" them with surcharges on just about everything, as well as relegating their ticket booth next to a storage shed in a remote part of the stadium. The Dodgers were the toasts of Hollywood.
The Angels, a combination of cast-offs and kids, were tenants who played before family and friends. The first Angel to receive attention was Belinsky. The Angels thought he would attract female fans (he did). Another rookie, Dean Chance, was an emerging star, winning 14 games. Former Giant Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner hit 37 home runs and knocked in 107 runs.
Belinsky started the year living in Ernie's House of Surface with Laker wild man "Hot Rod" Hundley, but apparently Bo's consumption of women and alcohol was too much even for the Rodster. Belinsky then moved his act to the Hollywood Hills, where some adoring girl almost killed herself trying to climb a tree into his bedroom window. When Bo was not wining and dining Tina Louise and Ann-Margret, he was winning games. By August, an early-morning run-in with the L.A.P.D. and escapades with the Hollywood crowd had slowed his win total down, but the man had put the club on the map.
On July 4, Los Angeles was in first place in the American League. Bill Rigney and Fred Haney were shrewd baseball men. Rig had been schooled under Leo Durocher in New York. Haney had developed the great Milwaukee Braves' pennant winners of 1957-58.
The Angels played them tough, finally succumbing in the dog days of late August and September. Their 86-76 record earned Rigney Manager of the Year honors. Haney was named Executive of the Year. Chance was the best rookie pitcher in the game. Movie stars like Carey Grant and Doris Day cheered them on.
"Chance was the best pitcher I ever managed," Rigney said. "He was a farm boy Who started hanging out with Bo and the Hollywood crowd. Oh, what a pistol those two were! But he was the best chucker from the right I ever saw," which was an amazing statement.
What about Belinsky?
"Oh my," said Rigney, who had a shock of white hair. "He's the reason I had white hair." Behind his back, Belinsky called him "the White Rat." "He also looked like a cab driving down the street with the doors open," recalled Bo of Rigney's rather oversized ears. "Working for Gene Autry, managing Bo Belinsky, and dealing with Hollywood," Rig said of the 1962 season, "made that the most interesting year of my career."
The story of Bo and the Angels in their early years in Los Angeles is so interesting because the team's character was utterly different from what modern fans have come to know about the team in Anaheim. It was night and day.
In 1962 they were owned by "the Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry, who was Old Hollywood all the way. Belinsky had garnered his "15 minutes of fame," holding out for the enormous sum of $6,500. Writer Bud Furillo captured some of Bo's choice comments about women, sex and hustling pool on a slow news day.
Fred Haney tired of negotiating with Bo over the phone. He sensed that if he were brought out to Palm Springs, it would create needed publicity in the shadow of the mighty Dodgers. He was right.
"He was the greatest thing to ever happen to us," said publicity director Irv Kaze. Kaze showed up at the airport and, without having to ask, immediately recognized Belinsky, oozing charisma in an open-collared shirt, sportscoat, long, slick hair, and "the biggest pair of sunglasses you've ever seen."
"Damn," said Bo when Kaze introduced himself, "I expected Autry."
Bo was immediately driven to the Palm Springs Desert Inn, where Kaze arranged for a poolside press conference complete with a full bar and strategically placed bikini-clad girls lounging about. For a couple of hours Bo regaled them with stories of his pool-hustling exploits, which he made out to sound like "Minnesota Fats."
His sexual descriptions were explicit. Nobody had ever heard anything like this guy, and in reality nobody has ever heard anything like it since. As a "kiss and tell" artist Belinsky put José Canseco, Derek Jeter, even Joe Namath to shame.
The bizarre poolside scene, part carnival act, part "true confessions," part striptease show, was "the greatest thing I'd ever seen," recalled Kaze. All of this was over between $1,000 and $1,500 1962 dollars for an unproven career minor leaguer who said he would not sign "unless Autry begged me personally."
For three days Belinsky never suited up or came close to "training" for baseball, preferring instead to seek out those bikini-clad "chickies" by day and night. Finally Haney called him and said, "this is enough." A gentlemen's agreement to re-negotiate if he made the club and proved himself was hammered out.
"Don Hoak, when he was managing in the Winter Leagues down in Latin America, once held up his finger and thumb just this far apart," Bo said years later. 'Boys,' he said, 'There's only this much difference separating you from big league p---y!' "
Thus did Bo have his motivation. Out of shape, and continually distracted by the Palm Springs "scenery," Bo inspired nobody on the mound, however. Rigney wanted to ship him out. Haney tried to trade him back to the Baltimore organization, where he had been before getting plucked in the expansion draft. They had seen all of Bo's act they could handle.
While in the Oriole chain he had to be snuck out of one town when an underage girl whose mother was, uh, "seeing" the chief of detectives, threatened rape if he not marry her.
Earl Weaver watched in despair when Bo and Joe Pepitone would somehow find hot nightspots in Aberdeen. In Miami Bo hooked up with a married woman. Later he found himself drinking with her husband, an Army general, and in a moment of supreme honesty owned up to being the guy she had left with, offering a toast with the statement, "we sure had a helluva time with your money."
He had gone AWOL in Mexico. Oriole pitchers Steve Dalkowski, Steve Barber and Bo were fined by Baltimore manager Paul Richards for drilling holes in Belinsky's hotel room to sneak a peak at the reigning Miss Universe, staying next door. Like Rod Steiger rejecting Sidney Poitier's offer of "pity" in The Heat of the Night, the Orioles said, "No, thank you," to Haney's offer to take back Bo.
Autry stepped in and, in a rare act of ownership control, informed his employees that Bo was to make the squad, at least for the first few weeks of the regular season. His hope was that the Spring Training publicity might sell a few tickets. Rig was none too pleased but carried out the orders. Then injuries depleted his rotation. On April 16 Bo was given an emergency start against Kansas City at Dodger Stadium.
Given the news of his start the next day, Bo went out to the Sunset Strip, made "friends," and finally fell asleep at four or five. "Sex always relaxed me, nobody ever died from it," Bo told sportswriter Maury Allen in 1972.
In the locker room that afternoon, Rigney handed him the game ball and said simply, "Win or be gone." Bo won 3-2. It earned him a second start, which turned out to be a brilliant 3-0 shutout against Washington. When he won in his next start, the publicity was enormous, and of a national character.
Furillo's original story had made the wire services. His Palm Springs quotes received major attention. Suddenly Bo was the subject of every media report. He was invited to major Hollywood parties. Actresses and starlets were calling him.
One of Bo's favorite Sunset Strip haunts was the famed Whisky-a-Go-Go, which gave rise to such 1960s L.A. acts as The Doors, The Byrds, Jan and Dean, and Jefferson Starship, among many others. Belinsky once played pool with Jim Morrison of The Doors and rubbed elbows with numerous superstars, usually before they were famous.
When Bo threw his no-hit game on May 5, immediate rewards were proffered. His contract was increased to the promised $8,500, along with a "lipstick red" Cadillac, a gift from the club. Bud Furillo assumed the role of Bo's "social director," introducing him to Beverly Hills attorney Paul Caruso, who in turn introduced him to the controversial gossip columnist and movie voice, Walter Winchell.
Winchell was the staccato voiceover of the tv show The Untouchables, starring Robert Stack as Elliot Ness. Winchell used his New York column to rail against Communist infiltration during the McCarthy era. McCarthy's demise put Winchell on the outs in New York. The scathing film The Sweet Smell of Success portrayed him through a fictional character played by Burt Lancaster as an incestuous brother who uses his column to destroy people through Communist aspersions.
Winchell had moved to Hollywood, hoping to start over. When Furillo introduced Belinsky to the show biz crowd, the Bo-Winchell relationship became a marriage made in ... Hollywood.
"I know every broad who matters," Winchell told Bo. Winchell arranged through his publicity contacts for every aspiring model and actress in L.A. to date Bo Belinsky, alerting the press to each liaison so that it could all be dutifully recorded in the trades.
Gilligan's Island beauty Tina Louise; actress Connie Stevens (and her younger, blonder sister); Dinah Shore; Queen Soraya, the beautiful ex-wife of the Shah of Iran; a DuPont heiress; Carnal Knowledge star Ann-Margret; Bo squired all of them and many more to every haunt on the Sunset Strip: Peppermint West, Barney's Beanery, Dino's, Chasen's, LaScala, the Rainbow, Gazarri's, the Whisky.
He found himself invited to party with the Beautiful People: Jane Wyman, Merle Oberon, Maureen O'Hara, Frank Sinatra, Lionel Hampton. In New York he was feted by Toots Shor, given tables reserved for celebrities and Mobsters at the Copa, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and 21.
In Washington, Bo and Dean Chance were told that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wanted to meet them.
"Jesus Christ, they're turning it into a Federal case," exclaimed Chance, who thought Hoover's invite was an inquest into some kind of illegal interstate activity. Hoover just wanted to meet them.
"J. Edgar?" Bo later told Pat Jordan. "Man, he's a swinger. He let Dean and I shoot Tommy guns at FBI headquarters."
As the season played out, Bo continued to "pitch and woo." His record went to 6-1, but then he began to lose. Off the field, he was as wild as ever.
Naturally, Rigney and Haney questioned whether he could effectively pitch on little or no rest. The papers and trades were filled with near-daily Belinsky items, mostly fed by Winchell. Madonna at her hottest never got so much attention. Belinsky courted it. He never hid from the publicity. He ate it up with a fork and spoon.
The team would arrive at L.A. International Airport in the wee hours of the morning, hoping only to get home and sleep. Bo would be met not by one but two delicious girls. He would depart into the L.A. night, leaving his bags to the equipment manager while his teammates watched in awe and wonder, exploding into an ovation.
He moved into a Hollywood Hills pad that had once been occupied by the abstract Spanish artist Pablo Picasso, who had painted a mural on the wall of what was now Bo's living room.
The club tolerated it because the publicity was good for business, the team was winning, Bo was still effective, and Autry admired his employee's style.
But a five A.M. incident on Wilshire Boulevard brought everything to a boil. Bo and Dean went out for a night on the town, picking up on two girls. Bo's was some kind of "showgirl," or so she said. The four of them piled into Bo's lipstick red Caddy.
"Now we are tooling down Wilshire Boulevard and everything is fine," Bo recalled. "Well, one thing led to another, and this girl starts mouthing off about she loves me and will stay with me and wants to cook breakfast and all that bull. I'm really in no mood for that, so I tell her to keep her big mouth shut or I'll throw her out."
According to Bo, the girl kept yakking, so he pulled the car over to a side street, demanding she get out. She resisted. Bo tried to force her out. In the process she smashed her head against a window, cutting herself, and causing her to start screaming bloody murder.
Just then, an L.A.P.D. squad car pulled up. Chance, who had a pregnant wife back in Ohio, made a run for it but was caught. Arrests were made and it all hit the papers, to the great consternation of Haney and Rigney.
The girl decided not to press charges on the condition that Bo stay with her for a week, but later she found an attorney and sued Bo, forcing him to pay her off.
"You just can't trust broads," was Bo's assessment.
While all of this was happening, Bo discovered to his chagrin that the "lipstick red" Caddy, a "gift" from the club, was late in payments. He assumed that it was paid for in full. Instead, he had to "assume" the monthly installments plus insurance payments. He was trying to live the life of Frank Sinatra on $8,500 a year.
The Angels, in first place on July 4, pushed the Yankees into August before tailing off towards the end, but the season was a spectacular success for a second-year team. Their veterans had played well, and youth was served. The future looked bright.
Bo finished 10-11, a disappointment after starting 5-0 with a no-hitter, but a solid year nevertheless. The team's brass held its breath, hoping that perhaps he would mature, calm down, and make use of his natural talents in a way that would allow him to enjoy a good career for the Angels.
Chance was 14-10 with a 2.96 earned run average. One of the greatest schoolboy athletes in American history, he had been a high school basketball rival of future Indiana coach Bobby Knight in Ohio. Chance became Bo's "wingman" in swingin' Hollywood, never lacking confidence on the field or in the bar.
A combination of his wicked slider, blazing fastballs and the after-effects of "Johnny Grant parties" made him virtually unhittable in head-to-head match-ups with New York. Mickey Mantle was virtually helpless against him and once said, "Every time I see his name in the line-up card I feel like throwing up." It was a half-reference to alcohol consumption as well as Chance's pitching skill.
"All we gotta do is beat Roger Mustard and Mickey Mayonnaise and we can win this pennant," said Chance. "The only difference between them and me is they get paid more."
Bo was always playing practical jokes on the farm boy Chance, who could be taken in and was still a gullible youth. On one occasion, Bo had one of his girlfriends call Dean in his hotel room from the lobby. She identified herself as "Jane, Jane from Sacramento," and told the pitcher that she was pregnant, he was the dad, and "what are you gonna do about it?"
Dean hung up and rushed down to the lobby, where he saw Bo. "Bo, Bo," he exclaimed. "I gotta talk to you."
"What's the matter, Dean?" asked a calm Bo. "You look like an expectant father."
Dean blanched, realizing he had been had.
Then there was center fielder Albie Pearson. He was 5-5 ˝ and weighed 141 pounds. A local kid from the L.A. suburbs, Pearson was the opposite of Bo and Dean; a devout Christian and happily-married family man. His way of life was always coming into conflict with Bo.
During Spring Training, Bo set up one of his writer friends with a blind date. When Albie showed up in the hotel lobby and said hi to Bo, she thought he was her guy. "Albie's real cute and adorable and this broad wants to mother him," recalled Bo. "'I love you, I love you,' she kept saying to Albie. 'Let me take you home and take care of you.'"
Albie broke away and drove from Palm Springs to Riverside to be with his wife. He called every hour on the hour to make sure she was gone before he returned. Albie's only vice was a "lipstick red" Caddy, just like the one Bo drove. One night one of Bo's minor league flames, an Oriental honey named Zenida, showed up in L.A. Bo told her to meet him in the player's parking lot, where he parked his Caddy. She found the "lipstick red" Caddy, all right, except it was Pearson's.
"So Albie comes out of the clubhouse and he's with his wife," recalled Bo. "Zenida sees this guy with a broad on his arm and figures it's gotta be me, so she starts waving at him; her legs twitching out of this tight Suzie Wong dress. Albie's wife sees this Chinese chick sitting on her husband's car and she's just pissed."
AR Sports Writer Steven Travers has written extensively on sports figures, and especially those who starred for West Coast teams. This article is excerpted from his "A Tale of Three Cities: New York, L.A. and San Francisco in October of '62." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.