Remembering An Angel
May 4, 2012
Fifty years ago a skinny left-hander with a sneaky smile made history. And started a party.
On May 5, 1962 Robert “Bo” Belinsky threw a no-hitter for the Los Angeles Angels in a 2-0 victory over the Baltimore Orioles and became Hollywood’s star attraction for a summer and one of baseball’s most picaresque, memorable characters for all-time.
I learned of that personality, and the existence of Belinsky himself, in a Sports Illustrated article in 1994 that was actually a re-print from 1972. Pat Jordan’s piece, “Once He Was An Angel,” is a masterful bit of writing…or maybe Bo Belinsky really was just that cool.
With his slick black hair, good looks, athletic prowess, a hedonistic thirst and devil-may-care attitude, Belinsky was the guy who all guys want to be and all girls want to be with. Belinsky’s conquests included Ann-Margaret, Connie Stevens, Tina Louise, Mamie Van Doren, Juliet Prowse and, among countless others, Playboy playmate Jo Collins whom he later married.
Belinsky was admired by the famed columnist, Walter Winchell, who was in the stands in L.A. that night in 1962, and Bo partied with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Hugh Hefner, Henry Fonda, Dean Martin and Eddie Fisher. J. Edgar Hoover took a liking to Belinsky and once let him and Dean Chance shoot machine guns at an FBI firing range.
Belinsky seemed as destined for trouble as he was for the spotlight. Born in New York City to a Catholic father and Jewish mother, his family moved to Trenton, New Jersey and he was nicknamed “Bo” because he was a notorious street fighter in the vein of middleweight boxer Bobo Olson. In his youth, baseball was Belinsky’s third favorite pastime (at best) after fisticuffs and pool hustling. He was originally drafted by the Pirates and ended up in the Orioles’ system before going to the Angels who tolerated his waywardness until he punched a sports writer.
Belinsky’s sybaritic ways eventually led to his downfall, as there are countless stories of him partying until all hours, even the night before a game. He was sent back down to the minors many times and, other than his no-hitter in ’62, his most notable achievement on the field may have been giving up Hank Aaron’s 400th home run in 1966. After being traded from the Angels to the Phillies he went to the Astros, Pirates and Reds in a career that ended in 1970 with a lifetime record of 28-51.
Belinsky eventually went broke and suffered from alcoholism. He reached rock bottom in 1976 when, according to the New York Times, he says he woke up under a bridge in Ohio “clutching an empty wine bottle.” He later got sober and became a counselor for others with addiction and, while living in Nevada, became a born-again Christian. Said Belinsky: “Can you imagine? I had to come to Las Vegas to discover Jesus Christ.”
By the time he died of an apparent heart attack in November, 2001 at the age of 64, Belinsky seemed to have found peace in his life but the pain created in his earlier days left many scars. The Times wrote that Belinsky remained estranged from his twin daughters (from his marriage to Jane Weyerhaeuser) and was also out of touch with his sister.
Just a few months before his death Belinsky was quoted by a reporter with a line that sums up the journey for many of us: ”We spend the first 40, 50 years satisfying our egos and the next 20 or 10 trying to wipe the slate clean…’I'm at that second stage.” Sadly, that second stage didn’t last long for the man who was a devilish Angel.
It’s not surprising that Belinsky would find such fitting words, as he was a quote machine. After his magical night in 1962 he told reporters “If I’d known I was gonna pitch a no-hitter today, I would have gotten a haircut.” Another gem: “I’ve gotten more mileage out of winning 28 games than most guys do winning 200.” And how about: “If music be the food of love, by all means let the band play on.” And of baseball itself he told Jordan: ”…Man, you can’t stash baseball. If you’re lucky, you capture it awhile, you go through it at some point in your life, and then it goes away and you go on to something else. Some guys try to live off it forever. It’s a sin to live off sport.”
The ’72 Sports Illustrated article also includes this one from Belinsky when his playing days were over and real life was taking hold.
“Follow the sun, babe, that’s it, I follow the sun. I hate it, this way I am. But who chooses to be what he is, huh? It’s in the stars, babe, in the stars. I would like to be devoted to some one or thing…I just never found anything I could lend myself to. The age of chivalry is dead, babe. There are no more heroes…nothing left worthy of devotion, you know what I mean? That’s why my way is best. Don’t forget, ‘He who plays and runs away, lives to play some other day.’”
It’s a quote from a sunny day in 1972. They are words from a joyous night in 1994. They were spoken about a crazy, hopeful time in 1962. They are time-defying sentiments that celebrate folly and decry self-pity and reach back to the streets of Trenton and seep through the cracks of fame. They are the thoughts of someone who’s funny, wary, wistful, sad, disillusioned and honest. They are the thoughts of someone who has seen their own soul and are left cringing not for what has happened but for what didn’t. And never will.
Robert “Bo” Belinsky was a damn good baseball player. He could have been a great one but that fact served as a burden to him, and should not be seen as a disappointment for us. We got the Bo Belinsky we really wanted. He was a man who lived selfishly yet, in some ways, heroically, marching in step with his own conscience and passion instead of expectation and convention. He created a magical night on the baseball diamond in 1962 and was the sole author of his own mirthful, thoughtful tale.
He was an Angel, a scoundrel, and unafraid. He stood tall. He threw hard.