Fed up with constant battles with the New York Yankees for fans and ticket sales, both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants made for a mass exodus from The Big Apple in 1958, and moved out West to California, where the markets had existed but no team had ventured out to. At the time, they became the first teams west of the Mississippi River, but they wouldn't be the last. Soon it became apparent to Major League Baseball that the market out west was more lucrative than they had imagined. They decided to take advantage of it in a most dramatic fashion - adding the first new franchise to the league since its inception in 1901.
Immediately, offers came in to begin a franchise in a number of cities in the West - Minneapolis, Seattle, and Los Angeles all had sensible reasons for wanting a new baseball team. In particular, baseball owner and all-around personality Bill Veeck and Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg led a group to try get the team formed in L.A. Another bidder was insurance tycoon Charlie Finley who offered nearly $10 million for a club in the City of Angels. However, this proposed new team became a problem, primarily because the Dodgers didn't want an American League franchise moving in on their market - it was why they had left New York City in the first place! Talks between the leagues became tenuous: when the AL pointed out that they had approved the creation of the New York Mets in 1962 to compete with the Yankees, the NL responded by saying it was different because no one had invited the AL into California!
In November of 1960, after the AL had passed the initiative to start the new LA franchise, they offered a compromise to the National League: join in on an inter-league play deal, and add one new team in 1961. The NL balked, saying neither of its 1962 franchises (the Mets and the Houston Colt. 45's) would be ready for major league play by the spring. So, the American League shrugged and created an L.A. club to be owned by legendary cowboy Gene Autry. Finley, who decided not to pursue the team further, instead bought a controlling interest in the Kansas City Athletics. All of this occurred despite strenuous objections from the senior circuit (the two act much less independently today.)
In the offseason, an expansion draft was held, with the newly christened Los Angeles Angels and the re-formed Washington Senators selecting talent from their American League counterparts. The Angels took mostly rising stars, including shortstop phenom Jim Fregosi, pitcher Dean Chance, and former Rookie of the Year Albie Pearson. They also got some older but wiser players in third baseman Eddie Yost and former Reds slugger Ted Kluzewski. The team then went out and found talent the old-fashioned way: they bought it. With quality players like catcher Earl Averill, centerfielder Leon Wagner (who would become the 1961 All-Star Game MVP), and three young fireballers in Ken McBride, Eli Grba, and Tim Bowsfield (along with the 20-year-old Chance and another young gun, 22-year-old Ron Moeller), the Angels fielded a respectable team from the moment they stepped on the diamond. Managed by former Giants manager Bill Rigney, the team had a potential for success.
Opening Day saw the team come to life, with Grba throwing a strong eight innings and Big Klu slugging two home runs for the franchise's first victory and a 1-0 start. By the time they returned for their first home game at Wrigley Field LA, they were 1-7 and flailing for any benchmark of success. A mere 12,000 spectators showed up for the game, which they appropriately lost 4-2. On May 8, the front office made its most daring move, trading known commodity Bob Cerv to New York for their untested rookie Lee Thomas. Thomas would hit 24 home runs and .284 during the season, but it was simply never meant to be.
Summing up the season was a May 18 game against their fellow expansion team the Minnesota Twins: reliever Ryne Duren (also acquired in the trade for Cerv) entered the game in the 7th inning with the bases loaded - and proceeded to strike out the first three batters he faced! Unfortunately, on the third strike of the third strikeout, catcher Del Rice missed the ball, and what proved to be the winning run crossed the plate. The fact that Duren struck out the next batter, too (tying the major league record) was little consolation. Duren proved to be a strikeout phenomenon all his own when a month later he struck out seven straight batters to set an American League record; his 108 Ks in 99 IPs was good, but offset by his 5.18 ERA and 6-12 record. Averill, Wagner, Thomas, Ken Hunt, and Steve Bilko all hit 20 home runs in dinger-friendly West Coast Wrigley; the team finished 70-91, eighth place in the ten team league, but with opportunity for growth.
In the offseason, the Angels continued to improve their roster, drafting pitcher Bo Belinsky from the Orioles and giving utility infielder Billy Moran the starting job at second base. Both Fregosi and Chance were given more important roles in the team, and the team moved into the spacious confines of Dodger Stadium, alternating with the Dodgers for home and away games.
After a rocky 9-9 start, the rookie Belinsky proved his worth by throwing a no-hitter against his old Baltimore squad. The following day, the Angels banged out 19 hits (led by Lee Thomas' 5) to again trump the Orioles. Despite a few contentious points, the team, led by the home run swatting Wagner, found itself in first place on Independence Day after a doubleheader sweep of the Senators. Unfortunately, a day later they lost the pennant lead, and never regained it. They clawed their way to a fight between the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees that lasted nearly the whole season, until Cleveland tailed off and the surprisingly consistent Twins finished in second place, five games ahead of the Angels' 86-76 record. Wagner finished with 37 home runs, tied for third behind Harmon Killebew and Norm Cash, while Dean Chance's 2.96 ERA was good enough for fourth in the AL. In only their second year they had almost fought their way into the pennant. Autry and his fellow owners couldn't be more pleased. Unfortunately, it would be the best finish of the team's short career.
With Belinsky, McBride, and Chance returning, plus the addition of New York Yankees dynamo Bob Turley, the starting rotation looked solid. With Thomas and Wagner providing the punch and speedsters Pearson and Fregosi getting on base, the lineup looked fierce enough to compete.
The fates had other plans.
A middling 17-17 start put them in sixth place early in the season; it was their last view of .500. Belinsky fell apart completely, going 2-9 with a staggering 5.75 ERA; Thomas nursed a bad knee all season and managed to hit only .255 with 9 home runs. While Fregosi, Wagner, and Pearson contributed at the plate, hardly anyone else did, which made the Angels' pitching woes much more amplified. Beside Belinsky, new acquisition Turley found out the hard way that without pitching support, a 3.20 ERA got you a 2-7 record. For Chance, the story was similar: a 3.68 ERA earned him a 13-18 record. The team finished with a dismal 70-92 record and a ninth place finish. It appeared their growing pains weren't done just yet.
On December 2, 1963, the team traded away their star slugger Wagner to the Cleveland Indians for a player to be named later - who turned out to be the stocky and aging home run king Joe Adcock. The team acquired rookie Willie Smith from the Detroit Tigers to replace Wagner (Smith becoming an interesting footnote in history as the last player to go from being a full-time pitcher to being a full-time fielder on a major league roster), and moved the slightly insane Jimmy Piersall into right. They also found a 97 mph hurler named Fred Newman, and moved him into the rotation at only 22.
As if on cue, by May 23 the team was in ninth place, despite stellar performances by Chance and Fregosi, a return to form by Belinsky (who had become something of a lothario, dating Ann-Margaret and Tina Louise during the off-season), and a solid start by Newman. Little else seemed to be going right for the team: Pearson struggled the entire season and batted .223, a full 80 points lower than the year before, while Ken McBride, the most reliable pitcher on the team the past 3 years, completely collapsed. On June 4, the team traded their other star hitter Lee Thomas to the Red Sox for Lu Clinton, a Band-Aid for the Pearson problem and the Angels' lackadaisical hitting in general. Then the team began a slow turnaround, moving above .500 by early June and culminating with Fregosi hitting for the cycle on July 28 as the team crushed the Yankees and moved into fourth place with a 54-51 record.
On August 8, a major decision was reached to relocate the team to Anaheim by 1966 and to change the team's name at the end of the season to the California Angels, to avoid confusion with the Dodgers. By now the team was beginning to flounder in fourth, and on August 14, Bo Belinsky - already certifiable according to his teammates - exploded. After a poor start the week before, a drunken Belinsky had told a reporter he was going to retire. When pressed for further details by an older reporter at his hotel room, Belinsky, the former New Jersey pool shark, punched him out. When he was fined and reassigned to the minor league club in Hawaii, he refused to report, and was suspended for the entire season. (He would be traded in December to the Philadelphia Phillies.)
The team itself finished 82-80, with strong performances by Fregosi (.277/18/72) and Adcock (/268/21/64) and their first ever 20-game winner in Chance, whose scorching 1.65 ERA marked the lowest ERA in the AL in twenty years, easily leading the league and capturing the Cy Young Award for his efforts.
By the following season, they were rechristened as the California Angels, and a new era of Rigney ineptitude was born. Ah, to be a Halo in the age lowered expectations!
Kansas City Royals | Los Angeles Dodgers