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Sport: Bug with an Arm

4 minute read

Even in tolerant Los Angeles, Robert (“Bo”) Belinsky is regarded as a character with a capital K—for Kook. A peripatetic minor-leaguer with a blazing fastball, a reputation for wildness, and a record of nine wins, ten losses at Little Rock, Pitcher Belinsky was called up to the Angels’ training camp this spring. He reported nine days late, explaining that he had been playing in a pool tournament in Trenton, N.J. No sooner was he in camp than he held a press conference—to complain about his $6,000 minimum contract. “Hell, I know I’m a rookie,” said Belinsky, graciously. “I even got my hair cut so I’d look like one. But baseball is like pool. If you’re playing for five cents a point, you don’t do nothing. When it gets up to five or ten bucks, then you turn it on.” General Manager Fred Haney was bewildered. “Belinsky,” he ventured, “is a bug.”

Standing Ovation. Last week Haney was struggling to eat his words gracefully. The fired-up Angels were basking in the first division, and Lefthander Belinsky was the hottest pitcher in baseball. His fastball whistling across the heart of the plate, his curve and screwball nipping the corners, the rookie had won four straight games, and his earned-run average was a miserly 1.55, best in the majors. For good measure, against the Baltimore Orioles fortnight ago, he pitched the American League’s first no-hitter in four seasons. Seat cushions rained on the field, and 15,886 fans gave him a five-minute standing ovation. Belinsky was already thinking ahead. “If I’m lucky,” he mused, “I might win 15 games this season. Twenty seems like too much—a fantasy. I don’t think any rookie ever won 20 games. But then, not many rookies ever pitched a no-hitter either.”

If pure brass is the stuff that 20-game winners are made of, 25-year-old Bo Belinsky should have a great year. The son of a Trenton laborer, he skipped high school baseball because “you had to be a hot dog to play on our team at Trenton. I couldn’t go for that ‘yes sir, no sir’ bit or all that ‘win for the old red-and-black, sis, boom, bah.’ ” After working two years in an overall factory and playing sandlot ball on the side, Bo grabbed a pitching job with the Class D. Brunswick, Ga., Pirates, a Pittsburgh farm club. The pay: $185 a month. “A ridiculously low price,” he says. “But I was looking for some place in the sun, some place I could get a tan. I figured I’d go down there and see what it was like. It was awful—a lousy little hotel room with rubber pancakes for breakfast. So, one day, I went to the manager. I said, ‘Look, you’re from Pennsylvania. I’m from Jersey. Let’s not kid ourselves—Georgia’s a different country. I want out.’ ” Belinsky’s transfer was arranged—to the Dublin, Ga., Irish. Says Belinsky: “I went home.”

Home turned out to be a job hauling clay in a pottery factory, and Belinsky quickly went back to baseball, became a kind of minor-league Flying Dutchman. He pitched at Pensacola, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., Aberdeen, S.D., Amarillo, Texas, Stockton, Calif., and back at Pensacola again. In 1958, he got a tryout with the Baltimore Orioles, along with Pitcher Steve Dalkowski, possessor of the wildest arm in baseball (TIME, July 18, 1960). Recalls Belinsky: “They were treating him like Gentleman Jim. ‘You room with Dalkowski,’ they tell me. So we goto the hotel room, and there’s one bed. His. So I call the secretary, and I says, ‘Where do you want me to sleep? On the floor?’ He says, ‘It won’t hurt you for one night.’ Well, it hurt all right. I got in the car and went back to Jersey.” Last winter, after his so-so season with Little Rock, Belinsky pitched winter-league ball in Venezuela, added a screwball to his repertory, and finished the season with a record of 13-5. More impressive still was his overall year’s record of 380 strike-outs in 360 innings. The hard-up Angels gave him a call.

Candy-Apple Caddy. In Los Angeles, Rookie Belinsky drives a candy-apple Caddy convertible, spends his spare time bird watching at Malibu and twisting in Sunset Strip nightclubs. (He is the self-elected twist champion of Venezuela.) The Angels are indulgent —so long as he continues to pitch effectively. Says Angel Manager Bill Rigney: “I can only say with the rest of the team: ‘Great!’ ” Even Belinsky is inclined to be tolerant. “I don’t think I’ll ask for a raise any more,” he says. “No, I’ll let them come and ask me to take one.”

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