December 07, 2011
Born on December 7th, 1936, Bo Belinsky once said, “It’s no fun knowing that in every home in America your home is celebrated as a day of infamy.” He was known for his self demeaning wit, his playboy persona, and his electric fastball. But by the time his career was over, he was also known as one of those tragic figures whose vices prevented him to ever reach his full potential.
Bo Belinsky began his career as a rock star in LA. As a handsome 25-year old rookie, he won his first five starts, threw a no-hitter in his 4th start, and dated Playboy models, soon becaming the toast of the town in a city that rarely elevates baseball players to the level of movie stars. But it wasn’t long before his hard living took a toll, and his fall from grace was swift and spectacular.
In some ways, Belinsky was a perfect example of a typical “What if?” question: if you could be a superstar for 2-3 years, dating Playboy models and partying with the Rat Pack, but have a rough life for the next 40 years, would you do it? It’s a question worth pondering, especially when you consider that his stay at the top included girlfriends such as Connie Stevens, Tina Louise, and Mamie van Doren, the latter of whom he was engaged to. (He later married Playboy Playmate Jo Collins, though the marriage was brief).
His wanderlust and naivete were paradoxically charming and destructive. This from an incredibly fascinating piece by Pat Jordan on Belinsky in SI in 1972 (seriously, a must read).
“My problem was simple, Babe,” he says, staring straight ahead. “I heard music nobody else heard. I remember once in the Texas League when the team bus stopped in Veracruz so we could eat. All the players went into the restaurant except me. I thought I heard music down the street, so I went looking for it. I found a two-piece jazz band playing on the sidewalk in front of a bar. I listened for a while, and when they went inside, I followed them. I had a few drinks and then left. I had every intention of returning to that bus until I ran into another jazz band. I followed them into a bar, too. What I didn’t know was that all these bars hired jazz bands to lure customers inside. Man, after that bar, it seemed like every step I took there were these buglers waiting for me. I woke up six days later in a hotel room in Acapulco. I had a sponsor. This blonde Mexican—she had to be blonde, right!—was sitting by the bed saying, ‘Belinsky! Belinsky! I make you great yanqui bullfighter! But first we must change your name.’ I said, ‘Sure, Babe, we’ll change it to Lance. Lance Belinsky, how’s that?'”
After such a promising start with the Angels, he quickly came crashing down to earth, never to rise again. A month after his no-hitter, he was accused of pulling a woman out of his Cadillac and assaulting her. Two years later, he punched a 64-year old reporter. His days as an Angel were done. His next stop? Philadelphia. The Phillies were, like Belinsky, coming off a disastrous year, and manager Gene Mauch was hoping two negatives would equal a positive. Belinsky arrived with much fanfare, making the cover of SI before throwing his first pitch in Philly. The team was excited that Belinsky was bringing some LA glamour (and his on again off again girlfriend Mamie van Doren) to Philly.
Glamorous Mamie Van Doren was coming to Clearwater to root for ex-fiance Bo. During batting practice several players waited near the gate Mamie was supposed to enter. No luck. Once the game began, shiny heads kept popping up out of the dugout; shiny eyes scanned the stands for Mamie. No Mamie. The Phillies, left at the altar in last year’s pennant race, had been stood up again. Mamie sent word that the weather was too cold. The following day was overcast but mild. Again, no Mamie. “I wasn’t feeling groovy,” she explained. “This would never have happened,” Catcher Gus Triandos told Belinsky, “if we had won the pennant.”
Mauch wasn’t worried about Mamie van Doren, but he was hoping he could bring the former phenom back to the top of his game. He explained what happened in Philly in an excellent 2005 piece in LA Magazine (only the PDF is available, but it’s worth a read, and made the “Best Sports Writing of 2005” book, where I first came across it.)
“I went to a great deal of trouble to get Bo. People said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I was pretty cocky and thought I could take on anybody.” Convinced that Belinsky’s fastball was his most effective pitch, the manager did his best to persuade him to abandon the showier but less consistent screwball…At first Mauch appeared to make headway. “Bo went to Houston and threw a 3-hitter relying on his fastball. Four days later, we get to Los Angeles, Bo gets two strikes on a hitter in the first inning, and here comes the goddamn screwball. I go to the mound and say, ‘One more of those and you go to the bench.’ The fastball wasn’t flashy enough for Bo. Flash meant a lot to him, ore than baseball did, which he saw as sort of an hors d’oeuvre to get things started-girls, parties.”
Belinsky refused to abandon the screwball, and was relegated to a role in the bullpen. It was in the Philly bullpen that he got hooked on amphetamines. Things went steadily downhill. He left Philly and went to Houston, then to Pittsburgh, then to Cincy. He never recaptured the magic, and ended his career with a 28-51 record and a 4.10 ERA (the ERA sounds respectable, but remember the 60s were a pitcher’s decade).
The above SI article portrays him as a alcoholic, and after that article, things got a lot worse before they got better. He graduated from booze to coke, and began hanging out with gangsters and pimps. He got remarried, but while wacked out of his mind, he shot his wife in the hip. He went in and out of rehab. After he and his wife divorced, he neglected his children. He found Jesus, tried to get clean, and often would go years without a drink. He spent the last decade of his life gainfully employed at a car dealership in Las Vegas. But he never fully escaped his demons. He tried to commit suicide in 1997, and four years later he died at age 64. Interestingly, he was buried 5 plots away from another 1960s star who never could escape his demons, Sonny Liston.
Another Philadelphia tragedy, if you missed it the first time, the Fast Rise and Tragic Fall of Tyrone “The Mean Machine” Everett.