Fallen Angel

Former pool hustler Bo Belinsky pitched California’s first major league no-hitter in 1962. He dated Los Angeles’s most beautiful women. Then he succumbed to alcoholism. By the time he found Jesus, he had no one left to hustle
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On a Friday morning in November 2001, several hundred mourners filed into the spacious sanctuary of Trinity Life Center, a Pentecostal church just east of the Las Vegas Strip to pay final respects to one of the congregation’s most unlikely members. Robert “Bo” Belinsky had died of a heart attack a week earlier at the age of 64.

Gathered on Trinity Life’s pews were people who had known Belinsky in many of his incarnations. Up front were the former ballplayers who, on May 5, 1962, had watched the left-handed pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels take the mound at Chavez Ravine and throw California’s first major league no-hitter. In one row were Dean Chance, the Angels’ 1964 Cy Young Award winner and Bo’s closest friend on the team, and Albie Pearson, the Angels’ center fielder at the time. Nearby were Dick Williams, most famous for managing the Oakland Athletics to consecutive world championships during the 1970s but on the night of Belinsky’s masterpiece left fielder for the opposing Baltimore Orioles (in three at bats Williams struck out twice and fouled out), and Steve Barber, the Orioles’ starting—and losing—pitcher that evening. These men had been best acquainted with the old Bo, the one who in the wake of his singular triumph used his good looks, charm and knack for getting his name in the newspapers to woo Hollywood starlets. Among them were Ann-Margret, Tina Louise, Juliet Prowse, Connie Stevens, Mamie Van Doren, and Playboy playmate Jo Collins. Their Belinsky was the rebellious, sporting-world Casanova who pointed the way for the athletes as sex symbols who followed. Before Joe Namath, there was Bo.

Elsewhere at Trinity Life were those who’d seen a different Belinsky, whose largely unpublicized post-baseball descent into alcoholism and cocaine addiction took him to such depths of degradation that for nearly a decade he seemed past redemption. Some, like Mark Greenberg, former vice president of business development at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage and current executive director of Michael’s House, a treatment facility for men in Palm Springs, were involved in Belinsky’s rehabilitation. Others, in the manner of Alcoholics Anonymous members, were known to Bo merely by first names and last initials. These mourners possessed a keen awareness of his travails. As Belinsky once said at an AA meeting, “It’s a terrible feeling when you’re in pain and you know you’re going to remain in pain. You tell yourself, it’s gotta get better, but no, the game is just starting. There’s no limit to going down the tubes.”

Belinsky’s services attracted a few Las Vegas notables—chief among them boxing promoter Bob Arum—but most of the others in attendance were either members of Trinity Life, or friends Bo had made during his 12 years of residency in the city. People like Rich Abajian, general manager of Findlay Toyota, Irving Marcus, director of guest relations at Arizona Charlie’s Casino, Lou Rodophele, a retired plumbing supplies distributor from Boston and Don Richardson, sales manager of Saturn of West Sahara. These people knew Belinsky as a genial soul who, despite perilous finances, always overtipped waiters and frequently quoted from the Bible. To them, Bo’s religious conversion was both brave and undeniable. “I had a spiritual awakening,” he liked to say. “It was a beautiful thing. There’s a power greater than any other power on this earth, and it came into my life and left me with a feeling that no matter what happens, everything is going to be all right.”

It was an impressive funeral, but as the Reverend Randy Greet stepped to the pulpit, it became obvious that the body of the man who was being remembered was not on the premises. The reasons, like so much with Belinsky, were complicated. Divorced three times and estranged from his only sibling and three children, Bo had left no instructions regarding the disposition of his remains. Until the legalities could be sorted through, his body would stay at the undertaker’s. Later Don Richardson would comment, “Nothing was ever easy with Bo.” Yet the absence of Belinsky’s corpse also spoke to a deeper enigma, one rooted in Bo’s sense of alienation. “Nobody could ever figure me out,” he once remarked. “I wouldn’t show what was really inside me, inside Bo Belinsky I was just a facade I’d carried along all my life.” On another occasion he said, “I was born apart. My mother was Jewish, my father Polish Catholic. To Jews I was a Polack. To Poles I was a kike. I was removed—removed from people in my family, people in my school. Even in my youth, I didn’t know where to park myself.”

Two days before his death, Belinsky was at work in the showroom of Findlay Toyota on Auto Show Drive in the Las Vegas Suburb of Henderson. The former pitcher suffered from an array of illnesses, most seriously bladder cancer and diabetes. These diseases, along with a recent hip replacement operation, the years of substance abuse, and one unconquered vice— he chain-smoked unfiltered English Oval cigarettes—had taken a toll on Bo’s appearance. Ski pallid, eyes dark circled and hair sickly gray, he was not well. Yet as he gazed out the dealership’s windows onto the lot, where the sun burst off Camrys and 4Runners, he seemed happy. “Bo was proud of what the last 10 or 11 years had been like,” says Rich Abajian, his boss, who spent time with him that November morning. “He was proud that he could conform to a business structure. He and I had the longest employer-employee relationship in his life.”

Findlay Toyota was perfect for Belinsky. The dealership’s owner, former University of Nevada Las Vegas basketball standout Cliff Findlay, believes in hiring retired athletes (among others who have worked for him are onetime National League batting champion Bill Madlock). Abajian, a boyish 51-year-old charismatic Christian, enjoys helping people in trouble. “I work with people who’ve had problems,” he says as he indicates the spot where Belinsky’s desk sat. “I give people second chances, third chances, and usually I don’t get much back. But once in a while with people like Bo, things work out. This place became his world. And that’s rewarding.”

Belinsky’s job at Findlay was that of a public relations emissary. He represented the dealership at celebrity golf tournaments and gave Toyota-touting talks to civic groups, but according to Abajian, although Belinsky’s position provided him with a high profile, he never behaved like a big shot. “By the time Bo got to us, he’d learned humility. He’d go wash a car. He’d walk new salesmen around the lot. He’d keep our morale up. In the car business, if by two in the afternoon nothing is happening, it can get depressing. But Bo would walk around the dealership saying, ‘It’s gonna be okay,’ which meant a lot to me.”

Once a week Belinsky ate breakfast with Irving Marcus at Arizona Charlie’s, a rambling casino on the north side of Las Vegas that attracts mainly locals. He liked talking to the 85-year-old guest relations director about boxing and gambling. Occasionally, Bo ducked into a sports bar called Instant Replay for lunch. Every Sunday, there were services at Trinity Life. But otherwise, Bo stayed to himself in the tiny apartment he rented at the Duck Creek Condominiums that was not far from his work. There, night after night, he ate supper, watched old movies on television, read the Bible and took obsessive care of a tabby cat named Choo-choo.

At the end, Belinsky’s existence was subdued. In fact, it may have been the life he was best suited for all along, not that those who knew him at the height of his glory or the nadir of his madness would have predicted that it would turn out like this. Indeed, when he was in the midst of it all, Bo—who over the years had put his thoughts regarding these matters on tape—could never have imagined such a finale. Speaking of his seasons with the Angels, he said, “In those days it was all sex and champagne, champagne and sex. The two were a lot like each other. When it was good, it was good, and when it was bad, it was still pretty good.” As for the dark times, he was appalled: “I was an alcoholic of the worst kind, not only dangerous to myself but to my loved ones and friends—and they fled from me.”

Even before Belinsky arrived at the Angels’ 1962 spring training camp in Palm Springs, he was already famous. He had done what in those days was unthinkable for a rookie—held out for more money. He was insulted by the Angels’ $6,000 offer. Anything under $8,500, he said, and he would stay home hustling pool in Trenton, New Jersey. After the club agreed to renegotiate his deal at midseason, he accepted the $6,000, but his labor action had made big news. When he reached the team’s Desert Inn headquarters, he was whisked to the swimming pool, where reporters had gathered for a press conference. Turned out in dark sunglasses, cashmere sports jacket, yellow sports shirt, tight pants and suede shoes, Bo dazzled this hardened bunch. Boasting of the “compromise” he’d exacted from the Angels, the self-professed “crazy left-hander” scoffed at the “yes sir, no sir … zis-boombah” attitude of conventional athletes. “He gave them what they wanted,” team publicist Irv Kaze subsequently reflected.

Unlike most big leaguers, the 25-year-old Belinsky had never played an inning of high school baseball. He instead was spending his after-class hours on the streets of Trenton, where his family had moved when he was a baby and where his father eventually opened a TV repair shop. By age 10 Bo had smoked his first cigarette, by12 he had lost his virginity and by 14—thanks to evenings spent at Joe Russo’s Pool Hall—he was an accomplished pool shark. Under the tutelage of an old hand known as “the Goose,” Belinsky learned not only how to sink complicated combinations but also how to seek out marks. At age 16, he made his first big score in a neighboring small town, taking $1,200 off a seasoned hustler named “the Masked Marvel.” For the remainder of his teens, Bo apprenticed himself to the likes of “Cincinnati Phil” and “the Farmer,” and worked the eastern seaboard, preying on the gullibility of grown men. Along the way, he acquired the cunning skills that would carry him through the first years of adult life. As he would later proclaim, “You gotta remember the laws of hustling. You never hustle anybody. They hustle themselves. You never try to snow a snowman.”

From an early age, Belinsky possessed a live left arm, and summer days often found him on Trenton sandlots blowing fastballs by hitters. On May 15, 1956, after a scout saw him strike out 15 opponents, Belinsky signed a contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Brunswick, Georgia, farm club for $185 a month. When he arrived at the team hotel, he didn’t even own a baseball glove. Instead, he carried a pool cue. From the start—he went AWOL from Brunswick to hustle pool—his minor league career was dodgy. In Pensacola, where his 13-6 record marked him as a comer, he had to be smuggled out of town under a blanket to avoid a statutory rape charge. In Miami, he and a roommate were accused of drilling holes in their hotel bedroom wall to spy on the Miss Universe contestant staying next door. Finally, after six years of spectral lights and long bus tides while playing for Knoxville, Aberdeen, Stockton, and Little Rock,  he was drafted by the newly minted Los Angeles Angels. During winter ball in Venezuela in 1961 he had developed a screwball. The difficult-to-control pitch can be a devastating asset, as it allows left-handers to throw a ball that breaks away from right-handed batters, making it hard to hit. In Belinsky’s case, as sportswriters duly noted at the time, the screwball was also something of a metaphor.

The Los Angeles Angels and Bo Belinsky were made for each other. The club was entering only its second year of existence. So much did owners Gene Autry; the singing cowboy, and Bob Reynolds, a former Stanford all-American football player, resent being overshadowed by the better-established Dodgers that although they played their home games at Dodger Stadium, they refused to refer to the park by its given name. Their home field, they maintained, was Chavez Ravine. Autry and Reynolds were looking for someone who could make them both a contender and a rival for the city’s affections. They were not only willing to tolerate the eccentricities of a pool shark turned pitcher, they were prepared to celebrate them.

Belinsky won his first three decisions of the 1962 season. Still, only 15,886 were in attendance at Chavez Ravine on May 5 to see him face the Baltimore Orioles. The game that these fans took in, declared Bud Furillo of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, “made history” Over nine innings Belinsky dominated the opposition. Wrote Braven Dyer of the Los Angeles Times: “I can report that the Birds didn’t even come close to getting a hit.” Though Belinsky walked four men, he struck out nine and faced only one serious threat—a bases-loaded jam in the fourth. When the Orioles’ last batter popped out in the ninth, giving the Angels a 2-0 victory, the city had witnessed its first big-league no-hitter. Bo Belinsky, not Dodger great Sandy Koufax, would forever hold the record. After the game, as his teammates celebrated, Belinsky posed for pictures, including one with former vice president Richard Nixon, California’s Republican gubernatorial candidate that year.

Among the handful who saw Belinsky pitch that night was 65-year-old gossip columnist Walter Winchell. For three decades Winchell—with his punchy items, access to places high and low, and, on his radio and television broadcasts, trademark salutation (“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North and South America and all the ships at sea”)—had been an unavoidable presence in American journalism. Of late, however, he had been slipping. Frequently descending into red-baiting and Kennedy bashing, his work seemed increasingly dated. Still, because his column appeared in the New York Daily Mirror, the nation’s second-largest-circulation daily, and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, he possessed a huge readership. Moreover, he narrated the popular television drama The Untouchables.

Winchell recognized Befinsky as a great source of copy who could restore relevancy to his work. (The pitcher reminded the columnist of his younger self—a city kid, a Jew, and a handsome rogue with an eye for a well-turned ankle.) A few days after the no-hitter, Winchell published his initial item on Bo: “New York-born no-hitter rookie Bo Belinsky of the Angels should be in The Untouchables. His fastball is that unbelievable.” Several days later, there was this: “Bo Belinsky, pitching curves and catching headlines. The most exciting player to hit the major leagues since Mantle’s debut.” A few days later still, Winchell convinced Belinsky to join him onstage at the Ambassador Hotel’s Cocoanut Grove in a comedy sketch to cheer up headliner Eddie Fisher, who was lovesick over losing Elizabeth Taylor to Richard Burton. By early June, Winchell and Belinsky were inseparable. Cruising Los Angeles in the pitcher’s new candy apple red Cadillac convertible, which a local dealer had provided in return for promotional considerations, the two took in premieres, attended parties, and made after-hours clubs. Each was hustling the other, and both were getting what they wanted.

Thanks to Winchell, Belinsky suddenly seemed bigger than baseball. When he started a game at Chavez Ravine the night of June 1 against the powerhouse New York Yankees, a then-record crowd of 51,584 (among them Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, and Ann-Margret, who the Herald-Examiner reported “came to plead for Bo”) filled the stadium. While the Yankees beat Belinsky that night, it nonetheless seemed that he could do no wrong. Even at the time, however, Bo knew it wouldn’t last. “I needed that no-hitter like GM needs more engines,” he said years later. “I wasn’t ready to handle it. All the pretty blonds, the actresses, the notoriety.” The task of keeping up appearances—a task that had consumed Bo since he worked his first pool room—had become infinitely more demanding.

At 5 a.m. on June 13, as Belinsky, accompanied by Dean Chance and two young women, steered his Cadillac through Beverly Hills, he made his first misstep. While stopped at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Roxbury Drive, the foursome, on their way home from the Cocoanut Grove, got into an altercation. Ultimately, 33-year-old Gloria Eves jumped from the car, blood pouring from a jagged wound over her left eye. “He’s beating me up,” she screamed. It was at this point that Officer B.E. Gruenzel arrived on the scene. While the policeman concluded that Eves, who refused to press charges, had sustained her injury accidentally, the incident took some of the shine off of Belinsky’s image. Blared the headline in the next day’s Times: “Belinsky, Chance Fined After 5 A.M. Ruckus.”

The fallout continued for several weeks, and it hit Belinsky—who went out of his way to absolve the married Chance of wrongdoing—the hardest. “Someone should talk to Bo and give him some advice,” Eddie Fisher told the Times’ Hedda Hopper, who also reported that Gene Autry had admonished the pitcher, informing him, “Hollywood will wine you and dine you as long as you win, but you… start losing a few games and they’ll forget you’re alive.”

In the wake of this highly visible lapse—which cemented the improbable friendship between the streetwise Belinsky and Chance, a slow-talking farm boy from Wooster, Ohio—Bo did go on a losing streak. After Belinsky started the season 7-2, his record fell to 10-11, and he narrowly averted being traded by the Angels’ old-school general manager, Fred Haney, who disapproved of the pitcher’s antics. Nonetheless, 1962 had been an astonishing year for the Angels, who finished in third place, and for Bo.

By season’s end, Belinsky had moved into a bachelor’s pad atop La Presa Drive in the Hollywood Hills’ Outpost Estates. The one-room apartment, which featured a lavender Formica bar, a black sunken tub, and a king-size bed, looked out on the Los Angeles skyline through enormous windows. This would be the heart of Bo’s romantic universe, the lair to which he’d invite not only starlets but such exotic diversions as Queen Saroya of Iran, the ex-wife of the shah. “Bo’s idea was that every day should be thrilling,” says a sportswriter who knew him. “By that he meant the most gorgeous women, the biggest tits, the best sex—and then he could talk about it to 15 people the next day. ‘Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse’—Bo lived by that line. I didn’t think he’d make it to 40.”

Belinsky even had dates with such elegant older women as actress Paulette Goddard and tobacco heiress Doris Duke, but he took none seriously. All that changed one night in late 1962 when Winchell, who was sitting with Bo at Hollywood’s Peppermint West disco, picked up the phone and invited Mamie Van Doren, the star of Sex Kittens Go to College, to join their party. Though the actress for whom Universal Studios created the “bullet bra” rejected this first invitation, she accepted when it was tendered again the next evening and spent several hours on the club’s dance floor with Belinsky. “He could do the mashed potato better than James Brown,” she says. “He was a sexy dancer.” Bo and Mamie went their own ways that evening, but by the time the Angels’ 1963 spring training camp was under way, they were together. On April 1, the two were engaged.

For Belinsky, the 1963 season was a wash. He pitched poorly, but he and Mamie were happy. “Bo was just full of sex,” she says. “We’d be up all night making love, and the next day he’d wonder why he didn’t have a fastball. We spent a lot of time in his apartment. He’d walk around naked. He was always splashing on Aqua Velva cologne. I’d done that commercial, ‘There’s something about an Aqua Velva man.'”

On May 26, with his record a dismal 1-7, Belinsky was sent down to the Angels’ AAA farm team in Hawaii. Though Fred Haney hoped Bo would feel chastened, the pitcher was overjoyed. He loved the islands, where he learned to surf and, with Van Doren far away, resumed chasing women. Minor league baseball seemed a purer form of the sport: no front-office politics, no contract fights, just bats and balls and fans. Part of him wanted to stay there forever. But after recording some impressive victories, he was recalled to the big leagues; on his better days he knew he belonged there. Bo adored his teammates, particularly Chance. The two spent time gambling, playing practical jokes, and making scenes- the wildest of which, courtesy of Winchell, saw them hanging out with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. “J. Edgar! Man, he’s a swinger,” Bo told the press afterward. “He let me shoot tommy guns at FBI headquarters. He said, ‘Bo, there’ll always be a place for you on the force.'”

Belinsky had fashioned a persona as both bon vivant and rapscallion. He possessed the brio of a Dean Martin, yet he also bore the antiestablishmentarian markings of a Jack Kerouac. In him, the lounge lizard and the free spirit commingled. Little wonder that he was soon guest starring on that most emblematic of early ’60s television series: 77 Sunset Strip.

If Belinsky was ever going to fulfill the promise of his 1962 no-hitter as an Angel, he would do so in 1964. To begin with, his engagement to Mamie Van Doren was over. “He didn’t trust me at all,” Van Doren says. “He thought because he was doing it, I was doing it.” With Mamie out of the matrimonial picture but not out of his life (“We were very sexually compatible,” she says. “We couldn’t stay away from each other”), Bo worked hard during spring training, and he began the season pitching well. But the Angels failed to give him much offensive support, and by midsummer his record stood at 9-8. “Bo was brilliant that season,” says Bob Case, the team’s then visiting clubhouse boy and a close friend. “If he’d had any help, he’d have been 15-2.” No matter: Belinsky’s year—and his Angels career-came to an abrupt conclusion at 3 a.m. on August 14 in Washington, D.C.’s Shoreham Hotel. Three days earlier Bo had lost a tough game at Chavez Ravine to the Cleveland Indians. In the locker room afterward, he told the Associated Press that he was going to quit baseball. By the time the Angels arrived in the East for a three-game series with the Senators, the wire-service story was all anyone was talking about. This was evidently why Braven Dyer of the Times came to Belinsky’s door. According to Bo, Dyer barged into his room demanding to know why he wasn’t given the scoop. According to Dyer, it was Belinsky who initiated the conversation. The pitcher, he maintained, had reconsidered his retirement decision and wanted to get the word out. What happened next, however, is not in dispute. Following several nasty comments by both men, Belinsky flattened the 64-year-old Dyer with a left to the head, causing blood to spurt from one ear. The 27-year-old southpaw had knocked out a sportswriter twice his age. Fred Haney suspended Belinsky. For years the pitcher would argue that Dyer had been at fault, but in time he would accept responsibility for what happened, admitting, “I screwed myself out of a job with the Angels.” After just two and a half years, Bo’s Los Angeles playing days were done.

Although Belinsky was finished with the Angels, he was hardly out of baseball. After spending the off-season in Hawaii, he reported with considerable fanfare to the Philadelphia Phillies. On March 1, 1965, Sports Illustrated featured Bo and Phillies ace Jim Bunning on a cover captioned “The Phillies—old and new—try again.” In Belinsky the team believed it had found an answer to its pitching problems. “I went to a great deal of trouble to get Bo,” says Gene Mauch, the Phillies’ manager at the time. “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. “Early on, I told him I was going to show him what he could do without the screwball.” At first Mauch appeared to make headway “Bo went to Houston and pitched a three-hitter relying on the fastball,” he recalls. Then in an aggrieved tone suggesting that even after 40 years what happened next still galls him, he says, “Four days later, we get to Los Angeles, Bo gets two strikes on a hitter in the first inning, and here comes the goddamned screwball. I go to the mound and say, ‘One more of those and you go to the bench.'” At that moment Mauch realized that Belinsky was a lost cause. “The fastball wasn’t flashy enough for Bo. Flash meant a lot to him, more than baseball did, which he saw as sort of an hors d’oeuvre to get things started—girls, parties.”

Mauch, who would conclude his career as the manager of the Angels, liked Bo. “How could you not like him? He had such a great personality.” But in the wake of the pitcher’s insubordination, he sent him to the bullpen. There Belinsky, who had spent most of his career as a starter, stewed. Worse, he began a habit whose terrible consequences he would only see in retrospect. “I’d occasionally used greenies, amphetamines, as a starter, but in Philadelphia they had red juice [liquid amphetamines],” he later said, “and when I got into the bullpen, I started getting loaded every day, because as a reliever, you never know when you might have to play. This chemical started coming into my life. I thought I could handle it, because I was strong and still had that phony smile. But something was happening to my system.”

The remainder of Belinsky’s major league career was an exercise in futility. He began 1966 still in Philadelphia, but having compiled a 4-9 record the previous year, he was soon sent to the club’s AAA farm team. In 1967, Belinsky popped back up in the big leagues with the Houston Astros, where he pitched indifferently but made headlines by adopting a dog and getting the club to agree to give it a locker in the Astrodome. When the season ended, he repaired to the place that increasingly enthralled him—Hawaii. There he met his first wife.

Looking across crowded Michael’s Restaurant in Honolulu in January 1968, Bo spotted Jo Collins, the 1965 Playboy Playmate of the Year. Wearing a white backless minidress, she sat amid a gaggle of advertising men and Ford executives who’d gathered in Hawaii to kick off a promotional campaign for Lincoln-Mercury. “Bo came over and introduced himself, and everyone made a fuss over him,” Collins says, “but I wasn’t a baseball fan and didn’t know who he was. I’d been dating Donny Anderson, a running back on the Green Bay Packers.”

The next morning Collins received a bouquet of roses from Belinsky in her room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Several nights later she accepted his invitation to dinner. “We went out that first night,” she says, “and were inseparable afterward. I never went back to the mainland. Everybody was wondering where I was. I was with Bo.”

Though Belinsky reported to the Astros’ spring training camp in February, he failed to make the team and spent the bulk of the 1968 season on the Hawaii AAA club, which delighted him. “Hawaii was just his playground,” Collins recalls. “He was the star of Hawaii.” In June, Belinsky and Collins married. For the next two years—save for a brief return to the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates late in the fall of 1968 and an abortive flirtation with the St. Louis Cardinals the next spring—Belinsky remained with the Hawaii club. On June 19, 1969, Jo gave birth to a daughter they named Stevhanie Lehua to honor their attachment to the islands.

Belinsky got his last shot at the major leagues in 1970 when he reported to spring training with the Cincinnati Reds. He made the team but only got into a few games, and in late May manager Sparky Anderson cut him. That night, when Bo returned home to the suburban town house he and Jo had rented for the season, he began to drink. By 4 a.m. the two were fighting, at which point Bo pulled out a .38 pistol. “He threatened me with the gun,” Jo says. “I called the police, but when they came and saw it was Bo Belinsky, they let him go. So I took Stevhanie and spent the night with Pete and Karolyn Rose.” Later Bo and Jo patched things up, but the career that had begun so promisingly with the no-hitter at Chavez Ravine was over. In five and a half years in the big leagues, Belinsky had won only 28 games. To reporters he boasted, “I got more out of 28 victories than any major leaguer in history Anybody can be a star if he wins 300 games. Let him try being a star winning only 28 games.” In truth, Belinsky was crushed. Since 1956, baseball had been all he’d known. “I never liked baseball that much, at first anyway,” he later said. But by the end he’d experienced a change of heart. “That’s funny, isn’t it, babe?” he asked writer Pat Jordan. “Me, the guy everybody said didn’t love the game enough. Ha! Man, I loved the game. I just didn’t take it seriously I don’t take myself seriously, so how could I take a game seriously?”

On a November evening in 1970, Bo and Jo, now living in Malibu, were speeding down the Pacific Coast Highway in yet another Cadillac. They had just finished a dinner where they both drank too much, and they were quarreling. As the two argued, Bo lost control of the car, smashing it head-on into a steel utility pole. Jo’s right arm was so badly crushed that emergency room doctors initially considered amputating it. “That was the beginning of the end of our relationship,” she says. It was also the start of Bo’s headlong descent into the bottle.

“When I got out of baseball,” Belinsky would say, “I sat down and had a drink, and that drink never stopped.” The causes of Belinsky’s binge were many. “He didn’t know what he was going to do, and panic set in,” Jo says. Ultimately, however, the explanation went deeper. Bo’s terrors had been with him in one way or another since childhood. “I didn’t have a chemical problem as a kid,” he said, “but I had the personality and the fear of an alcoholic, and I was ready to have the chemical catch up with the personality.” Even as a 16-year-old pool shark, Bo had often been consumed by dread. He had developed his hustle as a tactic to, in his words, “down those people” who might hurt him. The same approach had worked, albeit to a lesser extent, in the big leagues, where the screwball replaced the pool cue and Walter Winchell stood in for the Goose and Cincinnati Phil. Once the games were done, Bo could no longer count on such props or hide behind such glib maxims as “never snow a snowman.” Suddenly naked, he surrendered to the addictive disposition that had emerged when he began using speed in Philadelphia. “The disease ran over me,” he said. “It caught up that quick. That’s how it is. It knocks you over. Boom! A year and a half later nobody knew what to do with me.”

After recovering from the injuries sustained in the car wreck, Jo accepted a job as Bunny Mother at a new Playboy Club in Denver, taking Stevhanie with her. Soon Playboy promoted her to a public relations position in Chicago. Periodically, Bo visited in an attempt to reconcile, but it was not to be. “We needed to pull our lives together,” Jo says. “I was capable of that. Bo wasn’t.” Living with a prostitute in Malibu, Belinsky became, as he put it, “a flat-under-the-table drunk. There wasn’t a sober day for quite a while. I stayed drunk for two years, blew out my pancreas, almost died. It was total insanity.”

In 1972, through the intercession of his old Angels teammate Dean Chance, Belinsky was admitted to St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, near Chance’s home. “It wasn’t too nice,” Bo recalled. “It was a lockup type of an institution. There was a guarded gate. They’d throw you down and get you to sign.” Every weekend during Belinsky’s stay, a group from Alcoholics Anonymous visited. The smiles, slogans, and omnipresent Styrofoam coffee cups offended Bo’s sense of cool. “I couldn’t figure them out. They’d treat each other like they hadn’t seen each other in years, shaking hands and spilling coffee on their shoes.” Following 28 days of treatment, Belinsky was released. “I had two or three dollars, and the first thing I did was bought a bottle of wine and stuck it in a brown bag, and I went crazy. I didn’t even know where I was. I wound up under this bridge in Akron. It was about 18 degrees and slushy, and I said, ‘One and a half years ago, I’m in the major leagues in Cincinnati, and now I’m under a bridge in Akron,’ and I thought, ‘Boy, it can’t get any worse? Wrong!”

Back in Malibu, Belinsky began traveling with a criminal crowd. “The pimps and gangsters in Los Angeles were the only ones who’d accept me,” he recalled. “As a matter of fact, they gave me a couple of draws and were going to put me in the business, but I was too drunk. They introduced me to cocaine. I had to stop drinking, because it was bad for me, so I did cocaine.”

Hair now flowing over his collar in greasy strands, boyish smile masked by a dirty mustache, Belinsky spent much of the early ’70s roaring up and down the PCH on a Harley-Davidson, stoned out of his mind. “It was unreal,” he said. “I never killed anybody, and I’m fortunate. The things that happened to me, the physical damage that happened to me—I just didn’t care. I wanted to die. I didn’t want to die. I had no idea. All I knew is that I was in pain.”

Not that there weren’t ways out. In 1973, Dial Press published Bo: Pitching and Wooing, by veteran New York Post sportswriter Maury Allen. The author, as the jacket copy boasted, received “the uncensored cooperation of Bo Belinsky.” Allen and Belinsky were equal partners, and as the release date approached, their editor became convinced that they had a best-seller. It was the age of the athlete as antihero, and the work’s subject was the prototype. When the Today show booked Belinsky to plug Pitching and Wooing, the hype began. All Bo had to do was catch a red-eye flight to JFK, where a limousine would whisk him to NBC’s Rockefeller Center studio. “Much as I liked Bo,” says Allen, “I was wary, for I knew there was a chance he’d miss the Today show date. Not only did I talk to him two hours before the flight, but I insisted that the Dial publicists walk him to the gate in Los Angeles, and they did. The problem was, they left before the flight boarded. There was a beautiful girl on line. She and Bo started talking, and they went off and spent the night. The next morning on the Today show there was no Bo. That was a killer for us. That was to have been the big break. I was so angry. I told myself I’d never talk to that cocksucker again.” Allen pauses for a second before adding, “But I couldn’t stay mad at Bo. He called and apologized, and I said, All right.'”

In 1974, Belinsky made another effort to overcome his addictions, relocating to the state that had always been charmed for him—Hawaii. There he embarked on a program that prescribed Valium and other drugs to dispel his desire for alcohol. He stayed sober several months. While walking on the beach, he met Jane Weyerhaeuser, heiress to the timber and paper fortune of the same name. Like so many others, she was at first smitten, and in 1975 they married. “She’s a lovely gal,” Belinsky would recall, but that was only part of the attraction. “Now I was back in the ball game. Now I could buy all the cocaine I wanted.”

For a year Bo and Jane Belinsky used cocaine—he heavily, she less so. In 1976, when Jane was seven-and-a-half months pregnant, she gave birth prematurely. “The day I brought her in for a checkup,” recalled Bo, “the doctor said, ‘Your wife is giving birth today’ On top of that he says, ‘You’re gonna have twins.’ I couldn’t handle the pressure. She went into the hospital, and I got loaded. I brought all my friends over, and with all the dope and everything, I couldn’t even make it to the hospital. I think I was drinking. I may have had a nip. I don’t know. All I know is that I was coming apart at the seams. I was dying inside. I was so dead that when I finally came to the hospital and saw those two little girls, I had no feeling for them whatsoever, and I had no feeling for Jane. All I could think about was me.”

Because the twins were born prematurely, they stayed in the hospital when Jane returned home, where Bo immediately got high. It was then that he snapped, retrieving his .38. “I started shooting all over the place. Next thing I knew, I was gonna play 20 Questions with my lover. I go back to the bedroom and am waving the gun around at her. I’m ready to pass out. I don’t know what I’m doing. I thought I would fire it in the closet. But somewhere along the line I knew I was going to shoot her. And I did. The bullet went through her hip. Maybe a quarter of an inch up and she’s dead. Simple as that. After I gave her the whack with the .38, I had seen what had happened. I walked off I was going to put the gun right to my head and fire it. Cocked it, too. Then I heard her say, ‘Bo.’ I was going to pull the trigger real fast. And she said, ‘What are you doing? What are you doing?’ And I didn’t do it.”

Jane’s wound was not serious. “I was very lucky,” she says. “The bullet didn’t hit any bone. I should have called the police, but I didn’t. I loved him.” After a physician stitched her up, Belinsky fled to Los Angeles, where he went on a bender. “All I wanted to do was get into the bottle, back into alcohol, so I could totally blot out this incident.” But Bo could not blot it out, and following several trips back and forth between the mainland and Hawaii, he checked into another rehab clinic.

During Belinsky’s first two weeks at Saint John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, he made little progress. “I wasn’t responding to the treatment. The counselors kept saying, ‘Let’s get him down the street. He ain’t doing it.’ But the program director, Dave Thomas, kept saying, ‘Let’s give this guy one more day.’ There’s always someone in a program who won’t give up on you, and that’s what happened to me.”

While Belinsky always had a religious bent—in times of trouble he would recite the 23rd Psalm—he’d rejected faith as being unhip. But shortly after Thomas interceded, this Jewish boy from Trenton opened himself to Jesus. ‘After all those years of not God losing me but me losing Him,” Bo said, “I found Him. I had to beat myself down so low and get it down so deep and so far to be receptive. But there it was. I stopped shaking and started to swell up inside.”

Belinsky then did something that a couple of years earlier would have been inconceivable—he agreed to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. “It’s AA or amen for you, Bo,” Thomas informed him. Bo’s first meeting was in Manhattan Beach. The room was plastered with posters bearing all the familiar slogans. As Bo looked around, he told himself, “It’s so corny.” Yet as he heard one alcoholic after another relate their stories, he couldn’t help being moved. “I thought I was a sensitive, giving person, but I started taking a cold, hard look at how egotistical and self-centered I was and how much fear and resentment ruled my life, and I started to open my eyes. I knew I would always be insane, but I saw I didn’t have to drink behind it. I didn’t have to be dangerous. I was given a gift. Something was happening. This was where I belonged.”

Once Belinsky emerged from Saint John’s Hospital, he performed the suggested follow-up work of attending 90 AA meetings in 90 consecutive days. He soon began to venture out into the world, always traveling with a list of names to call should the temptation to drink arise. Astonishingly, Jane Weyerhaeuser and Bo remained together, moving to Doheny Estates, where Bo drove a Maserati and played golf at the Riviera Country Club. “He was the father of my daughters,” she says. The relationship, however, did not last. According to legal filings, Belinsky beat his wife. “He grabbed me by the throat and pushed me in front of our children,” she alleged. In 1981, the couple divorced, with Bo relinquishing custody of the twins. Through the years he visited them infrequently, then once they turned ten, not at all. “They always thought he’d ride out of the hills on a white horse and rescue them,” says Jane. “But he never did.”

As often happens with recovering alcoholics, Belinsky preached the gospel of sobriety. For much of the early ’80s, he teamed with Dr. Joseph Pursch, a Laguna Beach-based psychiatrist who specializes in treating patients suffering from substance abuse. “It was the Bo and Joe show,” says Putsch. “We were contracted by business organizations, the Betty Ford Center, and several major league baseball teams to discuss the problem of alcoholism. Bo would tell his story as one who’d been to hell and back, then he’d introduce me, and I’d give the scientific facts to hang on the bones of Bo’s firsthand account.” At such sessions, Belinsky held little back. “It hurts me when I tell you of shooting my wife,” he would typically say. “But I tell you because I love you, and if you ever forget where you were, I’ll tell you again.” The point was clear: If Bo could rise from the depths, so could his audiences. There was, of course, another point as well. In providing hope for the hopeless, Bo was gaining a sense of accomplishment and making the sort of personal connections of which he’d previously believed himself incapable. “You’re my family,” he’d tell AA groups. “You saved my life.”

Not all of Belinsky’s work was public. In 1980, when he heard that his former Angels teammate Eli Grba was in an alcoholic tailspin, he drove to the Yorba Linda home where Grba had crashed. “Bo and I had never been that close,” says Grba. “He was too Hollywood. But he came and got me and took me to an AA meeting. I was nervous, but Bo said, ‘Don’t worry, Eli, they’re all drunks just like you and me.'” Grba has been sober for 24 years.

By the mid-1980s, Belinsky was back in Hawaii and remarried, this time to a waitress named Bobbi. Living on the North Shore of Oahu, he spent his days windsurfing. In 1989, the two split. Subsequently, Bo would attempt to make light of the breakup. During an appearance at the Betty Ford Center with Pursch, he remarked, “You know, I’m not too successful with wives. So I asked Joe, ‘Every time I go to Hawaii, I get married. What can you advise me about my relationships?’ He said, ‘Simple, stay away from Hawaii.'” Despite such stabs at humor, the divorce from Bobbi was another indication that Bo, his decade of sobriety notwithstanding, still didn’t know what to do with his life.

That Belinsky would find his ultimate path on a golf course was, considering all that was to come, fitting. “I met Bo at a scrambles tournament in 1989,” recalls Don Richardson, sales manager at Saturn of West Sahara in Las Vegas. “He was living on a small pension from baseball, but he loved cars, so we put him to work in sales at Saturn. We soon found out he didn’t have what it took to do sales, but Rich Abajian, who was then my boss, said, ‘Bo, relax. I’m gonna pay you $1,500 a month to do PR.’ For the rest of his life, he essentially played golf and schmoozed.”

Judging by appearances, Belinsky adjusted easily to life in Las Vegas. “Bo had a magnet that drew everybody to him,” says Richardson. “He had an ability to be in a group, and everybody liked him.” Building goodwill for a business came naturally to Belinsky When Abajian moved to Findlay Toyota, he took Bo with him.

For the first time in decades, Belinsky’s fortunes seemed on the uptick. In 1994, thanks to Alana Case, a successful European model and the wife of his old friend Bob Case, Bo was featured in a major fashion layout in Italy’s L’uomo Vogue. No longer young but not yet old, he photographed well, projecting a hard-earned wisdom. In 1997, he was invited to play in an Angels old-timers game. This honor not only recognized his place in the team’s history, but amounted to a homecoming after the extended exile that followed the ugly 1964 incident with the Times’ Braven Dyer. On the field that evening in Anaheim, Bo exchanged warm greetings with Gene Autry and cavorted with his former love, Mamie Van Doren. At a news conference, he received more attention than did 300-game winner Nolan Ryan, thus confirming his view that he’d gone a long way on his 28 wins.

Still in all, Belinsky’s Las Vegas friends often sensed that beneath his upbeat public persona lurked a profound sadness. “He kept a lot hidden from us,” says Lou Rodophele. “Don, Irving Marcus, and I knew Bo very well, but none of us knew where he lived.” Belinsky not only kept his address a secret but resisted the efforts of his newfound pals to make him an intimate. “On holidays I always included Bo in my family,” says Rodophele, “but he’d only stay an hour or so. He couldn’t stay longer because he couldn’t tolerate it emotionally to see a happy family life, which he didn’t have.”

Out of touch with his children, Belinsky was alone. Even dalliances with beautiful women—whom he’d once hustled as avidly as he’d hustled pool—were no longer satisfying. “The fucking you get isn’t worth the fucking you get,” he’d crack to Abajian. Bo would then laugh, but he was putting up a brave front.

The gap between the face Belinsky presented to the world and his tortured private self opened on New Year’s Eve, 1997. After falling off the wagon, Bo attempted suicide at the high-rise apartment where he’d long been living. First he drank half a bottle of vodka. Then he slashed his wrists. Next he plunged a dull hunting knife into his stomach just below the rib cage and slashed downward. Bleeding heavily, he dragged himself to his unit’s balcony “He later told me he was going to throw himself off,” says Rodophele, “but he was hurt so bad he didn’t have the strength.” Eventually, Bo crawled to a phone, and soon help was summoned.

For several days Belinsky was in intensive care at the University Medical Center Hospital. “The emergency medical technicians told me they were surprised he lived,” recalls a friend. Once Bo was strong enough, Rodophele bundled him into the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car and drove him to Palm Springs, where he would again battle alcoholism. “When Bo had his relapse,” says Mark Greenberg, who had gotten to know the former Angel during the years when he spoke publicly on substance abuse, “I assisted him in getting help.” The help began with a stay at Michael’s House, Greenberg’s new employer. There Greenberg perceived that for all the progress Belinsky had made, he had yet to deal with some of the underlying reasons for his despair. “I told him to clear things up with his daughters and clean house,” he said. “But that’s one step I don’t think he really took. He didn’t make amends.”

Still, Belinsky fought his way once more to sobriety. On February 28, 1998, at a clinic called Life’s Journey, he signed a “No Suicide Contract” in which he agreed not to take his life and to phone Greenberg should he ever find himself entertaining suicidal thoughts. Then he returned home.

Back in Las Vegas, the members of Belinsky’s circle now possessed a sharper awareness of how fragile Bo was. Rodophele, who was charged with cleaning up Bo’s apartment, was shocked by what he found. “I broke down crying,” he says. “It was squalid. Not only was there blood from where he’d knifed himself, but trash was piled up everywhere. You couldn’t even see the kitchen table. It was covered with empty cans, unopened bills, dirty clothes. This is what depression looks like.”

For the first few months Belinsky lived with a succession of friends, among them Rich Abajian and his wife, Jo Ann. As he’d done during his initial recovery, Bo kept himself clean by helping others do the same.  Jo Ann had a drug problem. “Bo helped her stay sober, and she helped him,” says Abajian. Adds Jo Ann, “We’d sit on the balcony and talk about our lives. It wasn’t all ‘Woe is me.’ There was a lot of laughter. He was an inspiring gentleman.” At the Abajians’ urging, Bo joined their church—Trinity Life.

“I met Bo right after the suicide attempt,” says the Reverend Randy Greer. “He told me that he’d had a vision of Christ that night he tried to take his life.” According to Greer, Bo realized that “his life was empty. He wanted to fill that void that Billy Graham calls ‘a God-shaped vacuum.'”

Trinity Life became the pivot around which Belinsky’s existence revolved. Not that he acted pious. “Bo was always going to be rough around the edges,” says Greer, citing as example his habit of sitting in the back of the sanctuary during services so that he could duck out for cigarettes. Equally telling, Bo continued to indulge in language better suited to a dugout than a house of worship. “He’d come up to me after church and say, ‘That was a helluva sermon, Pastor Randy.'” Belinsky also resisted what for a Pentecostal is the acid test—speaking in tongues. Nevertheless, Greer believes that his new congregant found true salvation. “Bo would tell me, ‘I need Jesus. Without Him, I’m lost.’ He gave his life to Jesus. He wanted to be part of everything here.”

On the morning of December 7, 2001, Bo Belinsky was finally laid to rest in the Garden of Peace at Paradise Memorial Gardens, a perpetual-care facility just across a busy four-lane road from McCarran International Airport. After the initial confusion as to the legalities, Lou Rodophele was appointed administrator of Bo’s estate. The spot that he, Don Richardson, and Dean Chance chose for their friend is five plots away from where the remains of another tortured 1960s sports icon—former heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston—are interred.

As the Reverend Greer pronounced words over Belinsky’s body, questions regarding Bo’s troubled 64 years still eluded easy answers. On one level, he was a man who had it all—looks, athletic talent, stardom, and charisma. Yet he couldn’t face life’s realities. “God knows, Bo was of this world,” his friend Dr. Joseph Pursch would later say, “but he was not for this world. He was like a child. All his life, by acting out socially and sexually, he tried to defend himself. Then he lost baseball, and he had nothing left. That’s when alcohol and drugs got him.” But whatever the sources of Belinsky’s pain, by the end he had achieved some degree of self-knowledge. “Bo was becoming more normal, thinking about the continuity of life,” says Pursch. Adds Chance, “For the first time, Bo got around quality people, and that made him feel much better about himself.”

For Belinsky’s brass grave marker, two of those people—Lou Rodophele and Don Richardson—selected a motif that honors his greatest achievements. Beneath an image of a baseball appear the words NO HITTER and the date 5/5/62. Next to the legend is another image—a cross. At long last, Bo had found a home.

Photograph courtesy of bobelinsky.com.

 

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