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Once He Was an Angel
Pat Jordan
March 28, 1994
In this SI Classic from March 1972, bon vivant Bo Belinsky muses on the pitching promise he wasted, and the fun he had doing it
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March 28, 1994

Once He Was An Angel

In this SI Classic from March 1972, bon vivant Bo Belinsky muses on the pitching promise he wasted, and the fun he had doing it

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"My career?" he says with a shrug. "It was no big thing. I could never get the knack of what they wanted of me." He takes a delicate sip from a tall glass and continues. "Oh, I might have had a career if they could have tied me to the mast. You know, like Ulysses? When he heard the Sirens' song, he was bewitched." He raises the glass of vodka and ice to his car and shakes it gently until the cubes tinkle. "You know, Babe, I always seemed headed for the rocks." He smiles self-mockingly. It is the smile of a man who has such slight regard for himself that he can smile, not at his pun, which is almost cruelly close to the mark, but at the man who can make such a pun.

There is a photograph of Robert (Bo) Belinsky in the May 16, 1962, edition of The Sporting News. In it a slick-looking young man in a California Angel uniform is surrounded by a number of aging baseball dignitaries and club executives. The older men are dressed in business suits. They are smiling stiffly at the camera, while Belinsky, his head cocked to the left, one eyebrow raised, is smiling that slightly ironic, distrustful smile of his at the baseball he is holding up for view. With it he has just recorded his fourth straight major league victory and the first no-hit, no-run game in history by a rookie lefthanded pitcher. That no-hitter would make Belinsky, at the age of 25, a celebrated athletic personality. He would be seen in the seasons that followed with such Hollywood beauties as Ann-Margret and Mamie Van Doren, and he eventually would marry Jo Collins, a Playboy Playmate of the Year. He would become a protégé of Hugh Hefner, Walter Winchell, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover. Of the last mentioned, he would say to the press, "J. Edgar? Man, he's a swinger! He let me shoot tommy guns at FBI headquarters. I told him if I ever quit this game, I might need a job. He said, 'Bo, there'll always be a place for you on the force.' "

Belinsky would be considered for the lead of a television series featuring a motorcycle loner named Buddy Solo and, with Mamie Van Doren's encouragement, he would appear in a Las Vegas nightclub act. Of Belinsky, Mamie would say, "I've got better curves, but he's got such a fine voice. I know, because he sings to me in his car."

Belinsky would be dogged and quoted voluminously by sports-writers, who recognized him as a unique and colorful personality, someone who could be counted on for outrageous quips, such as: "If I'd known I was gonna pitch a no-hitter today, I would have gotten a haircut." Or, "My only regret is that I can't sit in the stands and watch myself pitch." Or, "My philosophy of life? That's easy. If music be the food of love, by all means let the band play on."

In short, within days after his no-hitter, Belinsky, a former pool hustler from Trenton, N.J., would be heralded as sport's most original and engaging playboy-athlete. His name would become synonymous with a lifestyle that was cool and slick and dazzling, one that was to be a trademark of those athletes who appeared later in the '60s—Joe Namath, Ken Harrelson, Derek Sanderson. But, in time, the name Belinsky would mean something else. It would become synonymous with dissipated talent.

Bo Belinsky won only 24 major league baseball games in the nine years following that rookie no-hitter. He lost 51 times. He made the rounds, playing for six major league clubs, and was fined, suspended and banished to the minors regularly for what came to be viewed as his unstable and childish behavior. The reporters who had written adoringly of the rakish winner became less than adoring of Belinsky the loser.

"There is a race to Bo Belinsky's pad every morning," reported one. "It is a race to see who arrives there first, Belinsky or his milkman. Belinsky has yet to win." Another wrote, "The Angels are about to market a new Bo Belinsky doll. You wind it up and it plays all night, all morning and three innings in the afternoon."

Belinsky was picked up for questioning at five o'clock one morning when a female companion complained that he had beaten her in his "lipstick red" Cadillac on Sunset Strip. The Angels fined him, and the girl sued. On another morning at three o'clock Belinsky was accused of punching a sportswriter in his hotel room. This time he was suspended from the club and exiled to the minor leagues, but he refused to report. On still another morning, again at five o'clock, the hotel in which Belinsky and his teammates were staying caught fire. As the players assembled sleepily in the streets, the manager began to count heads. "My God!" he screamed. "He's not here! He must be inside." At that moment Belinsky stepped from a cab, as he put it, "reeking of broads and booze." When asked about the incident later, Belinsky told reporters, "Boys, you know you're going good when you beat a bed check and your hotel burns down." His record at the time was 1-5. That evening he pitched again and lost.

In the end, events so turned on Belinsky that he broke his engagement to Mamie Van Doren. "I'm returning his ring," she told reporters. "I'm afraid if I don't, he'll cut off my finger and take it—or worse, make me take over the payments." Looking back, Belinsky says, "Mamie's a good broad. I still think she's got a little class—very little."

Despite the growing disenchantment with his behavior, Belinsky seemed undaunted. He denied that his acts were those of an unstable man. "I feel I'm very stable," he said at the time, "proof of which is that I'm still single. Only unstable guys get married." Shortly thereafter, he married Jo Collins. The marriage endured until one night when Belinsky plucked a $500 wig from his wife's head and threw it onto Sunset Strip.

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