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Rigney was 43 in 1961, and the humor and forbearance that have distinguished him in his long baseball career sustained him through that first season in Los Angeles. Angel owner Gene Autry had originally asked his pal Casey Stengel to manage the new expansion club, but Stengel finally informed the old movie cowboy that he had other commitments. So Autry hastily turned to Rigney, who had recently been fired as manager of the San Francisco Giants. At a team banquet before the start of the season, Autry first apologized for not hiring Stengel and then introduced Rigney as "Phil Wrigley," an excusable lapse, perhaps, since the Angels would play their first season at Los Angeles's Wrigley Field, a ballpark previously owned by the chewing-gum family.
Rigney, a career National Leaguer, was hired only two days before the expansion draft. But Rig got his hands on the Giants' American League scouting reports and, together with Fred Haney, the Angels' general manager, was able to pluck some young prospects—Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, Bob (Buck) Rodgers—out of the refuse heap. The Angels also made some astute early-season trades, one of which brought the inimitable Duren west from the New York Yankees.
The 32-year-old Duren had long terrorized American League hitters, partly because of his 95-mph fastball but mostly because the hitters never knew where he was going to throw it. Duren wasn't always so sure either, although his habit of Hinging his first warmup pitch against the backstop was all show. He did, however, have extremely poor eyesight—his bottle-thick glasses were legitimate cause for alarm.
Duren also had another pitch, a tricky sinker, that mystified hitters. Tom Ferguson, the Angels' first clubhouse man, soon learned the source of this dipsy-doodle. On Duren's first day with the team he took Ferguson aside and, in a conspiratorial voice, whispered, "I want you to get me two boxes of Ivory Flakes." Ferguson looked at him blankly; Duren just didn't strike him as the fastidious type. "And," the pitcher continued, "don't tell anyone."
Ferguson duly returned with the soap and then watched in amazement as Duren, looking anxiously about the laundry room for spies, rubbed the flakes into his uniform trousers. The pitcher put a cautioning finger to his lips and then, smelling liked a laundromat, took the field. Soon thereafter Ferguson witnessed the wonders of the Duren soapball.
Rigney had a genuine affection for his eccentric reliever, and when, on June 28 at Wrigley Field in L.A., Duren asked to start against his old team, the Yankees, the manager gave him the ball. "And," says Rigney, "he pitched his butt off into the sixth inning. Then I had to manage. We're behind 1-0, and we've got the bases loaded, two outs and my pitcher, who can hardly see behind those Coke-bottle glasses, coming up. Now, I don't want to take Ryne out of the game the way he's pitching, but it's a pinch-hit situation. So Duren turns to me and says, 'Do what you have to do, Skip.' And I say, 'Go on up there and hit a single to centerfield.' So Bob Turley throws him a slider for strike one, then a slider for strike two, then another slider, which Duren drills into centerfield for a base hit. Two runs score. We win the game. You think I'm not managing good?"
After the game Rigney gave a reasoned explanation of his strategy to incredulous sportswriters. He told them he had known all along, overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the myopic Duren was a good hitter. At which point Duren himself appeared in the manager's office. "Boy," Duren said of his big hit, "that's a first for me."
Everyone on this team played together—off the held; and that included the sportswriters. The early '60s may also have seen the last of the raffish newspaperman of Front Page vintage, his disreputable ilk soon to be displaced by the sobersided scholars of these less adventurous times. "We were like a family then," says Ferguson. "The writers protected the players, and the players protected the writers."
Indeed, the writers could scarcely expose the players' sundry peccadilloes without risk of implicating themselves. It was, after all, from the front porch of the press bungalow during spring training in Palm Springs that Duren, limbering up after an all-night session inside, decided, at 5:30 a.m., to work on his golf swing. Cheered on by the press corps, the pitcher launched drive after errant drive off the porch, one of which shattered a window in the upstairs room of pitching coach Marv Grissom. As Duren looked up apprehensively, a sleepy-eyed Grissom peered through the broken glass and called down to him, "Got an early starting time, eh, Ryne?"
Somehow, in all the tumult of 1961, Rigney coaxed his crew to a stunningly successful season. The Angels finished their inaugural campaign with 70 wins, still a record for a first-year expansion team. But they didn't make much of a dent in the Southern California baseball market, as the Dodgers, who had arrived three years before the Angels, maintained their hold on the region, pulling 1.8 million fans into their temporary home at the massive Los Angeles Coliseum.