He Was No Koufax, But…

Once every decade or so, one comes along like this, a movie star in sanitary socks and spikes–a ballplayer who drives a candy-apple red Cadillac convertible, who can’t make curfew to save his life, who inspires even the most ham-fisted hacks of the press box to greatness. “There is a race to Bo Belinsky’s pad every morning,” a newspaperman once wrote. “It is a race to see who arrives there first, Belinsky or the milkman. Belinsky has yet to win.”

If you know anything about Bo, you know this: He dated Mamie Van Doren; he palled around with Walter Winchell; and he pitched the first major-league no-hitter in California history the day after (as he boasted to reporters in the clubhouse following the game) spending the night with a tall, raven-haired beauty whom he’d picked up at a bar on the Sunset Strip. From that day forward, Bo was strictly Southern California A-list, a fixture in the Peppermint West Lounge and Jerry Lewis’ place, a favorite cocktail-party prop for every publicist, producer, agent and director in Beverly Hills. “Playing baseball seemed only incidental,” Belinsky told Maury Allen for the latter’s rollicking 1973 book, Bo: Pitching and Wooing . “I was just on a mad whirl, day and night.”

I, however, was always drawn to another, less discussed fact in Belinsky’s bio: His grandmother, a Russian Jew from the shtetl , called him bubelah .

Movie stars are not born, they’re made, and Bo Belinsky, who began his American odyssey–where else?–on Delancey Street, made himself in quintessential, child-of-immigrants fashion. Hollywood may have claimed Bo as its own, but Robert Belinsky was a New York boy. His parents’ journey was textbook, identical to that of Ed Koch’s mom and dad–from the crumbling Lower East Side tenement, to the wide boulevards of the Bronx, to New Jersey–and similar to that of my own grandparents (they proceeded north to Westchester). Bo’s mother was a ladies’ stocking inspector at Gotham Gold Stripe Hosiery Company.

Not that Belinsky’s name was there alongside Koufax and Greenberg and Leonard and Spitz in the thin book of Jewish sports heroes that used to sit on my night table. There are several reasons for this. For starters, his father was Polish Catholic–not a disqualifier, but worth noting. Second, Bo didn’t just pitch on Yom Kippur, he caroused on Kol Nidre. Finally, aside from that May 5, 1962, no-hitter against a young Brooks Robinson and the Baltimore Orioles, his career was considerably worse than undistinguished. Bo spent eight years in the majors, posting a lifetime record of 28-51–not the sort of numbers that boyhood heroes are made of. And yet, what overprotected, overachieving Jewish boy could resist the appeal of an underachieving, oversexed, unobservant Jewish playboy?

A scout for the Los Angeles Angels, Bo’s employer for the first three years of his brief professional career, observed that he had a million-dollar arm and a 10-cent head. It was the kind of cliché that Bo would have never resorted to himself–this was a man who once remarked that he might have had a real baseball career if only they had lashed him to the mast, like Ulysses–but nonetheless true.

As a teenager, he spent most of his time playing nine-ball at Russo’s, a pool hall in Trenton, N.J. His mentors had names like Cincinnati Phil and Goose McDonald. Bo didn’t join the baseball team in high school–way too many practices, and all that rah-rah crap made him sick. He stuck to sandlot games instead, where he could drift in and out as he pleased. The decision to try his hand at professional baseball was motivated primarily by the desire to buy his own car.

Yet there he was, yellow sport shirt open, an unfiltered cigarette hanging from his lips, in the spring of ’62, touching down in Palm Springs, that supernaturally lush mirage in the Southern California desert where Gene Autry’s Angels trained and my own Bronx-bred father would soon seek his fortune (albeit as a doctor). The 25-year-old left-hander had just pitched out the lights in a winter league in Venezuela, where he’d picked up a screwball, a parrot, an even tan and more than a few Caraquenas . The Angels offered him $6,500, the minimum for a rookie, but Bo wanted $8,500. He was a holdout before he had ever pitched a big-league game.

Bo gave his first press conference poolside at the Desert Inn. The local writers crowded around and started scribbling. They were tired of the Dodgers, of Koufax and Drysdale and Wills, and Bo was the answer to their prayers.

And then, presto, he was sitting at a lounge on La Cienega with Walter Winchell when Mamie Van Doren’s ex-husband, the band leader Ray Anthony, asked the rakish young southpaw if he might be interested in taking out his ex-wife. They were a perfect match. Bo Belinsky was to Joe DiMaggio as Mamie Van Doren was to Marilyn Monroe: the “B” actress and the “B” ballplayer, two darlings of the gossip columns whose celebrity status was utterly out of whack with their respective professional achievements. It couldn’t last. After a few months, Mamie returned the engagement ring. “I’m afraid that if I don’t,” she told reporters, “he’ll make me take over the payments.” “Mamie’s a good broad,” Bo shot back. “I still think she’s got a little class–very little.”

Naturally, Bo had plenty of others after her, Playboy Playmate Jo Collins (Hef was another pal), the heiress to the Weyerhaeuser paper fortune, Tina Louise and Ann-Margretamong them. There’s nothing sportswriters love more than an athlete who can indulge his appetites and play well, too. Bo never performed all that well, but the writers gave him a wide birth anyway; he was, after all, such good copy. But eventually, inevitably, they turned on him. When Braven Dyer of the Los Angeles Times got in his face, Bo sent him sprawling with a haymaker. That was pretty much it for Bo Belinsky. He kicked around in the majors for a few more anemic years, then called it quits in 1970.

Pat Jordan tracked him down for a heartbreaking “Where Is He Now?” profile for Sports Illustrated in 1973. Where he was in a ranch house in the Hollywood Hills, nursing a vodka on the rocks at 9 in the morning. Bo had a collection of strays living with him at the time, including an 18-year-old runaway girl with painted toenails and a macrobiotic street preacher in his late 30’s who watched The Dating Game every afternoon. Despite the lines on his handsome face, he was still playing the rogue. “I don’t feel sorry for myself,” he told Jordan. “I knew sooner or later I’d have to pay the piper …. But I’ll tell you who I feel sorry for–all those guys who never heard the music.”

In 1976, he awoke beside a freeway in Ohio clutching an empty bottle of sake. Soon after, he stopped the drinking, the drugs and the womanizing, and disappeared from the public eye. He resurfaced one last time, on June 1, 2001. It was Bo Belinsky Night at Cashman Field, where the Pacific Coast League’s Las Vegas 51s were hosting the Omaha Golden Spikes. Bo lived right near the ballpark, just a few blocks from the Sahara Hotel. His thick, jet-black hair was gray, his body ravaged by bladder cancer. A born-again Christian now, he agreed to lend his name to the evening on one condition: that the 51s and the Findlay Automotive Group, where he had worked as a used-car salesman, donate $2,500 to his church, the Trinity Life Center. Six months later, Bo was gone. He Was No Koufax, But…