Tuesday, September 1, 2009

1961 - In the beginning...

It may be hard to believe now, but prior to 1961, there were half as many teams in Major League Baseball as there are today: 16. MLB had only reached the West Coast in 1958 when the National League's Giants and Dodgers moved out of New York (and who can blame them?).

The story has it that the American League wanted a franchise in Los Angeles, and was looking for a franchisee. Cowboy singing legend and media mogul Gene Autry went to the winter baseball meetings looking to buy the radio rights to this new team, and ending up buying the team as well. And thus were born the Los Angeles Angels (sort of - there had been a minor league team called the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League not long before). The team that had been the Washington Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins, and a new Washington Senators team was created along with the Angels to bring the number of teams in baseball to 20.

Now starting a new MLB franchise wasn't the same back then as it is today. Today, existing teams are allowed to protect a certain number of players on their roster, and the new teams can draft almost anyone else. But for the 1961 season, it was the opposite - existing teams got to pick a list of players on their rosters that could be drafted, so the new teams pretty much got stuck with the dregs of the league.

Experts predicted that the Angels would win around 40 games and come in dead last, but that wasn't to be the case. The Halos (so nicknamed because of the silver halos embroidered on their hats) went 70-91 (a first-year record that still stands today) and came in 8th place, ahead of the new Senators and the Kansas City Athletics, a franchise that was started in 1901.
Topps wanted to include players from these new teams, but they needed to print the first series of cards before anyone had been in an Angels uniform. As a result, the first bunch of Angels cards featured one player in a White Sox uni, and a whole bunch of head shots of guys without hats.

The Angels played their first season in a place called Wrigley Field, former home to the PCL Angels. Obviously this wasn't in Chicago (although both places were named after the chewing gum magnate), but on the south side of Los Angeles. The place was a bandbox, and set a season record for homers that stood for thirty years.

The Angels' skipper was Bill Rigney, who piloted the team from day one to partway through 1969. He had managed the Giants when they moved from New York to San Francisco, so he was already familiar with baseball on the West Coast.

Ah, finally we get to some Angels in Angels unis! While none of these cards are listed as short prints, they're all from the second and third series, so they start to get a little pricey. Especially those last few, which explains why I really need to find a better Gene Leek card.

 1961 was also in the middle of Topps' golden age of inserts. Every pack had an insert in it and, unlike today's inserts, they were meant to have fun with. The first two inserts below are Rub-Offs - temporary tattoos. The Duke Maas (misspelled Mass) Rub-Off would be the only time Topps would show him as an Angel (he never actually pitched for the team). The other images are the Topps Stamps from the year.

They played better than expected, largely because Mr. Autry had put together a solid front office, and hired a good manager in Rigney. They had four players hit over 20 home runs, led by Leon "Daddy Wags" Wagner with 28. Albie Pearson, a former Rookie of the Year who outplayed his 5' 5" frame, led the team with 11 stolen bases. Some of the players who got their first taste of The Show that year would go on to be Halos for years to come: Tom Satriano, Buck Rodgers, Dean Chance and a 19-year-old shortstop named Jim Fregosi. 1961 was a great start for the Angels.

1961 Topps Angels Checklist

65 - Ted Kluszewski
121 - Eli Grba
156 - Ken Hunt
163 - Ed Sadowski
176 - Ken Aspromonte
184 - Steve Bilko
195 - Jerry Casale
209 - Ken McBride
216 - Ted Bowsfield
225 - Bill Rigney MGR
246 - Bob Davis RC
263 - Ken Hamlin
272 - Tom Morgan
282 - Faye Throneberry
288 - Albie Pearson
291 - Tex Clevenger
329 - Julio Becquer
331 - Ned Garver
358 - Earl Averill
413 - Eddie Yost
448 - Del Rice
457 - Johnny James
464 - Leroy Thomas RC
466 - Ron Moeller RC
508 - Rocky Bridges
527 - Gene Leek RC
547 - Leon Wagner

Stamps Inserts
169 - Jerry Casale
170 - Bob Cerv
171 - Ned Garver
172 - Ken Hunt
173 - Ted Kluszewski
174 - Ed Sadowski
175 - Eddie Yost

6 - Los Angeles Angels
23 - Duane "Duke" Mass

That card at the top of this post is a 1961 Nu-Card Scoops #414. Yes, I realize I started off a blog about Topps cards with a card from another company, but what better way to get things moving than with a card announcing the birth of the Angels?


  1. Man you gotta love Gene Autry, our cowboy in the sky.

    I'm trying to figure out if Leon Wagner looks more like Bo Jackson or Scottie Pippen. Let me digest it for a while.

  2. When he was an Angel, he performed more like Bo, so that'd be my choice.