Sports Collectors Digest: Ross Newhan

Ross Newhan (July 2007)

By Marty Appel

Because Major League Baseball first developed in the nation’s northeast corner, the great historic lore of the game, and its great baseball writing, originated from that sector as well. But as the nation’s left coast moves towards a 50th anniversary of MLB (this is the Dodgers and Giants 49th season in California), the baseball writing from the pacific time zone has matured and grown in appreciation.

I’ve always enjoyed team histories written by people who actually observed the games, and Ross Newhan, now of the Los Angeles Times, has been covering the Angels since their birth in 1961. One reason this has a special appeal is that the writer gets a chance to ‘let his hair down’ about personalities and moments that aren’t reported in the daily press. They are book by guys who were there and know what they are talking about.

“I was one of the original Angel beat writers,” he says, “along with Braven Dyer, Bud Tucker, John Hall and Bud Furillo. There were four LA papers then, and I was the suburban guy with the Long Beach Telegram.”

He moved to the Times in 1968 but was on hand for the Angels birth and early seasons, during which the franchise established itself as far more interesting than its Washington Senators counterpart (the other expansion team), and somewhat star-crossed as well.

The Angels would lose to death, pitcher Dick Wantz, infielder Chico Ruiz, pitcher Bruce Heinbechner, shortstop Mike Miley, and outfielder Lyman Bostock, and would see serious injury take the heart out of the careers of Johnny James, Ken Hunt, Art Fowler, Ken McBride, Rick Reichardt, Don Mincher, Paul Schaal, Minnie Rojas, and Bobby Valentine – and that was all before the team’s 20th anniversary.

Newhan, whose son David plays for the Orioles, (He was born during the 1973 season), covered that all in the opening pages of his team history, “The California Angels,” which was published in 1982 by Simon and Shuster. A revised edition, “Anaheim Angels” (Hyperion) came out in 2000, before their long hoped for first world championship.

“Simon and Shuster was planning to do all the teams,” he recalls. “But they had some problems with the guy who was to be the independent editor, and the project was scrubbed. I’m glad I got a chance to see mine published.”

The book is a delight largely because Newhan writes so well (he won the Spink Award in 2000 putting him in the writer’s wing in Cooperstown), and because the Angels are just so damned interesting! (Chapter 21, “One Strike Away”, and we’re back in 1986, reminded of the sad story of reliever Donnie Moore, later a suicide). They were among the fastest starting expansion teams in history, winning 70 games in their first season (the Mets, remember, won 40, the following year), and then 86 in year two, actually contending for a pennant. All of this was under Bill Rigney, and in turn, under the ownership of Gene Autry, a beloved owner if ever there was one.

“I had a good relationship with Gene throughout his ownership,” says Newhan. “He was almost always accessible and friendly. There may have been times he was displeased with something I wrote, but it never seemed to last. I think he was so beloved because many fans had grown up watching his films or listening to his records. I also think people recognized his grassroots affection for the game and shared his frustrations as the Angels failed to reach the World Series and ‘win one for the cowboy’ during his ownership. Ultimately, the buck stops with the owner and he had to share some of the responsibility for some of the bad decisions and lack of philosophical continuity.”

Newhan was there for Bo Belinsky’s no-hitter, and for the Angel careers of Albie Pearson, Jim Fregosi, Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor, Dave Winfield, Jim Abbott, Wally Joyner, Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon, Jim Edmunds and Vladimir Guerrero. A remarkable run of big time names, to be sure.

“Writing a book is totally different from daily journalism,” he notes. In the first place, nothing in journalism replaces the electricity of writing under a daily deadline, working on a breaking story, uncovering news on a daily basis and having the name recognition of daily coverage. Book writing requires a different discipline each day and produces a different kind of satisfaction and reward. There’s a tendency to feel that you aren’t complete as a writer until you’ve done a book, but I don’t think that should be true. I wouldn’t trade my years on the beat for any book I’ve done.”

Ross has also covered the team in Wrigley Field, Dodger Stadium (where the Angels called it “Chavez Ravine”), then Anaheim Stadium, Edison International Field, and now Angel Stadium of Anaheim. They have been the Los Angeles Angels, the California Angels, the Anaheim Angels and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim under his watch.

“I was a fan of the Pacific Coast League Angels as a youngster,” he recalls. “I used to go to Wrigley Field for games. It was a wonderful minor league park in the image of Chicago’s Wrigley Field.” {Fans may know it from reruns of Home Run Derby with Mark Scott}. “However, it was just that, minor league, and too small in many ways for a major league team. The Angels knew they would be there for only a year, or until Dodger Stadium opened, and they knew as well that they couldn’t survive as a tenant. Ultimately, at the urging of Walt Disney, a close friend, Autry chose Anaheim over Long Beach as his permanent home even though Orange County was just beginning to blossom.”

As for all the name changes, Newhan says, “I don’t agree with or understand the name change, but Arte Moreno, the team owner, has been so successful with his baseball and business decisions that it’s hard to argue. They’re still the Angels in print and conversation.”

A lot of book collectors prefer first editions and hardcover books, but in this case, the softcover revised edition is the one with eight additional seasons of lore, and a better acquisition than the original.