Opening Day 50 years ago was more about curiosity than excitement.
Nobody really expected the expansion Angels to do much in 1961, considering they were assembled with a “bunch of castoffs and guys who’d never made it,” according to one of those players.
Center fielder Albie Pearson wasn’t so much a castoff as a latch-on. It wasn’t an accident that he ended up wearing a Los Angeles Angels uniform.
Most of those original Angels were plucked from other teams’ rosters either unwittingly or unwillingly, but Pearson had made it his aim to come home.
He grew up in El Monte, about 15 miles east of the Angels’ first ballpark, Wrigley Field. He used to show up there as a kid to watch the Hollywood Stars or the Angels of the Pacific Coast League.
After spending part of the 1960 season with the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A team in Miami, he wrote a letter imploring Angels general manager Fred Haney to pick him in the expansion draft. Pearson had ruptured a disc in his back the previous season. For some odd reason, few teams were interested in a 5-foot-5, 129-pound outfielder with dubious health.
“Dear Mr. Haney,” Pearson recalls writing, “My back is well and I’m ready to play. I think I can really help your ballclub and I’d like you to give me a shot. I want to go home and play in my hometown.”
Haney obliged and selected Pearson with the Angels’ 28th, and final, pick. For the rest of his career, which stretched nine seasons, Pearson wore No. 28 in honor of that moment. Not only did Pearson make the team, but on Opening Day, he was in the lineup and batting third in front of slugger Ted Kluszewski.
The Angels beat the Orioles 7-2 that day, April 11, after Pearson picked up the first base hit in team history. Kluszewski drove in five runs and Eli Grba went nine strong innings. The Angels didn’t win again on their season-opening road trip but, after losing the home opener – in front of 11,931 fans – the club actually found its stride, winning eight of the next 12.
The 1961 Angels would go on to finish 70-91, respectable for a fledgling franchise. Pearson would have a .420 on-base percentage, a number nobody paid much attention to back then.
He remembers the day the Angels learned they could compete with the heavyweights of the American League – this was when the New York Yankees still had Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford. It was their final game of spring training, against the star-studded Dodgers.
That game in Palm Springs was so packed with Dodgers fans, Pearson recalls, some spectators were sitting on the field, in roped-off areas. Pearson got a hanging curveball and hit a three-run home run off reliever Johnny Podres to tie it and the Angels prevailed in extra innings, 6-5.
“That put us on the map,” Pearson said. “It caused some people to write about us and gave the impression we weren’t just some expansion team hanging out.”
Grba will throw out the first pitch, again, Friday night in the Angels’ 2011 season opener against the Toronto Blue Jays. This one, of course, will be ceremonial.
Pearson will throw out the first pitch Saturday. He won’t be alone. He’s bringing 38 kids from the home he founded for neglected and abused children in Desert Hot Springs. It’s called Father’s Heart Ranch. The kids will be wearing Angels caps and Pearson said he’s going to give them all a little money to buy cotton candy or other treats.
They're owed a little positive karma. He had one kid who spent a year of his life locked in a closet. Another was beaten severely by his stepfather using an oar. The home keeps Pearson busier than most 76-year olds, but it’s a labor of love. He has five daughters and 17 grandkids, so his life is a full one.
“I didn’t hit many home runs, but I’d give them all back to help show these kids how much worth they have,” Pearson said.