The California Angels came into existence in 1961 and like any expansion team, had a troubled early phase of existence. What was more troublesome is that the Angels’ problems continued in the 1970s. Over the period of 1976-78, the club had six managers, all of whom managed a substantial number of games. In the second half of ’78, the team finally got the right guy with Jim Fregosi and the 1979 California Angels rewarded the fans and owner Gene Autry with their first AL West title.
1978 had ended on a good note. Fregosi managed the final 116 games and went 62-54. The Angels made a spirited run at the Kansas City Royals before coming up a short, but the second-place finish was still the best in club history.
California then made a huge splash in the offseason. Just prior to spring training, they dealt a package of four players to the Minnesota Twins to get first baseman Rod Carew. The best pure contact hitter in baseball, Carew won the MVP award in 1977 when he made a run at .400, and he immediately stepped into the Angel lineup and with a .419 on-base percentage in 1979, helped make the Angels the best in the league at getting runners on base.
Carew wasn’t one. Brian Downing, their young catcher, had a .418 OBP, and added a little bit of pop, with a .462 slugging percentage. Rick Miller was in center and posted a .367 OBP. Then there were the power hitters, all of whom were adept at not just going deep, but getting themselves on base regularly.
Bobby Grich hit 30 home runs, finished with 101 RBIs and the second baseman’s OBP was .365. Willie Mays Aikens, a talented young DH, popped 21 home runs and his OBP was .376. And no one was better than Don Baylor. The leftfielder hit 36 home runs, drove in 139 runs, put up a .371 OBP and walked off with the AL MVP award.
It added up to the best offense in the American League. California needed it, because the pitching wasn’t great. Dave Frost and Nolan Ryan led the staff with 16 wins apiece, but neither had a dominant ERA, at 3.57 and 3.60 respectively. Frank Tanana made 17 starts, and the lefty was a big help, with a 3.89 ERA, but the back end, with Jim Barr, Don Aase and Chris Knapp was a serious weak point.
The bullpen was even worse. Mark Clear saved 14 games and the 23-year-old finished with a 3.63 ERA, as he began what would be a respectable big-league career. But there was no depth to speak of.
Fortunately, the other entity there was no depth to speak of it was the AL West. By season’s end, four AL East teams would have better records than anyone in the West, so the Angels had a lower bar to hurdle.
California came strong out of the gate, with a 22-9 start. They were 4 ½ games up in mid-May, before a brief slide at the end of the month left them with a one-game margin on Memorial Day, amidst a packed four team race with the Royals, Twins and Texas Rangers.
The Angels came out of Memorial Day and won 12 of 19, a respectable stretch, but the fact it increased their lead back to five games underscored the divisional weakness. Then they went 5-8 in a stretch of games against the Rangers and Royals to tighten the race back up. A key survival point came in an 18-game schedule stretch against the powers in the AL East, and the Angels were able to hold serve. They went 9-9 in home-and-home series with the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox.
By the All-Star break, California was 55-38, good for a two-game lead over Texas and five over Minnesota. What was most surprising is that Kansas City had slid ten games out. But the Royals weren’t going to roll over and die.
California held serve through three weeks in August, but then managed to lose six of seven against bad AL East teams in the Toronto Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. The Halos briefly slipped a half-game back, before winning the final three games of the series in Cleveland.
The Royals were barreling hard into September, and by Labor Day were within a game and a half, as they sought a fourth straight AL West title. Texas had faded, but Minnesota was still in the picture, three games out. California swept a big series with the Milwaukee Brewers, a team on its way to 95 wins in the AL East, and the Angels nudged their margin back to four and got some breathing room.
On September 17, they lead stood at three games. California arrived in Kansas City for a four-game series to open the week.
Knapp was crushed in the opener, a 16-4 loss, as the Royals kept their momentum going. Then they scored four runs in the first inning in Tuesday’s second game. At this point, Frost settled down and delivered one of the clutch pitching performances of the season. He worked into the ninth, Kansas City never scored again, and the Angels rallied to a 6-4 win.
Ryan got the ball on Wednesday and lost to reliable Royal lefty Larry Gura in another 6-4 game. In the Thursday finale, Baylor hit an early home run and it was tied 2-2 in the seventh. The Angels then unloaded, scoring six times and Downing hitting a three-run shot. The 11-6 win ensured California left town with their lead still intact at three games.
The following Monday began the final week of the season, the lead was still at three games and Kansas City made their return trip to Anaheim. Minnesota was four games out, but with the Royals and Angels playing head-to-head it would take the equivalent of an inside straight for the Twins to pull it out.
Monday night saw a Ryan-Gura rematch, and Nolan fell behind 3-0 early, with a couple defensive miscues bearing a big portion of responsibility. The big flamethrower settled down though, and Ford became the hero of the game. The rightfielder hit a two-run single with two outs in the third, then hit sac flies for runs in the fifth and seventh, as the Angels won 4-3.
On Tuesday, the Twins lost, so as the game progressed on the West Coast, the Angels knew they could clinch with a win. Tanana was on the mound and he met the moment, throwing a complete-game five-hitter and it was time to start the party.
California finished the season 88-74, which in the era when divisions had seven teams apiece, was a low record for a first-place team. But it was good enough, and that was all anyone in SoCal wanted after waited seventeen years.
The Angels met the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS and turned in a credible effort against the 102-win Birds, but the California problems in the bullpen and with rotation depth did them in. They lost the first game in ten innings, and the second when a rally from 9-1 down came up one run short with the bases loaded. An exciting win in a must-win Game 3 (the LCS was best-of-five then) kept them alive, but Knapp was on the mound for Game 4 and he was rocked. The season was over.
Even if the season was over, California was finally a champion. They would make it back to the ALCS in 1982, with a lot of these everyday players. The pursuit of a World Series would be heartbreaking—that ’82 ALCS saw the Angels blow a 2-0 series lead and lose three straight. They lost a crusher in the 1986 ALCS. Finally, in 2002, with the franchise name changed to “Anaheim Angels”, and managed by Mike Scoscia, the Halos won it all. It was the culmination of what began in 1979.