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Of Anaheim: Why the Angels Will Always be an Afterthought

The Angels have always been in the Dodgers' shadow, even when they have a better team.

by Eric Nusbaum
Aug 6 2014, 3:45pm

Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In the fourth inning of Monday's Angels-Dodgers telecast, Vin Scully gave a short history lesson on the early days of the Los Angeles Angels, who became the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels, then once again the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim).

In the context of this week's interleague series—two games in LA, then two more 30 miles of freeway away in Anaheim—it's worth following Scully's lead and taking a closer look at the Angels. Their quivering geographic insecurity is funny, but it also says something about the franchise in the context of not just the Dodgers, but the greater metropolis.

Some background: The Angels played their inaugural season in 1961, only three years after the Dodgers arrived in LA. Their home park that year was Wrigley Field, a Pacific Coast League relic in South Central LA. They played their next four seasons in rival Dodger Stadium (referred to bashfully by the renters, Scully points out, only as Chavez Ravine), before settling down in Anaheim in 1966. Angel Stadium of Anaheim is the fourth-oldest MLB ballpark park still in use.

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The Angels' first owner was a universally beloved American, Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy, who had an actual town—Gene Autry, Oklahoma—named after him before he turned 35. The Angels' second owner was an entertainment company founded on the principle that dreams ought to come true. Their current owner is the first Mexican-American to own a major sports franchise. He spent his first offseason with the team slashing beer prices and signing Vladimir Guerrero.

The Angels have won eight division titles and a World Series. Last month, 52 years after their first game, the Angels became the only expansion team in baseball with an all-time winning percentage of .500 or better. Their center fielder is the best player in the game. For the last 15 years or so, the Angels have also been the best baseball team in Southern California, and their 2002 World Series win against Barry Bonds and the Giants is an underrated classic. They draw 3 million fans a year.

By all measures, the Angels have had tremendous success. And yet they remain the perpetual little brother of LA baseball: desperate for approval and trying too hard to please. Despite a long and fruitful history, there is something unserious about the Angels. The franchise is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The Angels are to the Dodgers what Anaheim is to Los Angeles—an appendage, something of a frivolity.

But why?

As it is everywhere, the history of Major League Baseball in Los Angeles is all tied up in real estate. For the first half of the 20th century, the LA Angels were a Pacific Coast League team known in their later years for an intense rivalry with the crosstown Hollywood Stars. A 1953 brawl between the clubs gained national attention for lasting 30 minutes and not breaking up until police chief William Parker, who was watching the game on television, sent in a squad of riot cops.

The Angels were eating Dodger tables scraps from the start.

Before the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn in 1958, team owner Walter O'Malley bought the Angels and their ballpark Wrigley Field. In a shady bit of maneuvering, O'Malley then swapped Wrigley Field to the city in exchange for a much larger parcel of land in Chavez Ravine, where he would build Dodger Stadium. But O'Malley retained rights to the Angels name.

When Gene Autry wanted to call his expansion team the Angels in 1961, he was forced to buy the rights to the name from O'Mally for $350,000, just as he was forced to pay O'Malley rent for use of Dodger Stadium the next four seasons. The Angels were eating Dodger tables scraps from the start.

With a month to go in the 1965 season, the Angels dropped "Los Angeles" from their name in favor of "California." The following year, they would move into their new ballpark in Anaheim, where they established themselves as a suburban alternative to the Dodgers—which, despite a series of logo and uniform changes, is what they remain today.

Think of it this way: The Dodgers came West in the classic American fashion, fleeing cold, crowded Brooklyn for a golden land of opportunity. They are the centuries-old dream of California. O'Malley connived and hustled and built his stadium in the middle of a city—built it, in fact, on the remains of a vibrant native community that had been razed in the name of progress. Even the ugliness of the Dodgers' history gives them stakes in the city.

The Angels, meanwhile, sprung out of Southern California's sprawling, utopian impulses. They are the subdivision standing alone in a cleared out orange grove. They are the real estate developer offering a slice of paradise to anybody who wants it. Autry took the Angels to Anaheim because the city offered a publicly financed ballpark, a 35-year lease, and the promise of a growing Orange County population. Angel Stadium, then called Anaheim Stadium, was literally built on farmland. The city has developed around it.

Perhaps this is the Angels' problem, and the root of their repeated identity crises: They are too suburban for their own good, ruined as it were, by their location among a thousand neighborhoods with names that start with Rancho and Laguna. The Dodgers have been shaped by the city around them. They have become a cosmopolitan enterprise, headlined over the years by a diverse cast of base-stealers and left-handed starters and international phenoms. But the Angels have no city to shape them. Orange County is contrived, nothing more than a nice place to live, a successful real estate deal. But comfortable living does not necessarily make for compelling local culture. Disneyland may indeed be the Happiest Place on Earth, but we've seen what too much happiness can lead to on a baseball uniform:

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The Angels have never been able to stake their identity to their geography. Mike Trout doesn't remind anybody of Anaheim. Nobody really wants their baseball team to look like cartoons or like the people who live in McMansions, content as those people may be. This is why the word before Angels keeps changing and the uniforms keep getting redesigned. That's why Arte Moreno decides he has had enough of being relegated to the sprawling expanse. He doesn't see the difference anyway: It's all just marketing. He drops "Anaheim," comes full circle back to "Los Angeles." The team isn't moving, but now there are Angels billboards on display a few blocks from Chavez Ravine. Los Angeles is just an idea, anyway.

Of course, in the process of reclaiming LA, Moreno insults the millions of fans who turn out to the ballpark, and see Orange County as separate from Los Angeles. He turns his back on the city that offered Gene Autry that sweetheart deal back in 1964. He is drawn into a legal battle and forced into the awkward formulation "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim." The name is ridiculed, but it's worth it. The world begins to say "Los Angeles."

And in its own way, the "of Anaheim" is triumphant, too. It's an inversion of the historical reality that Anaheim is actually "of Los Angeles." Anaheim was, in fact, the second city incorporated into LA County back in 1870. And it remains "of Los Angeles" today, its very existence as a place dependent on the city to the north. But in defeat, the suburb wins out. "Of Anaheim" it is.

If this all sounds convoluted, then that's because it's supposed to. Despite the winged-A and the rally monkey and the large fortune still owed to Albert Pujols, the Angels might be the best team in baseball this year. They are certainly the best team in Los Angeles, which by the way has been in their name all along. But they'll never make it out of the suburbs.

The Angels shut out the Dodgers last night 5-0 in Chavez Ravine on Monday. On Tuesday, the Dodgers won in the 10th. They'll play again tonight.

Eric Nusbaum left his wallet in El Segundo. Follow him on Twitter.

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