The Briefest, Bitterest Cup of Coffee

The Angels have experienced far too many tragedies in the history of their organization. (via Keith Allison)

When Tyler Skaggs died on July 1, it evoked memories of the “sudden death” of other active Angels players. Among them are Nick Adenhart in 2009, Lyman Bostock in 1978, and Mike Miley in 1977. A number of former Angels met an untimely demise soon after being traded or released. They include Luis Valbuena in 2018, Tommy Hanson in 2015, Donnie Moore in 1989, and Chico Ruiz in 1972.

Also on that list is Dick Wantz. It is all too easy to overlook the littlest Angel (actually, he was 6-foot-5) because he played during the long-ago (i.e., pre-Anaheim) days of the franchise and his career as a big league player was so brief.

Born Richard Carter Wantz on April 11, 1940, in South Gate, California, he graduated from Artesia High School in 1958. A right-handed pitcher, he also played basketball and golf. After playing on two league championship baseball teams at Cerritos Junior College in Norwalk, he transferred to Cal State University Los Angeles (then known as Los Angeles State College) in 1961. He was named to the California Collegiate Athletic Association’s all-star team and,  After participating in an Angels’ tryout camp, Wantz was signed by scout Rosey Gilhousen and given a bonus.

It was a good time to be a college prospect in Southern California, as the Angels, then in their inaugural year, were gearing up their farm system. The Angels American League franchise did not get the official green light till December 1960. Opening Day was just four months away and they had no personnel. The expansion draft took care of the big league roster, but what about future Angels?

Obviously, minor league affiliations needed to be forged and rosters stocked. The Angels had enough time to secure only two minor league affiliates for their first year. The Triple-A team, the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers, was too advanced for Dick Wantz. The only other option was the Class D Statesville Owls (today there is a summer collegiate team so named) of the Western Carolina League. So it was there that Wantz made his pro debut. In his shortened 1961 season, he went 1-4 with an 8.50 ERA in just nine games.

The Angels added two more minor league affiliates in 1962, and Wantz started the season with the San Jose Bees of the Class C California League. After just two appearances, he was back at Class D, this time with the Quad Cities Angels of the Midwest League. There he hit his stride as well as a number of opposing batters. His hit-by-pitch total (16) led the league, but wildness is not unheard of in young pitchers. Anyway, his 7-7 in 109 innings with a 2.72 ERA was good enough to warrant a promotion.

Spending the entire 1963 season with the Single-A Tri-City Angels of the Northwest League, he was converted from a starter to a reliever in midseason and finished at 7-10 with a 4.66 ERA. Not too impressive but his 164 strikeouts in 137 innings attracted enough attention to keep him around another season.

After similar results in 12 games with Tri-City in 1964, he was bumped up to the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League. There he posted a 2-7 record but with a 3.39 ERA in 77 innings. The Angels decided a postseason trip to the Arizona Instructional League was in order. Apparently satisfied with his performance (2-1, 3.82 ERA, 24 Ks in 33 innings), the Angels put Wantz on the big league roster.

After a strong spring training at Palm Springs in 1965, Wantz broke camp with the big club. If you had told him at the time that he would never return to the minor leagues, he probably would have been overjoyed.

Wantz celebrated his 25th birthday on Sunday, April 11, 1965. Two days later he came out of the bullpen on Opening Day at Dodger Stadium (this was the Angels’ final season in that venue). With the Indians holding a 5-0 lead, Wantz relieved Don Lee in the eighth inning. He struck out the first batter he faced (Max Alvis), but then surrendered back-to-back doubles to Vic Davalillo and Larry Brown (one run scored), then gave up an additional run-scoring single to Joe Azcue before settling down to whiff Ralph Terry. The third out came courtesy of a ground out, Jim Fregosi (shortstop) to Costen Shockley. Joe Adcock pinch-hit for Wantz in the bottom of the eighth and Ron Piché took the mound in the ninth. Final score: Cleveland 7, LA 1.

Wantz did not pitch in any more games in the opening home stand but left with the team on its first road trip of the season, starting with the Indians’ home opener on April 21. When the Angels moved on to New York, he began experiencing severe headaches. When the team went to Detroit on April 27, he was hospitalized there for a week. Placed on the disabled list, he returned to Artesia to recuperate.

Unfortunately, the headaches returned. He entered Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood on May 8, and was examined by three neurosurgeons. The initial diagnosis was a blood virus, but X-rays and a spinal tap revealed a blockage in the cerebral spinal canal. “A rapidly regrowing malignancy” was the cause.

On May 12 Wantz went under the knife and the three surgeons removed as much of the tumor as they could. Unfortunately, the cancer had spread to both sides of his brain. Wantz never regained consciousness. He died on May 13, the one-month anniversary of his sole major league appearance. Wantz’s line for that game (an his career): 1 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 SO. He left behind a wife and a five-year-old son. The Angels were on the road during Wantz’s hospitalization. The day he died, they defeated the Twins, 4-3.

The entire team was present for Wantz’s funeral on May 18. Pitching coach Marv Grissom and farm system director Roland Hemond were among the pallbearers. Honorary pallbearers included team President Bob Reynolds, GM Fred Haney, manager Bill Rigney, and Dodgers GM Buzzy Bavasi, supposedly representing the team’s landlord, Walter O’Malley. Wantz was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cypress, Orange County. That night the Angels again defeated the Twins, this time at Chavez Ravine, by a 3-1 score.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The baseball gods can be cruel on occasion but this time they really outdid themselves. You can’t say they don’t have a sense of irony, however. Remember that one inning Wantz pitched on Opening Day? The last pitch he threw, reportedly a sinking fastball, resulted in a groundball out. The batter he retired was Dick Howser, who also would die of a brain tumor, at age 51 on June 17, 1987.

Years after Howser’s death, it was duly noted that two of the players Howser managed in 1981, his first year in charge of the Royals, also died of brain cancer: Dan Quisenberry in 1998 and Ken Brett in 2003.

At least the baseball gods granted them all enough time to compile notable major league careers. They were not so merciful with Dick Wantz.

References and Resources:

“Angels’ Reliever Dies,” Associated Press obituary, April 24, 2013
“Dick Wantz, Angel Hurler, Fails to Survive Operation,” The Sporting News, May 29, 1963

Frank Jackson writes about baseball, film and history, sometimes all at once. He has has visited 54 major league parks, many of which are still in existence.
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4 years ago

Thanks for the piece. One minor note: the Chico Ruiz note goes to the wrong player. The correct link is:

4 years ago

Is there something about pitchers? Recent deaths of young ballplayers include Darryl Kile, Corey Lidle, Jose Fernandez, Yordano Ventura, and Roy Halladay. Also Aaron Cox, Mike Trout’s brother-in-law, who died just about a year before Skaggs.