The Duke of Storytelling

Duke Doolittle with his son, Sandy, in 1953. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)
Duke Doolittle with his son, Sandy, in 1953. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

Marland “Duke” Doolittle is mentioned only once in The Bilko Athletic Club. He is quoted as saying George Freese, the slugging third baseman for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, was one of those rare players who could hit a curveball better than a fastball.

The title of a chapter in the newly-released book, Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer, was inspired by a story Duke told about Ben Howard “Rosie” Cantrell, a teammate with the Little Rock Travelers in the 1940s.

Rosie had a reputation for hitting a bottle of Four Roses bourbon as hard as the ball. He had a .315 career batting average in almost 2,000 games to prove it.

The story goes that Rosie was shagging fly balls in the outfield before one game in Little Rock when Duke sidled up to him and asked, “Rosie, why don’t you quit drinking? You’re such a good hitter that you’d go to the big leagues in nothing flat if they knew you weren’t messing around with liquor anymore.”

Rosie thought about the question for a moment and said, “Why would I want to do that? Where can you go from there?”

Duke is gone now.  He died July 11, 2016, in Mobile, Alabama at the age of 92.
He leaves behind a treasure trove of colorful baseball stories accumulated over 13 years as a catcher in the minors. More than half that time was spent with the Little Rock Travelers of the Southern Association, a league classified as double-A in the hierarchy of the minors that ranged from Class D at the bottom to Class AAA at the top. Duke batted .324 in 33 games for the Travelers in 1943. He rejoined them in 1946 after serving in World War II, split the 1947 season between Little Rock and Jackson, Mississippi, in the Southeastern League and, then, played for the Travelers the next four seasons – 1948-1952. As his lifetime batting average of .273 suggests, he was no Duke Snider. But he was the undisputed “Duke of Storytelling.”

“Before I get through, you’ll have enough for 30 books,” Duke told me shortly before Christmas 2012 during our first of several hour-long phone conversations.

Duke was the Christmas gift that kept on giving, providing countless stories on some of baseball’s most colorful characters.

“He was always delighted with your conversations,” Sandy Doolittle wrote in an e-mail informing me of his father’s death. “He would often remark afterwards, ‘I should have told him about…’”

On hearing I was writing about Louis Norman “Bobo” Newsom, a pitcher as famous for his big mouth as his tireless right arm that won 211 games in the majors and 139 more in the minors, Duke said, “Hey, I can tell you all kinds of stuff on Bobo.”

And he did.

Bobo pitched for the Chattanooga Lookouts in 1949-50. Prior to a game in Chattanooga, Bobo was hitting fly balls to the outfield while jawing with Duke standing nearby in the visiting team’s dugout.

“I was always easy going,” Duke explained. “I didn’t get mad at the other players or anything. But Bobo said something and all of a sudden I just blew up.”

Duke shouted: “I could hit you any time you stepped on the mound, even when you were young,”

“You could, huh?”

“Yeah!” Duke said confidently.

They faced each other later in the season in Little Rock.

“I came to the plate. First pitch, he threw for a strike. Next pitch, he buried right in the middle of my back. I didn’t say anything. I knew I had that coming. I expected it because of popping off to him back in Chattanooga.”

When it was Bobo’s turn to bat, he looked at Duke crouched behind the plate and said, “See, ol’ Bobo can hit you, too.”

One of Duke’s teammates at Little Rock was Rosie, an outfielder who played 16 years, all in the minors, for teams in Pine Bluff, Arkansas; Hollywood; Atlanta and Birmingham, to name a few.

This photo of Rosie Cantrell was taken by Duke's wife, a newspaper photographer who went by her maiden name, Norma Jean Hyatt. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)
This photo of Rosie Cantrell was taken by Duke’s wife, a newspaper photographer who went by her maiden name, Norma Jean Hyatt. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

Rosie kept a bottle of Four Roses bourbon stashed inside the Little Rock ballpark’s hand-operated scoreboard in centerfield. If he made the last out in an inning, he’d take a swig or two. “If he wasn’t going to hit during that inning, he didn’t come in,” Duke said. “The more intoxicated he became the better hitter he was.”

Every spring Rosie pledged not to drink any more. “He didn’t drink any more but he didn’t drink any less either.”

It didn’t matter because Duke and his teammates were in awe of how Rosie could hit scorching line drives as easily as he downed a bottle of bourbon.

“How do you do it?” Rosie was asked after smashing four hits in a game.

“You fellows have a problem that I don’t have,” he told his admirers. “When you go to the plate and you’re sober, you only see one ball. You have to hit what you see. When I go to the plate and I’m feeling good or high, I see three or four. I always pick out the one I like the best.”

Rosie was content in Little Rock.  That’s why he responded to Duke’s comment about going to the majors by asking, “Where do you go from there?”

Rosie and Duke weren’t paid much in the minors but most players in the big leagues at the time were making around the minimum annual salary of $6,000. The cost of living was a lot less in Little Rock than New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago or St. Louis where eleven of the sixteen major-league teams were located at the time.

“There were a lot of minor league ballplayers but there were very few major league teams,” Duke said. “The competition was keen.”

Rosie was a star in Little Rock and nearby Pine Bluff where he worked in a cottonseed oil mill during the off-season. If coworkers needed money, he loaned it to them, tacking on a little interest.

“He was happy with his situation,” Doolittle said. “He didn’t require much in life except something to drink.”

Rosie liked women as much as his booze, and he wasn’t all that particular how they looked. When a teammate pointed this out, Rosie replied: “Well, people are all alike. They all need love. I’m taking care of my share.”

A sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times once described Rosie as “not very big but well put together.”

“He was a good-looking man,” Duke added. “I wish that I looked as good as he did.

“Rosie could step to the plate and hang a line drive out against anybody,” Duke raved. “I mean anybody.”

Cantrell was tagged with the nickname Rosie as a young boy playing baseball in his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee. “You know,” he said, “I turn red when I get hot in the summer.”

“He was well liked because he could hit the ball,” Duke said. “I don’t know if people knew he had a drinking problem.  They couldn’t tell the difference whether he was half-loaded when he was playing or completely sober because he hit the same.”

Rosie’s biggest fan was Willie Bunch, described by Little Rock baseball historian Terry Turner as “a guest of a nearby hospital that brought patients to the game.”

Part of the Little Rock ballpark, Travelers Field, was located on the grounds of the state mental hospital where Willie was a long-time guest.

Willie was the team mascot long before there were such things. He was at the ballpark when Traveler players arrived for games, hung out with them in the clubhouse and dugout and used a glove given him by Rosie to play catch and show off his fastball. “What do you think of it?” he asked.

The biggest impression the left-handed Willie had on Duke was his left foot dragging across the ground as he threw the ball. “He left a trail with the toe of his shoe.”

Willie was as proud of his fastball as he was the two dollars Rosie gave him every now and then. “Any time Willie talked about Rosie, he reached into his pocket and pulled out those two dollars to show you.”

Rosie Cantrell_Judges Scorecard_1951
Rosie Cantrell as pictured on a scorecard for the Pine Bluff Judges.

Willie wore a baseball cap, overalls, high-top work shoes and always carried an old green raincoat with him. “If it’s going to rain,” he reasoned, “I’m not going to get wet. I never get wet.”

At game time Willie moved to the left-field bleachers to be with some of his buddies from the hospital.

One of them was called Sheriff because he claimed to be the sheriff of Paragould, a city in northeast Arkansas about 150 miles from Little Rock.

“Did you arrest anybody last night?” Sheriff was often asked.

“A hundred and fourteen,” he replied.

“What did you arrest them for?”

“I arrested them for drinkin’, fightin’ and scratchin’.”

The number arrested was always the same: 114.

Sheriff was a slightly smaller version of the movie character, Pa Kettles. He wore overalls just like Willie. As he walked through the ballpark gate, he hollered, “Oh-h, you ol’ buzzard! You ol’ Buzzard!”

Close behind Sheriff was his shadow, Herman, wearing a corduroy cap with matching khaki shirt and pants. He echoed Sheriff, “Oh-h, you ol’ buzzard! You ol’ buzzard!”

They chanted this all the way to their seats. Approximately sixty hospital patients regularly attended the games, played mostly at night.

If the Travelers were behind at the end of seven innings and the patients got up in unison to return to the hospital, the game was considered over.

“You just as well forget it,” Duke said. “Little Rock wasn’t coming back. They never made any mistakes in that regard. I don’t know how they knew but obviously they didn’t have much faith in us. They never left as long as they thought we had a chance of winning.”

The Travelers didn’t exactly have a winning tradition. From 1946 through 1956, they finished last in the Southern Association six times and next-to-last twice. They lost more than a hundred games three of those seasons.

Duke recalled a twenty-one game losing streak by the Travelers in 1950. “We went into the bottom half of the ninth not once, not twice, not three times but four times with a five-run lead and couldn’t win. It didn’t matter who was pitching, who was playing or what, we managed to lose those ballgames.”

Travelers’ manager Otto “Jack” Saltzgaver figured a curfew wouldn’t stop the players from staying out late at night so he handed out meal money every morning at nine o’clock. “I may not know when you get in at night but I’m going to know when you get up in the morning,” he said.

“It didn’t get anybody in any sooner,” Duke said. “I don’t know where they went but they were out until two or three o’clock in the morning. Not too many of them left their day’s meal money on the table either.

“I played with a lot of ballplayers that didn’t have as good a sense as Willie did,” Duke said.

Rosie moved from Little Rock to Birmingham, Alabama, late in the 1948 season and, then, played five more years, three for the hometown Pine Bluff Judges, before quitting baseball in 1953. The same year Duke left Little Rock to manage the Jackson, Mississippi, entry in the Class C Cotton States League. He quickly found himself in the middle of a racial storm that threatened to break up a league that, according to one newspaper, “survived three wars, floods, pestilence and a depression to keep going in forty of its fifty-two years.”

The new owners of the Hot Springs Bathers announced in early April they were going to use two African-American pitchers, Jim “Schoolboy” Tugerson and his, brother, Leander.

The previous year they played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League.  Jim roomed with a shortstop for the Clowns, future Hall of Famer Henry Aaron, posted a 14-2 won-loss record and batted .325. “We rapped the ball, and then we’d go home,” Jim said.

He also starred for the Clowns in 1951, notching an 18-4 record, a miniscule 1.92 earned run average and hitting .343.

Blacks had never played in the league made up of Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and El Dorado in Arkansas, Monroe in Louisiana, and Jackson, Greenville, Natchez and Meridian in Mississippi. Segregation laws in Mississippi prohibited interracial teams from playing in the state.

Hot Springs promised to play the brothers only where home teams approved but this didn’t prevent the firestorm that followed.

“We are not convinced that a third rate baseball league is any place to fight for equal rights because entertainment, and not need, is involved,” the editors of the Greenville newspaper, The Delta Democrat-Times, commented in an editorial. “In other words, why can’t we realize we’re living in a world which is a lot more concerned about saving mankind’s undeserving skin than in the color of baseball players?”

Hot Springs was kicked out of the league, its president, Al Haraway claiming the issue at stake was a “matter of survival of the league.”

The Tugerson brothers were promptly reinstated by the head of the minors, George Trautman, who ruled the agreement among the league’s club directors not to use black players was illegal and “at war with the concept that the national pastime offers equal opportunity to all.”

A showdown was averted when Hot Springs optioned Jim and Leander to Knoxville in the Class D Mountain States League. Jim was recalled a month later to “lift attendance and boost the club from its seventh-place standing.”

On May 20, 1953 in Hot Springs, a crowd of 1,500, the largest of the season, turned out to see Jim break the league’s color barrier and perhaps teach segregationists a lesson in the process. The Bathers were scheduled to face Duke’s Jackson Senators.

Duke was one of two managers in the league who said his team would play against Jim. He had played against blacks in Panama. “It didn’t matter to me what color they were. We weren’t playing a game with color; we were playing it with bats and balls.”

As Tugerson warmed up in the bullpen, Bathers’ co-owner Lewis Goltz received a telegram from Haraway warning that the game would be forfeited to Jackson if Jim pitched. The league’s umpires had already been ordered “to forfeit every game to the opposing club when Tugerson’s name appears on the roster.”

When Jim was officially announced as the pitcher, Duke walked to home plate so the umpires could tell him what they both already knew – the game was being forfeited to Jackson.

“The orders from the league president to all of the managers were that if Jim Tugerson’s name was in the starting lineup and he was the pitcher that took the mound for the opening pitch, which was never made, then, we were not to play,” Duke said. “That’s exactly the way it happened.”

 

The one and only Bobo Newsom.
Bobo Newsom could hit, too.

Some 500 fans were still waiting to get in the ballpark when the game was called off. Tugerson never made it to the mound. A wire-service photo shows him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with four white teammates, a blank expression on his face as the forfeit was announced. “I hope I land in the majors someday,” Jim said. “I want to be in a league where they will let me play ball.”

Jim returned to Knoxville, won an amazing thirty-three games, including four in the playoffs, and filed a $50,000 civil rights suit against Haraway and other league officials that was eventually dismissed at his request. In six minor league seasons, he compiled an 86-71 mark. He got to the top of the minors, the American Association, a triple-A league, but never made it to the majors.

That night in Hot Springs was the closest Duke came to seeing Schoolboy Tugerson pitch. “I was half-way excited about the moment because I was ready to play the game,” Duke said. “But I had nothing to say about it. I just happened to have a ball club that was playing at Hot Springs that night and I did as I was told.”

Duke had another shot at managing in 1954, this time the Tallahassee, Florida, Rebels in the Class B Florida International League. “I know this situation is bad here,” he said on taking over in early May. “But I knew of a ball club once that won only two of its first twenty-one. What are we now? Three and twenty-four? This ball club, even as it is, is not that bad.”

Actually, it was worse.

After watching the Rebels make seven errors in a game, a Tallahassee Democrat sportswriter observed: “What it was, was NOT baseball…I believe I will have another big orange.”

“We had a couple of fellows down there that couldn’t catch the ball and those that caught it, couldn’t throw it,” Duke said.

The league was in equally bad shape financially, two of its six teams dropping out the day Duke arrived in Tallahassee. The entire league collapsed in late July. “They had no money. I’d take a check for meal money and go on the road with it. When I got to the hotel, they didn’t want to cash the check. They said, ‘We’ve got your check from the last time.’ It got that way all around the league.”

Duke finished his career at Memphis in the Southern Association in 1955 and, then, went home to Orlando, Florida, to become a pipe-fitter.

He didn’t return to Little Rock and Travelers Field until 1975. On the way there, he and his wife, Norma, picked up their son, Sandy, in Dallas, Texas.  They stopped in New Boston, Texas, to visit Hal Simpson, the Travelers’ biggest star from 1949-54 when he hit 106 home runs, a team record that still stands.

Duke and Hal roomed together on the road for four years so they got to know each other better than most players do. They swapped stories that with the passing of time got better.

A popular saying in the 1950s was, “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Fords.”

Hal slugged 263 career homers, Duke 27.

Duke was driving a new Cadillac when he pulled into a gas station operated by Hal. “He didn’t say anything but his eyes were real wide,” Duke said with a chuckle.

Hal was another character that makes the lore of the minors so rich for a storyteller like Duke. In eighteen seasons, all in the minors, Hal batted .305.  “The guy that would get him out was just a thrower.  Anybody he could hit was a good pitcher.”

Simpson was a reformed alcoholic. “But he continued to use Geritol,” Duke noted.

An iron and vitamin supplement advertised as a remedy for tired blood, the original liquid formulation of Geritol contained about 12 percent alcohol. “He was crazy about that Geritol.”

Before Little Rock, Simpson played in Texarkana, Texas, with George Washington, a minor-league legend who won four batting titles, including three straight after he turned 39 years old. His first name wasn’t really George. It was Sloan. His middle name was Vernon but everybody called him George.

When the left-handed hitting Washington played for Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Texas League, a special screen was raised when he batted to protect fans from possible injury. “If he swung and missed, the bat was coming right over the first base dugout and into the stands.”

Fortunately, George didn’t miss that much, batting .347 over fifteen years in the minors. He hit a respectable .283 his only full season in the majors. “He had all kinds of power. He could hit line drives that would plaster the second baseman against the right-field fence.”

George was known to get a little plastered himself.  “I think he may have been one of the fellows that got Hal started to drinking.”

Hal and George were going to dinner one night after a game when they spotted a hungry-looking dog. They decided to take the dog into the café with them and feed him a steak just like the one they were going to eat. The owner of the café protested.

“Well, if you can’t serve him, you won’t serve us,” George growled.

As Hal and George got up to leave, the owner relented and agreed to fix the dog a steak.

Duke Doolittle in 1950 when the Little Rock Travelers lost 21 straight games. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)
Duke Doolittle in 1950 when the Little Rock Travelers lost 21 straight games. (Courtesy Duke Doolittle)

That was Hal’s favorite story and one Duke faithfully passed on to others. “We were both loaded to the gills,” he told Duke, “but we saw this dog and he looked hungry and we just decided to feed him.”

On arriving in Little Rock, Duke went to the ballpark to see the Travelers, a St. Louis Cardinals farm club in the Texas League in 1975. Duke was surprised to learn that Willie, in his late fifties or early sixties when he played for the Travelers, was still alive and hanging around the ballpark. He found Willie in his usual spot in the left-field bleachers, sitting with other hospital guests. The Sheriff and Herman were not among them.

“Hey, Willie!” Duke said as he sat down beside Willie.

“How you doing, Duke?”

“Fine.”

“Rosie’s dead! Rosie’s dead! Rosie’s dead!”

“What are you talking about?”

Duke lost contact with Rosie after he quit baseball.

“Rosie died! He died in Pine Bluff! Rosie’s gone! Rosie’s gone!”

Rosie died the year before at the age of fifty-six.

It had been twenty-three years since Duke wore a Travelers uniform, even more for Rosie. “After all those years Willie recognized me and still had Rosie on his mind,” Duke marveled.

It wasn’t all that surprising really. Duke and Rosie always treated Willie with kindness and respect and took time to talk and play catch with him. Willie remembered them because, in his eyes, they were always big leaguers.

Ike’s Bodyguards

Big Klu_1957 Topps card
Oh, to be like Big Klu!

Anybody that collected baseball cards in 1957 can vividly remember one showing Ted Kluszewski in a Cincinnati Redlegs uniform with the sleeves slashed to show the most powerful arms outside of a military installation. He was already known as “Big Klu” because of his size, 6-foot-2 and nearly 250 pounds. The card symbolized strength and raw power before that image was corrupted by sluggers on steroids.

Big Klu is one of 50 players eligible for election in 2016 to the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals. This stirs memories of his bulging biceps and the 1961 season when he shared first base duties for the Los Angeles Angels with Stout Steve Bilko, aka the Slugging Seraph for the Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

/ Big Klu and Stout Steve in 1961 (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below*
Big Klu and Stout Steve in 1961 (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below*

The Shrine of the Eternals recognizes players who have altered the baseball world in ways that supersede statistics. Bilko was inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals in 2015. If Big Klu is one of the top three vote getters, he and Bilko will be together again.

The Angels were forced to leave L.A. in 1958 by the Dodgers. They were resurrected by the American League as part of its westward expansion.

To attract fans to L.A.’s Wrigley Field, a quaint, cozy ballpark the Dodgers snubbed to play in a 100,000-seat football stadium, the Coliseum, the Angels needed Big Klu and Stout Steve to flex the muscles that made them famous.

Big Klu banged 171 home runs for the Cincinnati Redlegs from 1953-57 while Bilko walloped 148 during the 1955-56-57 seasons for the Angels in the PCL, an open classification league. The Angels picked both in the expansion draft, Big Klu for $75,000 and Bilko for $25,000.

“I’ve never seen Wrigley Field but they tell me it’s not too big,” Big Klu said.

He arrived at the Angels’ spring training camp in Palm Springs, California, with his wife and a pet boxer described by one sportswriter as “merocious looking.” Big Klu was equally fierce, immediately smacking a ball over the right-field fence at the 380-foot mark. “Boy, oh boy, is he going to like Wrigley Field,” Angel Owner Gene Autry gushed.

The Angels released Big Klu after the 1961 season.
The Angels released Big Klu after the 1961 season.

Everybody knew Bilko was itching to get back to Wrigley Field where he was the acknowledged home pro. “Wrigley is the one park that was really built for me,” Bilko explained.

“Big Boy belted the first ball pitched to him for a 375-foot homer,” John Hall reported in the Los Angeles Mirror. “He soon sent four more over the left-centerfield screen, and powered drives to all corners of the outfield.”

Bilko socked two more homers his second day to give him seven in two days of practice. Big Klu poked a pair. The arms race was on.

“We’ll let them know we’re in the league,” declared Angel President Bob Reynolds.

Bilko, President Eisenhower, Big Klu and Angel Manager Bill Rigney (Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
Bilko, President Eisenhower, Big Klu and Angel Manager Bill Rigney (Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

“These are our first basemen,” Angel Manager Bill Rigney introduced Bilko and Big Klu to President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he made a surprise appearance at the team’s first intra-squad game.

“I hope they don’t sit on it,” Ike quipped, “or they’d flatten it out.

On posing for photos between the two mashers, Ike said, “They’d make a couple of good bodyguards.”

Big Klu was the first to wear a sleeveless baseball shirt. “It was not for show,” said Albie Pearson, Big Klu’s roommate on road trips. “He literally was so cramped with his massive arms that he started cutting off the sleeves and Cincinnati ended up with the sleeveless shirts.”

At 5-foot-5, 140 pounds, Little Albie was the smallest player in the majors.

Big Klu once told Albie if he didn’t behave, he’d push both beds together for himself and stick Albie in a drawer to sleep. “He was a massive man and he had a look like he wanted to kill you. But he was one of the tenderest men I’ve ever known.”

On another occasion Albie was taking batting practice at Wrigley Field before a game against the Cleveland Indians. Up walked Willie Kirkland, a solidly-built outfielder who could’ve passed for a middle linebacker.

“Hey, Little Man,” Kirkland teased. “You know what? I might have a hankering when you come out of that cage to pinch your head right off your shoulders.”

SI_Redleg Musclemen
L-R, Wally Post, Klu and Gus Bell in sleeveless uniforms inspired by Big Klu.

Instead, Big Klu walked up to Kirkland and put an arm around his shoulder. “Willie,” he said, “you’re talking to my roommate. I’ll tell you something, Willie. You mess with him; you’re going to have to mess with me. And guess what, Willie? This tree has never been cut down.”

Nobody knew for sure what the 6-foot-1 Bilko weighed because he refused to get on the scales. He coyly deflected questions by saying he weighed “somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds” or “same as last year” – whatever that was.

“Steve was not fat,” Albie said. “He was one of the biggest boned men I’ve seen. His legs – you could put mine together and make one of his.”

There are different accounts of what Ike said to Bilko about his weight. One has Ike needling, “They tell me you’re off about 30 pounds in weight.” Another has him saying, “They tell me you’re about 10 pounds lighter this season.”

Steve smiled politely. He knew Ike had help from one of his teammates.

Bilko suspected a practical joke soon after he arrived at Wrigley Field for the home opener against the Minnesota Twins. He was in the starting lineup but not at his usual position of first base. Klu was at first; Steve was in right field, the first time he had played outfield since high school. “The Bilko Experiment,” one sportswriter called it.

“We need his bat,” Rigney said. “We need anybody’s bat.”

A halo for the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
A halo for the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

The Angels had new caps featuring a halo on top. On seeing one in his locker, Steve yelled to the clubhouse manager, “What’s this? A bull’s eye so I’ll get hit on the head?'”

Hall observed in the Mirror: “As an outfielder, Bilko is no Willie Mays. But he didn’t make a single mistake in his debut, and Big Boy is still the most popular guy on the Wrigley premises.”

The ’61 Angels played their first eight games on the road, losing seven of them. This brought dire predictions that they would be lucky to win 50. “One of the worst clubs ever assembled,” columnist Jimmy Cannon proclaimed from his ivory tower in New York City, the fountain of all baseball knowledge in the 1950s. “They are in these uniforms because they proved their inefficiency.”

“Their purpose in life,” syndicated columnist Red Smith wrote of the Angels, “is to provide tax deductions for Autry, Bob Reynolds and associates, and comic relief for the baseball public.”

Big Klu wasn’t amused. He said the Angels could place as high as fifth in the 10-team league. “You can bet on it.”

The Angels finished eighth but their 71 wins still stand as the most by any expansion team in baseball history.

/  L-R, five members of “The Over the Hill Gang”: Big Klu, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte, Bob Cerv and Bilko (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below**
L-R, five members of “The Over the Hill Gang”: Big Klu, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte, Bob Cerv and Bilko (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below**

“How old are you?” Ike asked Bilko at spring training camp.

“Thirty-two,” Steve replied.

Ike didn’t bother to ask the 36-year-old Klu. Perhaps he didn’t want to upset Big Klu and his “merocious looking” boxer.

Big Klu slammed 15 homers for the Angels despite back problems that limited him to 290 plate appearances, many as a pinch-hitter. Stout Steve went to bat 354 times and belted 20 balls out of the park to give the hulking pair a combined 35.

Big Klu hit the Angels first home run of the season, Bilko hit the last one in the last major-league game played at Wrigley Field. Not bad for two guys who were the poster boys for a team that will always be remembered as “The Over-the-Hill Gang.”

To view the official news release on the 50 eligible candidates for the Baseball Reliquary’s 2016 election of the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, click on the following link:

http://www.baseballreliquary.org/2015/12/candidates-for-2016-election-of-the-shrine-of-the-eternals/

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

Season Opener

No reason to wait until April for the baseball season to begin.

Tune in 10 a.m. Tuesday, January 12 to Daytime Tricities on WJHL-TV, Johnson City, Tennessee, to see Dave Hillman, aka Mr. Automatic, and author Gaylon White discuss the 1956 Los Angeles of the old Pacific Coast League, the inspiration for the book, The Bilko Athletic Club.

Dave Hillman at his home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo by Alan Lee
Dave Hillman at his home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo by Alan Lee

Dave earned the nickname Mr. Automatic in 1956 when he won 21 games for the Angels despite missing the first six weeks of the season because of a sore arm.

Pitching for the for the Coeburn Blues in the Lonesome Pine League in 1948-49, Dave was dubbed “Fireball” as scouts came to see if he was as fast as his nickname.

Tim Murchison, a scout for the Chicago Cubs, was in the stands for a Saturday night game in St. Paul, Virginia. He sat next to Dave’s parents.

“I was firing away,” Dave recalled. “They didn’t have big catcher’s mitts in those days – just small ones with very little padding. Every time I threw a fast ball, the catcher backed up. And, then, the umpire kept backing up.”

After the game, Murchison told Dave’s mother: “I’m going to sign that boy if it takes everything I got.”

Dave signed with the Cubs in 1950, moved to nearby Kingsport, Tennessee, with his wife Imogene and their one-year-old daughter, Sharon, and began his climb up the pro baseball ladder.

By the end of the 1956 season in Los Angeles, Dave had another nickname – “The Slim Virginian.”

A few years later, The Virginian, a tough ranch foreman played by actor James Drury, became a popular western television series. Nobody knew the real name of the foreman. He was known only as The Virginian.

Ironically, few people know Hillman by his real name – Darius Dutton. Dave is a nickname given to him by his boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, in their hometown of Dungannon, tucked in the Appalachian foothills of southwest Virginia near the Tennessee border.

Darius was born September 14, 1927 – the fifth of Carmel and Ollie Hillman’s seven children. Carmel was a carpenter for the Clinchfield Railroad, now CSX, which runs through Dungannon to the coal mines in the area.

About 400 people lived in Dungannon while Hillman was growing up. Everybody knew each other because, in many cases, they were related.

John and Dave, for example, were distant cousins. “My grandmother was a Blackwell.”

One day Dave Macon, a banjo player in the Grand Ol’ Opry, came to town to perform at the local school. While picking and singing, Macon flipped his banjo in the air, caught it and continued playing without a break in the music.

Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic in 1956.
Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic in 1956.

John was a jovial guy with a hee-haw type of laugh that filled the school auditorium. “I was sitting behind him and laughed until I cried. The next day he started calling me Uncle Dave Macon. As the years went by he cut it down to Uncle Dave. And then it became Dave.”

John was 16 years older than Dave. He left Dungannon briefly in the early 1930s to pitch professionally for Richmond, Virginia, before returning to operate his father’s grocery store and play baseball on weekends in the semipro Lonesome Pine League. Dave was only five the first time he saw John pitch but he remembers it well: “He had the darnedest curveball of any human being I had ever seen in my life. And he could throw hard.”

Dave was a scrawny nine-year-old when he started playing catch with Blackwell. “He’d monkey around throwing the ball. He could throw a knuckleball, curveball and everything else. We played burn-out.”

On graduating from high school, Dave weighed only 138 pounds. He wasn’t much bigger (160 pounds) when he pitched for the Angels in 1956. “I didn’t do like a lot of kids and throw with my arm; I used my legs to leverage my weight. And I figured out what I had to do to get more spin on the ball.”

There was no baseball team or coaches at Dave’s high school. All he had to go on was what he learned from playing catch with Blackwell. “It stuck with me all my life.”

At 8:30 the morning of February 14, 1939, Dave, then 11, was sitting in class at school when his teacher, Carrie Addington, received news that her brother, John Blackwell, was dead after a shootout with a deputy sheriff at Dungannon’s Poplar Cabin Filling Station.

John S. Blackwell is buried at the Fincastle Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia.
John S. Blackwell is buried at the Fincastle Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia.

John was a free spirit who liked to drive his truck through the streets after a big rain storm, splashing water everywhere. He carried a pistol and was known to be trigger happy. The day before the gun battle he shot out Dungannon’s new street lights for the fun of it.

Word spread quickly that Ben Sluss, a deputy sheriff, was going to arrest John for vandalism.

John was sitting behind the counter as Sluss crossed the street to enter the service station. John removed a pistol from his pocket and placed it on top of a nearby safe. He thought Sluss was coming to take him to jail.

Sluss actually was on his way to deliver money John had asked him to collect on bad checks he had been given.

“How are you, John?” Sluss inquired.

“All right,” replied John.

When Sluss reached in his pocket for the money, John grabbed his pistol and started shooting. Sluss was struck by three bullets but somehow fired back after falling to the floor. John was killed by a bullet to the head. Sluss died the next day from his gunshot wounds.

Dave flashes the ring the ’56 Angels received for winning the PCL championship.
Dave flashes the ring the ’56 Angels received for winning the PCL championship.

“They let us out of school,” Dave recalled. “I went to the filling station where he was shot. The filling station was next to the barber shop. They put his body on the pool table in the barber shop. They had his shirt off. There was no blood but plenty of bullet holes. There was one through the shoulders, another in the chest. I was in shock because I loved the fellow. I thought a lot of him.”

Dave wound up pitching in the majors for the Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Redlegs and New York Mets. He retired from baseball in 1962, returning to Kingsport where he has lived ever since.

 

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wow Effect

Steve Bilko wasn’t much for speeches. When he was named the Pacific Coast League’s most valuable player in 1955, he stepped to the microphone and said: ‘Wow!’

Stephen Michael, left, encourages his father, Stephen Richard, before ceremonial first pitch at Anaheim Stadium.
Stephen Michael, left, encourages his father, Stephen Richard, before ceremonial first pitch at Angel Stadium of Anaheim.

Bilko wound up winning the MVP award the next two years, belting 55 home runs for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 and 56 in 1957 to give him 148 in three monster seasons that had L.A. fans echoing Bilko’s “Wow!”

Singer Ross Altman summed it up in a song he wrote about Bilko, “Who’s on First?”

“Sometimes he swung like Kirk Gibson, others like Casey at the Bat. But when that bat connected, it was music to our ears. Tape-measure homers just like the Babe, he put them in the stratosphere.

“What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third, according to Abbott and Costello. But who’s on first, that’s easy, L.A. Angels’ Steve Bilko, the Angelino Bambino, working-class coal miner’s son. He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams all rolled into one.”

Steve Bilko_Shrine of the EternalsBilko played his last game in L.A. for the American League Angels in 1962. But the wow effect Stout Steve had on a generation of Los Angeles baseball fans was still evident last July in Pasadena, California, when he was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.

Altman was there to sing Bilko’s praises.

Wes Parker, six-time Golden Glove-award winner for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1960s and early 1970s, showed up to pay tribute to one of his boyhood heroes.

John Schulian, a nationally syndicated sports columnist before turning his talents to writing and producing TV dramas in Hollywood, was on hand to introduce the man “who will never stop being a hero of mine.”

“Wow!” said Mary Bilko, wife of Stephen Richard Bilko, Stout Steve’s oldest son.

Three generations of Steve Bilkos in Dodger Stadium dugout with Gaylon White.
Three generations of Steve Bilkos in Dodger Stadium dugout with Gaylon White.

Steve was only five in 1956 when his father inspired the team’s nickname, “The Bilko Athletic Club,” and won the Coast League triple-crown for the highest batting average and most home runs and runs batted in. His brother, Thomas, was four. They were too young to understand the wow effect that made Stout Steve as big a celebrity in L.A. as any movie star.

That’s what made the Shrine of Eternals induction ceremony so special. The Bilko boys and their families got a glimpse of the legend Steve Bilko left behind in L.A.

Earlier in the week, the Bilkos toured Dodger Stadium, aka Chavez Ravine, where Stout Steve played first base for the Angels in 1962. They attended a nationally-televised Angels-Boston Red Sox game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Stephen Richard threw out the ceremonial first pitch as Big Steve’s grandson, Stephen Michael, granddaughter, Barbara Ann, and great-grandson, Stephen Robert, looked on. Previously in the Angels press room, four-year-old Stephen announced he would throw out the second pitch (click on link below to see video clip).

Stephen Robert_press conference_2015-07-17 21.25.30

 

L-R, Gaylon White, Steve Bilko, John Schulian and Tom Bilko.
L-R, Gaylon White, Steve Bilko, John Schulian and Tom Bilko.

At the Shrine of Eternals ceremony, Stout Steve was heralded as a beloved sports hero by Schulian and Gaylon White, author of the book, The Bilko Athletic Club.

Here are White’s remarks:

It’s only fitting that two of us are introducing Stout Steve Bilko, the Slugging Seraph.

Bilko was so big that Angel manager Bob Scheffing said in 1956 that “more people in L.A. today know Bilko than Marilyn Monroe.”

Bilko was so big that actor Phil Silvers adopted the Bilko name for the master sergeant he played on his hit television show. “I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers explained, referring to perennial all-stars Gil Hodges and Stan Musial. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”

Steve Bilko was an icon…an authentic folk hero…King Kong of the Pacific Coast League…Paul Bunyan of the Bushes.

In 1976, I spent a day with Bilko in Nanticoke, trying to understand why he wasn’t the big star in the majors that he was in the Coast League.

When I first saw Bilko hit a home run at Wrigley Field in L.A. in 1955, I thought he was Babe Ruth. Of course, I was nine years old – too young to see the real Babe. But Bilko was big like Babe and in the Coast League he hit home runs like Babe.

I once mentioned this to Joe Garagiola and here’s what he said…

I found out later that Bilko could drink more beer than Babe.

Jim Brosnan was a pitcher for the Angels in 1955. They were roommates on the road.  They also shared a few beers.  Here’s a conversation I had with Brosnan:

When I mention the name Steve Bilko, what’s the first thing you think of?

“Beer. The man was a great beer drinker.”

I understand he had a wooden leg?

“He had a wooden leg besides the two he was carrying which were huge — about the size of ale cans. I’m sure he kept a special tap in one knee in case he ran out.”

How much did he weigh?

“Over a period of time, I think about 900 pounds. He must‘ve lost that much, at least. 

Was he constantly dieting?

“In his way, he was constantly dieting.”

What was his way?

“He’d take a six-pack of beer into the bathroom, and he‘d seal off the door by putting towels against the bottom of the door, close the window, turn on the shower to hot. Then he‘d sit on the edge of the bathtub while all this steam would rise and he’d drink beer — all six bottles. He said it helped him sweat. Of course, sweat meant you were losing weight. And this is how he’d do it.”

Bilko’s three managers with the Coast League Angels didn’t care what he weighed.

It was different in St. Louis where the Cardinals tried to make him a Mr. America in tights.

Listen to what Garagiola had to say about this…

One of the few Hollywood celebrities Steve mixed with in L.A. was John Wayne because he was a big baseball fan and reminded Bilko of the folks who lived near him in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke.

In Honey Pot, Bilko was called Bunky. Nobody knows why except if you lived in Honey Pot, you had a nickname. John became Yeaker.

There was Zughead, Booney, Dupps and Scooby.

I went back to Nanticoke last November and was given a Honey Pot nickname: Whiteski.Gaylon_Whiteski shirt

The front of the shirt has a pink carnation. One of Steve’s favorite songs was A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation by Marty Robbins.

Bilko liked country music, especially Hank Snow and Hank Williams.

He drank beer and smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes while watching Lawrence Welk or Roller Derby on TV.

If you bought him a beer, he returned the favor because that’s what folks do in Honey Pot.

Bilko attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and sang in the all-men’s choir. They were so good that people from other parishes came to hear them sing. After choir practice, the guys went to the Eagles Club to have a couple of beers.

If you lived in Honey Pot, you belonged to a club – the Eagles Club; the Honey Pot Club; the Ali Baba Club; the Athletic Club of Nanticoke; the Fireman’s Club, a combination club and fire station in Honey Pot.

Bilko was one of its regulars. Bilko is buried directly behind the 400 Club at St. Joseph’s Cemetery. He was 49 when he died suddenly from a heart attack in 1978.

Bilko was a hero to an entire generation of kids in L.A. One of them was Wes Parker, six-time Golden Glove Award winner with the Dodgers. Wes is here today to pay tribute to his boyhood hero who he shares the same birth date with – November 13.

Author White, left, with Wes Parker
Author White, left, with Wes Parker.

Another boy who idolized Bilko was Ron Kalb. He was 12 years old in 1956 – a presidential election year – when Ned Cronin of the Los Angeles Times proposed Mickey Mantle and Bilko as running mates. “A vote against Mantle and Bilko is a vote against home, mother and bottled beer,” he wrote.

On hearing of Steve’s death, Ron wrote his wife, Mary, a letter that expressed the feelings of thousands of young boys: “No one used the term “superstar” in those days, but Steve Bilko surely was one…to this day, I consider him the last real American sports hero.

“Today’s sports figures are surrounded by press agents, business agents, lawyers, fast cars, and faster women. They are surly and they are vain.

“Steve Bilko was modest. He was big, in every sense of the word, gentle and kind. He never spoke ill of anyone and hit home runs like clockwork. That’s a real hero. That was Steve Bilko.”

Ron went on to describe a home run hit for the Dodgers against the Milwaukee Braves at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1958:

“In the very first inning, Big Steve came to bat with two men on. Before the P.A. announcer could say his name, we, and thousands of others leaped to our feet and shouted ourselves hoarse. The count went to three-and-one…we held our collective breath. Steve got a high fastball and drilled it high and deep to straightaway center. Wes Covington, the Brave outfielder, didn’t move or even look up. He knew it. The ball sailed 40 or 50 feet over his head, far back into the seats. It was a typical, prodigious Bilko homer. We jumped up and down; we hugged each other; we hugged strangers; we almost cried. We stood and cheered for at least five minutes. God, how we loved that man!”

In 1961 Bilko was playing for the Angels – their first season in the American League and only one at Wrigley Field where he was known as “the home pro.”

Tom Bilko at Anaheim Stadium.
Tom Bilko at Angel Stadium.

Thomas Bilko, Steve’s youngest son, carries in his wallet a news clipping and box score describing a game against the Yankees at Wrigley Field. The clipping reads: “The Yanks tied the score at 3-3 in the fifth on three singles and a walk. But Ford gave those right back when he walked Pearson and Steve Bilko hit a little white house beyond the left-field fence.”

With two outs in the ninth inning of the last game ever played at Wrigley Field, Bilko belted a pinch-hit homer off of Cleveland’s Mudcat Grant.

Here’s Steve telling what happened…

Ron Kalb ended his letter to Mary Bilko this way: “Steve Bilko and the feelings he inspired in us represent all that is noble in sports. But those days are gone forever. And now so is Big Steve. Yes, his memory can fill the void left in my heart, but no one can fill the void he leaves in professional sports.”

The induction of Stephen Thomas Bilko into the Shrine of the Eternals on his daughter Sharon’s birthday ensures that his impact on L.A. baseball lives on just as his name, Stephen, was handed down from his oldest son, Stephen Richard, to his grandson, Stephen Michael, to a great grandson, Stephen Robert.

As Ron Kalb put it: “He shined so brightly and, sadly, so shortly, but I’ll always feel blessed to have lived my life at a time when I could share the warm glow he generated.”

Steve’s death in 1978 inspired this banner headline in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: BIG STEVE BILKO; THE FANS LOVED HIM.

They loved him because he was humble, loyal and in a place called Tinseltown, he was real!

He didn’t say much. When he did speak, you listened.

“Come on, Boy,” Steve shouted to pitcher Stan Williams when they played for the Dodgers in 1958. “Get the ball over. The beer in the ice box is cold now.”

If you listen carefully, you can hear Stout Steve now. He’s saying: “Get this thing over. The beer in the ice box is cold now.”

White’s comments were reinforced by a Pasadena Central Library exhibit titled, “Bingo, Bango, Bilko.” It showcased memorabilia covering Stout Steve’s long career.

The Bilkos departed L.A. knowing the legend of Steve Bilko was real and lasting. Stout Steve said it best: “Wow!”

The following links will take you to Nanticoke Times Leader news coverage of Steve Bilko’s induction into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals:

http://timesleader.com/sports/baseball/374131/big-day-for-bilkos-legacy

http://timesleader.com/sports/mlb/373947/stephen-bilko-throws-out-first-pitch-of-angels-game-on-honorary-weekend-for-his-father

http://timesleader.com/sports/baseball/374133/nanticokes-steve-bilko-joins-a-shrine-for-those-who-made-an-impact-on-baseball

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Conversation with Handsome Ransom Jackson

Andrew White is 10 years old; Ransom Jackson 89. Despite their age difference, they have a common interest in baseball.

Andrew+Ransom_2015-09-25 18.22.27Ransom played 10 years in the majors with the Chicago Cubs, the Dodgers in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and the Cleveland Indians. He played with Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella and against such greats as Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Henry Aaron.

Andrew has heard a lot about these baseball icons from his grandfather, Gaylon White, who recently teamed with Ransom to write a book, Handsome Ransom Jackson: Accidental Big Leaguer. The Rowman & Littlefield book, to be released May 2016, chronicles Ransom’s life growing up in Arkansas, playing college football and pro baseball as well as what happened to him after baseball.

Ransom now lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife, Terry.

Andrew recently went to Athens to see his first college football game (University of Georgia versus Southern University) and meet his first big-league baseball player – Ransom.

He did his homework, looking up Ransom’s career statistics (103 home runs, 415 runs batted in and a .261 batting average). He learned that Ransom was a two-time National League All-Star with the Cubs. But he still had some unanswered questions.

“Why don’t you ask Ransom these questions?” Gaylon suggested. “You can use my digital recorder to interview him.”

That’s exactly what happened.Ransom+Andrew_2015-09-25 18.33.26

Ransom showed Andrew photographs from his baseball career displayed in the family room where he spends most of his time and, then, fielded Andrew’s questions as smoothly as the ground balls hit to him at third base.

“What was it like to interview a big-league ballplayer?” Andrew was asked.

“Cool!” he said.

Ransom+Andrew_2015-09-26 15.52.54

 

 

You can listen to audio clips from Andrew’s interview with Ransom by clicking on the icons below.

 

 

 

 

In audio clip one, Ransom discusses baseball greats Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Don Drysdale, getting hit in the head with a baseball, and the longest home run he ever hit.

In audio clip two, Ransom tells Andrew about the power of chocolate donuts and Andrew decides he’ll start eating them so he can hit like Ransom:

Audio file three has been broken into two separate audio files to make downloading and listening quicker.  Ransom covers his induction into the University of Texas’ cherished Longhorn Hall of Honor; playing in two straight Cotton Bowl classics for two different schools, TCU and Texas;  playing football and baseball at Texas with Bobby Layne, the legendary NFL quarterback; the first time he played left field for the Cubs; what it was like to play under the lights in Macon, Georgia; and golfing.

It's not chocolate but Andrew hopes eating donuts will help him slug home runs like Ransom Jackson.
It’s not chocolate but Andrew hopes eating donuts will help him slug home runs like Ransom Jackson.

 

 

 

In audio clip four, Ransom talks about hitting and playing third base, and recalls the no-hitter Sad Sam “Toothpick” Jones pitched for the Cubs in 1955.

low res book jackiet

 

Handsome Ransom Jackson can be pre-ordered by clicking on the following link:

https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442261556/Handsome-Ransom-Jackson-Accidental-Big-Leaguer

 

 

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Name of the Game: Break Up That Double Play

Gale “Windy” Wade doesn’t write a sports column like he did for the Los Angeles Mirror-News in 1955 playing for the Los Angeles Angels or in 1960 when he doubled as the centerfielder for Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers and a columnist for the Dallas Times-Herald.

Columnist Gale  Wade: “Bats left, throws right, types one finger.” (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Columnist Gale Wade: “Bats left, throws right, types one finger.” (Courtesy Gale Wade)

The Times-Herald introduced Wade’s column showing him wearing a cap with a press badge on it and holding a typewriter as if it was a bat. The caption read: “Dallas-Fort Worth outfielder hit .280, 5th in PCL SB’s [stolen bases] for Seattle in ’59. Reputation as a fiery scrapper…bust-a-gut to beat you…aggressive base runner. Hobbies: breaking up DP’s and second basemen. Bats left, throws right, types one finger.”

Wade doesn’t follow baseball anymore. But that doesn’t mean he has nothing to say about baseball matters close to his heart.

Take, for example, the rough-and-tumble slide by Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers that broke up a double play as well as the leg of New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada in the second game of the recent National League Division Series between the Dodgers and Mets. The slide made Utley Public Enemy No. 1 of Mets fans and led to a two-game suspension from Major League Baseball.

“There’s not a thing wrong with it,” Wade said of Utley’s slide. “It’s just good ol’ offensive baseball. I thought it was a joke when they started saying they were going to suspend him. Hellfire!”

Hellfire describes the Wade ran the base paths for the Angels from 1955-57 in the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

“I saw him go in there and just roll over some of those guys,” said Cece Carlucci, a long-time PCL umpire.

Eventually, the league banned the cross-body blocks the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Wade used to bust up double plays.

Wade was a star halfback in high school at Bremerton, Washington, in 1946. In the same backfield was Don Heinrich, a quarterback who went on to earn all-America honors at the University of Washington and play for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League. “After all these years,” Heinrich said well into his pro career, “I have to say I never saw anybody start faster on a quick-opening handoff than Wade. If he had decided to go into professional football, he would have made somebody take notice.”

Wade accepted a football scholarship from Texas Christian University, but changed his mind when a Brooklyn Dodgers scout offered him $5,000 to play baseball. “I got a call from almost every college in the country. If I’d got one call from Notre Dame, I would’ve never seen a baseball.”

A lot of opposing players wish Notre Dame had made that call.

“The biggest kick I got out of baseball was breaking up a double play at second base. I’d rather do that than hit a home run. Winning one ballgame to me was a whole season. If it meant taking a catcher out at home plate or knocking out the second baseman with a rolling block, I did it. I sacrificed my body to win ballgames.”

In 1948 at spring training with the Dodgers, Wade aimed one of his signature rolling blocks at Jackie Robinson in an intra-squad game. “He’s starting to turn a little bit toward first to make the double play, that’s when I got him. Oh, man, he came up off the ground and we went at it. Right there about twenty feet behind second base.”

Another crunching block in a game in Venezuela in 1955 started a riot and a near international incident. Windy barreled into Chico Carrasquel, a star shortstop for the Cleveland Indians and a national idol. Chico was knocked unconscious and removed from the game.

Playing for the Spokane Indians in 1958 he upended Jack Lohrke, a Portland Beavers second baseman nicknamed “Lucky” because he cheated death six times by the time he was 22 years old.

Wade’s signature rolling block slide. (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Wade’s signature rolling block slide. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

Lohrke fought in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and Battle of the Bulge during World War II. On four occasions, soldiers on both sides of him were killed in combat. Returning home from the war in 1945, he was bumped from a military transport plane to make room for an officer. The plane crashed 45 minutes later, killing all on board. In 1946, he was traveling by bus with his Spokane teammates when he got a telephone call at a restaurant stop to report immediately to another minor-league team. Lohrke hitchhiked back to Spokane. Soon afterwards the bus plummeted off a mountain cliff, killing nine of the 15 players aboard.

Lohrke wasn’t so lucky in his collision with Wade. He dislocated a shoulder that sidelined him nearly two months and essentially ended his career.

“I felt bad about that,” Wade admitted. “Jack was one of my good friends from winter baseball. I thought the world of Jack. Of course, I took them all out. And they all knew it when they got near second base. They knew that they were fair game. They tried to low-bridge me, too. That was part of it.”

Knockdown pitches were also part of the game when Wade played. In fact, a fastball to the head in 1961 shattered his right cheekbone, just below the temple. “It would’ve killed him if it had hit in the temple,” said Jack Hannah, a teammate. “That was the end of Gale Wade’s baseball career right there.”

Sometimes Gale, center, waded into fences like this one at San Diego’s Lane Field. (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Sometimes Gale, center, waded into fences like this one at San Diego’s Lane Field. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

A few months earlier Freddie Frederico, a trainer for the Seattle Rainiers, recalled when the PCL implemented a rule requiring hitters to use either batting helmets or liners. Wade was playing for the Rainiers at the time.

As Wade walked up to the plate to hit, the umpire noticed he wasn’t wearing a helmet or liner. Wade claimed otherwise.

“Take it off and show me,” the umpire insisted.

“Why, you big-nosed so-and-so,” Wade protested.

That got him kicked out of the game. “And, as he takes off,” Frederico said, “he shows that bald head of his – no helmet.”

The next day Cece Carlucci is the home plate umpire. “And here comes Wade,” Frederico continued. “He has stuck a piece of liner in the crown of his baseball cap, and when Cece gives him the business about a liner, Wade taps his head and tells him: ‘Hear that, I got one on.’”

Carlucci told him to take off his cap anyway.

“He jerks off his cap,” Frederico said, “pulls it down on Cece’s head and walks off. He didn’t even wait for the thumb.”

“I just didn’t like to be wearing anything that I thought was bothering me,” Wade explained. “I never had been hit in the head. I hadn’t been around anybody else that had been hit in the head, you know, at that time. The knockdown pitch was a normal thing then.”

That brings back us back to Chase Utley’s hard-nosed slide in the playoffs and baseball today.

“I don’t really have a strong feeling about baseball period because it has turned into such a money-grab thing,” said Wade, now 86 and splitting his time between homes in North Carolina and Florida. “Any time you can find the players are making more money than the manager, you know who’s running the club.”

Click to view Utley’s slide

Wade saw replays of Utley’s slide while watching the news on television. “They are going to suspend a guy for taking somebody out at second base,” he said incredulously. “Hell, that’s the name of the game. That’s what you did. Break up that double play.”

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Go Cubbies, Go!

Ransom Jackson is 89, Dave Hillman 88, Bob Speake 85 and Hy Cohen 84. None of them thought they would live long enough to see their old team, the Chicago Cubs, play in the World Series again.

Jackson, the oldest of the ex-Cubs, was 19 in 1945 the last time the Cubs were in the World Series and lost to the Detroit Tigers. Of course, none of them were around in 1908 when the Cubs last won baseball’s ultimate prize.

Dave Hillman
Dave Hillman

The 2015 edition of the Cubs won 97 games during the regular season, beat the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League wild card playoff game and, then, ambushed the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series (NLDS), winning the best-of-five series three games to one.

True, Cub manager Joe Maddon looks like Spencer Tracy, the renown actor, and the movie Back to the Future II predicted in 1989 that the Cubs will win the World Series in 2015. There also has been some great theatre produced by a bunch of no-name players. But these are still the Cubbies, lovable losers who inspired the t-shirt asking, “What did Jesus say to the Cubs? Don’t do anything until I come back.”

“They could be unconscious, asleep but whatever, I hope they keep on going,” said Hillman, winner of 21 games for the Cubs from 1957-1959.

“It’s a fun thing to see,” said Cohen, a promising young pitcher for the Cubs in 1955.

“Go Cubbies, go!” said Speake, an outfielder-first baseman for the Cubs in 1955 when his 10 home runs in the month of May had Cub fans chanting “Speake to me” each time he came to bat. “They played real good, solid baseball for as young as they are. It’s amazing. We’ll follow them all the way to the World Series.”

Hy Cohen
Hy Cohen

“They’re too young to know they’re not supposed to be doing that,” added Bob’s wife, Joan, referring to Cub rookies Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez who played like old pros against the Pirates and Cardinals.

A two-time all-star for the Cubs in the 1950s, Jackson wasn’t following the Cubs until the fourth game of the NLDS when they pounded three home runs to eliminate the Cardinals.

“When I watched the game and looked at the names of the guys playing, I’ve never heard of any of them,” he said.

Schwarber got Jackson’s attention with a monster shot in Game 4 that appeared to soar over Wrigley Field’s new scoreboard in right field. “It was hard to follow on TV,” Jackson said. “And nobody knew where it was. I thought it went over the scoreboard.”

Jackson was interested in knowing how far the ball traveled because in 1954 he belted a homer over the left-field bleachers and Waveland Avenue, bouncing off the third floor of an apartment building overlooking the ballpark. There was no way to accurately measure home run distances in those days so Jackson has come up with his own estimate of 450-475 feet.

It was finally announced that Schwarber’s blast went 419 feet, a number Jackson questions. “That doesn’t sound right. It’s 400 feet just to the centerfield wall. It’s got to be 900 feet.”

Ransom Jackson
Ransom Jackson

“When he hits the ball, it really goes,” Cohen said of Schwarber. “He swings from his a-hole. They go out of sight.”

Speake likened Schwarber’s swat to those hit by the Sultan of Swat of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL) – Stout Steve Bilko.

With the 1956 Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, Bilko slammed 55 homers. Speake watched in awe as Bilko smashed balls out of Wrigley Field in Los Angeles even when he was fooled by a pitch. He wonders what Bilko would’ve done playing his entire career at Chicago’s Wrigley Field like Ernie Banks, who hit 512 homers to become known as Mr. Cub.   “If you had put Bilko in Wrigley Field where Ernie hit his 500, man, I don’t know.”

Cohen praised Jake Arrieta, the ace of the Cub pitching staff with 22 victories. “He is what I call an artist. His arm action and everything is so smooth.”

Cohen had a 5-0 record, best in the PCL, when the Angels sent him to the lower minors in 1956. In eight minor-league seasons he won 100 games.

“My philosophy on pitching is the same as his,” Cohen said of Arrieta. “He just throws the ball down the middle of the plate because whatever pitches he’s throwing move anyway.”

“I don’t know where they got all these kids,” Hillman said, “but it’s all falling together for them.”

Bob Speake
Bob Speake

Speake recalled his home run streak in 1955 that had the Cubs in second place behind the Brooklyn Dodgers going into June. “I was so excited to have a Cubs uniform on that the adrenalin just carried me.”

Over the next two months the Cubs were 23-39 and finished the season in sixth place, 26 games behind the pennant-winning Dodgers. “As we were preparing for our second road trip, the atmosphere just sank. Now, I’m a rookie. I don’t know what to expect about anything. These guys are talking about the road trip and saying, ‘Oh, dear!’ And we fulfilled prophecy.

“There’s a lot to be said for the history of the Cubs losing. These kids, they are not losers. They didn’t put that uniform on as a loser. The adrenalin is really flowing and that’s good if you’re basically a good ballplayer. They walk up to the plate and they have the confidence. There’s an aura around them.

“Winning…there’s nothing like winning. We experienced it in L.A. It was triple-A, it was West Coast major leagues, call it what it is. The camaraderie that was on that ball club can only be experienced by being on a winner. We experienced it. These kids are experiencing the same thing.”

 

The Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber hits a baseball to the moon

Movie Back To The Future II predicts Cubs win 2015 World Series

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

Baseball Card in the Making

Sy Berger Photo Courtesy of Marty Appel
Sy Berger (Courtesy of Marty Appel)

Someone at Topps needs to design a baseball card featuring Sy Berger, father of modern-day cards, with Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976-79, and Stout Steve Bilko, the Slugging Seraph and Sergeant of Swat in the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The trio was elected to the Shrine of the Eternals by members of the Baseball Reliquary, a national organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation of American art and culture through the context of baseball history. The Shrine is the diehard baseball fan’s answer to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, recognizing both the obscure and the famous who have impacted baseball in ways that transcend statistics.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” said Stephen R. Bilko, Stout Steve’s eldest son, on hearing the news. “My father never ceases to amaze me. All these years later you find out more and more how popular and famous he was. He was like a church mouse. He wouldn’t say boo about all of his accomplishments.”

“He was so humble,” said Gale “Windy” Wade, the Angels’ centerfielder from 1955-57, who also was up for election. “He defintely deserves to be in that group. No question about it.”

Dave Hillman was a 21-game winner for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 when Bilko won the PCL’s Triple Crown with a .360 batting average, 55 home runs and 164 runs batted in.

“He was a steam engine on that ballclub,” Hillman said. “It was great to see him hit. You wondered how far he was going to hit it because you knew he was going to hit one. He was a humdinger.”

Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph
Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph

Bilko is the second player from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, to be named to the Shrine of the Eternals, joining Pete “One Arm” Gray. Bilko grew up in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke; Gray in the Hanover area. “How about that?” Stephen asked, adding: “This little rinky-dink town.”

Bilko was elected on his fourth try. It was the fifth year on the ballot for Berger and eighth for Burke.

Berger topped all vote getters with 33 percent while Bilko and Burke were named on 31 percent of the ballots. Runners-up were Bob Costas (30 percent), Bo Jackson and J.R. Richard (29 percent), and Charlie Finley and Lisa Fernandez (26 percent). In his first year of eligibility, Wade got four percent.

Steve Bilko’s 1952 Topps card

The three B’s will formally be inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals in a public ceremony Sunday, July 19, 2015 at the Donald R. Wright Auditorium in the Pasadena, California, Central Library.

They will join 48 other baseball luminaries inducted since elections began in 1999. The list includes such Hall of Famers as Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neil, Casey Stengel and Dizzy Dean as well as players who have to buy a ticket to get into the Cooperstown, New York, museum: Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Bill Buckner, Jim Bouton, Jimmy Piersall, and Dock Ellis, to name a few.

Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson are persona non grata in Cooperstown because they were implicated in baseball gambling scandals. They are in the Shrine of the Eternals along with Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82. Flood and Miller teamed to give players the salaries and bargaining power they enjoy today. Also in the Shrine of the Eternals are Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant,  passed over recently by the Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Committee.

Bilko’s 1958 Topps card
Bilko’s 1958 Topps card

“He was by far the biggest sports star in Los Angeles history prior to the arrival of the Dodgers,” the Baseball Reliquary described Bilko in announcing his election. “His pop culture was so huge that when comedian Phil Silvers needed a name for a character in his new television sitcom, he picked Bilko. Recognizing his popularity with local fans, the Dodgers added Bilko to their roster as a gate attraction for their inaugural campaign in Los Angeles. The Angels (the American League expansion team) did likewise in 1961, providing Bilko with a final chance to awe the fans at his old haunt, Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field. For those who saw him play in the PCL, he will always be remembered as a superstar. That his glory years coincided with the demise of a much-loved league adds a wistful touch to his legend.”

Steve Bilko_1952
Bilko’s 1962 Topps card

Berger joined the Brooklyn-based Topps Chewing Gum Company as an assistant sales manager in 1947 and went on to co-design the 1952 Topps set, the most popular ever produced and now valued at more than $100,000. Bilko’s 1952 Topps card in near-mint condition ranges in price from $85 to $920. Berger became a Topps vice president and, then, served as a consultant and board member until he retired in 2003.

Burke was a fleet-footed outfielder for the Dodgers and Athletics and the first big-league ballplayer to publicly acknowledge he was gay. He’s also credited for the birth of the high five, slapping Dusty Baker’s hand after Dusty hit a home run for the Dodgers in 1977. Burke revealed in his autobiography, Out at Home: The Glenn Burke Story, that Dodgers’ management, in an attempt to conceal his homosexuality, offered to pay for his honeymoon if he married a woman. He died in 1995 of complications from an AIDS-related illness. A documentary film based on Burke’s life was released in 2010. “They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors,” he said, “because I’m a gay man and I made it.”

Glenn Burke
Glenn Burke

For more information on the Baseball Reliquary and the Shrine of the Eternals, click on the following link: http://www.baseballreliquary.org/

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Original Sunshine Boys – Update

EDITOR’S NOTE: Bob Anderson died March 12, 2015 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was 79. In tribute to Bob, we are posting a story that originally appeared February 24, 2014.

They were the “Sunshine Boys” long before there was a Broadway play and movie by the same name. By day, Bob Anderson and Dick Drott put a smile on the faces of Los Angeles Angels fans by mowing down batters like gunslingers in a Western movie. By night, they shared an efficiency apartment near Hollywood and with their youthful, good looks fit right in with others from the Midwest looking to be discovered.

Bob Anderson, right, was the Pacific Coast League’s top rookie in 1956 while Steve Bilko, left, won most valuable player honors.  (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives

Anderson, 20, and Drott, 19, already were in the baseball limelight. A month into the 1956 season, they were being called “can’t missers – destined for stardom in the majors.”

The Indiana-born Anderson, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound right hander, inspired comparisons with two of the best relief pitchers of all time. “He was not quite like Mariano Rivera but at least as good as Troy Percival,” said Gene Mauch, the Angels second baseman who went on to manage 26 years in the big leagues. “We knew one thing. If we had a lead going into the eighth inning, the game was over. Everybody in the league was scared to death of Anderson –scared to death of him. He was just wild enough.”

Charlie Silvera, a former major league catcher, likened the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Drott, a native of Ohio, to the New York Yankees’ Allie Reynolds, a six-time all-star, because “he murders those hitters with a fastball, curve and guts.”

Anderson was used only in relief in ‘56, posting a 12-4 won-loss record, team-best 2.65 earned run average (ERA) and 28 saves.

“He was like a machine,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the team’s veteran pitchers. “He could throw strikes. He could overpower you. He just went in there and nailed them to the wall.”

Drott had a 13-10 record and led the league in strike outs with 184. He won six of his first seven decisions, prompting the Los Angeles Herald & Express to report: “His curveball snarls up and bows like a head waiter and his lively fastball exposes every batter to a siege of pneumonia.”

“Dick Drott had the best curveball I ever saw in a 19-year-old kid,” Mauch said.

“I was always amazed by his curveball,” said Jim Brosnan, a teammate of Drott’s with the Chicago Cubs. “It was a beautiful pitch. It reminded me of Sandy Koufax’s curveball and Koufax, in my opinion, was the best pitcher of all time.”

Drott referred to his fastball as a “hummer.”

“In the first inning he’s fast, the next time you’re up he’s real fast and the third time around he throws bullets at you,” marveled Jim Westlake, a former major leaguer playing for the Vancouver Mounties in ‘56.

Dick Drott won 15 games as a rookie for the Cubs in 1957. (Author’s collection)

“Dick has the killer instinct of a tiger and the friendliness of a lamb,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing explained.

“Dick did not like to be beaten,” Anderson said. “He knew that he had good stuff and he was extremely confident in his ability to strike people out. So he was a tiger in that sense. His demeanor off the field was very much like a lamb.”

Anderson added: “Had he not hurt his arm with the Cubs, he probably would’ve been one of the outstanding pitchers of that era.”

The same could be said for Anderson.

“I thought Anderson and Drott would have big, big careers,” Mauch said. “For various reasons, they didn’t quite make it as big as I thought they would in the big leagues.”

Anderson was 36-46 in the majors and Drott 27-46.

Anderson’s best season was 1959 when he won 12 games and was the workhorse of the Cubs pitching staff, starting 36 games and pitching 235 innings.

Over the next three years, Anderson played for seven different managers and head coaches. In 1960, he won nine games as a starter. He pitched primarily in relief in 1961-62 as the Cubs operated without a manager, rotating its so-called college of coaches.

“There was no rhyme or reason as to the way we were used,” Anderson said.  “I remember warming up and pitching six games in a row.  There was no concern for what could happen to the pitchers.”

In late August 1961, Anderson appeared in three straight games against Pittsburgh, recording two saves and a win. He pitched one inning in the first game; two and one-third innings in the second and three innings in the third. On the last pitch of the third game Anderson hurt his arm.

“I remember vividly when I hurt my arm. It was against Roberto Clemente and it was a pitch that didn’t need to be thrown because I had struck him out on the previous pitch but the umpire called it ball two.  Even Clemente dropped the bat and started to walk away from the plate. I threw him a fastball that moved in on him. But when I threw it, I felt something in my shoulder.  The day after that I warmed up to go into a ballgame and I couldn’t throw.”

Anderson and Drott talk hitting with Rogers Hornsby, the Cubs’ batting instructor, in this 1958 photo. (Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/51435/rec/4 )

Anderson appeared in nine more games in ‘61, finishing with a 7-10 record, eight saves and 4.26 ERA.

“The year after that, 1962, why, it was dog crap,” Bob said, referring to his 2-7 record and 5.02 ERA.

Anderson hung on for two more years before calling it quits in 1964 at the age of 28.

Drott’s rookie season in 1957 was amazingly like another first-year Cub pitching sensation – Kerry Wood in 1998.

Dick, who turned 21 during the ‘57 season, had a 15-11 won-loss record, 3.58 ERA and his 170 strikeouts ranked second in the National League. Kerry, also 21, was 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts, third in the league.

When Wood fanned 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit shutout at Wrigley Field May 6, 1998, it brought back memories of Drott whiffing 15 Milwaukee Braves on the same field May 27, 1957.

“That boy,” future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts said of Drott, “is as good a pitcher at his age as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Dick’s 15 strikeouts were just three shy of the major league record at the time. He had Henry Aaron, the Braves’ legendary slugger, so confused that he was called out on strikes three times – twice on fastballs and once on a curve.

The similarity in the careers of the two Cubs pitchers doesn’t stop there.

Wood hurt his arm and spent the following season on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery. Over his 14-year career, he was on the disabled list 16 times, never fulfilling the potential he showed as a rookie.

After a 7-11 record and 5.43 ERA his second year, Drott served six months active duty with the Army Reserve. In the spring of ‘59, he returned to the Cubs out of condition and some 20 pounds under his playing weight. He hurt his arm when he tried to throw too hard too soon.

Drott spent the next three years on and off the disabled list before ending his career in 1963 with a 2-12 record for the Houston Colt 45s.

For one shining moment that last season Drott was as good as he ever was and almost as good as one of the all-time greats – Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants.

He had a one-hit shutout going into the bottom of the eighth inning of a classic pitching duel with Marichal. He gave up a bloop double, struck out the next batter and got Marichal to fly out before another double gave the Giants their only run of the game. Drott struck out seven and allowed three hits. Marichal fanned five and pitched a no-hitter.

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Anderson says the Cubs “used everybody wildly and people got hurt.”  He ticks off the names of other promising pitchers who injured their arms – Myron “Moe” Drabowsky, Glenn Hobbie and Don Elston. “Drott hurt his arm. I hurt mine. Dick Ellsworth came along a little bit later during that era and he hurt his arm. The Cubs had some good arms in their farm system that they destroyed after they got to the majors.”

Drott was 28 when he quit at the end of the 1964 season – the same age as Anderson.

It was not the kind of ending anybody expected in ’56 when Anderson and Drott were the “Sunshine Boys” and destined for stardom.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Forever Heroes

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ernie Banks died Jan. 23, 2015 – eight days shy of his 84th birthday. In tribute to Mr. Cub, we’re posting a story that originally appeared December 9, 2013.   

“Heroes, they come and go and leave us behind as if we’re supposed to know why,” the Eagles sing in Pretty Maids All in a Row.  “Why do we give up our hearts to the past? And why must we grow up so fast?”

Ernie Banks_1954_rookieTruth is, we outgrow our heroes more than they leave us behind.  I was 12 years old when it became apparent I could turn a phrase better than I hit a curveball. At 16, I was paying more attention to girls than baseball cards. By age 21, I was a sportswriter, cynicism replacing the rosy filter of my childhood.

“I’ve broken a golden rule,” Top Gear television show co-star James May said after driving a Lamborghini Countach. “You never ever meet your childhood heroes– Roger Moore, Lamborghini Countach, Brian Kent.  Stick with the memories. They are just better.”

For every rule – even a golden one – there’s an exception.

The get-well card author Gaylon White received from Ernie Banks and his 1962 Chicago Cub teammates is now framed along with their baseball cards for that year.
The get-well card author Gaylon White received from Ernie Banks and his 1962 Chicago Cub teammates is now framed along with their baseball cards for that year.

I’ve met two of my childhood heroes – Steve Bilko and Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame Chicago Cubs shortstop who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both lived up to my boyhood memories.

I was barely 16 when I was in a car accident, incurring serious head injuries and damage to my right eye. Without telling anyone, my brother Don sent a get-well card special delivery to Chicago for Banks to sign and return to California. I received the card a few days later. Unfolded, the cover revealed a sad-faced dragon with a plastic thermometer sticking out of its mouth. “We’re sorry to hear you’re dragon,” the message read. “Please hurry and get your old fire back!” There was a personal note on the back: “Best always to a wonderful person…Ernie Banks, ChiCubs, 1962.”  The card also was signed by Lou Brock, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Dick Ellsworth, Don Cardwell, George Altman, Bob Buhl, Ken Hubbs, Cal Koonce, Don Elston, Dave Gerard, Elder White, Charlie Metro, Vedie Himsl, B.G. Smith, Andre Rodgers, Glen Hobbie and Tony Balsamo – almost the entire Cub team.

When I met Banks seven years later, I was a sportswriter for a Phoenix, Arizona, newspaper, covering a Cubs-Cleveland Indians exhibition game in nearby Scottsdale.  Cub pitcher Ken Holtzman was the star of the game, hurling seven shutout innings. So I headed to the Cubs’ locker room to interview him.

ChiCubs_1962Greeting me at the door was a smiling Banks. “Hi, I’m Ernie Banks!” he said while shaking my hand. “I don’t think we’ve ever met. If there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know.”

I was speechless. It’s one thing to receive a warm welcome from a Wal-Mart greeter. You don’t expect it from a superstar. Finally, I asked to meet Holtzman.

“I’ll introduce you to Kenny,” Ernie said.

Holtzman was featured in my article about the game but the real story that day was Banks, who years earlier cheered me up with a card he and his teammates signed.

Bilko was another hero who didn’t disappoint.

In 1976 – 20 years after Bilko’s amazing Triple Crown season for the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League – we spent a day together at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. I was researching a book on minor league greats who went bust in the majors, if they made it that far. Bilko was the perfect poster boy.

Nanticoke is located in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, about 25 miles southwest of Scranton.  Bilko lived in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke, so named because it sits like a bowl inside a hill.  The neighborhood was a melting pot of Irish, Poles and Slovaks who settled in Nanticoke around the turn-of-the-century and worked the coalmines in the area until they were phased out in the 1950s.

A modern brick house among wood frame houses built by the coal companies in the early 1900s, the Bilko home stood out. Standing in the driveway awaiting my arrival, Steve made it even easier to spot. He greeted me warmly, a big smile reminding me of all the times I’d seen his face on baseball cards and in newspapers.

I heard so much about Steve’s bulk that I expected to see a huge man that could hardly walk.  After all, he was called “Lard Zeppelin” and “Big Boy Balloon” during his playing days. Why wouldn’t he be much bigger 13 years into retirement?

Steve wasn’t all that big compared with today’s wide bodied sluggers. In fact, Steve looked fit enough to play again.  I said as much after we entered the house and began talking in the family room.

: Steve Bilko outside his Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, home in 1976. (Photo by author)
Steve Bilko outside his Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, home in 1976. (Photo by author)

“I’ve been going to these old-timers games and people have been telling me, ‘You look in better shape now than when you were playing,'” Steve said proudly.  “Actually, I think I’m a little lighter than when I retired.  About eight or nine pounds lighter.”

We chit-chatted into the early afternoon when Steve’s wife, Mary, brought us lunch.  Steve had a lunchmeat sandwich, a small piece of cake and a cup of coffee – not the size meal expected of a man who reportedly ate at one sitting “five lobster cocktails, a triple order of spaghetti and chicken topped off with a loaf of garlic bread, a cheese cake and a half dozen cups of coffee.”

“Is that a typical lunch?”

“That’s more than I usually eat.  I have a piece of toast and a cup of coffee in the morning.  I have another cup of coffee on my break at work.  For lunch, I have a sandwich and cake.  I don’t eat again until I get home about 5:30.”

Steve worked for Dana Perfumes Company as an inspector of raw materials.  Maker of perfumes such as Canoe for men and Ambush and Tabu for women, Dana was located in an industrial park in Mountain Top, 16 miles from Nanticoke.

We finished lunch and went on a tour of Nanticoke and Mountain Top in Steve’s 1972 Buick LeSabre.  “This was my Dad’s,” Steve said as we started.  “He gave it to me before he died…the last thing I got of his.”  Stephen J. Bilko died in 1973 at the age of 73.

In Nanticoke, we stopped at a red light on the corner of Main and Market Streets.  “This is the only light in town,” Steve said with a chuckle.

We stopped briefly at a bar named Sivick’s and then drove to another bar, Yeager’s.  A poster behind the bar made it clear that Bilko was a local celebrity.  Promoting Rochester’s annual old-timers game, the Commissioner’s Classic, the poster featured drawings of Bilko, George “Specs” Toporcer, Tom Poholsky, Joe Altobelli and Luke Easter.

Yeager’s was named after Albert Yeager, more commonly known as Pug. “If he’s there, you’ll see why,” Steve told me earlier.

Pug wasn’t around.  His wife was tending bar and she quickly served eight-ounce glasses of draft beer for 20 cents apiece.

“It was 15 cents until a couple of weeks ago,” Steve said.

Two beers later, Pug’s wife slapped a black plastic token on the bar.  “That’s good for 10 cents off on your next beer,” she explained.

A few minutes later, another token was placed in front of me.  “This is on Frank,” she said.

Joe Maday shows Steve Bilko five-pound bass he caught in a lake near Nanticoke. (Photo by author)
Joe Maday shows Steve Bilko five-pound bass he caught in a lake near Nanticoke. (Photo by author)

Frank Higgins was quietly watching a football game on television until a man dressed in Wrangler jeans, denim shirt and a faded Phillies baseball cap walked in carrying an ice chest.  “That man is a bass fisherman,” Frank declared.  “Other guys tell you how big a bass they catch.  He shows you.”

Steve introduced Joe Maday, a stocky, dark-haired man with a warm smile. “This is my legacy,” Joe said, pointing to a bass in the cooler.  “The lakes in this area aren’t fished out.  You don’t have to go to New York or Florida for instant action.  It’s here in our backyard – the mountains.  Here, a man walks into a bar with a five-pound bass, that’s proof.”

Joe launched into a testimonial about Steve. “He has been our representative in the major leagues.  We’ve grown up with this man.  We were Stan Musial fans but we were looking for Bilko’s name in the box score.  We looked every day.”

Steve continued staring at the TV.

“We’re all Steve’s friends,” Maday said.  “But we’re still in awe of him.  He can give you an insight into baseball nobody else can. He won’t tell you what he is. We’ll tell you what he is.”

Frank Higgins was listening intently.

“The sad part is he backed up so many big-name first basemen for so many years,” he added

After taking photos of Joe showing his prized bass to Steve outside Yeager’s, we left for Mountain Top.  We made small talk on the way.

“You were a celebrity in Los Angeles,” I said.  “In fact, you were as popular as Sandy Koufax ever was.”

“I didn’t want to be a big celebrity,” Steve said.  “I was satisfied with doing a good job, being with my family and stuff like that.  When I was done playing ball, I was content to go home and be with my kids.  We went to shows but they were shows like Lawrence Welk.  I used to go see Roller Derby.  But other than that, we never went anywhere.”

Steve stopped the car outside the Dana plant.

“That’s our big D,” he said, pointing out a huge script-style letter “D” for Dana outside the main entrance.  “About 150 people work here.  This is our busy season now.  We’re getting ready for Christmas.”

I asked Steve if he was going to work until he was 65 years old, Social Security retirement age at the time.

“Gee, I don’t know,” he said.  “If anybody is going to quit work, it’ll be my wife.  I can take my baseball pension when I’m 50 – a little more than two years from now.  I figure that if I take the pension, she can quit working.”

When I left the Bilko home that Saturday night in October 1976, I was already looking forward to a return visit. “You’re always welcome,” Steve said.

We talked by telephone a few times but I never saw Steve again.

In the early morning on March 7, 1978 – nearly eight months before his 50th birthday – Steve died at a Wilkes-Barre hospital from a heart attack he suffered a few hours before at home.

“No one had a bad word to say about him ever,” Gene Mauch said about his former Angel teammate. “There was none better.”

The day I spent with Bilko confirmed all the great things I believed about him as a boy. He was a childhood hero who stood the test of time – just like Ernie Banks.

*******************************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Caddy for Stout Steve

(Fifth in a series based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA)

Stout Steve Bilko wouldn’t fit in with today’s sluggers who like to linger at home plate, admiring a ball they just hit out of sight.

“He could hit the ball a mile but he didn’t make a big deal of it,” said Jim Brosnan, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels in 1955 when Stout Steve belted 37 homers.

Steve Bilko – “a nice guy in the neighborhood.” (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Steve Bilko – “a nice guy in the neighborhood.” (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

“Dad didn’t like it when someone ran with their thumbs up,” Steve Bilko said of his father. “He considered it hot-dogging.”

Steve was swapping stories about his dad with Ken and Paul Huber, life-long neighbors in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. They were kids when Stout Steve was King Kong of the Pacific Coast League, smashing 148 homers in three seasons (1955-57) in L.A.

“He didn’t let anybody know he was a baseball player,” said Ken. “We just thought he was a nice guy in the neighborhood.”

“Even I didn’t know the magnitude of his fame,” said Steve, the oldest of Stout Steve’s three children.

“I played Little League ball and Teener League ball and we had to sell these stupid candy bars,” said Paul. “The first thing you did was to run down to Bilko’s house. He bought all of ‘em.”

Steve recalled the time a wealthy man bought his dad a drink at a bar in L.A.

“Give everybody a round of drinks on me,’ the man told the bartender.

Bilko bought the man a drink in return.

“Who gave me this?” the man asked the bartender.

“Steve Bilko,” the bartender said.

Bilko and a few of his fans in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Bilko and a few of his fans in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

“He went to my dad and said, ‘What’s the big idea of buying me a drink?’

“My father said, ‘Where I come from, when somebody buys you a drink, you buy him one back.’

“That impressed the guy so much, he said, ‘Nobody ever did this before. Listen, Steve, I have three Cadillacs: a pink one, a green one and a yellow one. You pick the one you want and you can have it for the summer.’”

Steve doesn’t remember what color his father chose but he knows that contrary to what legendary manager Leo Durocher believed, nice guys don’t always finish last. Sometimes they wind up driving a Cadillac.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Windy and Stout Steve on Shrine Ballot

(The series based on Author Gaylon White’s visit to Nanticoke, PA, will resume soon)

Gale “Windy” Wade, a vital cog in the 1956 Los Angeles Angels powerhouse, is one of 12 new candidates eligible for the 2015 election of the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, the group’s version of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Typing wasn’t one of Windy’s strengths: “In high school, I got up to eight words a minute.” (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Typing wasn’t one of Windy’s strengths: “In high school, I got up to eight words a minute.” (Courtesy Gale Wade)

Windy joins Stout Steve Bilko, the Slugging Seraph, as one of 50 candidates Baseball Reliquary members will vote on this spring. The three candidates receiving the highest percentage of votes gain automatic election.

This year marks the 17th annual election of the Shrine, a major national component of the Baseball Reliquary, a Southern California-based organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation of American art and culture through the context of baseball history. The Shrine’s annual ballot includes names of the obscure and the well-known who have altered the baseball world in ways that supersede statistics.

Among the 48 people enshrined are Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, baseball greats tarnished by gambling scandals; Jim Brosnan and Jim Bouton, pitchers and authors of controversial baseball books; and three players recently passed over by the Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Committee: Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant.

This is Bilko’s fourth time on the ballot and the eighth for Charlie Brown, the comic-strip character.

Actress Terry Moore feeds Stout Steve a slice of watermelon as Windy looks on. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)
Actress Terry Moore feeds Stout Steve a slice of watermelon as Windy looks on. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

In announcing Windy’s eligibility, the Baseball Reliquary offered the following description: “…a career stalwart of the Pacific Coast League and American Association, Wade – who was once included in a deal for Ralph Kiner – enjoyed his best season with the legendary 1956 Los Angeles Angels. He is better remembered, however, for his candid, homespun reporting on in-season ballgames for the Los Angeles Mirror-News and the Dallas Times-Herald. Invited to write about baseball after he complained that Los Angeles sportswriters didn’t pay enough attention to the Pacific Coast League, Wade sounded off on everything from his teammates to the judgment of circuit umpires. Gale Wade:  bats left, throws right, types one finger.”

Another first-timer is Luke Easter, the legendary minor-league slugger, and Charley Pride, the country music star who pitched in the Negro Leagues and briefly in the lower minors. Bilko and Easter were teammates at Rochester in 1963, Steve’s last season. Pride had a tryout at spring training with the major-league Angels in 1961 where Bilko chided him playfully, “You couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle.”

The three new inductees will be announced in May, with the induction day ceremony scheduled for July 19 in Pasadena.

For more information on the Baseball Reliquary and how you can become a member and vote in the 2015 election, click on the following link: http://www.baseballreliquary.org/

 

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

A Bilko-Sized Blast from the Past

(Fourth in a series based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA)

Stout Steve Bilko had 54 home runs and 16 games remaining in the 1957 season to break the Pacific Coast League’s single-season record of 60 set in 1925. He had been down this road the year before, the “Bilko Homerometer” and “Bilko Meter” in the newspapers topping out at 55.

:  George Goodale was a PR man for Gene Autry before promoting the L.A. Angels. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
George Goodale was a PR man for Gene Autry before promoting the L.A. Angels. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

It was time to rally the troops on Stout Steve’s behalf. George Goodale, a publicist for Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, before tub-thumping for the Los Angeles Angels, called on his celebrity friends in Hollywood to stage an old-fashioned telegram-writing campaign. Goodale, then, turned the Bilko telegrams into a two-page press release that’s a testament to how big a star Stout Steve was in L.A. at the time.

Mary Bilko, the wife of Stephen Richard Bilko, Stout Steve’s eldest son, found the document among photos and newspaper articles stashed in a plastic pouch.

Mary immediately noticed a message from Jayne Mansfield, a blonde bombshell who starred in the 1957 movie, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? “Dear Stevie,” the telegram began. “Success spoiled Rock Hunter. I know it won’t spoil you. Love.”

Lawrence Welk, the band leader, wrote Bilko: “Every Little Leaguer in Los Angeles and all your fans are hoping you’ll go over the top in home runs. Every one of us are with you every time you swing your bat.”

Phil Silvers, Sgt. Bilko in the popular television series, You’ll Never Get Rich, sent a telegram along with actresses Barbara Rush and Terry Moore.

Betty White, the ageless actress of Golden Girls fame, reminded Bilko that “every baseball fan in Los Angeles is pulling for [a] home run for you every time you step to the plate. Send ‘em sailing Steve, we’re all with you.”

Joan Collins, the British actress, wrote, “Dear Steve: I don’t know a Louisville Slugger from a cricket wicket but I know you’ll jolly well give it a go.”

At home in Nanticoke, Stout Steve didn’t talk much about baseball. He told his two boys, Steve and Tom, “If you need any help hitting or throwing or any baseball knowledge or tips, just come and ask.”

:  George Goodale was a PR man for Gene Autry before promoting the L.A. Angels. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Charley Locke of the Baltimore Orioles was on the receiving end of this Jayne Mansfield kiss. (Courtesy Barry McMahon)

“But he’d never tell us what to do,” Steve said. “We had a lot of success in high school so who needs dad? We’re doing good. So we never asked. I wish I did just for the hell of it.”

After Steve and Tom were named all-state in baseball in 1969, Stout Steve wrote Goodale, “I think they’ve surpassed me. Tom can hit them as far as anyone.”

Sorting through a stack of photos, Mary came across one showing Stout Steve with three St. Louis Cardinal teammates: Tom Poholsky, a pitcher; Stan Musial; and Joe Garagiola.

Garagiola went on to an illustrious career in broadcasting, often telling Bilko stories on Monday night Game of the Week telecasts. “I saw him hit a ball, it was in Maine or Vermont, one of those little towns there, I can’t remember, and there was a mountain beyond left field. I thought the ball was going to go through that mountain. That’s how hard he hit it.” [See Garagiola_1 audio clip below]

Garagiola recalled spring training with the Cardinals in 1950 when Bilko reported 30 pounds overweight. “They put a rubber suit on him and they made that poor fellow run around and sweat and sweat and sweat. And, then, they’d ask him to play nine innings after he was about dehydrated. He could hardly get the bat around. And he was still hitting the ball 400 feet in right-centerfield.” [See Garagiola_2 audio clip below]

 Singer Jana Lund gives Stout Steve a good-luck kiss as encouragement to hit another home run.  (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Singer Jana Lund gives Stout Steve a good-luck kiss as encouragement to hit another homer. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

I interviewed Garagiola at Royals Stadium in Kansas City July 7, 1975. The sounds of batting practice can be heard in the background of our tape-recorded conversation.

“I’ll never forget one day in St. Louis at the old ballpark, Sportsman’s Park. He was sitting on the bench and looking out toward right-centerfield. Then he looked to left field. He said: ‘You know, I guess I’m just a simple guy from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, but I can hit a ball into the right-centerfield seats with my elbow and they want me to pull the ball where I hit long fly balls. I don’t understand that.'” [See Garagiola_2 audio clip below]

I mentioned how Bilko was Babe Ruth to me and a legion of L.A. kids. “I can see where Bilko would give you that kind of hope of maybe the next Babe Ruth. When he hit a ball, he hit it. It sounded, it looked and it acted like a home run.” [See Garagiola_3 audio clip below]

Of course, Bilko didn’t become another Babe. He didn’t even break the Coast League home run mark in 1957. He belted two more to give him 56 and, then, the Bilko Homerometer went kerplunk. In parts of 10 seasons in the majors, he hit only 76 homers, leading one big league manager to derisively call him, “Beer Barrel Bilko”.

“Managers have never really understood Bilko,” Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1961. “He has been given up on by more of them than any player in the history of the game.

“It became almost a crusade with managers to slim Bilko down to a point where he was merely fat. Bilko struggled to oblige. But he was up against overwhelming odds – his appetite.”

: L-R, Bilko, Tom Poholsky, Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola.  (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
L-R, Bilko, Tom Poholsky, Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Garagiola put Bilko’s weight into perspective by referencing two famous fitness gurus and two star pitchers who looked like they could use their help. “If conditioning meant that much, Jack LaLanne would be a 20-game winner; Vic Tanny would hit .400. I don’t say you’re out of shape but Babe Ruth – was Babe Ruth a picture of condition? You know, you don’t hit it with your belly. Mickey Lolich is an outstanding left-hand pitcher and all I hear about is his belly. Wilbur Wood wins games and he’s not built like a pitcher. I know some guys who are built like hitters and built like pitchers and all they do is look good in the lobby.” [See Garagiola_4 audio clip below]

I left behind the recordings of Garagiola’s comments so Steve and Mary Bilko could preserve them along with the press release listing the Bilko telegrams and photos of Stout Steve from his playing days. They are Bilko-sized blasts from the past that we can enjoy and muse as Garagiola did nearly 40 years ago, “I just wonder what a Steve Bilko would do today.” [See Garagiola_5 audio clip below]

Garagiola Audio Clip #1

Garagiola Audio Clip #2

Garagiola Audio Clip #3

Garagiola Audio Clip #4

Garagiola Audio Clip #5

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Sunday Drive with the Bilkos

(Third in a series based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA)

There was only one way in and out of the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke in 1976 when I visited Stephen Thomas Bilko, also known as Stout Steve the Slugging Seraph. Today, there are two roads. In Honey Pot, that’s progress.

“This guy has had scaffolding here since my father died,” said Stephen Richard Bilko as we passed a house in the neighborhood on a Sunday drive around Nanticoke. Steve’s dad died in 1978.

Three generations of Steve Bilkos. L-R, Stephen Richard; Stephen Robert and Stephen Michael.
Three generations of Steve Bilkos. L-R, Stephen Richard; Stephen Robert and Stephen Michael.

A scorecard is needed to keep track of the Bilkos named Steve. Starting with Stephen Thomas, there’s his father, Stephen Joseph; his eldest son, Stephen Richard; grandson, Stephen Michael; and great grandson, Stephen Robert.

The wood-framed houses are a throwback to the days when Honey Pot was a melting pot of Poles, Slovaks and Irish working in the nearby coal mines. Stephen Joseph was the last miner in the area to use mules to transport coal cars underground.

The front doors of the houses virtually open onto narrow streets named Rock, River, The Ditch and Pikes Peak, where it’s claimed you can see the court house in Wilkes-Barre on a clear day. Stephen Richard and his wife, Mary, live on Honey Pot Street in the same house where his father and grandfather once lived. A telephone pole sticks up out of the Bilko’s asphalt driveway.

“Wherever a board fell off the truck, that’s where you built the house,” Steve said. “There are two Honey Pot streets. Supposedly, this is the original Honey Pot Street and the other one an alley. There used to be two-way traffic. But there were all these collisions and close calls in front of our home so we had a petition signed to make it one way. Thank God!”

Adding to the confusion is the willy-nilly numbering of the houses. “You pick your own number,” Mary added with a laugh. “We’re six, next door is four and, then it goes to 11. Across the street is 120.”

“Delivery trucks ride around for hours up here,” Steve said. “I feel sorry for them and go out after awhile and help them out.”

It’s amazing that Benny Borgman, the St. Louis Cardinal scout who signed Steve’s dad, was able to find the Honey Pot ballpark.

Borgman first spotted Stout Steve playing in nearby Wilkes-Barre. He was in awe of the 16-year-old slugger’s massive arms and powerful wrists and how far they could propel a baseball. He followed the boy wonder the entire summer of 1945, waiting for the opportune moment to sign him to a contract.

“I figured I’d wait until he got to his home town,” Borgman told Jerry Izenberg, a sports columnist for the Long Island, New York, newspaper, Newsday. “I figured by then the other scouts still wouldn’t have figured out where it was. Any kid who operated out of Honey Pot was going to be tough to find.”

Honey Pot overlooks Nanticoke, even though it sits like a bowl inside a hill. “We’re up on a little pedestal,” Steve said. “We call it the capital of Nanticoke; Honey Pot – we don’t associate with Nanticoke.”

Borgman made his move near the end of the ’45 season. He took a train to Scranton, rented a car and headed for Honey Pot.

Ted Hiller Park in Honey Pot.
Ted Hiller Park in Honey Pot.

“The ballpark was a big wide open kind of pasture and they didn’t charge admission,” Borgman said. “There was this big coal pile out on the left-field line so I walked out there and climbed it for a better view. By the time the third inning rolled around there were three other guys out there and each one of them was a major league scout. Some secret battle plan.”

The ballpark is still there. It’s home to the Nanticoke Teener League and named after its founder and long-time president, Ted Hiller. Home plate is where left field used to be. The coal pile is gone.

“The field was not level like it’s now,” Steve said. “All around the infield, from first to third, it would go up about seven or eight feet and, then, you’d have a plateau for the outfield.”

Borgman watched as the right-handed hitting Bilko stepped to the plate and slammed a fastball over the coal pile and the heads of the scouts. “It would have been out of Yankee Stadium,” Izenberg wrote. “Yankee Stadium? Hell, it would have been out of the Grand Canyon.”

In Bilko’s next two at bats, he belted opposite-field homers. When the game was over, all of the scouts except Borgman “developed shin splints sliding down the coal pile to get to Bilko.”

Borgman walked straight toward Bilko’s father. “Listen, it didn’t take a genius to figure out the kid was underage,” Borgman related to Izenberg. “What I wanted was the father.”

Borgman drove Pop Bilko home to Honey Pot Street where for they talked baseball for hours while quenching their thirst with locally-brewed Gibbons beer. “If it’s Gibbons, it’s good,” Steve smiled as he recited the advertising jingle for the beer his father enjoyed by the six-pack.

Souvenir Gibbons coaster from the author’s visit to Sivick’s Club in 1976.
Souvenir Gibbons coaster from the author’s visit to Sivick’s Club in 1976.

When a Philadelphia Phillies scout arrived around 1 a.m. with Stout Steve, Izenberg reported that “he took one look at Benny and the old man hoisting a few together, said one four letter word and left. An hour later, Steve Bilko was signed.”

We left Ted Hiller Ballpark, headed for downtown and the Hanover section of Nanticoke. “We hated Hanover, the east side,” Steve said. “We loved to beat the pants off them. And they would despise us just as much.”

In the late 1960s, Steve and his brother, Tom, led Nanticoke Area High School to championships in football, baseball and basketball. They both played football at Villanova, Steve signing as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 1973. A shoulder injury prompted him to give up football and return to Honey Pot to teach and coach at the high school.

We drove past Sivick’s Club, one of Stout Steve’s favorite watering holes. It’s now a gun shop. Yeager’s, the tavern where eight-ounce glasses of draft beer sold for 20 cents apiece in 1976, is a pizza place these days.

The Bilkos attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church – the highest point in downtown Nanticoke.

The parish closed in 2010 as part of a consolidation of Catholic churches in Nanticoke.

Stout Steve sang in the choir. “It was the only church in the area that had an all-men’s choir. They sounded really great. People from other parishes came to hear the men sing.”

The Eagles Club is “where they’d have a couple of beers before and after choir practice.”

“There’s always some club in this area that you needed to belong to,” said Paul Huber, a friend and neighbor of the Bilkos. “The Honey Pot Club, the Eagles Club, the Ali Baba Club, ACON (Athletic Club of Nanticoke).” There’s also the Fireman’s Club, a combination club and fire station in Honey Pot. Stephen Joseph was one of the founders; Stout Steve, one of its regulars.

“To communicate or be social, you were a member of one club or another – or both,” added Steve.

Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club at St. Joseph’s Cemetery. He was 49 when he died suddenly from a heart attack.

:  Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club in Nanticoke.
Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club in Nanticoke.

The gravestone is easy to spot because the big, capital letters spelling BILKO grab your attention just as they did in the Los Angeles newspaper headlines when he bashed a combined 111 home runs in 1956 and 1957 – the peak of his popularity in L.A. There are four squares under the Bilko name, two blank and the other two reading: STEPHEN T. 1927-1978 and MARY S. 1929 –.

Steve’s mom also is named Mary – Mary Sunder. She lives with her daughter, Sharon, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

I couldn’t help but notice the birth year for Stout Steve was wrong. He was born in 1928 (November 13), not 1927. And there’s no inscription or visual cues such as a bat or baseball to suggest he was one of the greatest minor league players of all time.

“At least he’s buried right behind the 400 Club,” I joked. “Not even Ted Williams can say that.”

We laughed as Williams, baseball’s last .400 hitter, was cryogenically frozen after he died in 2002, his remains stored in an Arizona lab.

Our Sunday drive continued on to the Hanover section where Mary Sunder grew up. We were about three miles from Honey Pot. “My grandfather wouldn’t give the car to my father to come over here. So he walked.”

“Coming up is the monument for Pete Gray,” Steve announced.

A bronze plaque near the entrance to the Hanover Recreation Park honors Gray, the only one-arm man to play major league baseball. He was born and lived in Hanover until he died in 2002.

We came to a residential area where a baseball field and school used to be. “There’s no longer a school here but this is where I went to first grade when we lived in the Hanover section with my mother’s parents.”

This plaque pays tribute to Nanticoke’s Pete “One Arm” Gray.
This plaque pays tribute to Nanticoke’s Pete “One Arm” Gray.

Stephen T. and Mary moved in with the Sunders after they were married in January 1950. In March he showed up at the Cardinals spring training camp weighing 260 pounds – 30 pounds over his playing weight the year before.

“I have been living with my mother-in-law,” Stout Steve explained, adding, “She cooked some fine dishes, just for me. How could I turn her down?”

The Bilkos lived in three rooms upstairs until 1958 when Stout Steve returned to the majors after three banner years in L.A. Down in the cellar, Grandpa Sunder had a coal stove where he’d make an egg-and-green-onion dish for grandsons Steve and Tom. “We thought it was the cat’s meow,” Steve said.

Back in Honey Pot that evening Steve recalled how his father made scrambled eggs every morning for him, Tom and Sharon before driving to nearby Mountain Top where he worked for Dana Perfume Company as an inspector of raw materials. “He was a dynamite cook.”

Mary and Steve Bilko with one of their three children. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)
Mary and Steve Bilko with one of their three children. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

“Tuna casserole,” Mary noted. “Topped it with crushed potato chips. I make it ‘til today.”

Another Bilko specialty was kielbasa. “Charred it on both sides,” Steve said. “Dip in ketchup and a hot sauce…more hot sauce, less hot sauce, depending on how hot you like it. He made a mean chef salad, too. All kinds of meats in there; it was delicious.”

Mary served one of her specialties – a creamy peanut and chocolate concoction called Jimmy Carter Cake. If more people had eaten this cake, Carter would still be president of the United States.

Steve was mulling over my remark about his father’s gravestone lacking any reference to his baseball career. “I hadn’t thought about it before but you’re right: nobody would know he ever played baseball.”

I was thinking about two comments, one by Borgman, the Cardinal scout, and the other by a guy named Rich that I met in 1976 at a West Nanticoke bar the night before I visited Stout Steve in Honey Pot.

“I was convinced that I had made history,” Borgman said of Bilko’s signing. “I was convinced that here was a guy who would one day hit 65 home runs in a single season.”

Bilko was busy signing autographs for his legion of fans at an Old-Timers game in L.A. in 1976.  (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)
Bilko was busy signing autographs for his legion of fans at an Old-Timers game in L.A. in 1976. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

Rich claimed he lived “down the street” from Bilko in Honey Pot. He knew all about Stout Steve’s exploits as a home run hitter and beer drinker. “Go over to Honey Pot and ask anyone about Bilko,” he said. “They‘ll tell you. Honey Pot takes care of its own.”

Thirty-eight years have passed. There’s no ballpark in Honey Pot named after Bilko. There are no plaques recognizing him as a minor-league superstar, genuine folk hero and Honey Pot’s goodwill ambassador to the world. It’s time that Honey Pot takes care of its own.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

‘One of the Best Sports Books of 2014’

(The series of stories based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA, will resume Monday, Dec. 15)

“The very best era of baseball is when you were a kid,” says Bill Swank, a San Diego baseball historian.

For baby boomers that grew up during the golden era of baseball in the 1950s, this is especially true.

As the prices on the back cover of the ’56 Angels Yearbook suggest, you could eat “economically” at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.
As the prices on the back cover of the ’56 Angels Yearbook suggest, you could eat “economically” at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.

Our parents didn’t go bankrupt taking us to games and letting us gorge ourselves on hot dogs and soft drinks. You could have two of each plus an ice cream for under a dollar.

Players were approachable and often mixed with fans, more than willing to sign autographs.

And minor league games were just as important as any big league game. They really mattered – on the field and in the standings.

The Bilko Athletic Club is not a history book but there’s a lot of history in it for fans who want a Steve Bilko-sized blast from the past.

“One of the best sports books of 2014,” Bruce Miles wrote recently in the Chicago Daily Herald, adding that the book is “one you definitely should put on your holiday wish list.” You can read Miles’ article and interview with Author Gaylon White by clicking on the following link: http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20141130/sports/141139966/

Hal Ramey, long-time sports director at KCBS-Radio in San Francisco, featured the book on his popular sports show, calling it a “great read”. You can listen to the two-part series by clicking on the MP3 files below.

Free copies of this photo signed by Dave Hillman will be available at book signing events this week in Kingsport, TN.
Free copies of this photo signed by Dave Hillman will be available at book signing events this week in Kingsport, TN.

White and Dave Hillman, the ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff with 21 victories, will be at two book signing events in Kingsport, Tennessee. The first is 6-7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9 at the Kingsport Public Library, 400 Broad Street: http://www.kingsportlibrary.org/events/gaylon-white-author-talk-and-book-signing/ . The second is 12 noon -2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10 at Sloopy’s Diner, 819 N. Eastman Road. The hot dogs at Sloopy’s may cost a little more than they did in 1956 but the conversation and free autographed photographs of Hillman, a long-time Kingsport resident, will make them taste better.

 

 

 

Hal Ramey Interview on KCBS-Radio in San Francisco – Part 1

 

Hal Ramey Interview on KCBS-Radio in San Francisco – Part 2

 

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

‘The Last Real American Sports Hero’

(Second of a series based on a recent visit to Nanticoke, PA, by Author Gaylon White)

Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray called Steve Bilko “an authentic folk hero.” Ron Kalb, 12 years old in 1956 when Bilko was imitating Mickey Mantle on the West Coast, still considers him “the last real American sports hero.”

Mary and Steve Bilko with their daughter, Sharon. The three Bilko kids were five and under in 1956 when Steve had his banner year. (Courtesy Stephen R.
Mary and Steve Bilko with their daughter, Sharon. The three Bilko kids were five and under in 1956 when Steve had his banner year. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Nearly 2,700 miles separates Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, from Los Angeles. In the mid-1950s and early 1960s when there was no ESPN or 24/7 sports coverage, the distance between the two was better measured in light years. As far as Bilko’s friends and neighbors in Nanticoke are concerned, he might as well have been bashing home runs on another planet.

To fully appreciate the impact Bilko had on L.A. baseball, you had to be there to see and believe it.

Harry Turtledove, a Hugo Award winning author, was seven years old in ’56 when Bilko became his first baseball hero by winning the Pacific Coast League’s Triple Crown. “It’s funny: I remember that he did that. I know Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown the same year, but I don’t remember it.”

To Bobby Grich, a seven-year-old in nearby Long Beach, California, Bilko was “Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.” Grich grew up to be an all-star second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels.

Bilko was idolized by kids in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Bilko was idolized by kids in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

At the peak of his popularity in ’56, Bilko’s three children, Stephen, Thomas and Sharon, were five years old or under – too young to comprehend how big a hero their father was to other kids.

Even today, Stephen, now 63, is amazed by the depth and magnitude of his father’s fame on the West Coast. “He didn’t talk much about himself and he never talked about L.A. because he didn’t think people would believe the stories.”

Stephen and his wife, Mary, have a smattering of news articles, fan mail and photos of the so-called Angel Atlas with television and movie stars like Phil Silvers, Pat Boone, Shirley Jones and former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mary was sorting through them when she came across a letter dated March 8, 1978. It was laminated, suggesting it was special. “Do you know Ron Kalb?” She handed me the letter and I started reading it:

I am shocked and heartbroken to learn that Steve has died. I have thought of him often since his retirement from baseball, and today I feel a great personal loss.

I grew up in Los Angeles in the days when Big Steve Bilko was a superstar with the PCL Los Angeles Angels. No one used the term “superstar” in those days, but Steve Bilko surely was one. I was 13 or 14 years old then, and Steve Bilko was my god. To this day, I consider him the last real American sports hero. 

Today’s sports figures are surrounded by press agents, business agents, lawyers, fast cars, and faster women. They are surly and they are vain.

Steve Bilko was modest. He was big, in every sense of the word, gentle and kind. He never spoke ill of anyone and hit home runs like clockwork. That’s a real hero. That was Steve Bilko.

He always gave us someone to look up to, someone to imitate. He gave us a small voice inside that said, “Try harder; be better; be like Big Steve.”

I stopped half-way through the letter, handing it back to Mary. I was trying to place Ron Kalb’s name among the hundreds of people who shared their memories of Bilko. “Let me see that again,” I said to Mary. I continued reading:

He also gave me the most thrilling moment of my life. It was 1958. The Dodgers had traded Don Newcombe to the Reds for Bilko. Was it possible? It was just too good to be true! Big Steve was coming home and in a Dodger uniform. But it got better when my friend’s dad said he’d take us to the Coliseum to see Bilko’s L.A. homecoming against the Milwaukee Braves.

As Ed Mickelson describes in his book, Out of the Park, Bilko was his  nemesis in Cardinal organization.
As Ed Mickelson describes in his book, Out of the Park, Bilko was his nemesis in Cardinal organization.

I was now certain Ron lived next to Ed Mickelson in Chesterfield, Missouri.

Like Bilko, Mickelson was a first baseman in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. In fact, Steve was his nemesis, the player blocking his path to the majors. In his autobiography, Out of the Park, Mickelson writes: “I was becoming aware that the Cardinals had decided that Steve Bilko was their first baseman of the future. He was touted as the next Jimmie Foxx. I tried not to let it get to me, but I felt that no matter what I did, Bilko was their man.”

 I spoke with Mickelson on the phone several times before meeting him in St. Louis. Eventually he made it to the big leagues, playing briefly for the Cardinals, St. Louis Browns and Chicago Cubs. We talked soon after my book, The Bilko Athletic Club, came out. Ron was on the line when Mickelson announced, “Ron has a bone to pick with you.”

Ron didn’t feel I did justice to a home run Bilko hit in that game at the Coliseum – his first start for the Dodgers. My account made it sound like Bilko hit the ball over the Coliseum’s “Chinese Wall” – a 40-foot-high screen in left field and a chip-shot 251 feet away from home plate.

This is the Bilko swing that Ron Kalb, then 15, remembers 56 years later. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )
This is the Bilko swing that Ron Kalb, then 15, remembers 56 years later. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

I based my description of the home run on L.A. newspaper stories and Bilko telling me that one of the two runners on base, John Roseboro, fell flat on his face looking for the ball as he rounded second. “I’m glad in a way that he fell,” Bilko said. “It gave me more time to go around the bases and listen to the cheers.” One of those cheering was Ron, then 15. And he describes it better than anybody in his letter:

In the very first inning, Big Steve came to bat with two men on. Before the P.A. announcer could say his name, we, and thousands of others leaped to our feet and shouted ourselves hoarse. The count went to three-and-one, which was always Steve’s best situation at the plate. We held our collective breath. Steve got a high fastball and drilled it high and deep to straightaway center. Wes Covington, the Brave outfielder, didn’t move or even look up. He knew it. The ball sailed 40 or 50 feet over his head, far back into the seats. It was a typical, prodigious Bilko homer. We jumped up and down; we hugged each other; we hugged strangers; we almost cried. We stood and cheered for at least five minutes. God, how we loved that man!

Ron ended his letter to Mrs. Bilko this way:

Steve Bilko and the feelings he inspired in us represent all that is noble in sports. But those days are gone forever. And now so is Big Steve. Yes, his memory can fill the void left in my heart, but no one can fill the void he leaves in professional sports. I thought you’d like to know.

  I called Ron and read him the letter as the Bilkos listened. He didn’t keep a copy. “In those days, I don’t know if they even had copy machines.” Ron went on to distinguished career in public relations, marketing and public affairs spanning 35 years. “I’m so pleased and honored that they kept that letter and you were able to find it. My God, who would’ve thought?”

“I’m crying here,” Stephen said. “I’m too choked up to talk.”

Bilko receives a hero’s welcome from Carl Furillo (6) and John Roseboro (8) after his storybook three-run homer in 1958. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )
Bilko receives a hero’s welcome from Carl Furillo (6) and John Roseboro (8) after his storybook three-run homer in 1958. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

“He was inspirational, he was a hero and I think he was probably one of the last true American heroes in sports,” Ron told the Bilkos. Following our conversation, Ron sent this e-mail message: “I believe with great certainty that the sentiments in my letter represent thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of other fans who followed Big Steve’s career.” “

His impact on people’s lives was deeply felt, a fact that your book, Gaylon, articulates with grace and brilliance worthy of the man himself. He shined so brightly and, sadly, so shortly, but I’ll always feel blessed to have lived my life at a time when I could share the warm glow he generated.”

Vin Scully, the golden voice of the Dodgers, couldn’t have said it more beautifully.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Wow!

(First of a series based on author Gaylon White’s recent  visit to Nanticoke, PA)

Stephen Thomas Bilko was a self-described “simple guy from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.” He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to because his bat spoke volumes – 148 home runs in three seasons (1955-57) with the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League.

This 1955 photo shows Bilko, left, holding MVP award won by teammate Gene Mauch, center, the previous year. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1
This 1955 photo shows Bilko, left, holding MVP award won by teammate Gene Mauch, center, the previous year. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1

At 6-foot-1 and 240-something pounds, Bilko looked more like a lumberjack, plumber or one of the coal miners he grew up around in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke. After his first season in L.A., Bilko was bigger than any Hollywood celebrity, his name adopted by actor-comedian Phil Silvers for the scheming Sgt. Bilko he made famous initially on the television show, You’ll Never Get Rich.

By the middle of the 1956 season, Bilko was being called the “greatest thing to happen to the Angels since wings” and “to Los Angeles since Shirley Temple and Rin Tin Tin.”

In the mid-Fifties, L.A. was a far simpler place, made up mostly of transplants from other states – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Iowa, and Michigan, to name a few. They could relate to Bilko because he was like many of them. He drank beer and smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes while watching Lawrence Welk or Roller Derby on TV. If you bought him a beer, he returned the favor because that’s what folks do back home in Nanticoke. He liked country music, especially Hank Snow and Hank Williams. One of his favorite songs was A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation by Marty Robbins.

Bilko was as big a celebrity in L.A. as any movie star.  Here, he poses with actress Terry Moore. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Bilko was as big a celebrity in L.A. as any movie star. Here, he poses with actress Terry Moore. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Near the end of the ’55 season, the Angels swept a doubleheader from their cross-town rivals, the Hollywood Stars. According to the Los Angeles Times, there were “15,217 screaming customers” at Wrigley Field. Between games, Bilko was presented a trophy as the Angels’ most valuable player and an envelope with a check representing “a token of Angel management’s appreciation” for his league-leading 37 home runs, .328 batting average and 124 runs batted in.

“Bilko was called upon to say something befitting the occasion,” wrote Ned Cronin, a Times sports columnist. “There have been many speeches made by and for outstanding athletes.

“Steve made a bum of every athletic orator in history. This Patrick Henry of the diamond cleared his throat, stepped up to the microphone and said: ‘Wow!’”

That simple speech was repeated over and over again last weekend in Nanticoke.

IMG_5130
Three generations of Bilkos pose with author Gaylon White in the boyhood home of Stephen Thomas Bilko.  L-R, Stephen Robert, White, Stephen Michael, and Stephen Richard.

From a book signing event for The Bilko Athletic Club at the Nanticoke Historical Society to a get-together of Bilko family and friends at the home of Steve’s eldest son, Stephen Richard, the word of the weekend was: Wow!

On retiring from pro baseball in 1964, Bilko returned to Nanticoke and worked for awhile as a milkman for a local dairy.

“We’d ask Mr. Bilko to autograph our bill,” said Debbie Ropers Reddy.

Debbie recalled Bilko taking time to “chat a little bit” around the kitchen table. “How are you Mrs. Ropers?” he asked. “How’s the family?”

“We always admired him,” she said.

To Joe Kowalchin and others in Nanticoke, Bilko was “Bunky.” Nobody knows why.

The nickname is mentioned once in The Bilko Athletic Club when Joe Maday, Steve’s self-proclaimed No. 1 fan, relayed a message to Steve from Bill “Moose” Skowron, a former New York Yankee: “Ask Bunky if he can remember a home run he hit off Bobby Shantz?”

Playing for the Detroit Tigers in 1960, Bunky hit a mighty blast into the upper deck at old Yankee Stadium. Ryne Duren was a pitcher for the Yankees at the time.

“Bobby Shantz threw him a hanging curveball,” Duren told me in a 2001 interview. “Did you ever see a guy swing as hard as he could and miss? Well, this time Bilko swung as hard he could and hit the ball. It went way up in the top deck and right up the exit hole. He just stood there and watched it, and gave the bat a flip. I can still see it like it was yesterday.”

Only three others hit a ball into the same area. “They told me it must have gone 600 feet,” Bilko said. “Shantz threw his glove in the air. I told him I was paying him back for all the times he struck me out.

“If he was playing ball now, he’d be making millions,” Jerry Olejar said at the book signing.

Bilko gives batting tips to actor David Nelson, oldest son of Ozzie and Harriett who starred in a popular TV show by the same name. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Bilko gives batting tips to actor David Nelson, who starred with his brother, Ricky, and parents in the popular TV sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

“I’d be over at the house because we lived right next door to each other and he’d say, ‘I come 10 years too early,’” Kowalchin said.

Bob Scheffing, Bilko’s manager his first two seasons in L.A., said as much in 1978 when Bilko died at the age of 49.

“I’ve always said that if Steve had come along in the ‘60s, he would have been a hell of a major league player. I think those two years he had in the American League proved it.”

Back in L.A. in 1961 with the fledging big-league Angels, Bilko slugged 20 homers despite playing part-time. He was hitting .287 with eight round-trippers in 1962 when a leg infection ended his season and major-league career.

The nickname Bunky was still the topic of conversation Saturday night at the Bilko home in Honey Pot.

Stephen Richard and his wife, Mary, live in the same house as did Steve’s father and grandfather, Stephen Joseph.  Bilko’s grandson, Stephen Michael, was there with his 3 ½-year-old son, Stephen Robert.

Long-time neighbors Paul and Ken Huber camped around the dining room table covered with Polish favorites like kielbasa and pierogi. “The Hotel Bilko is like the Hotel California,” Paul said. “You can check in any time you want but you can never leave.”

“Everybody had nicknames,” explained Paul. “They called me Hubie. This guy Val, another nickname, he starts calling me Scooby. I like Scooby better.”

If you lived in Honey Pot, you had a nickname. John became Yeaker. There was Zughead, Booney and Dupps. “Nobody went by their right name,” Paul said.

He looked at me and announced, “Your new Honey Pot nickname is Whiteski.”

All I could say was: “Wow!”

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Story Behind the Picture of Bilko & Ike

A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. So it’s only fitting that this story about the Associated Press wire-service photo of former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signing Steve Bilko’s first basemen’s mitt is exactly one thousand words long.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs Steve Bilko’s glove as Ted Kluszewski looks on and Bill Rigney mugs the camera. (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs Steve Bilko’s glove as Ted Kluszewski looks on and Bill Rigney mugs the camera. (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

The picture was taken March 1, 1961, in Palm Springs, California, at the spring training camp of the newly-formed Los Angeles Angels, one of two expansion teams to join the American League in 1961.

Bilko was the most popular baseball player to wear a L.A. uniform up to that time, blasting 148 homers in three seasons (1955-57) for the Angels of the old Pacific Coast League. He also played for the Los Angeles Dodgers long enough in 1958 to help them win a public referendum to build a new ballpark at the desired location in Chavez Ravine. “No Bilko, no Dodger Stadium,” said Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers general manager.

Ike was still well-liked even after eight years in the White House. Unable to play golf because of a two-week bout with lumbago, he showed up at Palm Springs’ Polo Grounds to watch the Angels’ first intrasquad game. “I was as surprised as everyone,” said Irv Kaze, the team’s publicist. “I happened to look up and saw a man wearing a white cap sitting in the grandstand. The only two men I could think of who wear white caps were Babe Ruth and Eisenhower and I knew Ruth was dead.”

Bilko started spring training for the ’61 Angels with a bang, bashing five balls over the fence in his first workout. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)
Bilko started spring training for the ’61 Angels with a bang, bashing five balls over the fence in his first workout. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)

Kaze rushed to where Ike was sitting with two golfing buddies. “Mr. President,” Kaze said, “Mr. Rigney, the Angel manager, and I would like to have you on the field.”

“Fine, can I bring my friends with me?” Ike asked.

That’s how Ike wound up posing for pictures and sitting in the dugout during the game.

Three days earlier Bilko arrived from his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, and, according to the Los Angeles Herald-Express, “used his weight to slam five out of the park.” The newspaper published a photo of one mighty swing with “BILKO BOOMS ‘EM” scrawled in big letters across the top. A caption heading below announced, “BILKO ‘ROUNDS’ INTO FORM EARLY.”

“It bugs me the way people fret about my weight,” Bilko said afterwards. “It’s getting so bad that when I walk down the street at home (Nanticoke), people don’t say, ‘How are you, Steve?’ They say, ‘How much do you weigh?’

“It’s like I was a freak or something. I’m not going to have anyone tell me what to weigh anymore.”

Bilko recalled spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950 when he supposedly weighed 260 and was forced to wear a rubber suit so he could lose 40 pounds. “I wasn’t the same for two years after that.”

In his three years with the Coast League Angels, nobody badgered Bilko about his weight except the media. “How much does Steve weigh?” a Los Angeles Times reporter asked in a 1956 story titled NOT EVEN MRS. BILKO KNOWS HIS WEIGHT.

Mary Bilko played it coy, saying: “Why, I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs. The papers said he trimmed down to a mere 232 pounds. But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?”

Ike thought Big Klu, left, and Bilko would make good bodyguards.  (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1 )
Ike thought Big Klu, left, and Bilko would make good bodyguards. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1 )

Bilko weighed 242 pounds when he joined the Angels. “My best playing weight is 240. I’m not going under that.”

In the AP wire photo, Ike is wearing an Angel cap and standing between Bilko and Ted Kluszewski, a 248-pounder prone to cut off the sleeves of his uniform to better display the biggest arms in baseball. Next to Big Klu is Rigney, looking at the camera instead of Ike autographing Bilko’s glove.

Rigney introduced Bilko and Big Klu to Ike. “These are our first basemen,” he said.

“I hope they don’t sit on it,” Ike joked, “or they’d flatten it out.”

Ike flashed his famous smile as he posed between the two mashers. “They’d make a couple of good bodyguards,” he said.

There are different accounts of what Ike said to Bilko about his weight. One has Ike needling, “They tell me you’re off about 30 pounds in weight.” Another has him saying, “They tell me you’re about 10 pounds lighter this season.”

Bilko grinned and nodded his head, knowing his teammates planted the question based on the comments he made about his weight earlier in the week.

“How old are you?” Ike asked.

“Thirty-two,” Bilko replied.

Ike wished Bilko good luck before moving to the dugout to watch the four-inning game.

Big Klu and Bilko serve as bookends for three ’61 Angel teammates: L-R, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte and Bob Cerv.  (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)
Big Klu and Bilko serve as bookends for three ’61 Angel teammates: L-R, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte and Bob Cerv. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)

He tried to cheer up pitcher Tom Morgan after he was roughed up in the first inning. “You did all right out there, son.”

“I sure did,” Morgan said. “I hit all their bats.”

Albie Pearson, the littlest Angel at 5-foot-5 and 140-pounds, played two years for the Washington Senators when President Eisenhower was in office. “Mr. President, you did me wrong when I was with the Senators. Every time you would throw out the baseballs at the opener, I used to wave hoping you would throw one to me.

“Gosh, Albie,” chuckled Ike, “you’re so small I couldn’t see you.”

Ike greeted another ex-Senator, pitcher Tex Clevenger. “I wonder if Ike knows Clevenger’s first name is Truman,” mused an Angel executive, referring to former President Harry Truman.

“In all the time I was with Washington, I never saw Ike in the Senator dugout,” said Eddie Yost, a veteran third baseman who played 14 years for the Senators.

When Bilko dived for a hot smash at first base, Ike cracked, “That will take some of the pounds off the big boy.”

“Take a look at him,” one of Ike’s friends said to a reporter. “He’s like a kid having a whale of a time at this game.”

The photo of Ike, Bilko, Big Klu and Rigney is preserved in the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Bilko’s oldest son, Steve, has a framed copy. He has no idea what happened to the glove Ike signed. Until now, he didn’t know the thousand-word story behind the picture.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Back to Nanticoke

Gerald Ford was president of the United States but not for long. Happy Days was the top-rated television show, a much-needed antidote for the misery index to follow under Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter. Author Gaylon White was 30 – the uniform number for broad-shouldered Steve Bilko in 1956-57 when he belted 111 home runs to become known as Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph.

Steve Bilko, left, and Albie Pearson posed for this picture in 1957. (Author’s collection)
Steve Bilko, left, and Albie Pearson posed for this picture in 1957. (Author’s collection)

On Saturday, October 2, 1976, White spent a day with Stout Steve at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. He returns to Nanticoke Saturday, November 15, to sign copies of his book, The Bilko Athletic Club, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at the Nanticoke Historical Society, 495 East Main Street, Nanticoke.

Steve Bilko, Jr., and other Bilko family members are planning to attend the event honoring Stout Steve, who was 49 years old when he died March 7, 1978. Bilko’s sons, Steve, Jr., and Tom led the Nanticoke Area High School to championships in football, baseball and basketball in the late 1960s. They both played football at Villanova University.

Photos covering Stout Steve’s legendary career will be on display. One of them features Bilko and diminutive Albie Pearson when they played for the Angels and San Francisco Seals in 1957. Both are wearing the number 30 but the similarities stop there. “He was one of the biggest boned men I’ve seen,” said Pearson, a 5-foot-5, 140-pound outfielder. “His legs – you could put mine together and make one of his.”

The Seals won 101 games to claim the old Pacific Coast League’s last championship. The next year the Dodgers and Giants relocated to L.A. and San Francisco, forcing the Coast League to restructure with teams in Phoenix, Spokane and Salt Lake City.

“In the Coast League he was King Kong,” Pearson said of Bilko. “I tell you: if you didn’t get the ball in on his hands, he’d just kill you.

“You talk about a man who could hit a ‘crippled pitch,’ it was Steve Bilko. When I use the word ‘cripple,’ I mean the one that sometimes you get on 2-and-0  and 3-and-1 counts. He would just sit on a breaking ball or a fastball and he would eat your lunch.”

Bilko and Pearson were teammates in 1961-62 when the Angels joined the American League. In 1961, Bilko belted 20 home runs in only 294 official at bats. He was hitting .287 with eight homers in 1962 when a leg injury ended his season and big league career. “If he stayed healthy, he would’ve hit 40 home runs in the big leagues,” Albie said. “But it was late in his career.”

 For more information on the book signing event, visit the Nanticoke Historical Society website: http://www.nanticokehistoryonline.org/index.html

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Patience Pays

“Good things come to those to wait…and wait…and wait,” Ernie Banks once told Chicago Cub fans.

Cub faithful are still waiting – 10 years since the Steve Bartman incident; 30 years since a ground ball trickled through Leon Durham’s legs in the finale of the 1984 National League Championship Series; 69 years since the Cubs were in a World Series and 106 years since they won one.

Dave "Mr. Automatic" Hillman shows Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks knuckler he used to blank Pittsburgh Pirates on a two-hitter in 1959. (Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)
Dave “Mr. Automatic” Hillman shows Ernie “Mr. Cub”
Banks knuckler he used to blank Pittsburgh Pirates on a two-hitter in 1959.
(Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)

It has been a mere 58 years since Dave Hillman won 21 games to lead the 1956 Los Angeles Angels to the Pacific Coast League crown. He led the Angels in innings pitched (210), complete games (15) and shutouts (three).

Hillman was at his best against the league’s best, going undefeated (8-0) against the runner-up Seattle Rainiers and third-place Portland Beavers.

He was an amazing 11-2 at L.A.’s Wrigley Field, a hitter’s paradise that most pitchers wanted to avoid. “It made me a better pitcher. You don’t take unnecessary chances. In a larger ballpark, you can make a mistake. I was always aware that being in a small ballpark, I had to be real careful.”

For all of his success with the Angels in ’56, Hillman got little recognition. “But for a sore arm that kept him inactive for the first five weeks, Hillman would have, at the very least, 25 enemy scalps dangling from his belt right now,” one L.A. sportswriter offered near the end of the season.

That was about it until the publication of The Bilko Athletic Club.

Dave Hillman, left, was featured on Bill Meade's sports talk show on WXSM radio in Tri-Cities area of Tennessee.
Dave Hillman, left, was featured on Bill Meade’s sports talk show on WXSM radio in Tri-Cities area of Tennessee.

A full chapter is devoted to Mr. Automatic, the nickname teammate Dwight “Red” Adams bestowed on him long after the ’56 season. “He went out there time and time again and pitched you that good ball game,” Adams said.

In recent months, Hillman, now 87, has appeared on a sports talk show in the northeast area of Tennessee where he lives. He’s been the subject of stories in the Kingsport Times-News and, most recently, a story by sports columnist Trey Williams in the Johnson City Press*.

“It was an inspiration to me and an honor to me to play on that ballclub,” Hillman told Williams, adding: “It was a magical thing.”

Hillman was part of that magic and he’s finally getting the credit he deserves. Banks, a teammate with the Cubs, was right after all. Good things eventually do come to those who wait, and live, long enough.

 

 

*To read the online version of Trey Williams’ column in the Johnson City Press, click on the following link: http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/article/121559/kingsport-major-leaguer-recalls-championship-days

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Casey at Bat

It was the moment Casey Wise dreamed of as a kid – World Series, Yankee Stadium, his father in the stands to cheer him on.

Casey Wise played for the Milwaukee Braves in 1958 and part of the 1959 season.
Casey Wise played for the Milwaukee Braves in 1958 and part of the 1959 season.

In fact, Casey could hear his father, Hugh, as he stepped into the batter’s box at Yankees Stadium to pinch-hit for the Milwaukee Braves in the third game of the 1958 World Series. “Come on, Kid!” Hugh shouted.

On the mound for the New York Yankees was Ryne Duren, a hard-throwing and hardly sober pitcher who wore eyeglasses so thick a teammate once suggested he use tripods to hold them up. “A one-man war-of-nerves,” renowned sports columnist Jim Murray called Duren.

Casey wasn’t scared. He faced Duren many times in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) during the 1956 season when Casey played shortstop for the Los Angeles Angels and Ryne pitched for the Vancouver Mounties. A single off Duren in the ’56 PCL all-star game prompted a scout to tell Casey, “If you can hit guys like that, you’re going to make it in the big leagues.”

It was the top of the ninth inning. The Braves trailed 4-0. Duren walked the lead-off batter, his third walk since he entered the game the previous inning. Casey’s job was to get on base by drawing another walk or letting an errant pitch hit him. He wasn’t to swing at a pitch until Duren threw two strikes.

Casey played in all of the Angels’ 168 games in 1956.
Casey played in all of the Angels’ 168 games in 1956.

“You can observe a lot by just watching,” Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once said.

Yogi watched as Casey walked to the plate. “Hi, Casey, you doin’ okay?”

Casey said nothing, concentrating on what he had to do.

“What kind of shoes are those that you’ve got on? They’ve got funny lookin’ tongues on ‘em.”

“What the hell is wrong with my shoes?” Casey thought to himself. “Here it is, the most serious moment in my athletic career and this guy is joking about what kind of shoes I’ve got on.”

The first two pitches were called balls. And, then, Duren fired two strikes to even the count at 2-and-2. If the next pitch was close, Casey had to swing.

The outcome was the same as it was for another Casey in the famous poem, Casey at the Bat. “I had one swing and, of course, I struck out.”

It was Casey’s only chance to bat in a World Series and it was not the stuff of boyhood dreams.

Many years later Casey received a questionnaire from the Braves’ publicity department, asking about his biggest thrill in baseball. He considered his two appearances in the ’58 World Series as a pinch-runner and pinch-hitter. And, then, he recalled how he felt after striking out. “You go up there defensively and you just have an awful time.”

Casey, far right, played briefly for L.A. in 1955. He’s shown here with, from left, Moe Bauer, manager Bob Scheffing and Hy Cohen. (Courtesy Raymond “Moe” Bauer)
Casey, far right, played briefly for L.A. in 1955. He’s shown here with, from left, Moe Bauer, manager Bob Scheffing and Hy Cohen. (Courtesy Raymond “Moe” Bauer)

The Braves used Casey mostly as a late-inning defensive substitute. In 37 games, he batted a puny .197. “It was very difficult to get into the lineup because Red Schoendienst at second and Johnny Logan at shortstop were both very established players.”

This was in stark contrast to ’56 when Casey played in every one of the Angels’ 168 games, batting .287 with seven home runs and 60 RBIs. He led the PCL in at bats (705) and was among the league leaders in hits (202), doubles (36) and runs scored (122).

Casey was a second baseman when he reported to spring training with the Angels in ’56. “You need to get a bigger glove if you’re going to play shortstop,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing told him.

Scheffing was so ecstatic over Casey’s play to start the season that he gushed: “If Ernie Banks or Pee Wee Reese would be sent here right now, Wise would still be my shortstop. “

When Scheffing and Angel president John Holland moved up to lead the Chicago Cubs in 1957, they took Casey with them.

The March 1957 edition of Baseball Digest featured a smiling Casey on the cover while, inside, a story titled, Wondrous Wise, quoted Holland: “We thought his fielding had been great at short, but it was simply out of this world at second.”

Casey was even making believers of the Chicago media, highly critical of the 11 Angels on the Cubs roster. As spring training was ending, the Sporting News wrote: “Wise probably never will inspire any new recitations of the immortal poem Casey at the Bat, but he will be a good man to have around and perhaps an even better one to play second base or shortstop for the Cubs.”

Casey aboard his 53-foot yacht, called Owl, in 2001.
Casey aboard his 53-foot yacht, called Owl, in 2001.

Scheffing praised Casey’s defensive abilities, citing a fielding record he set in the lower minors and a consecutive streak of 204 chances without an error. “He isn’t a great hitter, although he may be that later, but he gets his hits.”

Casey was batting less than his weight of 170 pounds early in the ’57 season when he committed four errors in a single game, tying a major league record. Casey was sent back to the minors and eventually traded to the Braves.

The more Casey thought about the questionnaire asking about his biggest thrill in baseball, he concluded it had nothing to do with the Braves or Cubs. “I was reluctant to put something about the minor leagues in there but I said, ‘Being part of and playing for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956.’ That is about as good an answer that I could come up with. It was the epitome really of what you think of with success. You’re an important part of the team. The team was cohesive and pulling for each other. And Bilko [Steve Bilko] was hitting home runs. It doesn’t sound like a lot now but 55 home runs in those days was pretty impressive.

“In Milwaukee, I just didn’t feel as much a part of the team. In L.A., even though I wasn’t a home run hitter, I felt like I was as important to the team as anyone else and probably more than some.”

Casey went on to become an orthodontist in Naples, Florida – the city’s first. When patients asked him about striking out against Duren in the World Series, he always mentioned the single he got off Ryne in the PCL all-star game. Casey wanted his patients to have all the facts.

 

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Tip of the Hat to Nicknames

Colorful nicknames in baseball are mostly a thing of the past so it’s a treat to see four players in the playoffs with nicknames that evoke memories of a time when monikers like Duke, Pee Wee and Country were household names.

 

Swinging a bat or singing a song, The Mad Russian could put a smile on your face. (Author’s collection)
Swinging a bat or singing a song, The Mad Russian could put a smile on your face. (Author’s collection)

Nobody is going to confuse Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler or Mike “Moose” Moustakas of the Kansas City Royals with Country Slaughter or Moose Skowron or Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants and Matt “Big City” Adams of the St. Louis Cardinals with Pee Wee Reese or Duke Snider. But their nicknames are equally catchy and endearing, creating a special bond with fans that has been missing since the game became just another big business.

 

Some nicknames are timeless and etched in our minds. After reading the lineups for the all-star game in 1970, Ed Cunningham wrote the following poem:

 

Why is Hodges sidelined

With a clipboard in his hands?

What is Bobby Feller doing

Sitting in the stands?

Where have all my heroes gone?

Where’s Big Johnny Mize?

Where’s The Splinter?

Where’s The Man?

Who are all these guys?

 

The Man, of course, refers to Stan “The Man” Musial and Ted Williams was called “The Splendid Splinter” as well as “Teddy Ballgame.”

 

For most fans, a Google search is required to find out the given names for Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra, Rip Repulski, Preacher Roe, Mudcat Grant, Catfish Hunter, Whitey Ford, and Vinegar Bend Mizell.

 

Many of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels had nicknames. Super-sub Lorenzo “Piper” Davis was widely known as Piper, the name of his hometown in Alabama. Veteran pitchers Marino Pieretti and Dwight Adams answered to the nicknames of Chick and Red. The initials K.C. for Kendall Cole led to Casey, the nickname for shortstop Casey Wise. Gale Wade, the Angels’ outspoken centerfielder, was called Windy and right-fielder Jim Bolger’s not-so-sunny disposition prompted one L.A. sportswriter to dub him Sunny Jim.

Pitcher Darius Dutton Hillman went by Dave, a name given to him by a boyhood friend after a concert by a popular banjo player, Dave Macon. Pitcher Bob Thorpe didn’t say much so he became known as The Quiet Man while Gene Fodge was nicknamed Suds by fellow pitcher Johnny Briggs “because we liked to sip our beer.” Second-baseman Gene Mauch was called Skip as a player and, then, Little General as a major league manager

 

Angel manager Bob Scheffing was nicknamed Grump because he was known to tell his players, “When the game is close, don’t be over near me because I’ll be grumpin’ and groanin’ about everything.” Joe Garagiola and Scheffing were teammates on the St. Louis Cardinals and became best friends. “You have to understand that Scheffing is a very happy man inside,” Joe said. “He just hasn’t told his face about it.”

 

Lou Novikoff and Lou Stringer were drafted by the Cubs in 1940 and, then, staged a lulu of a holdout before signing. (Author’s collection)

As you might expect, Steve Bilko led the team in nicknames. Stout Steve evolved into Stout Steve the Slugging Seraph. Sergeant Bilko was inspired by the television character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers. This led to Sergeant of Swat and other nicknames based on his strength and home run-hitting power: Angel Atlas, Mr. Biceps, Boom Boom and the Ambulant Atomic Energy Plant from Southern California.

 

Wade called Bilko “Hump” because of his batting stance. “He kind of hovered over the plate, hunching his shoulders into a hump,” Windy explained.

 

“I called him, “Mr. Bilko,” said Bob Speake, the Angels’ left-fielder.

 

“I said, ‘Yes, sir, to him,’” Hillman added.

 

For sheer color and entertainment, few can match The Mad Russian, the nickname for Lou Novikoff, a socking, singing outfielder who joined the Angels near the end of the 1939 season and batted a whopping .452 in 36 games. He continued his torrid hitting in 1940 with a .363 average and 41 home runs. On Lou Novikoff Day in June 1940, he rapped four hits, including two homers, and, then afterwards, stepped to the microphone to announce, “I will now sing that old Russian ballad, ‘My Wild Irish Rose.’” Thirteen thousand fans clamored for an encore so Novikoff wowed them with a baritone rendition of “Down by the Old Mill Stream.”

 

Novikoff went on to hit a respectable .282 in the majors with the Chicago Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies. But he never fulfilled the promise showed in winning four minor-league batting titles. “No wonder they call you the Mad Russian,” one opposing manager heckled Novikoff. “If I couldn’t hit any better than that, I’d be mad, too.”

 

Benched for not being physically fit, Novikoff complained, “I’m only 17 pounds overweight.” After misplaying a few balls in the outfield, he said, “I can’t play in Wrigley Field because the left field foul line isn’t straight like in the other parks…it’s crooked.”

 

None of this mattered to Cub fans. They loved the Mad Russian and his eccentric ways.

:  Swinging a bat or singing a song, The Mad Russian usually was smiling. (Author’s collection)
The Mad Russian was a big hit with fans at Wrigley Field in Chicago as well as L.A. (Author’s collection)

When Cub manager Jim Wilson pinch-hit for him, fans howled their disapproval. “That razz nearly bowled me over,” Wilson said. “Twenty thousand fans can’t be wrong. Novikoff is a regular from now on. Never since Dizzy Dean have I seen the fans go so goo-goo over a guy as they have the Russian.”

 

The Mad Russian’s charm didn’t stop with the fans. “He’s given me a lot of laughs and I can’t stay mad at him,” Wilson said. “One night in Pittsburgh I saw him go to bed at 11 o’clock. At midnight someone told me he had left the hotel. Where do you suppose I found him? In one of those small night clubs, sitting on top of the piano singing at the top of his voice. How he loves to sing. If he could only hit as well as he sings, he’d be a .350 slugger.”

 

And he’d be in the Hall of Fame where anybody nicknamed The Mad Russian belongs.

 

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Baseball Fan for the Ages

Willie Smith is a throwback to the past when baseball fans often were as entertaining as the players on the field. In most ballparks across America, we now get silly mascots prancing around and scoreboards with JumboTron television screens showing people mugging for video cameras while loud music numbs our eardrums.

Willie Smith
Willie Smith — sitting pretty.

Both past and present can be experienced at historic Grayson Stadium in Savannah, Georgia, home of the Sand Gnats, a New York Mets farm team in the Class A South Atlantic (Sally) League. Willie has been hanging out at the ballpark since the 1940s when he went to games with his dad. Blacks and whites couldn’t sit together in the stands any more than they could play against each other on the field. So father and son sat in the colored section along the third-base foul line.

These days Willie, soon to be 76, sits in the general admission section directly behind home plate. There’s even a seat with his name on it: “Mr. Willie Smith.”

“Times have changed,” Willie said at a recent playoff game between the Sand Gnats and Asheville Tourists. “My daddy should’ve lived to see this. He would love it. But, you know, people back then like my daddy, as I got old enough to see what was going on, they didn’t care where they were sittin’ at. They didn’t worry about it. They’d go to a ballgame and enjoy the game like there was nuthin’ to it. That’s the way it was. All they wanted was to get to the ballpark. That’s it!”

Willie is ushered to his seat at Grayson Stadium by Rozy Gober of the Sand Gnat staff.
Willie is ushered to his seat at Grayson Stadium by Rozy Gober of the Sand Gnat staff.

 

Willie is treated like royalty at Grayson Stadium, much like Roberta “Angel Annie” King at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

Angel Annie was a tiny black woman referred to as “The Screech” or “Human Siren” because she had “a shouting voice somewhere between a police siren and dynamite explosion.” Hearing Angel Annie shout was as exciting and memorable as watching a Steve Bilko home run soar over Wrigley Field’s ivy-covered brick walls. She had her own fan club, military personnel from all over the world writing to request autographs and photos of players they knew she had wrapped around her finger. When fans found out Angel Annie didn’t have a free pass to games, they chanted, “Get a pass for Angel Annie or we’ll kick you in the pants.”

Willie poses with Dominic Smith, first baseman for the 2014 Sand Gnats.
Willie poses with Dominic Smith, first baseman for the 2014 Sand Gnats.

 

Willie doesn’t need a pass. People call out his name as he enters Grayson Stadium before the gates open and roams the field and Sand Gnat dugout as he pleases before games. “Everybody knows Uncle Willie, don’t they?”

A lineup and barbecue sandwich, French fries and cherry Coke is delivered to his seat just before the home plate umpire yells, “Play ball!”   Willie has a gravelly, bubbly voice that reverberates around the grandstand like a Jackie Robinson line drive against an outfield wall. “St-r-r-r-ike!” he’ll holler, pumping a fist to celebrate a called strike on an opposing batter.

“I won’t sit nowhere else,” Willie explained. “I can call strikes and balls right here. I call them out loud, too. I let the whole stadium know what is a strike and what is a ball.”

Willie shows off the championship ring given to him by the Sand Gnats after they won the Sally League title in 2013.
Willie shows off the championship ring given to him by the Sand Gnats after they won the Sally League title in 2013.

 

He’s wearing khaki shorts, a gray t-shirt, size 12 ½ tennis shoes with no socks and a Sand Gnats baseball cap. On the index finger of his left hand is a South Atlantic League championship ring given to him by the Sand Gnats after they won the title in 2013.

Overhead, windmill-sized white blades of four Bad Ass fans whirl, cooling the crowd below.

Asheville has a runner on first base so Willie dutifully reminds the Sand Gnats they have a chance for a double play. “Give me two, now! Give me two, give me two! Make him hit it on the ground.”

The batter strikes out. “Sit down in your seat, Big Boy! Sit down in your seat! Go play football!”

When the Sand Gnats take their turn at bat, Willie unleashes his signature yell, “Put the wood on it! Put the wood on it!”

They’re called Bad Ass fans and four of are needed to keep fans in the grandstand cool on hot summer nights in Savannah.
They’re called Bad Ass fans and four are needed to keep fans in the grandstand cool on hot summer nights in Savannah.

 

Between innings, Willie reminisced.   “I like the team. I like baseball. But the outlook, the feel of the game ain’t there no more. Back then, in the ‘50s, when the players were on the field, no matter whether it was the Savannah Indians or the Jacksonville Braves, or whatever, those guys acted like they wanted to play ball on the field. The defense would get out there and they’d talk to each other. You could hear ‘em. You could hear ‘em poppin’ the glove. You know, playin’ defense. They’d be talkin’ to each other like: ‘Come on, Baby! Hang in there, Baby! We got ‘em. Come on.’ You don’t hear that no more out of the players.”

Willie would ride his bicycle to Grayson Stadium and watch the players practice. “They didn’t allow blacks in there during that time. I was in there, though. I jumped the fence. Put my bicycle up against the concrete wall, man, and get on the field and just keep on moving.” He was 14 in 1953 when 19-year-old Henry Aaron came to town with the Jacksonville Braves. “He was a big thrill for me along with our colored players that we had.”

Willie ticked off the names of the first blacks to play for Savannah – Fleming “Junior” Reedy and Al Isreal in 1953 and Al Pinkston and Isreal in 1954.

Al Pinkston won six batting titles in his career, including four straight in the Mexican League.
Al Pinkston won six batting titles in his career, including four straight in the Mexican League.

Five blacks – Savannah’s Reedy and Isreal and Jacksonville’s Aaron, Felix Mantilla and Horace Garner – played in the ’53 season opener at Grayson Stadium, breaking the 50-year-old Sally League’s color barrier. Aaron and Mantilla batted in the tying and go-ahead runs while Garner made a sensational catch in the outfield.

“Almost half of the 5,508 people in Grayson Stadium were Negroes,” the Savannah Evening Press reported. “By actual count of the turnstiles, the white fans outnumbered the Negroes by an even 400 – 2,954 to 2,554.” According to the Savannah Morning News, blacks filled “one section of the grandstand, the bleachers down the left field line and one section of the left field bleachers.”

Pinkston gave Willie and other Savannah fans plenty to cheer about the next year, hitting .360 to lead the league. He was the top hitter in the Class C Provincial League in 1952 and four-time Mexican League batting champ with averages ranging from .369 to .397. Altogether, Pinkston won six batting titles, tying him with the legendary Smead Jolley for the most in minor-league baseball history. He never made it to the majors. “The greatest hitter you never heard of,” one minor league historian said.

Willie’s son pitched for the Cardinals but this baseball card shows him in a Yankees uniform.
Willie’s son pitched for the Cardinals but this baseball card shows him in a Yankees uniform.

 

Willie vividly remembers the 6-foot, 5 ½ inch Pinkston. “Everybody know Pinkston for his size – long legs and big feet.” Pinky wore size 14 shoes and a 16 ½ shirt with a 37 sleeve.

The same season Willie saw an 18-year-old black outfielder for the Columbia Reds – Frank Robinson. “Shoot, yeah, Big Frank! Long, tall….”

Willie gets excited all over again, thinking about Robinson and Aaron, both Hall of Famers, and the humongous Pinkston. “Them guys were ready to explode, man. They were good players – super players in their league. They were ready, man. They were ready!”

Dale Murphy, a white player, starred for Savannah in 1976 before moving up to the Atlanta Braves and slamming 398 homers in an 18-year big league career.

In 1988, Willie’s son, also named Willie, was a relief pitcher for the Augusta Pirates, a long-time Savannah rival. “Mr. Willie, who are you going to pull for?” people asked.

“I’ve been coming to this stadium long before he was born,” Willie said. “I want Savannah to win but I want my son to have a good night. I want him to go on up.”

Willie made it to the big leagues, appearing in eight games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1994.

Grayson Stadium was built in 1926, making it the oldest minor league ballpark still in operation. Hardball Capital, owner of the Sand Gnats, is seeking a new ballpark either in downtown Savannah or in Columbia, South Carolina, where one is being built on the hope that a team will soon come. “Everybody wants new stadiums,” Willie said. “But that doesn’t guarantee they’re going to have a lot of fans.”

Here’s the view from Willie’s seat behind home plate at Grayson Stadium.
Here’s the view from Willie’s seat behind home plate at Grayson Stadium.

Willie looked around Grayson Stadium. The trees behind the left-field wall are twice as tall as they were when he was a kid. The old concrete walls have been replaced by the new wood fences closer to home plate and covered with advertisements. Willie pointed to a white tent where the colored section used to be. “We had to sit right over there — right behind third base. A little further down. Wooden seats. No backs on ‘em; went about 12 rows high. Of course, I was a little boy. I didn’t care to sit down, no how.” He laughed at the memory.

“They were good seats. On a big night they were full up, people standing along the sidelines. Shoot, blacks went to games more than they do now. They couldn’t choose where they sit at but they came to the game.”   Willie paused as he considered the future of Grayson Stadium. “Dale Murphy and all them boys played here. It’s got a great history. I think if they could add onto it in a fashion – bring it out! More convenience for the people who work here – the office and even the ballplayers. The dugouts and stuff. They can stay right here. Keep what they’ve got; don’t kill the image of the stadium. It’s got too much history.”   Rain halted the Savannah-Asheville game in the bottom of the eighth inning. After a delay of 90 minutes, the game was suspended and completed the following day. The Sand Gnats lost, ending their season.

As a kid, Willie listened to games on the radio with his father. “Radio was better than television. The announcers let you know what was going on. These guys on TV don’t do nuthin’. They sit there when somebody hit a home run: ‘Oh, he hit a home run.’ We can see he hit a home run. You don’t have to tell us that. It’s so dead that I go to sleep on the game. But radio was good.”

As the rains came down, Willie entertained fans around him with a home run call like he used to hear on the radio: “And, partner, there’s a ball going deep into right field. It looks like it’s outta here. The centerfielder is going back. He’s going back. And this ball is still traveling. I think it’s outta here. And, partner, it’s outta here! It’s a home run! Larry Doby just put one out of here 350 feet!”

Willie’s laugh is joyous and uplifting. What better way to spend a rainy night in Georgia than re-creating the past in a storied ballpark with a long-time fan that still has his boyhood enthusiasm for the game he loves.

Watch videos of Willie Smith and the Savannah Gnats game below:

Willie Smith / Calling a home run

Willie Smith / Put the wood on the ball

Rain Delay

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Who Needs it Most?

The baseball playoffs are in full swing and the talking heads on ESPN and other prognosticators already have weighed in with their picks to win the league championships and the World Series.

These so-called experts are basing their selections on relative strength of the teams, ignoring the fact that the best team doesn’t always win.

Phil Silvers, left, adopted Steve Bilko’s name for Sgt. Bilko, the TV character he made famous in the ‘50s. (Courtesy Bob Case)
Phil Silvers, left, adopted Steve Bilko’s name for Sgt. Bilko, the TV character he made famous in the ‘50s. (Courtesy Bob Case)

The best criteria is one used by actor-comedian Phil Silvers when facing the task of selecting the name of the master sergeant he played on the television show, You’ll Never Get Rich, that premiered in September 1955. Assuming Silvers wanted to use the name of a baseball player, there were 400 in the majors and hundreds more in the minors to consider.

When the show premiered in September 1955, Ted Kluszewski was a household name because of the sleeveless jerseys he wore to show off the muscles that helped him smash 47 home runs. Al Kaline led the majors in batting average (.340) and hits (200) while Duke Snider was tops in runs batted in (136) and runs scored (126). Stan Musial was still living up to his nickname, “The Man”, hitting .319 and slugging 33 homers. Gil Hodges of the world champion Brooklyn Dodgers batted .289 with 27 round-trippers and 102 RBIs.

Silvers ignored all these stars for a minor leaguer, Stout Steve Bilko, of the Los Angeles Angels. Why?

Big Klu“I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers told Red Smith, the syndicated sports columnist. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”

So the question for the eight playoff teams is: Who needs it the most?

The San Francisco Giants, World Series champions in 2012 and 2010, need it the least followed by the St. Louis Cardinals, winners in 2011 and 2006. The Angels went all the way in 2002; the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988; the Kansas City Royals in 1985; the Detroit Tigers in 1984 and the Baltimore Orioles in 1983. That leaves the Washington Nationals.

Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States in 1924, the last time the Nationals won it all. Johnny “Tarzan” Weismuller won three gold medals in swimming at the Paris Summer Olympics. Joseph Stalin took over power from Vladimir Lenin in Russia.

Through most of their history, the Nationals have lived up to the classic line: “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

In 1949, they finished last with a 50-104 won-loss record, prompting the firing of manager, Joe Kuhel, who said in his defense: “You can’t make chicken salad out of chicken feathers.”

Given the Nationals’ dismal past, Washington needs it most, right?

"Phoenix Rising from the Ashes of Detroit" Photograph and set design:  RORSHAK (www.rorshak.com) Model:  Aleta Myles  For an in depth discussion of the image, visit http://www.rorywhite.com/newsletters/July_2014/
“Phoenix Rising from the Ashes of Detroit”
Photograph and set design: RORSHAK (www.rorshak.com)
Model: Aleta Myles
For an in depth discussion of the image, visit http://www.rorywhite.com/newsletters/July_2014/

No city in the U.S. needs a drug-free shot in the arm more than Detroit. Torn asunder in recent years by crime, political scandal and massive unemployment, Motown needs the pride and joy that a World Series title brings to a community. The Tigers reached the final round in 2006 and 2012 only to be embarrassed both times. In 2011 and 2013, they were eliminated in the American League championship series.

If it were up to Phil Silvers, the Tigers finally would win because Detroit needs it most. But Silvers is dead and Tigers aren’t feeling too good themselves after the Orioles knocked them out of the playoffs. Oh, well, as any diehard Cub fan attest, there’s always next year.

 

 

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Measuring a Leader

Bob-Scheffing_edit
Bob Scheffing

Baseball has statistics for almost everything except a player’s leadership ability. That’s something usually determined by the players themselves and the comments they make about each other. Bob Scheffing was the manager of the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 but second baseman Gene Mauch was “the cat’s meow on the field,” according to Eddie Haas, a 20-year-old outfielder at the time. “He told everybody where to go, what to do.”

Mauch was player-manager for the Atlanta Crackers in the Southern Association in 1953 before moving to L.A. in 1954. By 1956, he was well on his way to becoming known as the “Little General,” the nickname he earned managing 26 years in the big leagues. “His ambition was to become a major-league manager,” said Johnny Goryl, who played 12 games for the ’56 Angels. “Everybody knew that.”

“Mauch had a big impression on me as a kid,” Haas said. “Some of the things I didn’t understand until I got older. Once I played another four or five years and, especially when I started managing, I reflected back on some of the things that he just harped on. They were very helpful.”

Gene Mauch
Gene Mauch

Catcher Jim Fanning played with the Angels in 1955 and part of the 1956 season. “Gene knew everything. He had the greatest retentive memory of anybody I have ever been around – anybody. He never took a note. He never forgot anything.”

Roy Smalley, a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs in the early 1950s and Mauch’s brother-in-law, once quipped he never heard Gene say he was a genius but he never heard him deny it either. “No, I wasn’t,” Mauch said of the genius thing, “but I knew how to play and so did the rest of them.”

Five players, including Mauch, managed in the majors. Catcher Elvin Tappe guided the Cubs’ misguided College of Coaches experiment in 1961-62; Goryl was a coach for the Minnesota Twins in 1980 when he succeeded Mauch as manager; Haas managed the Atlanta Braves in 1985; Fanning led the Montreal Expos in 1982 and parts of two other seasons.

Elvin Tappe
Elvin Tappe

Fanning established the scouting bureau that major league teams still use today and he was the Expos’ first general manager, hiring Mauch to manage the expansion team in 1969. “I had a lot of admiration for Gene. He was a great aid to Bob,” Fanning said, recalling their time together with Scheffing in L.A.

Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the ’56 Angels veteran pitchers, became a highly-respected pitching coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers, credited by Hall of Fame pitchers Tommy John and Don Sutton for their success. Third baseman George Freese managed 12 seasons in the lower minors for the Cubs, San Diego Padres and the Dodgers.

Piper Davis
Piper Davis

 

Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, the only African-American on the team, was player-manager of the Birmingham Black Barons in 1948 when they won the Negro American League title with a 16-year-old named Willie Mays playing centerfield. “In so many ways Piper was the most important person in my early baseball years,” Mays wrote in his autobiography, Say Hey.

In addition to batting .316 as a super-sub and pinch-hitter, the 39-year-old Piper was a catalyst, spending much of his time in the bullpen warming up the team’s young pitchers and giving them the benefit of the wisdom he gained from playing in the Negro Leagues. “Piper knew his role and he played it well,” said outfielder Bob Speake.

“Bob was a handler of men, not ball players,” Speake explained. “Bob appreciated Gene’s baseball wisdom and leadership ability on the field. And he just let it go, let it develop so that Gene could help younger ball players and also be part of that winning tradition. Bob had the knack of sitting back and letting you do your thing.”

Jim Fanning
Jim Fanning

 

“He let us be as creative as we wanted to be and he had great trust in us,” Mauch said. “After all the years I managed, I learned it’s far more important that the players know that the manager respects them than it is for them to respect the manager. Scheffing was a helluva manager – the best manager I ever played for.”

Mauch ranks 12th among big league managers in victories with 1,902 – three less than Casey Stengel, the legendary Yankees manager who managed in 10 World Series. He should be in the Hall of Fame with Stengel but, unfortunately, he is most remembered for his near misses with the Philadelphia Phillies in 1964 and California Angels in 1982 and 1986.

With 12 games to play in 1964, the Phillies lost 10 straight games to blow a six-and-a-half game lead. In 1982, the Angels blew a 2-0 game lead against the Milwaukee Brewers in the best-of-five championship playoff series. The Angels were one strike away from the World Series in 1986 when the Red Sox rallied to three consecutive wins and the American League championship. “If it’s true you learn from adversity, then I must be the smartest SOB in the world,” Mauch said.

Johnny Goryl
Johnny Goryl

What is often overlooked is Mauch transformed bad teams into pennant contenders. Under his leadership, the Phillies went from last-place in 1960 to second in 1964. The Expos went from 52 to 73 wins their first two years under Mauch. The Twins improved by nine games his first season as manager in 1976, and he guided the Angels to a division title in 1982, after they finished last the year before.

“He knew what it took to make a player better,” said Goryl, who followed Mauch as manager of the Twins. “It was unfortunate what happened to him in Philadelphia but he always believed in going with the horses that made the club good. That’s what he lived by and that’s how he managed.”

George “Sparky” Anderson succeeded Mauch at second base for the Angels in 1957. Tommy Lasorda was a pitcher for the ’57 Angels. Both are Hall of Fame managers. “I got good players, stayed out of the way, let ‘em win a lot, and then just hung around for 26 years,” Sparky said on being inducted.

Eddie Haas
Eddie Haas

One can only wonder how many championships Mauch would’ve won with players like Anderson had in Cincinnati and Detroit and Lasorda with the Dodgers.

Near the end of the ’56 Angels’ title run, Mauch was sold to the Boston Red Sox. Scheffing went on to manage the Cubs for three years (1957-59). “If I had known I was going to manage the Cubs, we would have never sold him to the Red Sox,” Scheffing said. “I’d have held onto him as a player, coach or something.”

A statement like that is a pretty good measure of Mauch as a leader.

 

 

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Speaking His Mind

When Gale “Windy” Wade spoke, people listened – or ran for cover.

“Gale speaks his mind,” says Bob Speake, who played alongside Wade in the outfield with the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 and Chicago Cubs in 1955. “As hard-nosed and strong jawed as he was, I didn’t want to mouth off to him. I was afraid he would hit me.”

This story appeared with the photo below in the L.A. Mirror-News August 22, 1955.
This story appeared with the photo below in the L.A. Mirror-News August 22, 1955.

At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Windy was chiseled and as tough as a gunslinger in a western movie. “He was sort of the good-looking wild child,” one Angels fan said.

He bowled over infielders and catchers with rolling blocks and crashed into and sometimes through outfield walls. “That’s what walls are for,” added Jim Brosnan, a 17-game winner for the Angels in 1955. “He was the kind of an outfielder that a pitcher liked. When he’d get an idea of where the fly ball was going to be, he would get it diving or whatever he had to do.”

“It’s like Gale said, if you have to take out a catcher to win, you take him out,” Speake explains. “Second base, you take him out – whatever is necessary to win the game.”

In Chicago, Wade threatened to throw sportswriter Edgar “Mouse” Munzel off a catwalk leading to the Wrigley Field press box after he wrote, “Nothing now, it seems, will beat the Cubs except more and worse fielding by Gale Wade.”

“He was a backdoor little dog,” Wade says. “Why he had it in for me, I don’t know. But he did. I scared him. I told him, ‘I’ll throw your little blankety-blank right off of here (the catwalk).’”

Shortly after arriving in L.A. in ‘55, Windy scolded Los Angeles newspapers for not giving Pacific Coast League baseball adequate coverage. “You fellows will probably want my blood now. But it doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t care what you guys or the fans think of me, only what the Cubs think of me. That’s all.”

In newspaper terms, Windy was “good copy” so Sid Ziff, sports editor of the Los Angeles Mirror-News, enticed him to report on the Angels’ road games the last month of the season.

“After the game he’d write out the stories in longhand and take ‘em down to Western Union,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing said. “The first time he handed the operator a mess of papers the guy said, ‘I can’t send that stuff.’

“The hell you can’t,” Windy barked. “That’s your business, isn’t it?

The caption for this Mirror-News photo began, “Now what should I write about?” (Courtesy Gale Wade)
The caption for this Mirror-News photo began, “Now what should I write about?” (Courtesy Gale Wade)

The byline on the stories read: “BY GALE WADE, Angel Outfielder (Written by Himself).”

“I wrote what I thought,” Wade recalls. “I wanted the public to get straight down the pipe what was going on.”

He called Steve Bilko “Big Hump” because of his batting stance. “He kind of hovered over the plate, hunching his shoulders into a hump.”

Windy humored readers with expressions he learned growing up in the Ozarks: “Lefty Joe Hatten was a tough as the bark on a hickory stump in the clutch last night as he set the Solons down, 4-2.”

He fired shots at the majors, writing: “The 1,376 fans on hand were treated to as good a game as they could have seen in the big leagues, and a darn sight better than some they play in the big show.”

After losing 11-1 to the Sacramento Solons, Windy called the Angels’ performance “one of the greatest three-ring circuses known to the history of modern-day baseball. The Solons supposedly have a clown in Chet Johnson, a left-handed pitcher, but last night he couldn’t have qualified as a prop man in our show.”

He needled his boss at the Mirror-News: “By the way Sid (Ziff), there were two photographers at the game last night and they had some good pictures on the sports page today. Just thought I’d mention it.”

Typing wasn’t one of Gale Wade’s strengths. “In high school, I got up to eight words a minute.” (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Typing wasn’t one of Gale Wade’s strengths. “In high school, I got up to eight words a minute.” (Courtesy Gale Wade)

The Mirror-News used Wade’s stories bad grammar and all. “There’s a lot of the English language that was screwed up but I wanted it to be just like I said it. They went along with it.”

“He’s a talker,” says Speake. “He’s not a grammar man.”

According to Ziff, “the only bit that had to be toned down was where he expressed his views” on one of the umpires in the league.

Wade didn’t write again until 1960 when he played for the Dallas-Fort Worth Rangers and penned a column titled “Ranger Writer” for the Dallas Times-Herald. The newspaper introduced the column with a cartoon showing Wade, a press badge on his cap, holding a typewriter as if it was a bat. The caption read: “Dallas-Fort Worth outfielder hit .280, 5th in PCL SB’s [stolen bases] for Seattle in ’59. Reputation as a fiery scrapper…bust-a-gut to beat you…aggressive base runner. Hobbies: breaking up DP’s and second basemen. Bats left, throws right, types one finger.”

In L.A., Windy was photographed banging out a story on a typewriter while sitting in the dugout. Truth is, Wade couldn’t even type with one finger. “In high school, I got up to eight words a minute,” he laughs.

Wade’s manager in Dallas-Fort Worth was Jim Fanning, a catcher for the Angels in 1955 and early 1956.

Wade received this congratulatory telegram from Sid Ziff, Mirror-News sports editor.
Wade received this congratulatory telegram from Sid Ziff, Mirror-News sports editor.

“Do you think it would be OK if I wrote a story every day?” Wade asked Fanning.

“I don’t care what you do,” Fanning replied, cautioning, “But you’re going to have to be careful what you say in the story.”

He got into hot water over a column about two umpires, named Doyle and Gentry, who reminded him of “watching a Collie dog trying to set a covey of quail.”

Wade questioned whether Gentry “would last the year out unless the league was really destitute for umpires because it takes certain capabilities to be an umpire and Gentry didn’t show me any of them except he knew how to raise his left arm and his right arm and how to wear his uniform.”

“Doyle,” he continued, “perhaps is a shade better umpire than Gentry probably because he has been umpiring longer. But I wouldn’t bat an eye for the difference.”

Wade went on to tell readers that they would’ve seen his column on Gentry and Doyle sooner except Fanning “thought it best I not write it. He no doubt thought that this would cause Gentry and Doyle to make it rough on our club later on. But if they do, it will really show they don’t belong anywhere in baseball.”

Edgar “Mouse” Munzel, Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter, is shown here rubbing elbows with Chicago Cubs manager Bob Scheffing, left, and John Holland, a Cub VP. Wade called Munzel “Mousey”. (Author’s collection)
Edgar “Mouse” Munzel, Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter, is shown here rubbing elbows with Chicago Cubs manager Bob Scheffing, left, and John Holland, a Cub VP. Wade called Munzel “Mousey”. (Author’s collection)

Wade was fined $25 for his comments by Ed Doherty, the president of the American Association. “I’m not going to say anything good about Ed Doherty,” he wrote while praising the league secretary for getting him into a popular Denver country club for a round of golf.

“Spending a few idle hours on the golf course can help take a player’s mind off baseball, which a player needs to do at times. For that old saying about eating and sleeping baseball can at times make up an unbalanced diet and some sleepless nights.

“Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this golf game, for some night in Dallas when we have a bad night some fan will no doubt yell out why don’t you bums give up and start playing golf for a living.”

Outside his home in North Carolina, Gale displays a woodcarving made for him by ’56 Angels teammate, Bob Speake.
Outside his home in North Carolina, Gale displays a woodcarving made for him by ’56 Angels teammate, Bob Speake.

The fan Wade worried about turned out to be Ranger owner J.W. Bateson.

Fanning got a call from the front office: “You’ve got to stop Gale Wade from writing these stories.”

Instead, Fanning urged Wade “to tone it down” and talk about baseball, not golf. “It was the golf thing that got him into a little trouble with Bateson. But I didn’t deter him from writing. He continued to the end of the season. He wrote very well. They were great stories.”

Wade’s stories paved the way for Brosnan, a teammate on the ’55 Angels, to write The Long Season in 1960 and The Pennant Race in 1962 – the first books to give fans a glimpse inside a baseball team’s locker room.

“Oh, silent Jim,” says Windy. “Gosh whiz, I had no idea he would become an author. Jim stayed to himself. He was a very, very silent guy – a good human being.”

Wade is Brosnan’s opposite but just as honest and genuine as the columns he wrote in L.A. and Dallas. “We’ve become real close,” Speake says. “With the Cubs, I didn’t pay much attention to Gale. I’m the quiet type; he’s a talker. It took a long time for me to realize that the guy is real.”

Gale Wade has a wall of memories in the basement of his North Carolina home to remind him of Green Bay Packer great, Ray Nitschke, and his days as a centerfielder for the Chicago Cubs in the majors and Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League.

 Click here or below to view a video of Wade walking down memory lane.

http://youtu.be/MKnkw3K_DSc

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Birthday Boys

Dave Hillman and Jim Fanning were the 1956 Los Angeles Angels’ birthday boys, born September 14, 1927, and playing on the same teams on their way up to the big leagues. Today, they are 87, Hillman living in Kingsport, Tennessee, and Fanning in London, Ontario, Canada.

Dave Hillman_pitcher_Cubs
Dave Hillman

Hillman, a pitcher, and Fanning, a catcher, were battery mates at Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1950; Beaumont, Texas, in 1954; L.A. in 1955 and 1956 and Chicago where they played for the Cubs in 1955 and 1957.

“We broke into pro ball on the same ballclub – Rock Hill,” Dave says. He posted a 14-11 for the Chiefs, a Class B team, his rookie season and won 20 games for them the next year.

“Dave had a good fastball,” Jim says. “He had a super changeup. He had excellent control. You could sit on the outside or inside of the plate and he’d hit it. He and I could go out and play a game today and I would know how exactly to call a game for him.”

With Jim catching, Dave was 16-11 for Beaumont in the Class AA Texas League. Jim batted .333 in 12 games for the Angels in ’56 while Dave was the ace of the pitching staff with a 21-7 won-loss record.

Jim and Dave started the ’55 season with the Cubs before being sent to L.A. They were driving west on Route 66 when the Cubs’ “Sad” Sam Jones became the first black to pitch a no-hitter in the major leagues. “We got so excited listening to the game on the radio that we had to stop the car,” Jim recalls.

Earlier in the season, Fanning was the catcher when Sad Sam blanked the Cincinnati Redlegs on two hits. “He had the best curve I ever saw.”

Jim Fanning
Jim Fanning

In the ninth inning of his no-hitter against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Sad Sam walked three straight to load the bases before striking out the next three batters to end the game. Clyde McCullough was the Cub catcher.

”If I hadn’t been sent out, I’d be catching this game,” Jim told Dave repeatedly.

Dave finally had enough. “Yeah,” he said, “and Jones would’ve been gone in three innings.”

Like their shared birthday, the story bonds the ex-teammates,  taking them back to their youth and big league dreams.

 

 

 

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

As the Worm Turns

Baseball has had its share of drinkers.

Babe Ruth was as legendary for his beer drinking as he was for his home runs.

Hall of Famer Wade Boggs denies that he once downed 64 beers on a cross-country flight but admits, “It was a few Miller Lites.”

Steve Bilko
Steve Bilko

Unlike Ruth and Boggs, Steve Bilko isn’t enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  But he’s a Hall of Famer in the beer-drinking department.

“He could drink more beer in one sitting than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Ted Bowsfield, a pitcher and teammate of Bilko’s with the Los Angeles Angels in 1961 and 1962. “Unlimited capacity for it. The thing that baffled me – he never went to the bathroom. I think he had a wooden leg.”

“Bilko could drink more beer than you could haul in a vehicle,” said Gale Wade, a centerfielder for the Angels in the Pacific Coast League from 1955-57 when Bilko was belting 148 homers along with his beers. “He could down a six-pack and not even think about it. It was nothing.”

“Steve loved his beer,” recalled George Freese, a third-baseman for the ’56 Angels who would drink beer with Bilko while relaxing in the clubhouse whirlpool after home games. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.”

Gail_Harris_(baseball)

Eddie Erautt, a pitcher and former St. Louis Cardinals teammate, often sent Steve postcards, unsigned, with the name of Steve’s favorite beer, Kulmbacher, written on it.

The story goes that in 1958 when Bilko played for the Cincinnati Redlegs, he hopped off the team bus during a brief stop to buy a case of cold beer. By the time he got his change, he emptied two bottles.

It doesn’t matter whether some drinking stories are fact or fiction. They are so good they are passed on from one player to another. Take, for example, a story related by Gail Harris to Dave Hillman, a 21-game winner for the ’56 Angels.

One of Gail’s teammates when he played for the New York Giants from 1955 to 1957 was James “Dusty” Rhodes, a hard-hitting and hard-drinking outfielder that Giants manager Leo Durocher used primarily as a pinch-hitter. He gained fame in the 1954 World Series, going 4-for-6 with two home runs and seven runs batted in as the Giants swept the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians in four games. “I couldn’t buy a drink in New York after that ’54 Series,” Rhodes said.Jim Dusty Rhodes_Topps_1954

In his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher called Rhodes “the worst fielder who ever played in a big league game who made training rules forgotten.” He added: “And, boy, he could hit.”

Durocher wanted to play Rhodes every day. “If you stop drinking, Dusty, you’ll get to play more. You’ll do a better job in the outfield.”

Dusty paid little attention to Durocher and kept on drinking gin. Finally, Leo decided to fill a glass with gin and put in two juicy earthworms to demonstrate what it can do to a person. The worms turned white, shriveled up and died.

Dusty watched as Durocher made his point: “It goes to show you, Dusty, what gin will do to you. What does that tell you?”

“Well,” Dusty mused, “as long as you drink gin, Leo, you won’t have worms.”

 

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Bingo to Bango to Bilko

One double play combination produced a legendary refrain, the other a clever phrase that’s now a trivia question.

Ernie “Bingo” Banks (Courtesy George Brace)
Ernie “Bingo” Banks (Courtesy George Brace)

In the early 1900s, the defensive wizardry of Chicago Cubs shortstop Joe Tinker, second baseman Johnny Evers and first baseman Frank Chance inspired the poem, Baseball’s Sad Lexicon, and the famous line, “Tinker to Evers to Chance”. In 1954, the trio of Ernie Banks at short, Gene Baker at second and Steve Bilko at first lifted Cubs play-by-play announcer Bert Wilson to new alliterative heights with “Bingo to Bango to Bilko”.

Gene “Bango” Baker (Courtesy George Brace)
Gene “Bango” Baker (Courtesy George Brace)

Wilson was hoping for another winner like his signature one-liner, “I don’t care who wins, as long as it’s the Cubs.” Banks and Baker were promising rookies, Ernie moving up from the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues and Gene joining the Cubs after four solid seasons with the Los Angeles Angels where he was the best shortstop in the Pacific Coast League. The older, more experienced Baker moved to second base so Banks could continue at short. The Cubs acquired the right-handed hitting Bilko from the St. Louis Cardinals in early 1954 to complement Dee Fondy, a left-hander who racked up a .309 batting average and 18 homers the year before. The bulky Bilko was a big, sure-handed target at first base.

Steve Bilko’s name put the rhyme in Bingo to Bango to Bilko.
Steve Bilko’s name put the rhyme in Bingo to Bango to Bilko.

“Bingo to Bango to Bilko” had a nice ring to it. Unfortunately for Wilson, Bilko spent most of the season on the bench, rendering the rhyme a useless piece of trivia for Stout Steve’s Wikipedia profile. That’s likely where Larry Rifkin of WATR radio in Waterbury, Connecticut, came across the phrase. The host of the long-running Talk of the Town show puts it to good use at the end of this interview with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club. You can listen to the interview by clicking the “play” arrow below:

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Déjà vu All over Again

As Yogi Berra would say, “It was déjà vu all over again.” John Vorperian, host and executive producer of Beyond the Game, the popular White Plains, New York, Cable Television sports talk show, was quizzing Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club. The first time around March 13, 2014 the pair talked mostly about Steve Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels. They met again June 17 during the 2014 World Cup to discuss baseball in L.A. beyond Stout Steve and the slugging Seraphs.

Mays hits 3 homers One of the highlights of their latest conversation is White’s recounting of two exhibition games at L.A.’s Wrigley Field in late March 1955 between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. The teams met in the 1954 World Series, the Giants sweeping the heavily-favored Indians four straight. The rematch at Wrigley Field turned out to be a replay of the fall classic, the Giants winning both games behind the heroics of Willie Mays and James “Dusty” Rhodes. Mays slammed three straight homers to pace New York’s 4-2 win in the opener and, then, teamed with Rhodes to beat the Indians 7-3 in the second game played before an overflow crowd of 24,434. Rhodes belted a pinch-hit homer and Mays made a spectacular catch in centerfield just as they did in the World Series.

“Several thousand lined the outfield wall and hundreds stood at the back of the stands,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “An estimated 2,000 failed to get inside at all.”

Giants whip TribeThe games attracted a combined 42,327 fans, proving L.A. was ripe for major-league baseball. 

Times columnist Ned Cronin used the near-record turnout to castigate baseball commissioner Ford Frick for issuing a gag order to major league team owners on moving a franchise to L.A. “If a major league owner doesn’t know enough to give a gold mine a wide berth, he still has you, Mr. Frick, to keep him out of nervous disorders.”

It would be another three years before the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to L.A. and six years until the American League expanded from eight to 10 teams, adding the Angels, a merry band of misfits rounded up by cowboy actor and singer Gene Autry. “One of the worst clubs ever assembled,” Jimmy Cannon, the dean of media critics, declared after seeing the Angels play. “They are in these uniforms because they proved their inefficiency.”

'57_p40
The 1957 Los Angeles Angels yearbook featured this story on Wrigley Field.

White points out in the interview that the Angels won six of nine games over the mighty New York Yankees at Wrigley Field in 1961. Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were outslugged by the Angels’ diminutive Albie Pearson. The 5-foot-5, 140-pound Pearson belted three homers while the M&M boys managed only two apiece. “You don’t need much muscle in this park,” Little Albie said. “Anyone can hit one over the fence here, even me.”

The Bronx Bombers were duds in L.A., hitting a mere 13 home runs in nine games at the bandbox that New York sportswriters had ridiculed for years. Mantle batted a measly .206 average (7-for-34).

Wrigley Field_00055797
This 1954 artist rendition envisioned L.A.’s Wrigley Field as baseball’s most modern park with seating for 55,000 people. (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

White touches all the bases in the interview – from an artist’s rendition of a refurbished Wrigley Field to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Dodgers’ first home in L.A. where left-handed hitting Wally Moon launched “moon shots” over the “Chinese Wall,” the nickname for a 40-foot high net erected in left field, a ridiculously short 251 feet from home plate.

 

A video of the 30-minute show can be seen on YouTube by clicking on the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-VIiJEeQWj4

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

Angel Ace Finally Gets His Due

It took Darius Dutton “Dave” Hillman part of eight seasons in the majors to equal the number of wins he posted for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League – 21. But behind his career won-loss record of 21-37 is an earned run average of 3.87 for the 624 innings he pitched in the big leagues. “He was a good pitcher on a bad team,” columnist Vince Staten writes in the Kingsport Times-News.

Click on image to open/read full size
Click on image to open/read full size

The long-time Kingsport, Tennessee, resident had the misfortune of pitching for dismal Chicago Cub teams from 1955-59 and the underachieving Boston Red Sox of 1960-61. “That team was full of cliques,” Hillman says.

In 1962 he started with the Cincinnati Redlegs, appearing in two games, and finished by pitching in 13 games for the New York Mets. “The Mets went on to lose 120 games that season, still a record,” Staten notes.

Dave Hillman and Lori Bold discussed their Virginia roots at a recent Bilko Athletic Club book signing. Dave was born in Dungannon and Lori in nearby Gate City.
Dave Hillman and Lori Bold discussed their Virginia roots at a recent Bilko Athletic Club book signing. Dave was born in Dungannon and Lori in nearby Gate City.

Henry Aaron, a future Hall of Famer, tagged Hillman for three of his 755 home runs but Dave had the number of another superstar, Willie Mays: “He was a first ball guess hitter. I would just throw the first pitch under his chin. Never had any trouble with him.”

Hillman was at his best in 1959, posting an 8-11 record and 3.58 ERA, completing four games and pitching seven or more innings in nine others. He tossed a two-hit shutout against the Pirates; struck out eleven in seven innings of relief to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers; and in the next-to-last game of the season stopped the Dodgers in their bid to wrap up the National League pennant. The Dodgers were one game ahead of the Milwaukee Braves with two to play. A win over the Cubs and Hillman clinched a tie.

Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic for the ’56 Angels, winning 21 games.
Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic for the ’56 Angels, winning 21 games.

“I went out there, honey, and I’ll never forget the control that I had,” Dave recalls in The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about the 1956 Angels. “I could thread a damn needle with that ball. I was just sitting back and sh-o-o-o-m-m-m…throwing that thing in there.”

Dave had a 12-0 cushion going into the sixth when the Dodgers scored twice, bringing Cubs manager Bob Scheffing to the mound. “What’s wrong, Dave?”

“It ain’t nothing. For five innings, they took the first pitch. Now they’re starting to hit it. I’ve got to go to work.”

Dave blanked the Dodgers the rest of the way, scattering nine hits and striking out seven for a 12-2 Cubs win. “That’s the easiest game I’ve had all year,” Dave said after the game. “All the way through my idea was to make them hit the breaking pitches. I used fastballs and slip pitches mostly in the early part of the game and switched to curveballs later.”

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson!

From Jackie to Frank to Brooks, the Robinson name is etched in baseball’s history like no other.  But the Robinson that conjures up the fondest personal memories is boyhood friend, Ronn Robinson.

Author Gaylon White was 17 when he interviewed Dean Chance for this story.
Author Gaylon White was 17 when he interviewed Dean Chance for this story.

A first-rate trumpet player and even better swimmer, Ronn rescued me from an ocean rip-tide when I was a teenager. He was my “wheels” in April 1963, taking me to the Los Angeles Angels spring training camp at Palm Springs, California so I could interview a promising young pitcher named Dean Chance for my hometown newspaper, the El Monte Herald. Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower showed up the same day we did, Ronn getting close enough with his Instamatic camera for a wonderful shot of Ike’s famous smile.

Chance went on to win 13 games for the Angels in 1963 and 20 more in 1964 to earn the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the majors.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower at spring training game in Palm Springs, California, in April 1963. (Photo by Ronn Robinson)
President Dwight D. Eisenhower at spring training game in Palm Springs, California, in April 1963. (Photo by Ronn Robinson

 

 

My friendship with Ronn has its roots in the early 1950s when our fathers took us to Pacific Coast League baseball games between the Angels and Hollywood Stars. I was an Angel fan – just like my older brother, Don, and father, Rev. Hooper W. White. Ronn and his father, Rev. Eugene Robinson, rooted for the Stars. En route to a Stars-Angels game at Gilmore Field in Hollywood, Dad asked Gene: “How can you be a Christian and pull against the Angels?”

The Angels-Stars rivalry is history but, fortunately, the friendship between the two families continues.  Ronn’s daughter, Rochelle, chronicles this and more in a wonderful story on The Bilko Athletic Club, for the website, LaLaScoop. Check it out:

http://lalascoop.com/2014/06/30/the-bilko-athletic-club-by-gaylon-h-white-brings-a-rich-history-of-la-to-life-through-baseball/

:  Ronn Robinson and his daughter, Rochelle, shown here on a family vacation in Italy. (Photo courtesy of Ronn Robinson)
Ronn Robinson and his daughter, Rochelle, shown here on a family vacation in Italy. (Photo courtesy of Ronn Robinson)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Takin’ It to the Streets

The Doobie Brothers had other things on their mind in 1976 when they recorded the hit song, Takin’ It to the Streets, but they pretty much described what’s needed these days to promote a new book.

Financially-pinched publishers now send the media a review copy only when a book is requested. This begs the question: How do you know to ask for a book you don’t know exists? The sorry state of the newspaper industry has made book review editors and seasoned reporters nearly extinct.  Sportswriters left in the press box tweet better than they write. “I ain’t blind and I don’t like what I think I see,” the Doobie Brothers lamented, expressing the view of authors not fortunate enough to be named John as in Grisham or le Carré.

White is using his broadcast journalism training to take The Bilko Athletic Club story to the streets
White, right, is taking The Bilko Athletic Club story to the streets, applying what he learned in college from long-time friend, Hank Inman.

The challenges for a book targeting a specific market segment are even greater. The Bilko Athletic Club, for example, is geared toward seniors and baby boomers that are most likely to enjoy reading about the golden era of baseball in the 1950s. Much of this audience doesn’t use the Internet and couldn’t care less about Facebook or Twitter. “Take the message to my brother,” the Doobie Brothers sang, “You will find them everywhere.” This means takin’ it to the streets via sports talk radio shows that are plentiful and popular around the country.

From Jacksonville, Florida, to Berkeley, California and places in between like Pontiac, Illinois and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, the story of Steve Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels has been told on 20 radio and TV shows to date.

The latest to feature The Bilko Athletic Club are Coach John Kentera on San Diego’s Mighty 1090 (XERPS-AM), the flagship station for the San Diego Padres; the Nick Brown Show, a sports talk program on an ESPN station in Ruston, Louisiana; Jay Caldwell on WJON-AM in St. Cloud, Minnesota; and Dan Keating on KMAV-FM in Mayville, North Dakota.  To listen to the interviews, click on the following links:

The Nick Brown Show – Interview with Gaylon White

Coach John Kentera on San Diego’s Mighty 1090 (XERPS-AM)- Interview with Gaylon White:

Jay Caldwell on WJON AM 1240 – Interview with Gaylon White

Dan Keating on KMAV-FM in Mayville, North Dakota-Interview with Gaylon White – Part 1

Dan Keating on KMAV-FM in Mayville, North Dakota-Interview with Gaylon White – Part 2

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Thank you, Mr. Freese

George Freese – Sept. 12, 1926 – July 27, 2014
George Freese – Sept. 12, 1926 – July 27, 2014

George Freese, all-star third baseman for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, died July 27, 2014, in Portland, Oregon. He was 87. George played in only 61 games in the majors, batting .257 with three homers, but his minor-league career spanned 17 seasons, six in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) where he played for the Angels, Hollywood Stars, Portland Beavers and San Diego Padres. Overall, he hit .301 in the minors, slugging 195 home runs, 124 of them in the PCL. Freese batted fifth in the Angels’ power-packed lineup behind Steve Bilko. When teams pitched around Bilko, he made them pay with 113 runs batted in. “With ducks on the pond he’s their most dangerous hitter,” said Royce Lint, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers. In 18 games against Portland in ’56, George hammered Beaver pitching for a .381 average, 10 home runs and 32 RBIs. “He was one of two players that I ran into in 13 years of minor league baseball that could hit the curveball better than the fastball,” said Marland “Duke” Doolittle, a catcher in 1954 for Memphis in the Southern Association.

Freese slugged 35 homers for the Portland Beavers in 1958. (Photo courtesy of Barry McMahon)
Freese slugged 35 homers for the Portland Beavers in 1958. (Photo courtesy of Barry McMahon)

Bobby Bragan managed George in Hollywood in 1955 and his younger brother, Gene, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Gene had a little more flash to him but George was more stable. He was soft-spoken and did the job every day.” The last players to leave Wrigley Field, the Angels’ home ballpark, after a day game were Freese and Bilko. When the game was over, they immediately headed for the two hot tubs in the clubhouse where they talked and guzzled bottles of beer until Angels trainer Joe Liscio got leg cramps delivering them. It was a task better suited for a beer truck. “Steve loved his beer,” George said. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.” This continued until rush hour traffic cleared and they went home.

Angel wings and halo hit George perfectly. (Courtesy George Freese)
Angel wings and halo fit George perfectly. (Courtesy George Freese)

George played for Hollywood in 1955, hitting a home run in the decisive fifth game to beat the Angels in their season-ending playoff series. Over the winter the Stars demoted Freese to a team in the lower minors because “he can’t play any position well enough for us to keep him.”  The Angels thought otherwise and selected him in the minor league draft. “If we couldn’t beat him, we’d join him,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing said. “I was surprised as hell when I found out they were going to send me to double-A ball because I had a good half-year in Hollywood,” George said. He hit .302 for the Stars after batting .257 in 51 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the winter of 1955-56, he was a big gun in the Puerto Rican League before he ended up with a broken finger.

Freese batted .257 in 51 games for the Pirates in 1955.
Freese batted .257 in 51 games for the Pirates in 1955.

Never mind that George was damaged goods, doubtful if he could play. Angels president John Holland called George’s release by the Stars “typical Hollywood gratitude” and predicted he would outperform his replacement with the Stars and hit as many balls out of Wrigley Field as Bilko. As it turned out, Gene was the Stars’ third baseman the last half of the ’56 season. George finished with a .291 average, 17 points better than Gene, and doubled his home run output — 22 to 11. Freese and Bilko, roommates on the road, set a goal of combining to hit more than 60 home runs, the Holy Grail because it was the single-season record in both the PCL and majors. They teamed to blast 77. At 18, George was the starting quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh.  He also played at the University of West Virginia, receiving All-America honorable mention in 1946. He turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers to play pro baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. By the time he reached L.A., George had the reputation of a good-hit, no-field third baseman.  “My fielding was questionable,” Freese said. “That’s what kept me out of the big leagues. I knew I could hit.”

George treasured this photo of him with Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko. (Courtesy George Freese)
George treasured this photo of him with Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko. (Courtesy George Freese)

George’s best years were in Portland where he slammed a combined 56 homers in 1958-59.   In 2008, he was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame for his outstanding career with the Beavers.  “Freese had great power – pull power,” said Eddie Basinski, a Portland infielder. During the ’56 season, Bilko was asked to attend a press reception with actor, Phil Silvers, to promote the TV show featuring Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. Steve balked:  “I won’t go unless George goes.” George borrowed a sports coat from Steve and they went to the party. “The coat fit me like a blanket,” George joked, adding. “I have a picture of Steve, Phil Silvers and myself. Boy, do I treasure it.” On the final day of the ‘56 season, the entire Angels infield was honored at Wrigley Field for being named to Look magazine’s PCL all-star team. Prior to the award ceremony, the emcee, Chuck Connors, a ball player-turned actor, took George aside to coach him on what to say on receiving the award. George stepped to the microphone on the pitcher’s mound and delivered the line Connors gave him: “I want to thank the Hollywood Stars for making this possible.”

Now, it’s only fitting that we pay our respect to George by saying, “Thank you, Mr. Freese, for the making the Angels’ amazing season in 1956 possible.”

Watch this 2008 interview with George Freese fillowing his induction into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ApmetR_fVxk

Link to George Freese obituary published in The Oregonian:

http://obits.oregonlive.com/obituaries/oregon/obituary.aspx?n=george-walter-freese&pid=171945193&fhid=22686

Talkin’ Baseball

The best part of writing a baseball book is talking about it with people who remember the golden era of the 1950s.

Baseball at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library –http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/60067/rec/12
Baseball at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library – http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/60067/rec/12

L.A. Tarone of the Sports Hub 102.3 radio in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and Mike Schikman of WSVA-AM in Harrisonburg, Virginia, demonstrated their baseball knowledge in interviews with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Steve Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

To give listeners an idea of Bilko’s awesome power, Tarone said: “If I were to mention the names of Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg, he would fit into that mold except he wasn’t a dead pull-hitter.”

Kiner and Greenberg are both Hall of Famers, Kiner hammering 369 home runs and Greenberg 331. Bilko blasted 313 in the minors and 76 in the majors, playing mostly part-time.

A comment in the book by Tommy Lasorda, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager, that Bilko would easily hit 50-60 home runs today prompted Tarone to mention Adam Dunn, slugging first baseman for the Chicago White Sox. Dunn began the 2014 season, his 14th in the majors, with 440 home runs and 2,220 strike outs. “Adam Dunn could’ve been Steve Bilko except he struck out a lot more than Bilko ever did and he had a nice long career in the major leagues.”

Steve Bilko’s 1951 Bowman card.
Steve Bilko’s 1951 Bowman card

Bilko hit 21 homers while striking out a National League-leading 125 times for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953 – the only year he was a day-to-day starter.  Dunn has topped that number 12 times, including a league-high 222 whiffs for the White Sox in 2012.

In the interview with WSVA’s Schikman, White recounts Bilko’s 1948 season with the Lynchburg, Virginia, Cardinals of the Class B Piedmont League when, as a 19-year-old, he batted .333 and socked 20 homers.

The Brooklyn-born Schikman, a Dodgers fan before they relocated to Los Angeles in 1958, wanted to know what it was like to be there at the time.

“I loved watching baseball at Wrigley Field in L.A.,” said White, who was 12 years old in 1958. “It was a real ballpark just like the one in Chicago.”

The Dodgers elected to play at Los Angeles’ mammoth Coliseum instead of Wrigley Field. “The worst possible baseball park,” White said, adding, “The best part about it was listening to Vin Scully on the transistor radios which people brought so they’d know what was going on down on the field.”

To listen to White’s Sports Hub interview with Tarone, click on the following link:

Here’s the link for the interview with WSVA’s Schikman:

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Name Made to Remember

 

Sgt. Bilko is title of this painting that's part of artist Ben Sakoguchi Orange Crate Label Series.  (http://www.bensakoguchi.com/larger/orange_group7_larger11.php )
Sgt. Bilko is title of this painting that’s part of artist Ben Sakoguchi Orange Crate Label Series. (http://www.bensakoguchi.com/larger/orange_group7_larger11.php )

“The name, Bilko, was made to remember,” says John Schulian, a sports columnist turned television screenwriter. “Two syllables, punchy with a K.  It was made for headlines because it’s short. It goes all over the place.”

The Bilko name was all over the country in 1955 because of Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph, and Sgt. Bilko, the character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers in the hit television show, You’ll Never Get Rich. “I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers said, referring to Gil Hodges and Stan Musial, future Hall of Famers. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”

“It was my name or Kluszewski’s,” Steve explained, citing Ted Kluszewski, a muscular power hitter with the Cincinnati Redlegs at the time. “Bilko is a lot easier to say than Kluszewski.”

Still another version of the story has it that Nat Hiken, producer of Silvers’ TV show, adopted his name for the scheming Army master-sergeant, Ernest G. Bilko, because Bilko was his favorite player. Forty years later the TV show was turned into a movie, Sergeant Bilko, starring comedian Steve Martin.

The real Bilko was making headlines long before Sgt. Bilko. He was 16 when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him and by age 20, he was being compared with baseball greats Jimmie Foxx, Johnny Mize and even Lou Gehrig. The one full season he had with the Cardinals in 1953 he batted .251 with 21 homers and 84 runs batted in.  Those are rookie-of-the-year numbers today but they weren’t good enough to keep the Cardinals from trading him to the Chicago Cubs the next season.

Bilko was with the Cubs in March 1955 when they played an exhibition game in Mesa, Arizona, against their Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels. “Sweeney kept looking at me and looking at me,” Bilko recalled.

“Don’t look at me!” Bilko told Bill Sweeney, the L.A. manager. “I’m not going to California!”

A homemade Bilko banner pays tribute to Stout Steve Bilko, known as the "home pro" at Los Angeles' Wrigley Field because of all the long-range missles he launched there. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic)
A homemade Bilko banner pays tribute to Stout Steve Bilko, known as the “home pro” at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field because of all the long-range missles he launched there. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic)

“It turned out going to Los Angeles was the greatest thing to happen to me,” Bilko said. “From that point on everybody knew, and I knew, that I could hit. I just hadn’t got the chance. In Los Angeles, I was just left alone.”

Over the next three years, Bilko belted 148 home runs for the Angels to become the Sergeant of Swat and the biggest celebrity in a town full of them.

“I didn’t want to be a big celebrity,” Bilko said. “I was satisfied with doing a good job, being with my family and stuff like that.  When I was done playing ball, I was content to go home and be with my kids.  We went to shows but they were shows like Lawrence Welk.  I used to go see Roller Derby.  But other than that, we never went anywhere.”

The shy, introverted Bilko and gaudy L.A. made for an odd couple. “I mixed with a couple of movie stars like John Wayne but they were really baseball fans.  They were like we were.  If I went anywhere, it was always with the type of people who live around here.”

For Bilko, “here” was Nanticoke – the Northeast Pennsylvania town where he was born and lived until he died in 1978 at the age of 49.

Last week in nearby Wilkes-Barre, the Times Leader newspaper saluted the memory of Bilko with a page one article about his oldest son, Steve, Jr., and The Bilko Athletic Club, and a story in the sports section based on interviews with five ’56 Angel teammates: pitchers Bob Anderson, Dave Hillman and Hy Cohen; catcher Jim Fanning and centerfielder Gale Wade.   “Tremendous response to our Bilko stories,” says Bill O’Boyle, a Times Leader writer.

The stories can be viewed by clicking on the following links:

Nanticoke Native Remembered as Baseball Superstar – http://www.timesleader.com/news/news/1518296/Nanticoke-native-remembered-as-baseball-superstar

Steve Bilko’s teammates recall how the Nanticoke native blasted his way to the top of the Pacific Coast League – http://www.timesleader.com/news/sports/1537506/Strong-sensation

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Confessions of a Conscientious Man

Bruce Winkworth was browsing through the baseball books in a used book store near his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, when he saw a cover photo of what looked like Steve Bilko. “After moving my gaze several inches upwards, I saw the title: The Bilko Athletic Club. That was it for me. I had to have that one.”

Bruce Winkworth
Bruce Winkworth and his $8 book.

In an e-mail to author Gaylon White, Winkworth describes himself as “a nearly typical 62-year-old American male” who grew up collecting records, comic books and baseball cards. “Thanks to baseball cards, I developed an early interest in the golden age of minor league baseball, the 1940s and ’50s. The backs of baseball cards were an absolute treasure trove of useless information, especially the minor league statistics, when Topps decided to use them.”

Winkworth and his brother “knew all about Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927. Our father told us many times of Jimmie Foxx hitting 58 homers in 1932 and Hank Greenberg matching that with 58 in 1938. No one ever bothered to tell us, however, that Steve Bilko hit 55 homers for the Angels in the PCL in 1956….

“I bought your book and started it last night. I’m only a couple of chapters into it, but I can tell it’s going to be my favorite book of the summer. I love books like yours but never expect to stumble across one, so when I do, it’s definitely a big deal.”

Bilko’s 1955 Topps baseball card
Bilko’s 1959 Topps baseball card

In opening the book, Winkworth “could tell by the crackling sound the cover made that whoever sold it to the used book store hadn’t bothered to read it.” When White’s business card fell out, he realized it was a review copy.

“Now I feel bad. I paid $8 for your book, of which you won’t see one dime. On top of that, you sent this copy to some writer somewhere on the good faith that that writer would read it and hopefully write a good review. And clearly neither will happen. None of that’s my fault, of course, but it’s good to have a conscience.”

Winkworth has a blog and a plan. “When I finish your book, I promise to write a detailed review – and based on what I’ve read so far I’m pretty sure it will be a very positive review – and publish it on my blog, which in turn will be seen by several close family members before dying in cyberspace.

Steve Bilko_1952_Topps“If you go to the blog now, you’ll notice that I haven’t posted anything since my best friend died at the end of April,” Winkworth adds. “That cut down on the inspiration pretty thoroughly for a time, but I’m starting to feel the itch again, and I credit part of that to finding your book.”

Winkworth is a man of his word, snapping out of his writing funk with a book review as good as anything you’ll read in the New York Times.  Click on the following link to read what he has to say about his bargain find: http://theunofficialscorer.blogspot.com/2014/07/book-review-bilko-athletic-club.html

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Legend of Steve Bilko

The legend of Steve Bilko was the topic of the KTLA-TV Morning News program interview with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.

KTLA Interview

In 1956, Bilko was King Kong of the Pacific Coast League, Paul Bunyan of the Bushes, the Sergeant of Swat. Stout Steve was his name, smashing monster-sized home runs his game. He belted 148 of them in three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of the Coast League, the closest thing to the majors in L.A. until the Dodgers moved into town from Brooklyn in 1958. At the peak of Bilko’s popularity in ’56, he was better known in L.A. than Marilyn Monroe. Bilko was even a bigger household name than Mickey Mantle because of Sgt. Bilko, the TV character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers. A L.A. Times columnist even suggested that Mantle and Bilko throw their hats into the 1956 U.S. presidential race: “A vote against Mantle and Bilko is a vote against home, mother and bottled beer.” Watch the KTLA interview:

http://ktla.com/2014/07/14/author-of-the-bilko-athletic-club/

 

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Name is Bilko

“Steve Bilko is a great, lummocking, broad-shouldered, wide-beamed broth of a boy,” Red Smith wrote in a nationally syndicated sports column titled, The Name is Bilko, published in March 1950.

This was the renowned sports columnist’s first glimpse of Bilko. He’d heard about him two years earlier from Bob Hannegan, the president of the St. Louis Cardinals: “There’s a kid named Bilko, a great big kid who can really powder that ball.  He’s pretty crude, just a kid in Class C now, but remember the name, Bilko. You’ll hear about him.”

Joe Maday, right, called himself Steve Bilko’s No. 1 fan.
Joe Maday, right,  of Nanticoke shows Steve Bilko a bass he caught in a nearby lake.

Cardinal owner Fred Saigh had even higher hopes for Bilko. “Gentlemen,” he announced to baseball writers at spring training in 1950, “you are looking at one of the future great names in baseball.”

One of the names the former tax and corporate lawyer had in mind was New York Yankee legend, Lou Gehrig. “Bilko will make baseball fans forget Lou Gehrig.”

Bilko was 16 and about to begin his junior year in high school when Cardinals scout Benny Borgman signed him on a coal bank behind a ballpark in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. Borgman had just watched Bilko wallop three mighty homers in a game. The first one soared over the coal pile Borgman was standing on along the left-field fence. “I was convinced,” Borgman said later, “that here was a guy who would one day hit 65 home runs in a single season.”

To Bobby Grich, seven years old in 1956 when Bilko hit 55 homers for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League, the slugger was “Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle all rolled into one.” Grich grew up to become an all-star second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels.

Bilko was King Kong of the Coast League, socking 148 homers for the Angels from 1955-57.  Altogether, he belted 313 in the minors. It was a different story in the majors where he hit 76 homers in parts of 10 seasons. Only once, in 1953, was he in the lineup every day. By today’s standards, his numbers weren’t that bad: 21 homers, 84 runs batted in and a .251 batting average. “He was good enough then,” said Ralph Kiner, seven-time National League home run champion and long-time sportscaster for the New York Mets. “I thought he should’ve stayed.”

Instead, the Cardinals traded Bilko to the Chicago Cubs in 1954. The Cubs parked him on the bench before dispatching him to L.A. in 1955. “The sad part is he backed up so many big-name first basemen for so many years,” said Frank Higgins, one of many Nanticoke residents who closely followed Bilko’s baseball career.

“He has been our representative in the major leagues,” explained Joe Maday of Nanticoke. “We’ve grown up with this man.  We were Stan Musial fans but we were looking for Bilko’s name in the box score.  We looked every day.  What he’d do – oh-for-four, one-for-three, two-for-four?

In 1960 with Detroit, Bilko played behind Norm Cash, a star rookie
In 1960 with Detroit, Bilko played behind Norm Cash, a star rookie.

“I was in Tampa, Florida, two years ago,” Joe continued.  “Moose Skowron asked me to relay a message to Steve:  ‘Ask Bunky if he can remember a home run he hit off Bobby Shantz?’  He hit the ball into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium where Mantle and Maris never came near.

“We’re all Steve’s friends,” Joe added.  “But we’re still in awe of him.”

That awe is the legacy Bilko left behind when he died in 1978 at the age of 49.

“He really had everything,” Borgman, the scout, said after hearing of Bilko’s death. “Scouts dream about finding that kind of guy. No matter how it ended I know one thing. On one August afternoon in Honey Pot, he was beautiful.”

“Nanticoke natives of a certain age will never forget his long-ball exploits,” Jonathan Bombulie of the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice writes in a June 28 story  about The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Bilko and the ’56 Angels.

“For a generation of baseball fans in Nanticoke and Southern California, of course, Bilko’s career was always more than decent.  He was larger than life, and the story of his days on the diamond bring back floods of warm memories.”

The Bilko Athletic Club, Bombulie concludes, “lets everyone else get a little taste of those memories, too.”

The full story can be viewed by clicking on the following link: http://m.citizensvoice.com/sports/nanticoke-s-bilko-was-king-of-the-pcl-in-the-1950s-1.1710979 ]

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Broz, Bilko and Beer

Jim Brosnan wasn’t going to take the phone call until he found out it was about Steve Bilko. They played for the 1955 Los Angeles Angels, “Broz” winning 17 games and “Stout Steve” blasting 37 home runs. “He was the greatest right-hand hitter I saw in 1955,” Broz said.Jim Brosnan_1957

“He hit the ball so far that you loved it and hoped he hit it again,” Broz said in the   2012 interview. “I miss him now because he was one of the special ones that did things that few of the others would even try to do.”

They roomed together at a downtown L.A. hotel during spring training and several times on the road, the beer-loving Bilko providing wonderful material for the stories Brosnan told later as a writer.

“The best thing he could do was the thing that he did – drink beer. He would buy beer incidentally. There are a lot of beer drinkers who don’t buy beer. But he’d buy them in order to keep people around drinking with him. I think that’s a good attribute. I had a few beers on ol’ Steve. When he ordered those six-packs up in the hotel, he ordered one for me.”

Brosnan died June 29, 2014, at the age of 84. In nine major-league seasons with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Redlegs and Chicago White Sox, he posted a 55-47 record and a 3.54 earned run average with 67 saves. He’s best remembered, however, as the author of two books, The Long Season and Pennant Race, that took fans inside the locker room for the first time.

Illustration by Eric James Spencer
Illustration by Eric James Spencer

“Traditionally there are two kinds of baseball players – tobacco-chewing, monosyllabic hard rocks and freshly laundered heroes too young to appear in razor-blade commercials,” John Corry of the New York Times wrote, adding Brosnan was “in a third class” who “wrote a book about the other two kinds.”

Bilko isn’t featured in the books but he has a starring role in a Brosnan story, The Best Laid Plans of Baseball Fans Descend Like a Plague of Locusts, published by Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1969. Editors changed Brosnan’s suggested title: The Wistful World of the Baseball Fan…From Tinkers to Lovers to Chants.

“Baseball is an imperfect game,” Brosnan begins the article. “It can be improved. Ask any fan. Often as not he’ll have a helpful hint for your favorite player, for his chosen team, for umpires in general, and even for the Commissioner, whoever he is.”

Brosnan describes a fan – “Bilko’s self-made pen pal” – who was convinced the slugger would hit better if he stood closer to the plate. “A stream of misspelled missives inundated Steve’s locker at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.”

Illustration by Eric James Spencer
Illustration by Eric James Spencer

“Move up on the plate about a foot,” the fan urged. “I’ll watch you on TV.”

In a game against the Hollywood Stars, Bilko, using his normal stance, struck out three times but belted a game-winning homer. “Could have hit four!” the fan lamented in a telegram. “Still too far from plate!”

When Bilko was blanked the next game, he got a call on the clubhouse phone from the same fan. “You’re not paying attention. I’ll be out there Sunday. You better move up on the plate.”

“Bilko showed up for the Sunday doubleheader, dutiful and defiant,” Brosnan writes. “Batting fourth he cleaned up at the expense of the entire Hollywood pitching staff. Steve’s ardent advisor failed to appear. He was a True Fan, notable for caution as much as counsel. Like patrons of a zoo, you can talk to the animals all you want, but don’t touch. Above all, don’t let the beast get to you.”Bilko on scale

Brosnan and Gaylon White, author The Bilko Athletic Club, talked and corresponded about Bilko as far back as 1976.

“When I mention the name Steve Bilko, what’s the first thing you think of?” White asked in their first conversation.

“Beer. The man was a great beer drinker.”

“I understand he had a wooden leg.”

“He had a wooden leg besides the two he was carrying which were huge–about the size of ale cans. I’m sure he kept a special tap in one knee in case he ran out.”

“How much did he weigh?”

“Over a period of time, I think about 900 pounds. He must‘ve lost that much, at least.

Jim Brosnan signed his letters “Broz”
Jim Brosnan signed his letters “Broz”

“Was he constantly dieting?”

“In his way, he was constantly dieting.”

“What was his way?”

“He’d take a six-pack of beer into the bathroom. He’d seal off the door by putting towels against the bottom of the door, close the window and turn on the shower and the tap in the washbasin to hot.  Then he’d sit on the edge of the bathtub while all this steam would rise and he’d drink a six-pack of beer – all six bottles.  He said it helped him sweat.  Of course, sweat meant you were losing weight.  And this is how he’d do it.

Bilko’s technique for losing weight was called a “steamer.”

“He was actually doing what he thought would help out – sweating a lot.  I’m not crediting him with a helluva lot of common sense.  But at least he had a lot of sincerity.  You take a man with sincerity; put him in a major league uniform and that can pay off.  I would’ve done it myself.  But I’ve got a sense of humor and most managers don’t have one.”

Brosnan recalled the time in the Dominican Republic when Bilko turned down a sure bet for $1,000 with a young Dominican named Ramon Ibarre. Ramon was general manager of the team Brosnan and Bilko played for there and nephew of that country’s iron-fisted dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The bet was that Steve couldn’t consume two quarts of beer in an hour, drinking the beer out of a shot glass at minute intervals. He had to keep both hands on the table between drinks so he couldn’t massage his stomach for relief.

“Theoretically, you can do it but the beer plus the gas goes right to the brain and you become disoriented,” Brosnan said. “Bilko had heard of this bet many years before when a great beer drinker named John Grodzicki, a pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1940s, tried it and fell on his face. Grodzicki was humiliated. But Bilko trained himself so he could drink beer without getting up to take a pee. He knew he could do it and he’d do it for nothing right in front of Ibarre. Bilko did it without any problem.”

At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Brosnan was almost as wiry as the wire-framed glasses he wore. The 6-foot-1 Bilko weighed “between 200 and 300 pounds.” That’s what he told writers asking about his weight.

Bill Sweeney was the Angel manager the first month of the ’55 season before health problems forced him out.  “One of the great winos of all time,” Broz described Sweeney, who died two years later following emergency surgery for a perforated ulcer.

“We knew Sweeney was on his last leg, mostly because he could barely walk. We’re up in Oakland. Bilko and I are standing at the top of the dugout. Now there are two steps down in the dugout. We’re l0 feet away from Sweeney. Some guy comes over and asks Bill for the starting lineup. He pointed at Bilko and said, ‘He’s pitching.’ And he pointed to me and said, ‘He‘s hitting fourth.’”

Brosnan ended his last conversation with White, saying: “I’m glad we talked.  I’m going to feel better because I talked to you.”

Actually, it was talking about Bilko that made Brosnan feel better.

“Oh, he was a character,” Broz said. “He was a really good guy.”

So was Broz.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Other Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field in Chicago celebrates its 100th anniversary this year to great fanfare while the site of the original Wrigley Field in Los Angeles goes unnoticed by the people using the senior citizens center and recreational area that took its place after the storied ballpark was demolished in 1969.

The exterior of Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field in 1961.  (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47209/rec/6)
The exterior of Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field in 1961. (Courtesy USC Digital Library)See Below*

The L.A. Wrigley was called the “finest baseball park in the universe” when it was opened in 1925 by William K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and owner of both the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The same architect who created Cubs Park and the White Sox’ Comiskey Park in Chicago designed Wrigley Field in L.A. On instructions from Wrigley, Zachary Taylor Davis made the L.A. park like the one in Chicago both as it existed in 1925 and how Wrigley wanted it to be. Cubs Park was renamed Wrigley Field the next year and eventually expanded to its current seating capacity of 41,159. Lights were added in L.A. in 1930 and night baseball was played there 58 years before Chicago’s Wrigley.

Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim 23 miles across the English Channel in both directions, waves to Wrigley Field crowd in this 1952 photo. (Courtesy USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/76969/show/76968/rec/9 )
Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim 23 miles across the English Channel in both directions, waves to Wrigley Field crowd in this 1952 photo. (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below**

“It was not his desire, however, to make it a better plant than the one the Cubs, his other club, use in Chicago but that has been done. Cub park is an excellent one, but the Angels have a better one,” the Sporting News observed.

The lavish praise didn’t last as Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field wound up being put down and passed over more times than any minor leaguer that played there.  If ballparks could talk, its last words in 1969 would’ve been Rodney Dangerfield’s catchphrase:  “I don’t get no respect.”

The centennial of Chicago’s Wrigley Field is being celebrated by five new books, including George Will’s A Nice Little Place on the North Side.  The story of the “other Wrigley Field” is the subject of a chapter, Little Wrigley, in the book, The Bilko Athletic Club. The chapter begins with this ode to the forgotten ballpark, its most popular fan (Angel Annie) and slugger (Steve Bilko):

Warren Giles, president of the National League, toured L.A.’s Wrigley Field in January 1958 but the Dodgers snubbed the ballpark for the mammoth Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/42942/rec/59 )
Warren Giles, president of the National League, toured L.A.’s Wrigley Field in January 1958 but the Dodgers snubbed the ballpark for the mammoth Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below***

Where have you gone, Steve Bilko?

Wrigley Field turns its lonely eyes to you

What’s that you say, Angel Annie?

Wrigley Field has left and gone away.

 

To learn more about Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, click on the following link to a 2009 story by Tom Hoffarth of the Los Angeles Daily News:

http://www.insidesocal.com/tomhoffarth/2009/03/20/wrigley-field-l/#comment-1

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

* http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47209/rec/6

** http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/76969/show/76968/rec/9

*** http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/42942/rec/59

Baseball and Life

The telephone line went dead seconds into the WBKV-AM Morning Show interview with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club. At the end of the West Bend, Wisconsin, radio program, host Jesse Averill apologized for the technical problems. “No problem, that’s life,” White replied.

Steve Bilko played for the Cincinnati Reds and five other major-league teams.
Steve Bilko played for the Cincinnati Reds and five other major-league teams.

Earlier in the interview Averill said: “To me, this book sounds like it would appeal not only to sports fans – baseball fans – but everybody. It’s very intriguing the whole aspect of having success in one area and it not translating over.”

The 1956 Los Angeles Angels, nicknamed The Bilko Athletic Club after star Steve Bilko, were made up mostly of Cub castoffs that had experienced both success and failure in their careers.

“In sports, the higher up you go to the majors, the line separating success and failure is very, very thin,” White said. “This team and baseball is a lot like life and there are a lot of lessons to be learned from it.”

Listen to White’s interview with Averill:

 

Bilko and Hurdle Linked by History

Steve Bilko, the star of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels and namesake for the book, The Bilko Athletic Club, will always be connected to Clint Hurdle, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, by the March 20, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated.

Clint Hurdle_SI CoverHurdle was featured on SI’s cover in a Kansas City Royals uniform, a happy, carefree 20-year-old with a promising career ahead of him. The headline emphasizes this point in bright yellow letters: THIS YEAR’S PHENOM. In the back of the magazine, there’s a matter-of-fact notice of Bilko’s death at age 49:  “Bilko, a minor league player of exceptional promise who once hit 56 home runs for Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), found the majors a struggle and retired with a career batting average of .249 and 76 home runs.

The photo could have been of Bilko at spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950 when he was 21 and Cardinals owner Fred Saigh announced to baseball writers: “Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the future great names in baseball.”  One of the names Saigh had in mind was Lou Gehrig, the legendary baseball great. “Bilko will make baseball fans forget Lou Gehrig.”

It didn’t happen any more than Hurdle becoming the next phenom. As he said after his rookie season:  “If I’d done everything I was supposed to, I’d be leading the league in homers, have the highest batting average, have given $100,000 to the Cancer Fund, and be married to Marie Osmond.”

Steve Bilko in 1976 outside Dana Perfume Plant in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, where he worked at the time. (Photo by author)
Steve Bilko in 1976 outside Dana Perfume Plant in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, where he worked at the time. (Photo by author)

Bilko and Hurdle both spent parts of 10 seasons in the majors. In 600 games, Bilko batted .249, belted 76 home runs and drove in 276 runs. In 515 games, Hurdle hit .259 with 32 home runs and 193 runs batted in.

“I just wonder what Steve Bilko would do today?” Joe Garagiola asked around the time Hurdle appeared on the SI cover.

Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers manager and a teammate of Bilko’s with the ’57 Angels, answered that question in 2003 when Bilko was inducted into the PCL’s Hall of Fame: “If he were playing today, without question, you’d see a guy hitting 50, 60 home runs.  Easy.”

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Memories of Bilko

Almost everybody in the meeting room at the Huntington Beach, California, Public Library had fond memories of Steve Bilko when he played for the Los Angeles Angels in the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).  The occasion was the 29th annual PCL Historical Society and one of the topics for discussion was The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.

One fan recalled taunting Bilko from the stands with a buddy and Stout Steve stealthy flipping them the bird while using his first baseman’s glove to conceal the gesture as much as possible. Most of the fans, now in their 60s and 70s, described how Bilko was their first boyhood hero, his mammoth home run shots at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles etched forever in their minds.

Joe Duhem was an outfielder-first baseman in 1956-57 for the Hollywood Star, the Angels’ cross-town rivals. “I got a single and I was on first base,” Duhem said. “It was the first time I met Bilko. I rounded first base, came back and we talked for a few minutes. He said, ‘Are you having fun out here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, as long as I’m getting’ on base, I’m having a lot of fun.’ He was a super guy. He said, ‘Good luck to you.’ I thought it was really nice that he said something. Most guys don’t talk to you when you’re on first base. They’re mad at you because you got a base hit.”

George Genovese had a “cup of coffee” in the majors with the Washington Senators in 1950.
George Genovese had a “cup of coffee” in the majors with the Washington Senators in 1950.

George Genovese has spent 74 of his 92 years in baseball as a player and scout extraordinaire, helping the San Francisco Giants land such future stars as George Foster, Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Gary Matthews, Matt Williams, Dave Kingman, Royce Clayton, Garry Maddox and Chili Davis.

During the winter of 1947-48, Genovese and Bilko played for Colon in the Canal Zone League. The 19-year-old Bilko was leading the league with a .381 batting average in early March when he left Colon to report to the Rochester Red Wings for spring training.

“He had tremendous power,” the 5-foot-6, 160-pound Genovese said. “He hit balls outasight. Once in awhile, I’d say, ‘Let’s hit for distance.’ Bilko was a great kid; I enjoyed hanging around with him.”

Genovese described monstrous home runs hit by Bilko and Frank Howard, a 6-foot-7, 255-pound outfielder, on back-to-back pitches for the Spokane Indians in 1959. “If you put them together, they must’ve been a mile and a half in distance. I swear they’ve got to be the longest balls I’ve ever seen.”

Hy Cohen pitched for the Angels in 1955 and the early part of the ’56 season. Days after arriving in L.A., a local columnist pegged him as a look-alike for Robert Mitchum, the movie actor.  Bob Kelley, the Angels’ play-by-play radio announcer, interviewed Hy on a pregame show. “You’re young and a good-looking kid, Hy,” Kelley said. “What do you think about women?”

Author Gaylon White and Hy Cohen at PCLHS reunion.
Author Gaylon White and Hy Cohen at PCLHS reunion.

“Hey, Bob, I’m not going to get married until I’m at least 30. That’s far from my mind.”

By the end of the ’55 season, the 24-year-old Hy married Terry Davis, a local girl he met through Stu Nahan, an assistant to Kelley who went on to become a well-known sportscaster in L.A. Nahan and Chuck Connors, the former Cub and Angel who found stardom on the The Rifleman television show, attended the wedding ceremony. So did Irv Kaze, public relations director for the Hollywood Stars. Most of Hy’s teammates were there, including Bilko, Gene Mauch, Don Elston, Buzz Clarkson and Gale Wade.

“For all the celebrity that he had, Bilko was still just a simple guy,” Hy said, adding that Bilko and Mauch helped themselves to the liquor left over from the reception. “They took a whole case of something.”

Following the PCL reunion, author Gaylon White met with Joe Hannah and his, wife, Carol in Visalia, California, where they live. Joe is featured in the chapter titled, The Singing Catcher.

Carol and Joe Hannah
Carol and Joe Hannah

Over lunch, Joe recounted how he pitched to Bilko in home run exhibitions staged for fans between games of Sunday doubleheaders. “He asked me to do it,” Joe said. “I always had great accuracy. He wanted to hit some over right field. He wanted to send some over centerfield. And he wanted to hit some over left field. And, then, he’d hit ‘em over the fence.”

“Steve Bilko, with his great ability to lift the ball, is the best I’ve ever seen at this home-run contest business,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing told The Sporting News in 1963. “Once I saw him hit 10 out of 12.”

“He was amazing,” Joe said. “He’d hit it over the fence almost every time.”

You can’t help wondering how many home runs Bilko would’ve hit on the 1960 television show, Home Run Derby, filmed at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.  It’s quite possible he would’ve beaten Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Harmon Killebrew – all the other big league stars featured on the show. After all, Bilko was Wrigley Field’s “home pro.”

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

When Numbers Lie

When Steve Bilko was asked what he weighed during the 1955-57 seasons he was blasting home runs a la Babe Ruth for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), he politely answered, “Somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds.”

Wilson, the sporting goods company, had mercy on Bilko, tagging his ’57 jersey size 48 when it actually measures size 54.
Wilson, the sporting goods company, had mercy on Bilko, tagging his ’57 jersey size 48 when it actually measures size 54.

It will always be a mystery how much Bilko weighed in 1957 when he socked the last 56 of his 148 homers for the Angels. But the home jersey he wore that season suggests he was carrying around a lot more than the 235 pounds listed in the team’s yearbook.

The jersey is tagged size 48 but it measures roughly 27 inches side to side, making it a size 54. “We call it mercy tagging so they weren’t kidded in the locker room,” explained a sports memorabilia collector who asked not to be identified. “If they had a 54 tag on it, Bilko wouldn’t be able to live it down. Everybody would be calling him a ‘Fat Ass’ or whatever else. So they tagged them this way.”

In the 1950s, uniform manufacturers rarely used a size larger than 48 for the tagging. “Most of the players wore a size 42 or 44 and they are true to size,” the collector said. “You measure them out, they are absolutely perfect.”

Steve Bilko holds autographed ball he clouted for his 56th homer in 1957 as Gene Lillard, right, holds the bat he used to tie the team record set by Lillard in 1935.
Steve Bilko holds autographed ball he clouted for his 56th homer in 1957 as Gene Lillard, right, holds the bat he used to tie the team record set by Lillard in 1935.

Another beneficiary of “mercy tagging” was Francis “Lefty” O’Doul, who managed five Coast League teams from 1935 through 1957, a 23-year period in which he put on a lot of weight near the end.  “That was a period he was called Hefty Lefty.”

The jersey O’Doul wore in 1955 as manager of the Oakland Oaks is tagged size 48 but it’s actually a size 54. “I have about 30 PCL jerseys. These are the only two that have that type of anomaly.”

The front of Bilko’s jersey worn at home games during the 1957 season.
The front of Bilko’s jersey worn at home games during the 1957 season.

Bilko’s jersey “turned up about two years ago outside of the hobby and survived just by chance.”

The only one known to exist, the Bilko jersey was given to a player who used it in semipro baseball around 1960. “It has Bilko’s number 30 on the back. Everything is original.”

Bilko wore number 42 his first season with the Angels in 1955 and the number 30 in 1956-57.

“Bilko wasn’t fat,” the collector added. “He was stocky.”

Over the years Bilko became very sensitive about his weight, rarely getting on the scales and never revealing the results.

“There’s one thing he does not like and that’s being kidded about his weight by strangers,” said George Freese, Bilko’s roommate on the road in ’56. “If someone comes up to him and makes some crack about him being heavy, he’ll tell them to mind their own business.”

After making his major league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals late in the 1949 season, Bilko had an operation for varicose veins over the winter. He wasn’t able to do much so he ballooned to around 260 pounds.

: Bilko wore number 30 in 1956-57 after wearing the number 42 in 1955 – the now retired number worn by Jackie Robinson.
Bilko wore number 30 in 1956-57 after wearing the number 42 in 1955 – the now retired number worn by Jackie Robinson.

At the Cardinals’ spring training camp in 1950 Bilko said “one coach decided I would have to lose 40 pounds and another decided I would have to become a pull hitter. Between the two of them I went crazy. I starved 40 pounds off myself in six weeks and felt terrible.”

Bill Sweeney was the Angels manager in 1955 when a beleaguered Bilko arrived in L.A.

“Do I have to worry about my weight?” Steve asked.

“I don’t care what you weigh,” Sweeney said.  “Just play between the lines.”

That’s just what Bilko did, winning the PCL’s home run title and Most Valuable Player award three straight years and prompting Bob Scheffing, the Angels manager in ’56, to say: “More people in L.A. today know Bilko than Marilyn Monroe.”

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Weighty Matter

Standing 6-foot-1 and tipping the scales around 250 pounds, Steve Bilko would be just another wide-bodied player in baseball today. Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants is 5-11 and 240 pounds; Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers is 5-11, 275; Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler of the Kansas City Royals is 6-1, 240; Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is 6-2, 230; Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers is 6-4, 240; David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox is 6-4, 250; and Matt “Big City” Adams of the St. Louis Cardinals is 6-3, 260.

“My best playing weight was 254 pounds,” Bilko said, admitting that he got up to 270 pounds on occasion.

35_Checkup_rw
Steve Bilko gets a customized checkup from Angel manager Bob Scheffing, lower left, president John Holland, upper left, and Wid Matthews, director of personnel for the Chicago Cubs. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives)

In the 1950s, Bilko was considered a fat guy, harassed and hassled by managers and the news media about his weight. He had to put up with nicknames like Lard Zeppelin and Big Boy Balloon and insulting one-liners from sportswriters. “He’s got enough beef there to feed a whole wolf family if they could figure out a way to drag him away to their den,” one columnist observed in 1953.

Three years later in 1956 when Bilko was tearing up the Pacific Coast League, Sports Illustrated divided Bilko’s estimated 240 pounds into the $200,000 price tag the Los Angeles Angels placed on him.  “That rates as a new high for minor league beef on the spike, amounting, as it does, to $833 a pound,” the magazine reported.

On becoming a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times in 1961, Jim Murray wrote: “I hope Steve Bilko has lost weight. The last time I saw him in the Coliseum, the front of him got to the batter’s box full seconds before the rest of him.”

In another column, Murray wisecracked: “He looks as if he had just climbed down off a beer truck – or rolled off the back of one, for that matter.”

: Bilko’s weight in 1950 received full-page coverage from The Sporting News.
Bilko’s weight in 1950 received full-page coverage from The Sporting News.

Bilko was 20 years old and weighed around 230 pounds when he made his major-league debut late in the 1949 season with the Cardinals battling the Dodgers for the National League pennant. The Cards lost five of their last eight games, but Bilko was impressive, reaching base 10 of the 22 times he batted and hitting for a .294 average.

The Cards were expecting big things of Bilko in 1950. So when he showed up at spring training weighing 260 pounds, the baseball world was thrown off its axis.

The Sporting News devoted a full page to the subject. A banner headline proclaimed: CARDS GRIN AND GROAN OVER BEEFY BILKO. Sub-heads read: ROOKIE RATED AS PRIZE PROSPECT, BUT BATTLES SURPLUS FAT and WIFE’S MOM KEPT TABLE HEAPED FULL.  Above a photo of Steve was another heading: CONTENDER FOR HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE OF N.L. The story pounded away at the fat theme: “Bilko knew that he faced the opportunity to win a regular berth in 1950, yet he permitted himself to get super lardy over the off-season.”

Joe Garagiola was a catcher for the Cardinals at the time.  “They put a rubber suit on him and they made that poor fellow run around and sweat and sweat and sweat.  And, then, they’d ask him to play nine innings after he was about dehydrated.  He could hardly get the bat around.  And he was still hitting the ball 400 feet in right-center field.”

Bilko went from being compared to baseball greats Jimmie Foxx, Johnny Mize and Lou Gehrig to J. Francis Hogan, a 6-foot-1, 240 pound catcher in the 1920s and 1930s nicknamed Shanty because he resembled a small hut.

Bilko was back in Rochester after striking out 10 times in 10 games and hitting well under his weight. “It is hoped that he will there learn to decrease his weight and increase his batting average,” one columnist wrote.

“I’ll never forget one day in St. Louis at the old ballpark, Sportsman’s Park,” Garagiola said.  “He was sitting on the bench and looking out toward right-center field.  Then he looked to left field.  He said: ‘You know, I guess I’m just a simple guy from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, but I can hit a ball into the right-center field seats with my elbow and they want me to pull the ball where I hit long fly balls.  I don’t understand that.'”

“His shoulders stretched six feet across,” said Eldon “Rip” Repulski, a teammate at Rochester and St. Louis. “He was so huge that wherever he went, people would look at him and say, ‘Oh-h-h, what a big guy that is!’”

“Steve was not fat,” said Albie Pearson, the diminutive outfielder who played alongside Bilko with the major-league Angels in 1961-62. “He was one of the biggest boned men I’ve seen. His legs – you could put mine together and make one of his.”

Eddie “The Brat” Stanky was the Cardinals manager in 1953 when Bilko belted 21 homers and batted in 84 runs while batting .249. “If you were a big guy, he’d drive you right in the ground,” said Eddie Erautt, a pitcher with the ’53 Cards. “He harassed Steve all the time.”

“Stanky always thought that if Steve would lose a little weight, he would pull the ball a little bit more,” Repulski added. “He tried his best but he was just a big-boned guy and there was nothing he could do about his weight.  Steve wasn’t able to pull the ball that much either.”

“You don’t hit the ball with your belly,” Garagiola said.  “I know some guys who are built like hitters and built like pitchers and all they do is look good in the hotel lobby.”

As this Los Angeles Times headline attests, Bilko’s weight was a household secret.
As this Los Angeles Times headline attests, Bilko’s weight was a household secret.

Jim Brosnan, a scholarly pitcher who went on to become a best-selling author, was a 17-game winner for the Angels in 1955. He and Bilko were roommates during spring training. “The bitch about Steve was that he was overweight, that he didn’t look like a major-league ball player, that he wasn’t a good defensive ball player.  I thought it was a lot of bullshit. In his own mind, Steve was sincere about wanting to be what his managers wanted him to be – slimmer.”

Asked how much Bilko weighed when they played together in L.A., Brosnan joked, “Over a period of time, I think about 900 pounds. He must have lost that much, at least.

“The man was a great beer drinker.  He had a wooden leg besides the two he was carrying which were huge – about the size of ale cans.  I’m sure he kept a special tap in one knee in case he ran out.”

Bilko’s technique for losing weight was called a “steamer” and, naturally, involved beer. “He’d take a six-pack of beer into the bathroom,” Brosnan explained. “He’d seal off the door by putting towels against the bottom of the door, close the window and turn on the shower and the tap in the washbasin to hot.  Then he’d sit on the edge of the bathtub while all this steam would rise and he’d drink a six-pack of beer – all six bottles.  He said it helped him sweat.  Of course, sweat meant you were losing weight.  And this is how he’d do it.

“He was actually doing what he thought would help out – sweating a lot.  I’m not crediting him with a helluva lot of common sense.  But at least he had a lot of sincerity.  You take a man with sincerity; put him in a major league uniform and that can pay off.  I would’ve done it myself.  But I’ve got a sense of humor and most managers don’t have one.”

In L.A., Bilko’s managers were hands off. Nobody bugged him about his weight except the media.

“How much does Steve weigh?” Jeanne Hoffman of the L.A. Times asked in a March 30, 1956 story titled NOT EVEN MRS. BILKO KNOWS HIS WEIGHT.

“For three years – ever since he left the Cardinals – he has managed to keep his tonnage a secret. All the Angel management knows for sure is that he strips in ‘somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds.’ Each spring, when pilot Bob Scheffing asks him what his playing weight is, big Bilko replies, ‘Not as much as last year.’  Nobody, of course, knows what he weighed last year. But billowing Bilko swears it wasn’t THAT much.”

Hoffman tried to pry the answer from Bilko’s wife, Mary. “Why, I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs.” Mary said. “The papers said he trimmed down to a mere 232 pounds.’ But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?

“Steve is very secretive about his weight at home. I suppose he sneaks out of bed at 6 a.m., hops on the bathroom scales and jumps off before anyone is up. After all, how can you expect him to be diminutive? He weighed 190 pounds his first year in high school.”

Bilko couldn’t rid himself of the “fat man” label and escape jokes about his appetite. On being selected by the Angels in the American League expansion draft in 1961, Los Angeles Examiner columnist Morton Moss wrote: “He’d be excellent box-office if he can somehow fit himself with a pair of wings powerful enough to keep his heavier-than-air machine flying.”

President Dwight Eisenhower signed Bilko’s glove during a visit to the Angels training camp in 1961 and, then, told manager Bill Rigney, far right, that Stout Steve and 240-pound Ted Kluszewski, third from left, would “make a couple of good bodyguards.” (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
President Dwight Eisenhower signed Bilko’s glove during a visit to the Angels training camp in 1961 and, then, told manager Bill Rigney, far right, that Stout Steve and 240-pound Ted Kluszewski, third from left, would “make a couple of good bodyguards.” (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

Even former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower weighed in with a comment at the Angels spring training camp in Palm Springs. “They tell me you’re off about 30 pounds in weight,” Ike said to a surprised Bilko.

In 1962, the Angels gave players bicycles to ride around Palm Springs during spring training. Danny Thomas, a television comedian and actor, quipped: “When Bilko got his, instead of riding it, he sprinkled it with ketchup and started eating.”

Baseball Digest reported Bilko ate at one sitting “five lobster cocktails, a triple order of spaghetti and chicken topped off with a loaf of garlic bread, a cheese cake and a half dozen cups of coffee.”

“He loved to eat – if you left icing on the tablecloth, he’d eat it,” said Gene Mauch, a teammate with the Angels in 1955-56.

After socking 148 homers for the Angels in three Coast League seasons, Bilko returned to the majors in 1958 with the Cincinnati Redlegs.

“I spoke kindly to him by accident and I hear it was the right thing to do,” Redlegs Manager George “Birdie” Tebbetts told columnist Red Smith during spring training. “When he told me what he weighed, I said, ‘I’m not going to harass you about weight. I’d like you to be lighter, but you can call your own shots. I’m not going to suggest knocking yourself out. I heard afterward that he told another player, ‘That’s the first manager ever mentioned weight to me without wanting to kill me.’”

Bilko said he was “about eight or nine pounds” lighter when this photo was taken in 1976 – 13 years after he retired from baseball. (Photo by author)
Bilko said he was “about eight or nine pounds” lighter when this photo was taken in 1976 – 13 years after he retired from baseball. (Photo by author)

George Freese was Bilko’s roommate on the road in ’56. They were the last players to leave Wrigley Field after home games. They talked and guzzled bottles of beer in the hot tub until Angel trainer Joe Liscio got leg cramps delivering them. It was a task better suited for a beer truck.

“Steve loved his beer,” Freese said. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.”

Freese insists Bilko had all the right stuff to be a legend in the majors just as he was in the minors. “I still feel that if everybody had left him alone and let him play his own way in the majors, he would’ve made it, Instead, everyone tried to change him and make him look like a Mr. America in tights.”

“I just wonder what Steve Bilko would do today?” Garagiola asks.

Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers manager, was an eyewitness to Bilko’s 56 home runs in ’57 when they played for the Angels. “If he were playing today, without question, you’d see a guy hitting 50, 60 home runs,” Lasorda says, adding for emphasis: “Easy.”

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Fat Man Label Albatross Around Bilko’s Neck

Steve Bilko “had a lot more talent than people gave him credit for,” Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club, said in an interview with Mark Myre, host of the Saturday Morning Sports Show on WJEZ FM in Pontiac, Illinois. “He was considered a fat man in a thin man’s game at that time.

Steve Bilko turns down a sandwich offered by the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse boy. (Author’s collection)
Steve Bilko turns down a sandwich offered by the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse boy. (Author’s collection)

“The fat man label was really an albatross around his neck,” White said, describing how the St. Louis Cardinals made Bilko wear a rubber suit during spring training in 1950 so he would lose 40 pounds. “From then on he was badgered by various managers for his weight.

“He only had one season where day-in and day-out he was the regular. That was 1953 with the Cardinals. He hit 21 home runs and drove in 84 runs. He also led the league in strike outs with 125. Not bad for most players today but in ’53 that wasn’t good enough and the Cardinals traded him to the Cubs in ’54.

Listen to White’s interview with Myre:

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Another ‘Boys of Summer’

San Diego baseball historian Bill Swank calls The Bilko Athletic Club the “West Coast version of the Boys of Summer.”

Boys of Summer is the baseball classic by Roger Kahn about the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s.

“We’ll happily endorse that endorsement,” Tom Hoffarth writes in the Los Angeles Daily News. The full story can be viewed by clicking on the following link: http://www.insidesocal.com/tomhoffarth/2014/04/09/day-9-30-baseball-books-in-april-2014/

In an interview with Fred Wallin, host of Sports Overnight America on Sports Byline USA, White discusses the pitching staff of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, citing a comment by Joe Gordon, manager of the San Francisco Seals, that the Angels could’ve finished second to the New York Yankees in the American League if they had two top-flight pitchers to go with Dave Hillman, a 21-game winner, and Dick Drott and Bob Anderson, kid hurlers who won 13 and 12 games, respectively.

Freese+Silvers+Bilko_1956_rw
L-R, George Freese, Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko pose for publicity shot at a CBS television press reception in 1956 to promote, You’ll Never Get Rich, starring Silvers as Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko. (Courtesy George Freese)

White points out that Steve Bilko took a pay cut when he returned to the majors in 1958 after bashing 148 homers in three seasons with the Angels, then part of the old Pacific Coast League. Bilko earned roughly $35,000 in salary and endorsements in ’56, the year he won the league’s Triple Crown. “That equals what Mickey Mantle made in 1956 when he won the Triple Crown,” White said.

“Unbelievable,” Wallin replied.

Wallin noted that his father, an avid fan of the Hollywood Stars, the Angels’ cross-town rivals, did not like Bilko.

White told the story of his father, Rev. Hooper W. White, telling his best friend and a big Stars fan, Rev. Eugene Robinson: “Gene, how can you be a Christian and pull against the Angels?”

“There was no love lost between the two teams,” White added.

Wallin contrasts the current situation in L.A. where 72 percent of the Southern California market is blacked out from seeing Los Angeles Dodgers games on TV with 1956 when most of the Angels and Stars home games were televised. “As a result of this television exposure, there were a lot of kids who saw Steve Bilko for the first time on TV,” White said.

Wallin asks why Bilko didn’t have greater success in the majors where he batted .249 with 76 home runs in 600 games. White recalled a conversation with George Freese, the third baseman for the ’56 Angels and Bilko’s roommate on the road. “George felt that if everybody had just left Steve alone – let him play his own way in the majors – he would’ve made it, he would’ve become the legend in the majors that he was in the minors. Instead, in George’s view, everybody tried to change him and make him look like a Mr. America in tights.”

Listen to White’s interview with Wallin:

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Houston Sports Talk Features Bilko & Boys

Steve Bilko and his 1956 Los Angeles Angels teammates are featured in a Houston Sports Talk podcast with Robert Land and R.G. Seals interviewing Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club, a new Rowman and Littlefield book that’s receiving national media attention.

Bilko was Babe Ruth to White, nine years old in 1955 when the stout slugger arrived in L.A. and over the next three seasons, slammed 148 homers. “He was a cult hero,” White said of Bilko’s popularity.

Of the ’56 Angels, White said, “It was a great team and, in my opinion, not given enough credit for its greatness.” He added: “To give you an idea of just how good this team was, Jim Bolger, the right fielder, drove in 147 runs and batted seventh in the lineup.”

Lorenzo “Piper” Davis
Lorenzo “Piper” Davis

Only four of the team’s players failed to make it to the major leagues. One of those players was Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, the only black on the team. Piper appeared in 64 games, batting .316. As a pinch-hitter, his 13 hits in 29 at bats for a .448 average led the Pacific Coast League. He played every position in the field except shortstop, centerfield and pitcher.

As an example of Piper’s versatility, White tells the story of Mel Ott, Piper’s manager with the Oakland Oaks in 1952, proposing to play him at all nine positions in a nine-inning game. “Someone suggested, ‘Well, if it goes 10 innings, Piper can sell beer.’”

The following link will take you to the Houston Sports Talk website: http://www.houstonsportstalk.net/2014/04/29/author-bilko-athletic-club-gaylon-white-podcast/

This link connects directly to The Bilko Athletic Club podcast: http://houstonsportstalkpod.podomatic.com/entry/2014-04-28T15_50_58-07_00

YouTube link to Houston Sports Talk interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9V5QiXNCMWs

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Let’s Play Two

It was the summer of 1969 and the 100-plus temperatures in Chicago were taking its toll on the Chicago Cubs, embroiled in a heated pennant race with the New York Mets. Ernie Banks looked around the clubhouse at his weary teammates and made his now famous declaration, “It’s a great day for a ball game. Let’s play two!”

Easter Sunday was a beautiful day for baseball in Cartersville, Georgia, where author Gaylon White lives, so it was only fitting that two radio stations broadcast interviews about his book, The Bilko Athletic Club.

“I played catch with my grandkids and was able to spread the news about Steve Bilko and the ’56 Angels – my own rendition of Banks’ ‘let’s play two’ theme,” said White, a long-suffering Cub fan.

In the interview with Steve Thomson of WCCO-Radio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, White pointed out that the ’56 Angels were made up of Cub castoffs who teamed in L.A. to have career years and win 107 games, finishing 16 games ahead of their closest competitor. He also said that the Angels’ ballpark, Wrigley Field, best known nowadays as the site for ESPN Classics’ Home Run Derby, was the first to sport that name. Chicago’s Wrigley Field was called Cubs Park from 1914, the year it opened, to 1926 when it was renamed.

Marty Lurie of KNBR-Radio in Berkeley, California, called his interview with White “a good historical perspective of baseball, which we love, but, of course, of a time on the West Coast when baseball really was king.”

White discusses the old Pacific Coast League (PCL), the closest thing California fans had to the major leagues until the Dodgers and Giants relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1958.

Lurie recalled an interview he did with the late Dino Restelli, a hard-hitting outfielder from San Francisco who preferred playing in the PCL rather than in the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates because “it was more lucrative.”

“Bilko took a pay cut when he went back to the majors in 1958 with Cincinnati,” White added.

“No city has a greater tradition in baseball than San Francisco,” White said.

Marino Pieretti
Marino Pieretti

As an example, he cited the Friends of Marino Pieretti, a group that has met the third Wednesday of every month since 1981 to honor the pint-sized ’56 Angel pitcher who grew up in San Francisco’s Little Italy and won 115 games over seven Coast League seasons.

Pieretti was such a fiery competitor that, according to Johnny Briggs, a teammate in Sacramento as well as L.A., “you had to have a gun and point it at him” when you took him out of a game.

White described how Marino, pitching for the Sacramento Solons, was getting clobbered in a game when his manager, Tony Freitas, decided he’d seen enough. Instead of handing the ball to Freitas when he got to the pitcher’s mound, Marino heaved it over the grandstand and stomped off the field. On returning to the dugout, Freitas told Marino, “If you’d thrown the ball like that during the game, you’d still be out there.”

Listen to White’s interview with Lurie:

Listen to the interview with WCCO’s Thompson:

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Bilkomania Topic of Presentation at L.A. SABR Meeting

Before Beatlemania, there was Bilkomania.

And that will be the focus of Gaylon White’s presentation on his book, The Bilko Athletic Club, at a meeting of the Allan Roth chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) Saturday, May 3 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. The group will meet from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.Nixon Reminisces_edit

The meeting coincides with a “Presidents and Baseball” exhibit that showcases the colorful history between American presidents and baseball through rare memorabilia and one-of-a-kind artifacts.

President Nixon saw his first baseball game at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field when he was “in the eighth grade, a kid around 12.” He was at Wrigley Field in 1961 when the Los Angeles Angels and the ballpark made their major league debut.. The Angels played in the Pacific Coast League – a minor league – from 1903-1957 and then, relocated, to Spokane, Washington, when the Dodgers arrived in L.A. in 1958.

Steve Bilko, the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
Steve Bilko, the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

For the Angels home opener, Bilko started in right field instead of first base, his customary position, to make room in the lineup for slugger Ted Kluszewski, also a first sacker. The Angels wore new caps featuring a halo on top. “When I came to the ballpark the day I was to play right field, I see this cap in my locker with this white thing around the top,” Bilko said. “I yelled to our clubhouse manager: ‘What’s this?  A bull’s eye so I’ll get hit on the head?'”

Bilko made a running one-handed catch, prompting Angel manager Bill Rigney to say, “Bilko didn’t look too bad out there.”

Six months earlier, then Vice President Nixon narrowly lost to Sen. John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Sitting next to Nixon was Casey Stengel, the former New York Yankees manager, and his wife, Edna. Casey confided to a reporter: “Edna offered Mr. Nixon a job as president of our next bank, but he hasn’t given her an answer yet.”

In three seasons with the Coast League Angels from 1955-57, Bilko blasted 148 home runs and was easily the biggest celebrity in L.A. both in size and popularity. His name appeared in print so many times that, according to Angels’ publicist George Goodale, “there wasn’t a movie star that could touch him.”

“When the major-league Angels came into being, the Coast League was already four years gone but Steve’s star transcended those four years, ” observed Irv Kaze, public relations director for the ’61 Angels.

The apex of Bilkomania was 1956 when Stout Steve won the PCL’s Triple Crown. Angel manager Bob Scheffing declared Bilko was better known in L.A. than Marilyn Monroe. A L.A. newspaper carried a series of articles titled “Bilko the Great.”  The same publication ran a story, “Rocky Just Small Boy Beside Bilko,” comparing Bilko’s physical measurements with those of Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight boxing champ at the time.  The L.A. Times tracked Stout Steve’s pursuit of the Coast League’s all-time home run record with the “Bilko Homerometer” while the L.A. Examiner used the “Bilko Meter.”

L-R, Ted Kluszewski and Bilko with ’61 Angels.   (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
L-R, Ted Kluszewski and Bilko with ’61 Angels. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

 

“He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one,” recalled Bobby Grich, former all-star second-baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels who was seven years old in ’56. Bilko became his hero.

“He had this Babe Ruth-like figure,” added Jim “Mudcat” Grant, a pitcher who faced Bilko in both the Coast League and the majors. “And his thing was hittin’ home runs.”

 

 

 

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‘Pleasant Look Back’

The Bilko Athletic Club “is a pleasant look back at what a man and his excellent ball club could mean to a California community in the days when the Major League Baseball map extended only to St. Louis,” Bill Littlefield says on Only A Game, the nationally syndicated program he hosts weekly on National Public Radio.Only-A-Game

“The closest thing we had to Major League Baseball up until 1958 was the Pacific Coast League,” author Gaylon White tells Littlefield in their interview broadcast April 19. “Mudcat Grant, the former pitcher both in the big leagues and the Coast League, refers to it as a minor major league.”

As Littlefield points out in this review of the book, Bilko “was the pride of Los Angeles before the Dodgers arrived, and according to his manager, in the City of Stars, he was bigger than Marilyn Monroe.”

As an example of Bilko’s popularity, White cites references to the stout slugger in a Hallmark greeting card booklet featuring Peanuts cartoon characters. The excerpt from pages 90-91 of the book can be read on the Only A Game website: http://onlyagame.wbur.org/2014/04/18/excerpt-bilko-athletic-club

For highlights from Littlefield’s conversation with White and his thoughts on the book, click on the following link:  http://onlyagame.wbur.org/2014/04/19/bilko-athletic-club-white

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Extraordinary Book

“Thank you so much for putting together this extraordinary book,” Dr. Alvin Augustus Jones says to author Gaylon White in wrapping up their 16-minute conversation about White’s book, The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.

: Steve Bilko broke into the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949. In 1953, he batted .251 with 21 homers and 84 RBI’s. (Author’s collection)
Steve Bilko broke into the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949. In 1953, he batted .251 with 21 homers and 84 RBI’s. (Author’s collection)

Dr. Alvin features “world leaders and thinkers” on his radio show, which is broadcast on WCBQ-AM and WHNC-AM in Raleigh, North Carolina.

With no major league teams west of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1956, the Pacific Coast League (PCL) was “our own major league,” the Los Angeles-born White tells Dr. Alvin. He goes on to explain that the majors today consist of six teams in five Coast League cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and Seattle.

White traces the career of Steve Bilko, star of the ’56 Angels, from his hometown of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, to St. Louis, where he broke in with the Cardinals in 1949, to his arrival in Los Angeles in 1955. He walloped 148 home runs for the Angels over the next three seasons.

Bilko had no business being in L.A., White says, citing the slugger’s 21 homers and 84 runs batted in with the Cardinals in 1953, his first full season in the majors. Bilko was traded to the Cubs in 1954 where he languished on the bench most of the year.

The interview can be heard by clicking on the following link:

http://dralvinjones.com/detailmedia.php?id=6204

DrAlvin.Com archives over 9,500 audio and picture files: www.dralvin.com.

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Beyond the Game (and the ’56 Angels)

BtG-John and Gaylon
John Vorperian interviewing Gaylon H. White on Beyond the Game.

Fielding questions from a prosecutor is something you want to avoid. But if it’s John Vorperian, a prosecutor in White Plains, New York, and the subject is baseball, it’s a totally different story.

Vorperian is host and executive producer of “Beyond the Game,” a sports talk show he has anchored on White Plains Cable Television since 2002, interviewing an all-star lineup of authors and athletes. “In a medium populated by people who are American idols one day and forgotten the next, Mr. Vorperian has been as durable and dependable as Cal Ripken, baseball’s ironman, who played in 2,632 consecutive games,” the New York Times reported in a 2007 story.

On March 13, 2014, Vorperian interviewed Gaylon H. White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club, a newly-released Rowman and Littlefield book about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels. Vorperian deftly guides White through a series of photographs from the book to take viewers beyond the game, the team and the ‘56 season.

A video of the 30-minute show can be seen on YouTube by clicking on the following link:

http://youtu.be/-VIiJEeQWj4

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The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Fun Times at the Ballpark

Bobby Bragan_arguing call
A familiar sight: Bobby Bragan nose-to-nose with an umpire. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

Bobby Bragan was talking about one of the many times he got thrown out of a game for a run-in with an umpire.

“I said: ‘If you don’t mind, before I leave I’ve got a message for the pitcher.’ So I walked out to the mound.  He followed me to the mound. I said: ‘I need to talk to the third baseman now.’ He followed me over there. The umpire had called the police so I’m leading this policeman and I tell him: ‘Hey, I need to talk to these players before I leave.’”

Bobby is laughing at the memory of the 1952 Texas League game between his team, the Fort Worth Cats, and the Oklahoma City Indians in Oklahoma City. “I led him to all of the positions and then walked off the field with him.  It was fun.”

Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)
Bragan bows in mock politeness as he gets thumb from amused umpire Gerry Van Keuren. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t like Bragan. He was the hot dog manager of the Hollywood Stars, a hot dog team that needed a mustard factory to cover it. One of the Stars, Carlos Bernier, was even handed hot dogs by a fan in centerfield during a game in Salt Lake City in 1962 when he played for the Hawaii Islanders. “The hot dogs,” Bernier recalled later, “are still in centerfield in Salt Lake City.  I never touch them. If he give to me after the game, I eat it. Why not?  When I finish a ballgame, I hungry all the time.”

The post-game radio show of every Stars game ended with announcer Mark Scott saying: “And remember sports fans, whether you win or lose, always be a good sport.”

Scott’s signature signoff was a homily of sorts but it was never enough to cover the antics of Bragan and Bernier.

Bragan guided the Twinks from 1953-55; Bernier was the darling of Star fans like actor George Raft for five seasons (1952 and 1954-57).

“He was never, never out,” Bragan said of Bernier. “He could be thrown out by 10 feet but to Bernier he was never out.”

Bernier slapped an effeminate umpire nicknamed “Sweets” after being called out on strikes in a game late in ’54 season. “Kind of like you’d tap a girl on the cheek,” Bragan added.

Bernier was leading the first-place Stars in hitting and stolen bases at the time. “Carlos was suspended the rest of the year. We finished in a tie and lost the playoff. Losing Carlos cost us the pennant.”

Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)
Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)

Bragan was so upset with the umpiring in a game against the Los Angeles Angels in 1955 that he used eight pinch-hitters in one batting spot. “I told them when they got to the plate not to take a pitch, just call time and I’d send another hitter up,” he explained. “In other words, it wouldn’t be possible for them to get a walk or strike out. I used all the players I had in the dugout.”

“If you’re going to make a joke of this game,” Bragan said to the umpires, “I’m going to show you how to really make a joke of it.”

After being ejected from a game for excessive arguing, Bragan sent the Stars’ batboy out the next inning to coach third base in his place. As the batboy trotted toward the coach’s box, the home plate umpire said, “Don’t let Bobby make a fool of you, son.”

“He’s not,” the batboy replied. “I’m enjoying it.”

Bragan’s antics made national news. (Courtesy of Bobby Bragan)
Bragan’s antics made national news. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

Bragan’s theatrics were captured in a LIFE magazine photograph showing him lying at the feet of an umpire, still arguing after being tossed out of an exhibition game. “I tried to find creative ways to let them know when they were wrong,” he said.

After losing a 21-inning game that Bragan thought should’ve been stopped after the previous inning because of curfew, he sent coach Gordon Maltzberger to meet with the umpires at home plate the following game. Watches lined Maltzberger’s arms from wrists to elbows. An alarm clock hung around his neck.  “He was ejected before he got to home plate,” Bragan said, laughing.

Bragan was booted from another game for drawing in the dirt after arguing that an opposing player missed touching a base.  “I was trying to make a deep impression on the umpire that he had blown it.  I said, ‘You know, when they invented this game, they put home here and first, second and third. You’re not supposed to just touch two or three of them.  You touch all of them.”

Bragan was catching for the Stars when he turned in his finest performance – a strip tease following a disputed call on a bunt play.   “I took my mask and laid it down. ‘This is where the ball was,’ I said. ‘It stopped right here.’”

“Get that mask out of there,” the umpire said.

Instead, Bragan placed his catcher’s mitt on top of the mask.

Bragan shakes hand with umpire Gordon Ford after getting thrown out of a 1955 game. (Author’s collection)
Bragan shakes hand with umpire Gordon Ford after getting thrown out of a 1955 game. (Author’s collection)

“The next thing I know off comes my breast protector and the shin guards. I laid my equipment down on my way back to the dugout. Then I took my shirt off. By that time, it was time to go.  I was just trying to do something to show him up.”

After a bat-throwing incident “to show up an incompetent umpire,” Bragan was declared unfit to manage in the major leagues by Charlie Dressen, a former Brooklyn Dodger manager who piloted Oakland in 1954. “He acts like a busher on the field,” Dressen claimed.

Bragan went on to manage seven seasons in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and the Braves both in Milwaukee and Atlanta. He became president of the Texas League, headed the national governing body of the minor leagues and established the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation.  That’s when I was asked to write remarks for him to deliver at a baseball event in Fort Worth, Texas, honoring Joe and Jack Hannah for their contributions to education and music as teachers and members along with Joe’s son, Lon, of the popular cowboy music group, Sons of the San Joaquin.

The message on this photo signed by Bragan says it all: “Fun time.” (Courtesy of Bobby Bragan)
The message on this photo signed by Bragan says it all: “Fun time.” (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

I was in the audience when Bragan delivered the comments verbatim without notes. In 11 years of writing speeches for corporate executives, I had never seen anybody do this. I said as much to Bobby afterwards.

This started a telephone friendship that spanned nearly a decade. I sent several photographs I had of him arguing with umpires. Bobby signed them along with a copy of the LIFE magazine photo. He sent me a baseball card picturing him with his six brothers – the “Seven of Diamonds” he called it.

The last time we talked was in 2008. I asked Bobby about a game in 1943 when he was a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Louis “Bobo” Newsom was pitching.

“The bases were loaded,” Bobby said. “Bobby Fletcher was the hitter. It was a 3-2 count and I called for a fastball. And he threw a spitball. It went down into the ground and through me. The run scored from third base. When you’re aware of a spitball, you’re ready for it. I went back to retrieve the ball and threw it to him but it was too late.”

Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was infuriated because Newsom didn’t let Bragan know a spitball was coming.  Leo confronted the temperamental pitcher in the dugout leading to a heated argument that ended with the manager telling team president Branch Rickey, “Get rid of Bobo! I don’t want to see him anymore.”

Bobo was suspended and sent packing to another team. He pitched for nine teams in the majors, winning 211 games while losing 222.

“Your memory is remarkable,” I told Bobby.

“Thank you,” Bragan replied, “I appreciate that. And I appreciate your call very much. We’ll visit again.”

When Bobby died in 2010 at the age of 92, I thought about how the disdain I had for him as a kid had turned into respect and admiration. I was reminded of how he came out of retirement in 2005 to manage one game for the independent Fort Worth Cats and, for old time’s sake, was ejected for arguing an umpire’s call. “Fun time, Gaylon,” Bobby wrote on one of the photos he sent. Indeed, it was a fun time and Bobby Bragan had the most fun of all.

*******************************************

 

Cartoonist’s Delight

Barrel-shaped and strong as an ox, Steve Bilko was right out of the comic strips.

When Bilko broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was tagged “Humphrey” after the mountainous blacksmith and sparring partner of boxer Joe Palooka in the popular comic strip of the 1940s and 1950s.Blockbuster Bilko_Jack Manning

After slugging 37 homers his first year in Los Angeles in 1955, Bilko was being called “Stout Steve” and “Sgt. Bilko,” a nickname inspired by the conniving sergeant played by actor Phil Silvers in the hit television series “You’ll Never Get Rich.”

Bilko’s 55 round-trippers in 1956 made him a favorite subject of L.A. cartoonists Karl Hubenthal and Jack Manning.

In a Los Angeles Examiner cartoon titled “Sgt. of Swat” by Hubenthal, shows Bilko about to belt a baseball with a player hanging onto it.

“Why don’t you duck?” the player asks.

“Duck?” the ball says to the player. “I’d like to hide…at least you get a nice hot shower. All I get is a long ride and asphalt bruises.”

Manning begins a Bilko cartoon in the Los Angeles Herald-Express with “B is for Blockbluster.” A pitcher is shown ducking a mighty Bilko swing and observing, “Far better I should pitch this guy from a tank.”

That pretty much summed up the way pitchers felt about Bilko.

Sacramento’s Roger Osenbaugh pitched sidearm to Bilko so he wouldn’t crowd the plate.  After doing this in one game, Osenbaugh was enjoying a beer at a restaurant bar. “I was standing up and the next thing I knew somebody had come up behind me and lifted me up in the air so that my feet were off the ground by a few inches – lifted me up in the air.”

The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Osenbaugh had no idea who it was but he knew it was someone like Humphrey Pennyworth, capable of swinging a 100-pound sledgehammer.

“Your first reaction is what in the world is going on?” Osenbaugh said.

He was able to swivel his head and see Bilko, standing next to George Freese, the Angels’ third baseman and Steve’s roommate in ’56. “The next time you sidearm me, I’m going to come right through the box with it,” Steve said, grinning.

Osenbaugh got the message. “Pitchers were certainly aware of the fact that Bilko was up there and that he could come through the box with a line drive that could do you some serious harm,” he explained.

The incident didn’t change the way Osenbaugh pitched Bilko but it reminded him to be ready to duck on the mound and stay away from bars when Bilko was around.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Remembering Uncle Bob

“Death steals everything except our stories,” Jim Harrison writes in the poem, Larson’s Holstein Bull.

I’m reminded of this every time someone I know dies.

Uncle Bob was all about family as exemplified by this photo taken in the late 1980s at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. He is flanked by his wife, Joann, left, holding one of their grandchildren, and Mary White, the author’s wife. Son Sean is seated below in the “Love God, Hate Sin” t-shirt.
Uncle Bob was all about family as exemplified by this photo taken in the late 1980s at Minneapolis’ Metrodome. He is flanked by his wife, Joann, left, holding one of their grandchildren, and Mary White, the author’s wife. Son Sean is seated below in the “Love God, Hate Sin” t-shirt.

On Sunday, March 23, my sister’s husband of 50 years, Robert Earl Keith, died. He was 72. Everybody in our family called him Uncle Bob because it fit him to a tee. “Uncle Bob was a riot,” our oldest son, Shane, said on learning of his death. “I always enjoyed my time with him.”

Shane recalled playing video games with Uncle Bob, eating ice cream, decorating Easter eggs and all of his jokes. “He taught me that a small jewelry box with a cotton liner, and a hole cut in the bottom, combined with a small amount of ketchup, can make for a rather convincing severed finger ‘found in the yard.’”

Uncle Bob sang like an angel, doing a heavenly rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at my wedding.  Shane remembered Uncle Bob singing the same song at his wedding even though the program called for “I Held You in My Arms Just Yesterday.”

“Uncle Bob informed me he didn’t know that song, but was willing to learn it quickly,” Shane said.

Shane was quickly advised by his wife-to-be that the program was wrong. “Uncle Bob, not missing a beat and with a big smile, told me he would be glad to slip in the words I had fabricated if I wanted him to, followed by a wink.  I told him to sing it ‘straight up’ and all would be well.  A little trickery in a wedding program always keeps bored guests on their feet.”

As it turns out, the song Uncle Bob performed at Shane’s wedding was “Sunrise, Sunset” from the movie, Fiddler on the Roof:

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears.

With tears in our eyes, we celebrate the wonderful stories Uncle Bob leaves behind.

Past Gives Meaning to the Present

Jack and Joe Hannah in concert. (Photo by author)
Jack and Joe Hannah in concert. (Photo by author)

Why should anybody care about a player, Steve Bilko, who has been dead since 1978 and a minor-league Los Angeles Angels team that played 58 years ago?

Brothers Joe and Jack Hannah along with Joe’s son, Lon, make up the Sons of the San Joaquin, honored eight times as the best traditional singing group by the Western Music Association. Jack has been selected best songwriter in the cowboy music category six times.

Jack was a promising pitcher in the Milwaukee Braves organization before he injured his throwing arm. Joe, a catcher for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, played 13 seasons in the minors.

“You play the game to make the major leagues,” Joe says, summing up the feelings of everyone who has played pro baseball.

Joe and Jack never made it to the majors. But they have wonderful memories of their years in the minors.

Mildred Joyce White, 93, with a copy of The Bilko Athletic Club. (Photo by author)
Mildred Joyce White, 93, with a copy of The Bilko Athletic Club. (Photo by author)

Jack put it elegantly in a letter to Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club: “What would life be if it weren’t for the remembrances? We have the future of which we know nothing, we have the present, which is so close and moving so swiftly by that we can’t make much of it, but the past is as clear as our memories will allow. It’s the memories of the past that convince me how important what I am doing is in the present.”

 

I read this quote to my mother when I gave her a copy of the book. Mom is 93. The past is much clearer in her mind than the present. She has only her memories of the past to give meaning to the present.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

 

It’s Bilko Time!

Long before Rambo, there was Bilko. The names sound alike. They suggest raw power and brute strength. And they conjure up images of action and heroism. Rambo, of course, was a fictional character. Bilko’s name was used in a popular ‘50s TV show and later in a movie, Sgt. Bilko, but Steve Bilko, the baseball player, was the real deal, the stuff of legends.

bilko_litho10.indd

 

Stout Steve blasted baseballs to kingdom come. He drank copious amounts of beer without showing the effects. He was pals with actor John Wayne, but preferred staying home with his wife, Mary, and their three kids to watch Lawrence Welk and Roller Derby on TV.

He once sent a ball shooting into a large tree outside the ballpark like a lightning bolt, ripping off a branch with two youngsters sitting on it. Another Bilko homer smashed into a woman’s face, sending her to the hospital. Steve was at the woman’s side the next day, offering condolences and wishing a speedy recovery.

 

Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing anywhere from 230 to 300 pounds, Bilko was barely the legal drinking age of 21 when he was being compared to baseball greats Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Johnny Mize and even Babe Ruth.

He was only 24 in 1953 when he smacked 21 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals, his first full season in the majors.   He appeared to be on his way to the greatness predicted for him when, suddenly, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs where he languished on the bench the rest of the ’54 season.

Bilko ended up in Los Angeles, playing for the Angels in the old Pacific Coast League.  In 1956 he walloped 55 homers, becoming to L.A. what Mickey Mantle was to New York City.  Both were Triple Crown winners. But Bilko had three more homers and six triples to Mick’s five.

Bilko clouted 56 homers in 1957 to give him 148 in three seasons with the Angels. He played briefly for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958 and the major-league Angels in 1961-62. He was back in the minors in 1963, his last year in pro ball.

Like many kids growing up in L.A. at the time, I was in awe of Bilko and wondered why he didn’t go on to star in the majors as well. What happened?

fa_895_bilko50thhr970
Steve Bilko swats his 50th home run in this photo by Art Rogers from the Los Angeles Times archive.

I embarked on a life-long journey to find out. I spent an entire day with Bilko at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, in 1976. I went on to interview more than 200 fans, umpires, sportswriters and players, including most of the players on the ‘56 Angels – the team nicknamed the “The Bilko Athletic Club” and the inspiration for this blog and the book by the same name.

 

The passage of time has failed to dim the memory of the Bilko legend.

Last May the Los Angeles Times featured a photo of Bilko belting his 50th homer of the ’56 season:   http://framework.latimes.com/2013/05/06/steve-bilkos-50th-home-run/

Another photo, taken in April 1962, shows a bored Bilko blowing bubbles as L.A. officials honor the ’62 Angels during ceremonies at City Hall.

Bilko blows bubbles during April 16, 1962, ceremonies at L.A. City Hall for the Angels. (Photo by John Malmin, Los Angeles Times)
Bilko blows bubbles during April 16, 1962, ceremonies at L.A. City Hall for the Angels. (Photo by John Malmin, Los Angeles Times)

Stout Steve made a habit of bursting pitcher’s bubbles.

“Steve hit bullets,” recalled Gale “Windy” Wade, the Angels’ centerfielder from 1955-57. “He didn’t hit those long, high floating fly balls. He wracked them.”

Wade can vividly remember Bilko’s routine in the clubhouse after a game. “The first thing he’d do is take off his shirt and sit there by his locker and drink at least two beers before taking a shower. Bilko could drink more beer than you could haul in a vehicle.”

That brings us back to Rambo and Bilko. Rambo time has come and gone. With the publication of The Bilko Athletic Club, it’s Bilko time!

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

‘Something Very, Very Special’

Bob Thorpe at San Diego High in 1952. (Courtesy Bob Borovicka
Bob Thorpe at San Diego High in 1952. (Courtesy Bob Borovicka

Tony Freitas was throwing a baseball for a living seven years before Bob Thorpe was born.  When they hooked up in Stockton, California, in 1953, the 45-year-old Freitas had more than 5,000 innings under his belt. The 18-year-old Thorpe was fresh out of San Diego High School and being touted as a future superstar.

In 1952, Thorpe paced San Diego High to the Southern California baseball title and San Diego’s Fighting Bob American Legion Junior team to the national championship finals where they lost to a Cincinnati, Ohio, team with another kid phenom – Dick Drott. The pair wound up pitching for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956.

On seeing Thorpe play in the Legion tournament, Sid Keener, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, wrote a letter raving: “The boy reminded me of Joe DiMaggio – build, arm, batting power.” He concluded: “If Thorpe is not another Bob Feller, then I will miss my forecast.”

Thorpe won 28 games in 1954 at Stockton. His manager, Gene Handley, was involved in the Chicago Cubs’ signing of Greg Maddux in 1984.

“He was the same type of pitcher as Maddux – not an overpowering fastball but effective because he set up the hitters with off-speed pitches,” Handley said. “He had an outstanding changeup. And that’s something for a young man coming out of high school.”

Despite a 7-7 record and 4.86 ERA, Thorpe impressed the Angels’ Dwight “Red” Adams, a veteran pitcher.  “Bob didn’t throw as hard as Drott, [Gene] Fodge or [Bob] Anderson.  But he threw good enough. He was a serious-minded guy on the mound and about his work.”

Thorpe was different from the Angels’ other kid pitchers.

He relied on finesse, not speed. “He was the ultimate pitcher even as young as he was,” Anderson said.

He didn’t say much, prompting teammates to call him “The Quiet Man.” “Bob particularly didn’t talk a whole lot about Bob,” said Bob Borovicka, a high school teammate and his closest friend.

And he tended to hang out with veterans like Adams. “He always got along with older ball players,” Borovicka said, “because there was never that me-me-me or I-I-I stuff with him.”

“Bob Thorpe had maturity built into him when he was born,” Anderson said.

Gene Leek faced Thorpe in high school before playing in the majors for the Indians and Los Angeles Angels. “I knew he was going to play pro ball. Everybody was talking about how he was going to make it big.  Even in high school, he was working the corners on you. He wasn’t trying to throw it down the middle. He was pitching.”

The pitch that had everybody talking was Thorpe’s curveball.

“He had a downer – off the table type like Sandy Koufax,” said Leek.  “He came over the top with it. When you see a curveball like that, you go ‘Whoa!’  And he could get it over. He pinpointed that thing.”

Tony Freitas won  348 games in 22 minor-league seasons.
Tony Freitas won 348 games in 22 minor-league seasons.

A 6-foot-1, 170-pounder, Thorpe was signed by Cubs scout Jack Fournier and sent to Stockton in the Class C California League. “The kid won’t impress you right away,” Fournier said. “He isn’t unusually fast and they’ll get hits off him. But he’ll be rough with men on base. He’s got the poise of a big leaguer now.”

When Thorpe joined Stockton in ‘53, the player-manager was Freitas, called “the Bobby Shantz of the bush leagues” because at 5-foot-8, 165-pounds he resembled the pint-sized Shantz who won 119 games in his career, including 24 for the Philadelphia Athletics in ‘52. Freitas was considered by many the best minor-league pitcher of all time with 348 victories, tops among lefties. He pitched in the majors for the Athletics and Cincinnati Redlegs, once striking out Babe Ruth. He won 20 or more games six straight seasons for the Sacramento Solons of the Pacific Coast League.

The pairing of Freitas and Thorpe as teacher-pupil was perfect as Freitas was a so-called dinker, throwing lazy curves and changeups with impeccable control. Freitas helped Thorpe develop a changeup and how to move a hitter around in the batter’s box to set up pitches. “Put it in there close enough so that it looks good,” Tony advised Bob. “But, of course, make sure it isn’t.”

“Tony had a great influence on Bob,” Borovicka said.”Besides the nuances of pitching, he helped him develop a changeup that was his bread-and-butter because it allowed him to keep the hitters off-balance. Tony was the difference between Bob being ordinary and something very, very special.”

Like any great teacher, Freitas set an example, posting a 22-7 record and 2.38 ERA. Thorpe had a 16-8 mark and 3.52 ERA.

Handley replaced Freitas as Stockton’s manager in ‘54 – the spectacular season that propelled Thorpe into the national limelight.

Thorpe had Freitas-like numbers: a 28-4 won-loss record; 2.28 ERA; 197 strikeouts and only 94 walks in 300 innings. Even more amazing, he finished 33 of the 34 games he started.

horpe was the first player in Cubs history to jump from Class C to the majors. (George Brace photo
Thorpe was the first player in Cubs history to jump from Class C to the majors. (George Brace photo)

“He had no real weakness whatsoever,” Handley said. “He could do it all. He was a crafty pitcher. I didn’t have a pinch-hitter who was any better than him so I’d let him stay in the game. He was a good fielder, ran the bases well, just an all-round good athlete.”

In the letter he wrote comparing Thorpe with DiMaggio and Feller, the Hall of Fame’s Keener noted: “If I had my say about the boy, I’d put him in the outfield. He swishes line drives over the infield and long drives past the outfield.”

In 1955, the Cubs were counting on Thorpe to become the first player in franchise history to jump from Class C to the majors. “Watching him on the mound, you would think he was a 30-year-old veteran major league pitcher instead of just a 20-year-old kid with only two years’ experience in a Class C League,” Cubs manager Stan Hack said, adding: “But it’s a long haul from Class C to the majors.”

Hack decided Thorpe was up to the task. “He has looked very good and right now I’d say he could win in our league. At least I’ll start him in selected spots and we’ll find out.”

“It is not yet a foregone conclusion that Bobby will be a winner, nor even that he will remain with the Cubs, but it may be taken as fact that he will one day be a topflight pitcher” the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

A crowd of 19,504 watched as Bob took the mound for the Cubs at Wrigley Field to face the Chicago White Sox in the final game of the exhibition season. “I may be making a mistake sending him against the Sox at this stage,” Hack said. “But I think he’s the kind of a kid who can take the assignment in stride.”

The Cubs had high hopes for Thorpe after he won 28 games for Stockton in Class C.
The Cubs had high hopes for Thorpe after he won 28 games for Stockton in Class C.

Thorpe struck out the side in the first inning, but not before the Sox loaded the bases with a hit and two walks. In the second, the Sox scored four runs on two walks and three hits, including a bases-loaded triple. In two innings, Bob struck out four, walked five and gave up four runs on four hits. “The ordeal of making his first pitching effort in a big league park before the biggest baseball crowd he had ever seen was too much for the twenty-year-old Thorpe,” sportswriter John Hoffman wrote in the Sun-Times.

The Sox ordeal made Hack reluctant to use Thorpe during the regular season. Bob pitched a total of three innings in two games, both in relief and the Cubs far behind. He allowed four hits and one earned run.

Thorpe never pitched in the majors again. The Cubs shipped him to Des Moines in the Class A Western League where he finished the year with a 10-10 record and 3.65 ERA.

He started the ’56 season with the Cubs but didn’t get into a game. With the Angels, he appeared in 29 games, completing six of the20 games he started. In 156 innings, he struck out 72 and walked 60.  He led all pitchers with a respectable .274 batting average.

In three of Thorpe’s losses, the Angels scored a total of three runs. “Thorpe had a lot of bad luck,” said Dave Hillman, the ace of the L.A. pitching staff with 21 wins.

:  L-R, Thorpe, Cub manager Stan Hack and star pitcher Bob Rush chat at spring training in 1955. (Author’s collection)
L-R, Thorpe, Cub manager Stan Hack and star pitcher Bob Rush chat at spring training in 1955. (Author’s collection)

That bad luck continued for the rest of Thorpe’s career.

In 1957, he was 7-15 with a 4.05 ERA for the last-place Portland Beavers. This was good enough for the Pittsburgh Pirates to draft him for 1958 but he missed the entire season because of an operation to remove bone chips in his throwing arm.  In 1959, he attempted a comeback with Columbus, Georgia, in the South Atlantic League.

“The Pirates had high hopes for him,” Borovicka said.

Thorpe visited Borovicka before leaving for spring training. “He told me his arm felt good. It was strong again. He thought everything was going to be OK.”

Bob pitched in three games before retiring and heading home to San Diego to work as an apprentice electrician for his father-in-law, Bill Frank. “If you don’t make it in baseball, you can take over my company when I retire,” Bob was told.

By 1960, Bob had worked off-and-on as an electrician for six years. He was close to qualifying for journeyman status.

Les Cassie, Bob’s San Diego High baseball coach, got a call from a newspaper reporter the morning of March 17, 1960. “I’ll never forget that day,” Cassie said.

“Les, you’d better sit down,” the reporter said

And, then, the reporter described what happened.

Bob was electrocuted while splicing a high-powered electric cable. He instinctively jumped back as the power hit his palm and his elbow grounded against a metal transformer box. The force of the current burned his fingerprints into the metal base of the awl he was using to apply insulating fluid.

“In those days, they did it hot,” Borovicka said. “Now, they don’t.  They turn off the power.”

“One of the nicest young men I ever had a chance to coach,” Cassie said. “He gave me 110 percent every day.”

Thorpe and Borovicka, often called “The Two Bobbies,” were a combined 29-2 the year San Diego High won the championship.

“The Two Bobbies were great pitchers,” said Bill Adams, a teammate.

“They were together all the time,” said Cassie.

Thorpe was 25 when he died, leaving his widow, Barise, with two sons, Robert, seven, and Billy, three. A third son, Barry, was born two weeks after Bob died.

Borovicka eventually married Barise and raised his friend’s three boys. They refer to Thorpe as “Father” and Borovicka as “Dad.”

“I tried my best to raise them the way he would’ve raised them,” Borovicka said. “I think he would be pleased with the job I did, although it’s probably not as good as he would’ve done if he had lived.”

Borovicka will always wonder what might’ve been “had Bob not hurt his arm.”

Bob would’ve been on the mound at Chicago’s Wrigley Field pitching for the Cubs instead of working as an electrician. “Things might’ve been different,” Borovicka said. “There’s just no way of knowing what he would’ve done.”

But one thing Borovicka knows for sure is that his best buddy was “something very, very special.”

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

The Slim Virginian

Dave Hillman was the ace of the Los Angeles Angels pitching staff in 1956 with 21 wins but so little was written about him that most people didn’t know his real name was Darius Dutton.

Dave was a nickname given to Hillman by his boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, in their hometown of Dungannon, tucked in the Appalachian foothills of southwest Virginia near the Tennessee border.

About 400 people lived in Dungannon while Hillman was growing up. Everybody knew each other because, in many cases, they were related. John and Dave, for example, were distant cousins. “My grandmother was a Blackwell,” he says.Dave Hillman_ChiCubs

One day Dave Macon, a banjo player in the Grand Ol’ Opry, came to town to perform at the local school.  While picking and singing, Macon flipped his banjo in the air, caught it and continued playing without a break in the music.

John was a jovial guy with a hee-haw type of laugh that filled the school auditorium.  “I was sitting behind him and laughed until I cried. The next day he started calling me Uncle Dave Macon. As the years went by he cut it down to Uncle Dave. And then it became Dave.”

John was 16 years older than Dave. He left Dungannon briefly in the early 1930s to pitch professionally for a team in Richmond, Virginia, before returning to operate his father’s grocery store and play baseball on weekends in the semipro Lonesome Pine League. Dave was only five the first time he saw John pitch but he remembers it well: “He had the darnedest curveball of any human being I had ever seen in my life. And he could throw hard.”

Dave was a scrawny nine-year-old when he started playing catch with his hero. “He’d monkey around throwing the ball. He could throw a knuckleball, curveball and everything else. We played burn-out.”

On graduating from high school, Dave weighed only 138 pounds. He was a slender 160 when he pitched for the Angels in ‘56. “I didn’t do like a lot of kids and throw with my arm; I used my legs to leverage my weight. And I figured out what I had to do to get more spin on the ball.”

There was no baseball team or coaches at Dave’s high school. All he had to go on was what he learned from playing catch with Blackwell. “It stuck with me all my life.”

At 8:30 the morning of February 14, 1939, Dave, then 11, was sitting in class at school when his teacher, Carrie Addington, received news that her brother, John Blackwell, was dead after a shootout with a deputy sheriff at Dungannon’s Poplar Cabin Filling Station.

As this 2010 photo attests, not much is happening these days in Hillman’s hometown of Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)
As this 2010 photo attests, not much is happening these days in Hillman’s hometown of Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)

John was a free spirit, who liked to drive his truck through the streets after a big rain storm, splashing water everywhere. He carried a pistol and tended to be trigger happy. The day before the gun battle, he shot out Dungannon’s new street lights for the fun of it.

Word spread quickly that Ben Sluss, a deputy sheriff, was going to arrest John for vandalism.

John was sitting behind the counter as Sluss crossed the street to enter the service station. John removed a pistol from his pocket and placed it on top of a nearby safe. He thought Sluss was coming to take him to jail.

Sluss actually was on his way to deliver money John had asked him to collect on bad checks he had been given.

“How are you, John?” Sluss inquired.

“All right,” replied John.

When Sluss reached in his pocket for the money, John grabbed his pistol and started shooting.  Sluss was struck by three bullets but somehow fired back after falling to the floor. John was killed by a bullet to the head. Sluss died the next day from his gunshot wounds.

Hillman’s boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, is buried with other family members at the Fincastle Church and Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)
Hillman’s boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, is buried with other family members at the Fincastle Church and Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia. (Author’s photo)

“They let us out of school,” Dave recalls. “I went to the filling station where he was shot. The filling station was next to the barber shop. They put his body on the pool table in the barber shop. They had his shirt off. There was no blood but plenty of bullet holes. There was one through the shoulders, another in the chest. I was in shock because I loved the fellow. I thought a lot of him.”

Dave went on to pitch two years (1948-49) for the Coeburn Blues in the Lonesome Pine League – the same league Blackwell was pitching in when Dave was a kid. He soon was dubbed “Fireball” as scouts came to see if he was as fast as his nickname.

Dave signed with the Chicago Cubs in 1950, moved to nearby Kingsport, Tennessee, with his wife Imogene and their one-year-old daughter, Sharon, and began his climb up the pro baseball ladder.

By the time he got to L.A. in ‘56, he had a 20-win season (Rock Hill, South Carolina, 1951), two no-hitters and a 25-game stint with the Cubs under his belt. He also had a sore right shoulder.

He recovered to post a 21-7 won-loss record, 3.38 earned run average, and lead the Angels in innings pitched (210), complete games (15) and shutouts (three). “But for a sore arm that kept him inactive for the first five weeks, Hillman would have, at the very least, 25 enemy scalps dangling from his belt right now,” one L.A. sportswriter offered near the end of the season.

Hillman was at his best against the league’s best, going undefeated (8-0) against the runner-up Seattle Rainiers and third-place Portland Beavers.

He was an amazing 11-2 at L.A.’s Wrigley Field, a hitter’s paradise that most pitchers wanted to avoid. “It made me a better pitcher. You don’t take unnecessary chances.  In a larger ballpark, you can make a mistake.  I was always aware that being in a small ballpark, I had to be real careful.”

“Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the Angels’ veteran pitchers. “He went out there time and time again and pitched you that good ball game.”

Hillman went on to pitch in the majors for the Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Redlegs and New York Mets. A career earned run average of 3.87 is a far better measure of Dave’s performance than a 21-37 won-loss record.

From mid-1958 through 1959, Dave’s last season with the Cubs, he was their most effective and consistent starting pitcher despite won-loss records of 4-8 and 8-11. In August 1958, the Sporting News reported: “Hillman, in many respects has been the Cubs’ most dependable pitcher, even though he had a 3-5 record. Four of his losses came in low-run games and had his teammates given him better batting support it is conceivable he would have a 7-1 or 8-1 mark.”

Hillman, right, shows Ernie Banks the knuckler he used to blank the Pittsburgh Pirates on two hits in a 1959 game for the Chicago Cubs. (Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)
Hillman, right, shows Ernie Banks the knuckler he used to blank the Pittsburgh Pirates on two hits in a 1959 game for the Chicago Cubs. (Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)

Pitching for the Red Sox in 1961, Dave knocked the Detroit Tigers out of first place with six and two-third innings of scoreless relief. He allowed only three hits, reminding Detroit manager Bob Scheffing of the ’56 season in L.A. “Dave won 21 games and we romped to the pennant,” he said after the game. “Dave is not an overpowering pitcher but he knows what he’s doing out there.”

By the end of the ‘56 season in Los Angeles, Dave had another nickname – “The Slim Virginian.”

A few years later, The Virginian, a tough ranch foreman played by actor James Drury, became a popular western television series. Nobody knew the real name of the foreman. He was known only as The Virginian.

Few people know Hillman by his real name – Darius Dutton. And virtually nobody in baseball knew of the impact Dave’s boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, had on his pitching career.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Original Sunshine Boys

They were the “Sunshine Boys” long before there was a Broadway play and movie by the same name. By day, Bob Anderson and Dick Drott put a smile on the faces of Los Angeles Angels fans by mowing down batters like gunslingers in a Western movie. By night, they shared an efficiency apartment near Hollywood and with their youthful, good looks fit right in with others from the Midwest looking to be discovered.

Bob Anderson, right, was the Pacific Coast League’s top rookie in 1956 while Steve Bilko, left, won most valuable player honors.  (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives
Bob Anderson, right, was the Pacific Coast League’s top rookie in 1956 while Steve Bilko, left, won most valuable player honors. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives

Anderson, 20, and Drott, 19, already were in the baseball limelight. A month into the 1956 season, they were being called “can’t missers – destined for stardom in the majors.”

The Indiana-born Anderson, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound right hander, inspired comparisons with two of the best relief pitchers of all time. “He was not quite like Mariano Rivera but at least as good as Troy Percival,” said Gene Mauch, the Angels second baseman who went on to manage 26 years in the big leagues. “We knew one thing. If we had a lead going into the eighth inning, the game was over. Everybody in the league was scared to death of Anderson –scared to death of him. He was just wild enough.”

Charlie Silvera, a former major league catcher, likened the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Drott, a native of Ohio, to the New York Yankees’ Allie Reynolds, a six-time all-star, because “he murders those hitters with a fastball, curve and guts.”

Anderson was used only in relief in ‘56, posting a 12-4 won-loss record, team-best 2.65 earned run average (ERA) and 28 saves.

“He was like a machine,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the team’s veteran pitchers. “He could throw strikes. He could overpower you. He just went in there and nailed them to the wall.”

Drott had a 13-10 record and led the league in strike outs with 184. He won six of his first seven decisions, prompting the Los Angeles Herald & Express to report: “His curveball snarls up and bows like a head waiter and his lively fastball exposes every batter to a siege of pneumonia.”

“Dick Drott had the best curveball I ever saw in a 19-year-old kid,” Mauch said.

“I was always amazed by his curveball,” said Jim Brosnan, a teammate of Drott’s with the Chicago Cubs. “It was a beautiful pitch. It reminded me of Sandy Koufax’s curveball and Koufax, in my opinion, was the best pitcher of all time.”

Drott referred to his fastball as a “hummer.”

“In the first inning he’s fast, the next time you’re up he’s real fast and the third time around he throws bullets at you,” marveled Jim Westlake, a former major leaguer playing for the Vancouver Mounties in ‘56.

Dick Drott won 15 games as a rookie for the Cubs in 1957. (Author’s collection)
Dick Drott won 15 games as a rookie for the Cubs in 1957. (Author’s collection)

“Dick has the killer instinct of a tiger and the friendliness of a lamb,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing explained.

“Dick did not like to be beaten,” Anderson said. “He knew that he had good stuff and he was extremely confident in his ability to strike people out. So he was a tiger in that sense. His demeanor off the field was very much like a lamb.”

Anderson added: “Had he not hurt his arm with the Cubs, he probably would’ve been one of the outstanding pitchers of that era.”

The same could be said for Anderson.

“I thought Anderson and Drott would have big, big careers,” Mauch said. “For various reasons, they didn’t quite make it as big as I thought they would in the big leagues.”

Anderson was 36-46 in the majors and Drott 27-46.

Anderson’s best season was 1959 when he won 12 games and was the workhorse of the Cubs pitching staff, starting 36 games and pitching 235 innings.

Over the next three years, Anderson played for seven different managers and head coaches. In 1960, he won nine games as a starter. He pitched primarily in relief in 1961-62 as the Cubs operated without a manager, rotating its so-called college of coaches.

“There was no rhyme or reason as to the way we were used,” Anderson said.  “I remember warming up and pitching six games in a row.  There was no concern for what could happen to the pitchers.”

In late August 1961, Anderson appeared in three straight games against Pittsburgh, recording two saves and a win. He pitched one inning in the first game; two and one-third innings in the second and three innings in the third. On the last pitch of the third game Anderson hurt his arm.

“I remember vividly when I hurt my arm. It was against Roberto Clemente and it was a pitch that didn’t need to be thrown because I had struck him out on the previous pitch but the umpire called it ball two.  Even Clemente dropped the bat and started to walk away from the plate. I threw him a fastball that moved in on him. But when I threw it, I felt something in my shoulder.  The day after that I warmed up to go into a ballgame and I couldn’t throw.”

Anderson and Drott talk hitting with Rogers Hornsby, the Cubs’ batting instructor, in this 1958 photo. (Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/51435/rec/4 )
Anderson and Drott talk hitting with Rogers Hornsby, the Cubs’ batting instructor, in this 1958 photo. (Courtesy of USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/51435/rec/4 )

Anderson appeared in nine more games in ‘61, finishing with a 7-10 record, eight saves and 4.26 ERA.

“The year after that, 1962, why, it was dog crap,” Bob said, referring to his 2-7 record and 5.02 ERA.

Anderson hung on for two more years before calling it quits in 1964 at the age of 28.

Drott’s rookie season in 1957 was amazingly like another first-year Cub pitching sensation – Kerry Wood in 1998.

Dick, who turned 21 during the ‘57 season, had a 15-11 won-loss record, 3.58 ERA and his 170 strikeouts ranked second in the National League. Kerry, also 21, was 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts, third in the league.

When Wood fanned 20 Houston Astros in a one-hit shutout at Wrigley Field May 6, 1998, it brought back memories of Drott whiffing 15 Milwaukee Braves on the same field May 27, 1957.

“That boy,” future Hall of Famer Robin Roberts said of Drott, “is as good a pitcher at his age as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Dick’s 15 strikeouts were just three shy of the major league record at the time. He had Henry Aaron, the Braves’ legendary slugger, so confused that he was called out on strikes three times – twice on fastballs and once on a curve.

The similarity in the careers of the two Cubs pitchers doesn’t stop there.

Wood hurt his arm and spent the following season on the disabled list recovering from Tommy John surgery. Over his 14-year career, he was on the disabled list 16 times, never fulfilling the potential he showed as a rookie.

After a 7-11 record and 5.43 ERA his second year, Drott served six months active duty with the Army Reserve. In the spring of ‘59, he returned to the Cubs out of condition and some 20 pounds under his playing weight. He hurt his arm when he tried to throw too hard too soon.

Drott spent the next three years on and off the disabled list before ending his career in 1963 with a 2-12 record for the Houston Colt 45s.

For one shining moment that last season Drott was as good as he ever was and almost as good as one of the all-time greats – Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants.

He had a one-hit shutout going into the bottom of the eighth inning of a classic pitching duel with Marichal. He gave up a bloop double, struck out the next batter and got Marichal to fly out before another double gave the Giants their only run of the game. Drott struck out seven and allowed three hits. Marichal fanned five and pitched a no-hitter.

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Anderson says the Cubs “used everybody wildly and people got hurt.”  He ticks off the names of other promising pitchers who injured their arms – Myron “Moe” Drabowsky, Glenn Hobbie and Don Elston. “Drott hurt his arm. I hurt mine. Dick Ellsworth came along a little bit later during that era and he hurt his arm. The Cubs had some good arms in their farm system that they destroyed after they got to the majors.”

Drott was 28 when he quit at the end of the 1964 season – the same age as Anderson.

It was not the kind of ending anybody expected in ’56 when Anderson and Drott were the “Sunshine Boys” and destined for stardom.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Like Father, Like Daughter

“I miss my daddy,” Faye Davis said as we stepped into her office at the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “I miss my daddy.”

A life-sized photo of Piper in a Birmingham Black Barons uniform is prominently displayed in a breezeway at Hoover Stadium, home of the Birmingham Barons until they moved to a downtown ballpark in 2013  (Photo by author)
A life-sized photo of Piper in a Birmingham Black Barons uniform is prominently displayed in a breezeway at Hoover Stadium, home of the Birmingham Barons until they moved to a downtown ballpark in 2013 (Photo by author)

Faye had just attended a Negro League Conference presentation on her father, Lorenzo “Piper” Davis. He played seven years in the Negro Leagues (1942-48), mostly for the Birmingham Black Barons. As player-manager in 1948, he guided the Black Barons to the Negro American League title. The centerfielder was Willie Mays, a 16-year-old at the time.  “He was a warm man, fatherly, and all the players respected him,” the Hall of Famer wrote in his autobiography, Say Hey.

Photos of Piper as well as his Negro League baseball card were on a table in the corner of her office. Nearby was a copy of Willie’s Boys, the excellent book about Piper and the 1948 Black Barons.  The screensaver on Faye’s computer showed a distinguished-looking Piper in a suit and tie. And on the wall in a large picture frame above Faye’s desk was the Birmingham News article, Born too soon, published on Piper’s death in 1997 at the age of 79. “Lorenzo “Piper” Davis “came along too late for the major leagues, but just in time to become one of Birmingham’s most respected names in baseball,” the story began.

Piper was the only black player on the 1956 Los Angeles Angels team. Some of the veterans such as Gene Mauch and Dwight “Red” Adams, knew of his exploits in the Negro Leagues and with the Oakland Oaks in the Pacific Coast League prior to joining the Angels in 1955. A few of the players had heard Piper talk about playing basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters. But, for the most part, they had no idea their teammate was a legend in the making.

Piper, pictured in lower right corner, was a regular for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1943-46. He played part-time during the 1947-48 and 1950-51 seasons. He returned in 1957 to become the team’s traveling secretary, road manager and part-time coach.   (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research)
Piper, pictured in lower right corner, was a regular for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1943-46. He played part-time during the 1947-48 and 1950-51 seasons.  (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research)

 

In December 1999 he was selected one of Alabama’s 50 Greatest Sports Performers of the Century along with some of the greatest athletes of our times — Jesse Owens, Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Louis, Bo Jackson, Joe Namath, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige, Willie McCovey and Mays. Displays at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, in which he was inducted in 1993, pay tribute to Piper. Birmingham’s Piper Davis Youth Baseball League is named in his honor.

At Hoover Stadium where the current Barons played until moving to a new downtown ballpark in 2013, a life-sized photo of a young Piper graces one of the breezeways leading into the stands. Go to Rickwood Field, the well-preserved ballpark that was home to both the Black Barons and the all-white Barons team in the Southern Association, and images of him are everywhere.

“I have yet to be able to walk into Rickwood without crying,” Faye said.

When Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Piper was nearly 30 – about 17 months older than Robinson. This was too old for the St. Louis Browns and Boston Red Sox who flirted with bringing him up to the Big Show.

Piper was 39 when he played for the ’56 Angels. He was a pinch-hitter deluxe, batting .448, and a super sub, playing every position in the field except shortstop, centerfield and pitcher. Overall, he hit .316.

Mauch likened the 6-foot-3, 188-pound Piper to George Hendrick, a similarly built outfielder who hit 267 homers in the majors during the 1970s and 1980s. “With a bat, he was just like George Hendrick. The day didn’t come that they could throw a fastball that Piper couldn’t get around on.”

Two of Piper’s six home runs in ‘56 came as a pinch-hitter.

“Oh, man, he could crank up on a fastball,” recalled pitcher Gene Fodge. “He was strong – even at 38-39, whatever he was at that time.”

Piper was a super-sub for the ’56 Angels, leading the league in pinch-hitting. (Author’s collection)
Piper was a super-sub for the ’56 Angels, leading the league in pinch-hitting. (Author’s collection)

Piper’s contributions as a player went far beyond what he did with a bat.

“Piper Davis was the most consummate professional player that I ever played with,” said Mauch. “I’m not saying that he was the best player. Hell, I played with Ted Williams, Stan Musial – a bunch of great players. I’m talking about consummate professionalism. He said all the right things at the right time. He was very, very astute.”

“The biggest catalyst on the ball club was Piper Davis,” said Bob Speake, the Angels’ left-fielder. “He spent most of his time in the bullpen, warming up the pitchers. He helped the young pitchers, sharing all of his wisdom gathered when he was in the Negro Leagues.”

Before the Angels released Buzz Clarkson in ‘56, manager Bob Scheffing checked with Piper to make sure he was all right with being the lone black on the team.

“It won’t bother me at all,” Piper said.

“Dad was a pretty solitary type,” Faye explained. “If you didn’t mention baseball, you wouldn’t get 15 words out of him. But if you ever got him started…”

One story Piper liked to tell was the time he was catching for the Oaks and called for three straight fastballs to strike out the batter, Mauch. When they became teammates in L.A., Mauch asked Piper why he had the pitcher throw three successive fastballs, defying all baseball logic.

Piper grinned and said proudly, “Element of surprise, my dear brother!”

Piper was a man of few, carefully selected words.

Asked about the segregation that kept baseball white, Piper said, “Wasn’t the game’s fault.” On playing in the Negro Leagues with Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson: “Hit everywhere from .275 up. Be a million-dollar ball player today.”

He verbally flagged something important by saying “put it in the computer” long before there were computers. Piper referred to a hard-hit ball as “tattooed” or “buggy whipped.”

“Daddy liked to say, ‘Hold your point.’ And then he’d say, ‘Come back to your point.’”

Standing next to Piper, far right, is jazz great Lionel Hampton. Satchel Paige is pictured far left with an unidentified woman.  (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research
Standing next to Piper, far right, is jazz great Lionel Hampton. Satchel Paige is pictured far left with an unidentified woman. (Courtesy Center for Negro League Baseball Research)

Davis was known as “Piper Colina” when he moved in with relatives in Birmingham so he could attend Fairfield High and stay out of the coal mines near Colina and Piper, Alabama, where he grew up.  “Somewhere along the line they dropped the Colina and it just got to be Piper,” Faye said.

“Dad gets here and they’ve got their starting five at basketball. They kind of kept him out.”

 During one particularly close game, Fairfield students started chanting, “We want Piper Colina! We want Piper Colina! We want Piper Colina!”

Fairfield’s coach leaned over to the equipment manager and asked, “Spates, is that Piper Colina boy any good?”

“Yes, sir, he can play.”

Piper Colina entered the game, Fairfield won and the legend of Piper Davis was born.

“I’ll tell you one of the most interesting experiences I ever had,” Faye said. “When my grandmother died, all of the old guys from Piper came to the house one evening. And their visit went on through the night. It was the best history anybody could’ve had in the life of a coal mine –racial relationships in a coal mine – and how daddy was deadly with a slingshot.”

Faye was reminded of the time a plumber came to their house in Birmingham. On seeing Piper, he exclaimed, “Knocks?”

“Yeah,” Piper said, confirming the nickname he picked up as a kid in Piper because of his ability to “knock your eyes out” with a slingshot.

As the different gloves and catcher’s mask in this Oakland Tribune photo attests, Piper was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of most. (Author’s collection)
As the different gloves and catcher’s mask in this Oakland Tribune photo attests, Piper was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of most. (Author’s collection)

The plumber pointed to a spot on his head and said to Faye, “Look, I got the biggest hickey on my head from your daddy’s slingshot.”

Faye was browsing through photographs from her father’s playing days. Piper was “all-everything” for the Oakland Oaks from 1952-55.  When Oaks manager Mel Ott proposed playing Piper at all nine positions during a single nine-inning game, someone suggested, “Let’s make it a ten-inning game – and have Piper sell beer in the tenth.”

“There was a guy in our neighborhood who called daddy Mr. Piker,” Faye said. “’How ya doin’, Mr. Piker?’ So daddy called mom Mrs. Piker.”

“Mom was going to pick up Dad in front of the ballpark at Emeryville in Oakland. She wanted to surprise him. Now don’t ask me how she got that car across the intersection and flooded it.  Traffic is stopped. My brother and I are on the floor in the back of the car so nobody could see us. People are all around.”

Piper showed up. “Dad just stood there, hands on hips: ‘Mrs. Piker, what are you trying to do?’”

Faye was asked what she missed most about her daddy.

Faye Davis is a spitting image of her daddy shown on her computer screen. (Photo by author)
Faye Davis is a spitting image of her daddy shown on her computer screen. (Photo by author)

“The smell of his pipe – smelled like bourbon. The seeds popped. He always yelled when he was driving and he couldn’t get to it right away.  He had little holes in his shirt from when the tobacco popped.

“I called him Sugar Sharp,” Faye added. “He was a nice dresser. After he finished playing, we bought his clothes for him. Every Sunday he’d get dressed and he’d come in and say, ‘Do I meet your approval?’”

Faye looks just like her daddy.

“There was no mistake whose child we were,” she said, also referring to her brother, Lorenzo.

“The older I get, the more people tell me that I look like my dad. I walk down 4th Avenue and 17th Street, ‘How ya doin’, Little Piper?  How ya doin’, Little Piper? How ya doin’, Little Piper?”

Faye Davis shows how her father napped in front of the TV. (Photo by author)
Faye Davis shows how her father napped in front of the TV. (Photo by author)

Faye leaned back in her office chair to demonstrate how her daddy napped while watching television. She described what happened when television became popular in the early 1950s.

“We wanted a TV. Daddy said: ‘Wait until they get the bugs out. Let them get the bugs out.’ When they announced the World Series was going to be televised, we got a TV the same day. All he watched was baseball games until momma got him hooked on a soap opera.”

“Does your wife watch Edge of Night?” people would ask.

“Yeah,” Piper said, “and her husband, too.”

“That was typical dad: ‘Yeah, and her husband, too.’”

Faye turned to her computer to pull up comments she made saluting Negro League players at Rickwood Field to commemorate Birmingham’s 125th anniversary in October 1997.

 “They played the game so well,” Faye told the crowd. “Many of the men whose names have echoed during this event and are synonymous with the glory days of the Negro League are no longer in our midst.  But they left us with unmatched memories – memories of baseball brilliance, of unparalleled talent and savvy. Most never played in the major leagues but most major leaguers would have a hard time carrying their gloves to the ballpark….”

One of the stories Faye tells is when her father gave his glove to Mauch near the end of the ’56 season when Gene was leaving the Angels to join the Boston Red Sox. “Take that glove with you,” Piper said. “That’s the only way it’s getting to the big leagues.”

Faye concluded her tribute to Negro League players by saying:

“They rode the bus all night, laced spikes on swollen feet, entered the field of play and proceeded to tattoo and buggy whip the ball while stopping the opponent with dazzling defense. And when their playing days were over each went on his way, making it hard, at times, to know who was still around.  Yes, many have gone on – so in the name of many we call but a few who played the game so well: Winfield Welch; Lloyd  “Pepper” Bassett; Mr. Rudd, the bus driver; Nathaniel Pollard; Alonzo Perry; Ed Steele; Wiley Griggs; Harry Barnes; Johnny Cowan; Roosevelt Atkins;  “Cap” Brown; and Lorenzo  “Piper” Davis.”*

* Davis, Faye J, They Played the Game So Well! Copyright 1997.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Raccoon River Revisited

Nobody has written a song about the Raccoon River that flows through downtown Des Moines, Iowa, but Bob Speake, left-fielder for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, spins a good yarn about it.

Speake played first base for the Des Moines Bruins of the A Western League in 1954. The Bruins were the Class A farm club of the Chicago Cubs. Besides Speake, six other ’54 Bruins played for the ’56 Angels: Raymond “Moe” Bauer; Hy Cohen; Gene Fodge; Don Lauters; Elvin Tappe and Casey Wise.

Bob Speake was the toast of Chicago in 1955, socking 10 homers in the month of May. (George Brace Photos)
Bob Speake was the toast of Chicago in 1955, socking 10 homers in the month of May. (George Brace Photos)

The Missouri-born Speake was dubbed “Wonder Boy of the Ozarks” in 1955 when he clubbed 10 home runs in the month of May. “I never saw anybody have a greater single month than Speake did,” said Cubs manager Stan Hack. “Whenever we needed a run to win he came through for us.”

Speake hit only two more homers the rest of the season, finishing with 12. At L.A. the next year, he batted .300 with 25 home runs and 111 runs batted in to earn another shot in 1957 with the Cubs.

In 1954, the Des Moines Bruins played at Sec Taylor Stadium near the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. Today, Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs, sits on the same site.

The Bruins and Cubs were playing an exhibition game in Des Moines. Speake was batting. “Bob,” the Cub catcher said, “this one is straight down the middle.”

“And I hit that thing, as we say, into the Raccoon River,” Speake recalled.

Several years later Bob was executive vice president of a Topeka, Kansas, insurance company. Two business colleagues were headed to Des Moines for a meeting. “When you get there,” Bob told them, “get a cab driver to take you to the Raccoon River side of the ballpark and you’ll see a statue where I hit the ball. It was the longest ball ever hit out of that ballpark.”

After their dinner meeting, the executives asked a cab driver if he remembered a guy named Bob Speake. “He played ball here and hit a home run into the river by the ballpark.”

“Oh, yeah, I remember Bob Speake,” the driver replied.

“You know,” Speake explained, “a cabbie is going to remember everybody because he’s working on a tip. So he drives them out there, looking for this thing.”

Of course, there’s no statue. Finally, they realized Speake set them up.

“When they got back to Topeka, boy, they were letting me have it. I said, ‘Wait a minute. Back off. Had it been raining?’”

“Yeah,” they said.

“Well,” Speake said, “the river was high and it just overflowed.”

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Fodge as in Fudge


The name is Gene Fodge. But Ernie Banks, widely known as Mr. Cub, called Gene “Fudgie” as in fudge.  The word “fudge” took on a whole new meaning in the movie classic, Christmas Story, when Ralphie said, “Oooh fuuudge!”  Of course, Ralphie didn’t say fudge; he said “THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the ‘F-dash-dash-dash’ word!”

In 1956 Fodge had a lot of hitters talking like Ralphie. He won 19 games for the Los Angeles Angels, including the one that clinched the Pacific Coast League pennant. “I can still feel the champagne in my eyes,” Fodge said 44 years later. “That will go to the grave with me.”

Gene Fodge appeared in 16 games for the Cubs in 1958.
Gene Fodge appeared in 16 games for the Cubs in 1958.

At age 24, Fodge was the oldest member of the Angels’ prized “Kiddy Corp.” He didn’t throw as hard as Bob Anderson and Johnny Briggs and he didn’t have the baffling curveball of Dick Drott and Bob Thorpe. All Fodge did was pile up more wins than any of the other kid phenoms, reeling off nine straight in July and August when the Angels pulled away from the pack. He tossed two shutouts and completed 11 of the 25 games he started.

“Gene was a worker that didn’t have outstanding stuff but was capable of getting the job done,” said Raymond “Moe” Bauer, the team’s left-handed relief specialist. “He had the kind of thing that you can’t measure.”

“I had the feeling that they underestimated him,” said Dwight “Red” Adams, one of the Angels’ veteran pitchers. “No one said it. But just the way they handled him. I wondered why they weren’t higher on Gene because I thought he was a very good prospect.”

Even Fodge downplayed his accomplishments. “When I can 19 games and still have a 4.31 earned run average, you know what kind of scoring they’re doing,” he said. “It doesn’t say a whole lot for my pitching, but it does say a lot for their hitting.”

Fodge pitched briefly for the Chicago Cubs in 1958, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers 15-2 for his first and only major league victory. What made it even more special was that he got the best of two of the greatest pitchers in baseball history – Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax.

Drysdale, 22, and Koufax, 23, were just starting their careers at the time but so was Fodge, a 6-foot, 175-pounder from South Bend, Indiana.

“I couldn’t believe all of the telegrams I got from South Bend when I won that game,” Fodge said, laughing. “My parents, my teachers in school, coaches around town, even the mayor sent me a telegram. I’m glad they did it then because they didn’t get another chance.”

Drysdale started the game for the Dodgers, followed by two other pitchers before Koufax appeared. Meanwhile, Fodge pitched a complete game, scattering 10 hits and striking out three.

Gene Fodge was still believing in miracles when this photo was taken in 2000
Gene Fodge was still believing in miracles when this photo was taken in 2000

After beating the Dodgers, Gene started three more games. He was 1-1 with a 4.82 ERA when the Cubs sent him to Fort Worth in July where he finished the year and his career with an 8-3 record.

“Gene was a real competitor,” Anderson said. “He did not have overpowering stuff but he had a good fastball, a good slider and he could spot his pitches pretty well. I thought the Cubs gave him very, very little opportunity. For some reason, they didn’t smile on Gene.”

 

Fodge was 27 when he went back to South Bend to stay.

In 2000 at the age of 69, Gene was sitting in a South Bend restaurant, reflecting on his career. He arrived in a Ford Ranger with a front license plate reading: CUBS FAN – I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES.

Fodge signed with the Cubs because his father was a diehard Cubs fan, and he believed the opportunity was greater in Chicago because “the club was down and in the process of rebuilding.” “I’m still a live-and-die Cub fan,” he said. “Most of the time you’re dying.”

He was wearing a Sammy Sosa watch and his PCL championship ring. “Every day was ‘Happy Days’,” he said of the 1956 season.

Fodge appeared in only 16 games in the majors but, as he quickly pointed out, “It’s 16 games I’ll never forget.”

“It has been what, 42 years since I was in the majors? I’m still getting stuff in the mail from fans. I can’t wait to open it. I get some of the most interesting letters from people saying, ‘We’re fans from your era and baseball has never been the same.’ I always answer them. My wife says, ‘You’ve never been out of baseball.’ I haven’t really because people have kept me in it.”

Gene died in 2010 at the age of 79.

Family and friends showed up at his funeral wearing baseball uniforms and Cubs shirts. At one point, they sang along with a recording of Harry Caray warbling Take Me Out to the Ballgame. It was a fitting tribute to the only Cubs pitcher to beat Drysdale and Koufax in the same game.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

They Could Play Football, Too!

The stylish waffle-weave uniforms worn by the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 were inspired by the football jerseys of the 1955 UCLA Bruins.  This was fitting because the slugging Seraphs were once mashers on the gridiron with more speed and firepower than a lot of football teams.

This picture statuette of Bob Speake showcases the waffle-weave uniform worn by the ’56 Angels
This picture statuette of Bob Speake showcases the waffle-weave uniform worn by the ’56 Angels

 

One of the spring training stars was Sam “First Down” Brown, an all-America tailback fresh from leading UCLA to a 9-2 record, No. 4 national ranking and the 1956 Rose Bowl. “To the public, Brown is a great football star, but to the talent hunters of professional baseball, he is a better baseball player than a footballer,”the Angels proclaimed in their ’56 yearbook.

Brown was gone by opening day but the Angels were still deep at the running back position with right-fielder Jim Bolger, a star halfback at Cincinnati Purcell High School who attracted college football scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin and many others.

 

Playing alongside Bolger in center field was Gale “Windy” Wade, a star halfback for the Bremerton, Washington, high school team in 1946. In the same backfield was Don Heinrich, later a quarterback for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League. “After all these years,” Heinrich said well into his pro career, “I still have to say I never saw anybody start faster on a quick-opening handoff than Wade. If he had decided to go into professional football, he would have made somebody take notice.”

The ’56 Angels uniform was patterned after the football jerseys worn by Sam Brown, foreground, and his UCLA teammates in 1955.  (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/84864/rec/1 )
The ’56 Angels uniform was patterned after the football jerseys worn by Sam Brown, foreground, and his UCLA teammates in 1955. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/84864/rec/1 )

Wade accepted a football scholarship from Texas Christian University, but changed his mind when a Brooklyn Dodgers scout offered him $5,000 to play baseball.

“Football was really my sport,” Wade said. “Baseball was a very difficult game for me.  I chose the wrong direction when I went into professional baseball.  I should’ve stuck with football.  The very nature of a football player is different.  And my feeling was when I went on the field was to always go all out.”

Mounted on the basement wall of Wade’s home in Dysartsville, North Carolina, is a photo showing him flying through the air and body slamming the chest of the second baseman. “He wound up in left-centerfield,” Wade said proudly.

 

For Gene Mauch, the Angels’ second-baseman, Wade’s daring style of play reminded him of “these guys on TV riding those bucking broncos and those steers… he was one of those guys.”

Rolling, cross-body crashes into an infielder to break up a double play made Gale Wade a fearful sight at second base. (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Rolling, cross-body crashes into an infielder to break up a double play made Gale Wade a fearful sight at second base. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

So was Bolger. “I never saw a guy with such intensity,” said Jack Hannah, younger brother of Joe, one of the Angel catchers. “He kind of worried me; he had that look in his eyes.”

Joe Hannah was an all-America fullback in high school at Visalia, California. “He was an awesome football player,” Jack said. “He had scholarship offers from USC, UCLA, all of the Pac Eight schools at the time. If he’d gone on and played for USC, he would’ve never played baseball. He would’ve been a pro football player.”

Left-fielder Bob Speake was a tailback on the Southwest Missouri State football team in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. In fact, the back of Speake’s 1956 Topps baseball card reads: “In high school he was a fine athlete and played football at college.”

Third-baseman George Freese was the starting quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh when he was eighteen years old.  He also played at the University of West Virginia, receiving All-America honorable mention in 1946. Freese turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The mightiest Angel of them all, Steve Bilko, was a guard and fullback in high school, winning all-star honors the two years he played before signing a contract to play pro baseball.

When the Angels unveiled their new waffle-weave uniforms for the ’56 season, John Holland, the team’s president, declared they were “a revolution in baseball,” noting: “It’s the first time a wide, football-type shoulder band of knitted-weave nylon has been introduced on the shoulder line.”

Bob Speake’s football talents were featured on the back of his 1956 Topps baseball card
Bob Speake’s football talents were featured on the back of his 1956 Topps baseball card

 

A wide blue-and-red waffle-weave stripe encircled the shoulders and ran down the sides of the pants. “The thought that went through my mind when I got to L.A. and saw the uniform in my locker was softball,” Speake says. “This can’t be true.”

 

 

The purpose of the waffle-weave stripes, Holland explained, was “to give the Angels more throwing freedom, and to make them more eye-catching.”

“Inserting the waffle-weave stripes was my idea,” said Max West, a former Angel star who went on to operate a sporting goods store. “The players liked them because they gave them freedom. They were much cooler than the regular uniforms.”

“It wore well,” Speake said, adding it was a “winner’s uniform – you had to be a winner to wear it to keep people from laughing at you.”Bob Speake_1956_back of card

“They’ll make a hit with the hemlines,” Jeane Hoffman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “even if they stumble all over the baselines!”

“Bilko loved the uniforms,” West said.

“Nobody can laugh at the ball club for what we accomplished,” Speake said.

He’s right about that. The ’56 Angels rolled like a football juggernaut to the Pacific Coast League pennant.

**********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Life is a Knuckleball

Life is a knuckleball.

I was two years old when I was stricken with polio and sent to a hospital with a bunch of other kids. Some never went home. I did and a few years later was playing catch and, inspired by Willie “The Knuck” Ramsdell, trying to throw a knuckleball.

This photo of author appeared Dec. 6, 1948 in  Los Angeles Times.
This photo of author appeared Dec. 6, 1948 in Los Angeles Times.

 

Ramsdell pitched for the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League in 1952 and 1953. He was nearing the end of a 14-year career that included stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Redlegs and Chicago Cubs in the majors and 13 different teams in the minors. Altogether, he won 177 games – 24 in the majors and 153 in the minors. Not bad for a guy, described by one sportswriter, as “seriously handicapped as a pitcher because everything but his knuckler was strictly Class D.”

 

Willie figured this out on his own.  “When I started pitching professionally for the Big Spring team in the West Texas-New Mexico League in 1938, I found the light air there made it difficult for me to get the ball to curve,” Ramsdell said. “In self-defense, I adopted the knuckler that season and it has been my most dependable pitch ever since.”

Willie had identical 5-6 records both years he was with the Angels. His earned run average the first season was a decent 3.64 but, then, it ballooned to 4.98. The next season, his last as a pro, he pitched for three teams in the lower minors and didn’t win a single game. None of this matters because Willie and the knuckler are forever linked by name.

Willie Ramsdell_Reds“Willie the Knuck” wasn’t the first to throw the knuckleball. And he wasn’t nearly as successful as Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro or Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the most recent practitioners of the wackiest pitch ever invented.

A knuckler is like magic. It  seemingly dances, dips, darts, floats, flutters, zigs and zags.

“To the masses, it’s a circus pitch,” Dickey said.

“It’s erratic,” said Charlie Hough, a knuckleballer who won 216 games. “It’s difficult. When it is not done well, it’s really bad.”

“You can’t ever give up on it,” Dickey added. “Because once it leaves your hand, it’s up to the world what it’s going to do.”

Even the name of the knuckler is misleading. It is thrown with the finger tips, not the knuckles.  It barely spins and it moves so slowly that Willie, for example, almost had time to sneak a  shot of whiskey from the half pint usually concealed in a bag of chewing tobacco carried in his hip pocket.

“We used to kid him about a bootleg play,” said Jim Waldrip, referring to a play in football where the quarterback hides the ball by his thigh to confuse the defense. Waldrip pitched in the Class C Western Association in 1954 when Willie was player-manager of the Iola Indians.  “He was quiet a character,” Waldrip noted.

With the game on the line, Willie used a change-up to whiff Ralph Kiner, National League home run champ seven consecutive years (1946-52). “Figured I’d pull the string on him,” he quipped.

A knuckleball, like life, requires a sense of humor.

Bob Uecker, a former major league catcher, said “the best way for a catcher to handle the pitch was to wait for it to stop rolling and then pick it up.”

Mike Hargrove, a solid .290 hitter over 12 seasons in the majors, once was asked how to hit a knuckleball. “Stick your tongue out the left side of your mouth in the even innings and out the right side in the odd innings,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest life lesson to learn from the knuckler is the importance of adapting to a situation.

A hitter doesn’t know where a knuckleball is going any more than the pitcher or catcher. The hitter has to adjust his normal swing. Catchers switch to oversized gloves that are used like a backstop. The unpredictability of the knuckleball means the pitcher is always adapting to what it’s doing on a given day.

Barney Schultz, a knuckleball pitcher for the Chicago Cubs at the time, was warming up in the bullpen during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Los Angeles Coliseum. One of Barney’s knucklers hit the catcher in the face. Catchers started wearing masks when they warmed up knuckleballers.

When I spent a day with Steve Bilko in 1976 at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, it was for a book I was researching on players who were great in the minors and flops in the majors.  The book I envisioned was put on hold while I raised a family and worked in the corporate world.

Dave Hillman, left, and Gale Wade, centerfielder for the ’56 Angels, are enjoying the memories in this photo taken in 2000.
Dave Hillman, left, and Gale Wade, centerfielder for the ’56 Angels, are enjoying the memories in this photo taken in 2000.

In 2000, I was having lunch with Dave Hillman, ace of the 1956 Angels pitching staff with 21 victories. He was thumbing through the ’56 Angels yearbook when he came to a photo of Hy Cohen, another Angel pitcher. “Whatever happened to Hy Cohen?”

A month into the 1956 season, Dave was nursing a sore right throwing arm. He had pitched to only one batter prior to facing the Seattle Rainiers.

 

 

“They gave me the ball to pitch,” Dave recalled. “They wanted to find out if I could make it. And if I couldn’t, I would’ve been gone. Hy was 5-0 at that point. Of course, I made it. I beat Seattle. I was on my way.

“And then Hy was shipped out. That always bothered me. I’ve thought about it many times. Why was Hy shipped out? I don’t know what happened to him. All I know is that he was gone.”

Baseball is a game of revolving doors. Players come and go quickly, sometimes never to be seen nor heard of again. Dave’s question made me curious to find out more about Cohen and why a pitcher with a perfect 5-0 record – the best in the league at the time – was sent to the lower minors.

Hy Cohen had a 5-0 won-loss record when the Angels sent him to the lower minors in 1956.
Hy Cohen had a 5-0 won-loss record when the Angels sent him to the lower minors in 1956.

I ended up interviewing Cohen and most of the other ’56 Angels. The result is this blog and the book both called The Bilko Athletic Club after the team’s nickname.

As the book was going to press I learned Bilko liked knuckleballs, too – particularly if they were being tossed by Wilhelm, perhaps the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time. Against Wilhelm, Bilko batted .409 (9-for-22) with two home runs. “He hit Hoyt Wilhelm better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Dean Chance, a teammate of Bilko’s with Angels in 1961-62, their first two years in the American League, and winner of the 1964 Cy Young Award.

 

That’s what Chance remembers most about Bilko – he could hit a knuckleball, the most unpredictable pitch in baseball and one that most resembles life.

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Tribute to Mom

Mom turns 93 today.

There are many nice things I could write about my mother but the biggest tribute is saluting her wisdom and vision for saving my baseball card collection after I left home for college.

Author Gaylon White with his mother, Joyce White.
Author Gaylon White with his mother, Joyce White.

This may seem trivial to some but there are legions of boys who lost their treasured cards when an overzealous mom tossed them in the trash.  A few years ago I happened to mention my good fortune to someone not so fortunate. He broke into tears as he told the sad tale of the Mickey Mantle cards his mother treated like Mickey Mouse’s droppings.

Mom didn’t follow baseball but, like Mickey, she was from Oklahoma, and knew the thousands of cards I accumulated in the 1950s were special. So she preserved them until I was out of college and living in an apartment where I had enough storage space to take them back.

 

Mom and Dad hauled the cards in the trunk of their car from Los Angeles to Kansas City, Missouri. They were neatly organized in a large cardboard box, exactly how I left them a decade earlier.

Willie Mays_1956Ernie Banks was still smiling on his 1954 Topps rookie card. The 1956 Topps card of Willie Mays was good as new and my two 1956 Topps cards of Mantle were in mint condition.

As time passed I’ve kept my mother current on the market value of the cards I purchased in a five-card pack (with bubble gum) for a nickel. The asking price on eBay for the Banks card in near-mint condition is $4,000. The Mays card is selling for nearly $800 and Mantle for $2,169.

Mickey Mantle_1956Hearing what the cards are worth today makes Mom smile. She may not know much about baseball, but she knows a good investment when she sees one.

 

 

 

***********************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The 320-page hardcover book,  published by  Rowman & Littlefield, features a foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Tale of the Ring

Raymond “Moe” Bauer and his son, Paul, were in Atlanta to see the Braves play the Montreal Expos, managed at the time by Gene Mauch. Moe called a batboy over to his seat near the dugout and handed him a ring. “Take this to Coach Mauch and ask him if he’ll see the person who owns this ring.”

Moments later Mauch looked up into the stands, quickly recognizing his former teammate, as skinny as ever. “Hey, Moe, come on down.”

When people asked Moe about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, he showed them the championship ring given the players after capturing the Pacific Coast League title. “It’s not a World Series ring. But it’s a beautiful ring – the most beautiful minor league ring I’ve seen. There are only 25 or so of them around.”

Moe died in 2005. Paul now wears his father’s ring on his right hand. Bob Speake, the team’s left-fielder, wore his Angels championship ring every day until 2011 when Bruce, his oldest son, celebrated his 56th birthday. “This way I know the ring will stay in the family.”

Speake was wearing his ring in 2002 when he and centerfielder Gale Wade met pitcher Dave Hillman, a 21-game winner for the ’56 Angels, in Newland, North Carolina for a mini-reunion.  Wade lives nearby in Dysartsville, North Carolina, and Hillman in Kingsport, Tennessee. Bob and Dave immediately compared their rings, and, then, chided Wade for not wearing his. “I’ve got it in a safe deposit box,” Gale explained. “I’ll give it to my grandson.”

Dave Hillman wears his championship ring proudly.
Dave Hillman proudly wears his championship ring.

The oval-shaped gold ring features a baseball diamond over two crossed bats, topped by a crown with diamonds. Four small diamonds representing infield bases flank a big round diamond in the middle. The initials L.A. are on one side of the baseball diamond, and the numerals 56 on the other. At the bottom are the letters PCL.

Mauch was involved in the design of the ring just as he was in virtually every other aspect of the team. “Bob Scheffing was our manager but Mauch was the cat’s meow on the field,” said Eddie Haas, a starting outfielder until Wade joined the Angels a month into the season.  “He told everybody where to go, what to do.”

 

The Angels closed the 1956 season with a special day for their star, Steve Bilko.  That evening Angel president John Holland treated the players and their wives to a performance by Nat “King” Cole at the swank Coconut Grove in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.

For Speake, the gathering symbolized the esprit de corps from Holland at the top of the organization down through Scheffing and the players. “It was just like a big family.”

“You won’t find that happening very often,” said Gene Fodge, a pitcher who won 19 games. “It was a fine thing and that’s just what 1956 was all about.”

Cole, a big Angels fan, mingled with the players and, then, entertained them with a medley of hit songs, including Unforgettable:

Unforgettable, that’s what you are

Unforgettable through near and far… ©

The players soon scattered near and far but they had their rings to remind them of an unforgettable season.

UNFORGETTABLE

By Irving Gordon

©Copyright 1951 by Bourne Co.

Copyright Renewed

All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured

ASCAP

 ***************************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Daring to Dream

We’re kids once and only for awhile
So follow your dreams, and do it with style.

Gaylon White_4th grade note

The worst part about being a kid is growing up. Few of our childhood dreams make it past grade school. They often are pooh-poohed by parents and teachers and eventually abandoned to cope with the harsh realities of adult life.

Syd Mead is a futurist designer, best known for his work on science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Aliens and Tron. He says, “I can think of no greater gift to oneself than to retain and add the wonder of childhood to the gathering of the adult experience.”

The White family in the early 1950s: top, left-to-right: Don, Joyce and Hooper White; bottom, left to right: Joann and Gaylon, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.
The White family in the early 1950s: top, left-to-right: Don, Joyce and Hooper White; bottom, left to right: Joann and Gaylon, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.

In writing The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Steve Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, I strived to regain the wonder of childhood I lost from 40 years of guerilla warfare in the corporate jungle.

Fortunately, my mother saved a large collection of baseball cards, yearbooks, scrapbooks and odds and ends like a note written in 1955 when I was nine years old. “It’s nice to be a baseball fan,” I scribbled. “If you want to know some baseball players names, here they are….”

The names of some of the biggest stars of the ‘50s are listed: Ray Boone, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Carl Furillo, Mickey Mantle and Hank Sauer. And, then, obviously dreaming, I added Davy Crockett, Gaylon White and Don White.

In 1955, Davy Crockett was big stuff. He was “King of the Wild Frontier,” the name of a Walt Disney movie starring actor Fess Parker as Davy. I wore a coonskin cap when I wasn’t wearing my L.A. Angels baseball cap.

White Sidewalls-cropped-lldDon, 15 years old when I wrote the note, was more than a big brother. He was my first sports hero.

In 1953, Don scored 48 points for his basketball team, the White Sidewalls.  That same year, 6-foot-9 Clarence “Bevo” Francis, averaged a record 48.3 points a game to put tiny Rio Grande College on the map. The newspaper in our hometown of Santa Paula, California, reported: “Although somewhat shorter than Bevo Francis, Donnie White scored 48 points in an eighth grade basketball game Saturday, giving him a total of 64 points for the season so far and the scoring lead in the league.”

In my eyes, Don was a star, destined for greatness in basketball and baseball. He had quick hands, ran fast, and threw hard. He consistently hit balls onto the roof of a building near the field where we played pick-up games. When we went to Angel games at Wrigley Field in L.A., Don out-hustled other kids for baseballs fouled into the stands. He supplied all the baseballs we needed at home.

Don_46-Chevy-story-cropped-lldDad wanted Don to focus on basketball so he didn’t play high school baseball. He was a backup guard on the 1957 El Monte High School basketball team that won the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) central championship. He went on to put up some decent numbers as a point guard at LIFE Bible College in L.A. But I always wondered what Don would’ve done on the baseball diamond. In my mind, he could’ve traded his 1946 Chevy Fleetline for a Cadillac because home run hitters in the Fifties were driving Caddies.

“The very best era of baseball is when you were a kid,” says Bill Swank, a baseball historian.

It’s the best because there’s still that sense of wonder of what could be. As a new year begins, my hope for all kids, especially my six grandchildren (Emily, Andrew, Mary Scout, Megan, Max and Xander), is that they never lose the sense of wonder that dreams are all about.

***************************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Christmas Story

This photo of Marino Pieretti singing and playing the accordion is on display at the Double Play Bar & Grill in San Francisco, across the street from where old Seals Stadium was located. (Courtesy Double Play Bar & Grill, San Francisco)
This photo of Marino Pieretti singing and playing the accordion is on display at the Double Play Bar & Grill in San Francisco, across the street from where old Seals Stadium was located. (Courtesy Double Play Bar & Grill, San Francisco)

As a former catcher, manager Bob “Grump” Scheffing liked having a few grizzled veteran pitchers around to balance the inexperience of the kid phenoms on the 1956 Los Angeles Angels pitching staff.  Marino “Chick” Pieretti, a 35-year-old right hander with six years in the majors under his belt, was ideal for the job.

 Pieretti won seven games and mentored the whiz kids in the art of pitching after joining the Angels a month into the ’56 season. With the last-place Sacramento Solons in 1955, he won 19 games with a 3.01 earned run average. He led the Pacific Coast League in innings pitched (293), and was second in complete games (25). Most amazing, was the 270 innings he averaged pitching the previous five years. “When you took Marino out of a game, you had to have a gun and point it at him,” said Johnny Briggs, a teammate in Sacramento as well as L.A.

Former New York Yankees catcher Charlie Silvera, left,  and Frank Strazzullo proudly wear their jackets honoring Marino Pieretti.
Former New York Yankees catcher Charlie Silvera, left, and Frank Strazzullo proudly wear their jackets honoring Marino Pieretti.

 

 

Described variously as a “prodigious half-pint” and “vest-pocket pitching gamecock,” Marino was listed at 5-foot-7 and 153 pounds. “Forget about 5-7; he was only 5-foot-5,” said Charlie Silvera, a former New York Yankees catcher who grew up with Marino in the North Beach area of San Francisco. And he weighed closer to 140 pounds.

Dante Benedetti, far right, coached baseball at the University of San Francisco for 29 years. He and Marino grew up in San Francisco’s North Beach area known as Little Italy.
Left to right, Bob Lagomarsino, Manny Piriano, Dan and Dante Benedetti. Dante coached baseball at the University of San Francisco for 29 years.

 

On retiring from professional baseball after the 1958 season, Marino continued playing with local semipro teams in San Francisco as well as coaching kids at Crocker Amazon Park near his home. “Every day he’d be out there from three o’clock until eight at night working with the kids,” said Dino Restelli, a former outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “He was always willing to help somebody.”

Ex-Yankee Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia, left, and Hoover White, author Gaylon White’s beloved uncle, pose in front of mural painting of Marino at Crocker Amazon Park in San Francisco.
Ex-Yankee Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia, left, and Hoover White, author Gaylon White’s beloved uncle, pose in front of mural painting of Marino at Crocker Amazon Park in San Francisco.

In 1977 Marino was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Depressed, he stopped eating and locked himself in his room at home. Boyhood buddies Frank “Babe” Strazzullo and Dante Benedetti swung into action. They rousted Chick out of bed and hauled him off to Nick’s Rockaway Beach restaurant in Pacifica where they ate and drank like there was no tomorrow. “If you want to do this again next week,” Frank told Chick, “you’d better straighten out and live a little.”

“We started with three,” Frank said. “It kept growing and growing and growing.”

Marino’s  won-loss record for the ’56 Angels was only 7-9 but over nine Pacific Coast League seasons he posted 122 victories.
Marino won 145 games in the minors and 30 in the majors during a 17-year career.

By the time he died January 30, 1981 at age 60, Marino also was battling diabetes and heart disease. He asked his friends to continue the luncheons and raise money to buy baseball equipment for kids.   “If you don’t do all of that, I’m going to haunt you bastards,” he said. “You’re gonna be sitting around and feel a little flick behind your ears. When you do, you’ll know it’s me, serving you up one of my little knockdown pitches…my little warning.”

Benedetti died in 2005, Restelli in 2006, Strazzullo and Dante Santora in 2012. Nick Gust, the owner of Nick’s restaurant in Rockaway Beach, died December 5, 2013, at the age of 92.  Santora was 96, one of six nonagenarians attending a 2011 luncheon. “We need three more 90 year olds to field a team,” Santora quipped.

Over a 34-year period, Marino Pieretti coached some 10,000 kids in San Francisco, including Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
Over a 34-year period, Marino Pieretti coached some 10,000 kids in San Francisco, including Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.

The Friends of Marino Pieretti meet the third Wednesday of every month at a restaurant in the San Francisco area. “This group represents Marino Pieretti’s spirit,” Benedetti said.

“Marino had a heart of gold,” added Ernie Golding, one of Marino’s many friends. “He was a giver.”

Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club and a Friends of Marino Pieretti honoree, pays tribute to the group with the following poem honed and polished by Rob “Korn King” Kennedy, the prince of limericks:

 

 

 

It was just before Christmas and all through Nick’s Rockaway
Old timers were reminiscing about baseball in the city by the Bay.
A half-century ago there were the Oaks and the Seals,
Nobody had heard of Barry Bonds, A-Rod or multi-million dollar deals.

 Every month they gather to honor Marino “Chick” Pieretti,
A man who was as Italian as ravioli and spaghetti.
Born in Lucca, Italy, and raised in North Beach,
Marino thought nothing was beyond his reach.

He played baseball well into the night
Then dreamt about it till dawn’s early light
“You stupid American,” his mother’s voice boomed off the walls,
“Play with your balls instead of all those baseballs.”

At 5-7, 153 pounds, the Seals said he was too small,
So Chick won 14 games for Washington to show them all.
What he lacked in size, he made up for with guile and guts,
An occasional fastball that knocked batters on their butts.

 In their bright green jackets, the old timers were like schoolboys,
Eating Nick’s rack of lamb, drinking wine and making lots of noise.
Frank Strazzullo, the emcee, was battling cancer and not too sturdy:
“Listen up! Let’s go, I’ve got a hot date at 1:30.”

 Nobody could hear Frank so he had to yell,
“While I’m on this earth, I’m going to give you some hell!”
The motto of Pieretti’s friends is the will to live,
Inspired by Marino, there’s also a will to give.

Marino loved teaching kids how to play the game
Fundamentals and discipline – they were his aim.
He gave away caps, uniforms, gloves and shoes,
And instilled a burning desire never to lose.

“If I had to pick a Mr. Baseball, it would be Marino Pieretti,”
Offered his long-time friend, Dante Benedetti.
He was at Crocker Amazon Park all the time
Coaching thousands of kids, loving the dirt and the grime.

 And, then, doctors said he had the Big Three:
Cancer… heart disease…diabetes – how could that be?
Marino stopped eating, locking himself in his room,
Until Frank and Dante came calling with a wide-brimmed broom.

“If you’re going to die,” they said, “let’s die happy.
Let’s go to Nick’s, and make it snappy.”
They ate and drank until they were merry
Laughing so hard at bawdy jokes it was scary.

Ex-Yankee Rugger Ardizoia came, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, too
The luncheons got bigger and louder, much like a zoo.
I feel lousy but not as lousy as you look,”
Marino joked as his weakened body shook.

San Francisco named a ball field after Chick
At Crocker Amazon Park, not far from Candlestick.
A mural there features Marino in a ‘56 Angels cap,
His game face is on and he’s takin’ no crap.

A local politico promised the park would be the best
So at the dedication ceremony Marino put him to the test.
If the field ever suffered from neglect and blight,
He’d come down with a flashlight, ready to fight.

Nearly 33 years have passed since Marino died,
The luncheons roll on like an ocean’s full tide.
Money is raised so young boys can play
Like the grand game ‘back in the day’.

There were no earrings or necklaces, no Fancy Dan stuff
Kids came ready to play and sometimes it got rough.
Everybody had a nickname – Niggy, Potatohead and, of course, Chick,
Pity the poor kid named plain ol’ Rick or Dick.

The green jacket is a symbol of Marino’s fighting spirit,
It’s not for hanging in a closet ‘cause you’re so proud to wear it.
It also serves as a reminder that Marino is on your back,
Putting a bug in your ear to never give up and just stay on track.

 To find out more about sandlot baseball in the Bay Area, check out the Good Old Sandlot Days website:  http://www.goodoldsandlotdays.com/

************************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Great, Good and the Ugly

1172512_10152129091943083_386832849_o
Author Gaylon White displays baseball signed by the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.  (Photo by Alan Lee)

The three autographed baseballs are a throwback to the past when baseball cards were five cents a pack and sports memorabilia was treasured for its sentimental value, not financial. They belonged to Raymond “Moe” Bauer, a left-handed relief pitcher for the 1955 and 1956 Los Angeles Angels and 1957 Portland Beavers. The baseballs are signed by most of the players on the teams and, based on their on-field performance, represent the great, good and the ugly of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The gem of the trio is a baseball signed by Steve Bilko and his ’56 Angel teammates, PCL champs and arguably the last great minor league team. Fittingly, the signatures of Bilko and George Freese are next to each other. They roomed together on road trips and after home games they relaxed in the Wrigley Field clubhouse whirlpool swilling bottles of beer. “Steve loved his beer,” George said. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.”

The ’56 Angels won 107 games to run away with the PCL championship.
The ’56 Angels won 107 games to run away with the PCL championship.

The ’55 Angels tied for third-place, a solid pitching staff complementing the power hitting of Bilko and James “Buzz” Clarkson.  In addition to the two sluggers, the ’55 Angels baseball features the autographs of Jim Brosnan, Don Elston, Omar “Turk” Lown, Joe Hatten and Emory “Bubba” Church. Brosnan and Elston won 17 games apiece and Lown 12 with a miniscule 2.13 earned run average (ERA). All of them went on to star in the majors as relief pitchers. Hatten and Church were 11 game winners. Both had success in the majors prior to joining the Angels, Hatten notching 17 victories for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and Church 15 for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1951.

George Piktuzis appeared in only two games in the majors but his autograph on the ’55 ball is worth noting because of a no-hitter he tossed against the San Francisco Seals July 21, 1955. Before hurting his arm, the 23-year-old Piktuzis was the talk of the league. “The kid looks like he’s been pitching for 20 years,” said Bill Sweeney, manager of the Angels at the time.  “He’s the best mound prospect I’ve seen in the Pacific Coast League in many a season,” added Lefty O’Doul, manager of the Oakland Oaks.  After flailing futilely at Pik’s pitches, veteran Oaks slugger Joe Brovia muttered, “I’d like to have that kid’s left arm; he’s gonna make a lot of money with it.”

Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson are seated next to each other (second row, far left) in this team photo of the 1955 Angels.  (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson are seated next to each other (second row, far left) in this team photo of the 1955 Angels. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

 

Clarkson, called Buzz by the L.A. media and fans, signed as “Bus” – short for Buster, his middle name.

In early 1957 when the Dodgers announced they were relocating from Brooklyn to L.A. the next year, the Beavers replaced the Angels as the Chicago Cubs’ Coast League affiliate. Signatures for Bauer, Freese, Casey Wise and Bob Thorpe grace both the ’56 Angels and ’57 Beavers balls.

1955 Angels baseball with autographs of Jack Warner, a coach; Piper Davis; Buzz Clarkson; Joe Hatten; Bubba Church, Steve Bilko and Jim Brosnan.
1955 Angels baseball with autographs of Jack Warner, a coach; Piper Davis; Buzz Clarkson; Joe Hatten; Bubba Church, Steve Bilko and Jim Brosnan.

As great as the ’56 Angels were in winning 107 games, the ’57 Beavers were ugly, losing 108 games to finish 41 games behind first-place San Francisco.

“Oh, God, it was an awful team,” said Wise. “When they sent me out from Chicago, I really had a bad attitude. I thought, ‘I finally made it and now I’m with this bad team.’”

“It was terrible,” agreed Eddie Winceniak, a shortstop for the ’55 Angels and the ’57 Beavers. “This guy was going somewhere, the next guy somewhere else. And we were getting guys that were just, you could say, out of the sandlot. That’s how bad it got.”

 

After posting a 6-1 record and 3.16 ERA for the ’56 Angels, Bauer had a 4-4 mark and 4.15 ERA for the Beavers.

The Angels had high hopes for lefty George Piktuzis after he tossed a no-hitter in 1955. Gene Mauch and Gale Wade also starred for the ’55 Angels.
The Angels had high hopes for lefty George Piktuzis after he tossed a no-hitter in 1955. Gene Mauch and Gale Wade also starred for the ’55 Angels.

Bill Posedel, a former pitcher for the Boston Braves and chief warrant officer in the U.S. Navy, managed the Beavers most of the season. “His concept was that everybody was in the ballgame regardless of whether they played or not,” said Bauer.  “And after a loss, you need to examine yourself to find out how you contributed to that loss. We lost over 100 games. That’s a lot of time after a ballgame to sit in front of your locker with your head in your hands, trying to figure out in the next 10-to-15 minutes how you contributed to the loss when you didn’t even get in the game.  I spent a whole lot of time doing self-examination on games I didn’t even play in.”

Portland was not a place ex-Angels wanted to be in 1957.
Portland was not a place ex-Angels wanted to be in 1957.

 

The three autographed baseballs are a slice of baseball history slowly disappearing into the past. Most of all, they are a reminder of the talented players who made PCL the grandest and greatest minor league of them all.

 

 

 

 

 

***************************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Of Bilko, Konerko and Wilhelm

“You know who reminds me of Steve Bilko?”

Dean Chance_Topps_1962Asking the question was Dean Chance, winner of 128 major-league games and the Cy Young Award in 1964 when he led the American League in wins (20), innings pitched (278 1/3) and earned run average (1.65), the latter still a record for the Angels franchise. Chance was 20 years old when he made his big league debut in 1961.  He won 14 games for the Angels the following year, Bilko’s last in the majors.

“Paul Konerko,” Chance continued. “Same type of swing; same motion. I’ll bet he has close to 400 home runs.”

Konerko has 434 home runs in a 17-year career that’s still going. Bilko belted 76 homers in the majors but he played regularly only in 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals when he swatted 21 round-trippers.

Steve Bilko started at first base in 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals – the only time he was an everyday player in the majors. (Author’s collection)
Steve Bilko started at first base in 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals – the only time he was an everyday player in the majors. (Author’s collection)

Like Bilko, Konerko is right handed and plays first base. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Konerko is an inch taller and 10-to-80 pounds lighter than Bilko who parried questions about his weight with a pat answer: “Somewhere between 230 and 300 pounds.”  Even Steve’s wife, Mary, ducked the question. “Why I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs,” Mrs. Bilko told one prying reporter. “The papers said he ‘trimmed down to a mere 232.’ But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?”

“I’ll tell you something about Bilko,” Chance said. “He hit Hoyt Wilhelm better than anybody I’ve ever seen. You were screwed when Wilhelm come in with that knuckleball.”

Wilhelm perfected a knuckleball that over 21 major-league seasons (1952-1972) baffled hitters and earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame with 143 wins, 227 saves and a 2.51 earned run average, the lowest of any pitcher with 2,000-plus innings after 1927.

paul-konerko-beyonderstv
Paul Konerko ranks 42nd on the list of top home run hitters of all time with 434

 

Chance and Wilhelm briefly played together for the Baltimore Orioles in 1960.  “After the first day of spring training, I always stood beside him. He threw a knuckleball that damn near tore my nuts off.  With Bilko’s compact swing and the knuckleball…check what he did lifetime against Wilhelm.”

Bilko batted .409 against Wilhelm (9-for-22) with two homers and six runs batted in. The knuckleballer struck out Bilko only once.

WilhelmHoyt1954“I remember most how he hit Hoyt Wilhelm,” Chance recalled. “Nobody else could hit him.

If Bilko played today, Chance was asked, would he hit as many homers as Konerko?

“F… yeah,” he said empathetically.

 

 

 

*************************************

 

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

 

A Season in Paradise

In late March 1956, Mary Bilko met Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jeane Hoffman at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field for an interview. It was Mrs. Bilko’s first visit to L.A. where her husband, Steve, was on his way to becoming a celebrity as big as any in nearby Hollywood.

Steve was making a home run derby of batting practice, but the smog was so dense that it was hard to see the balls flying out of the park.  Jeane apologized for the smog but Mrs. Bilko insisted it was a wonderfully clear day.

“Oh, no, it isn’t,” Jeane said. “On a really clear day, you can see the mountains.”

“You mean,” Mrs. Bilko gasped, “there are mountains here?”

L.A. has mountains that sometimes are snowcapped and there are also hundreds of beaches and vast deserts nearby.  “Where else can you drive to the beach, the mountains and the desert in the same day?” my dad liked to say.

“Man, this is paradise,” he often reminded me after I grew up and left California for the promise of cleaner air and more elbow room in other states.

The author’s father, Rev. Hooper W. White, left Tennessee to find paradise in L.A.
The author’s father, Rev. Hooper W. White, left Tennessee to find an earthly paradise in L.A.

Dad was born some 2,000 miles away in Spring City, Tennessee, a town of about 2,000 people near Chattanooga. Los Angeles was another world and yet he made himself right at home along with thousands of others who migrated from the South and Midwest in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

Long Beach, for example, is a bedroom city to L.A. with a population of about 100,000 in the 1950s. A popular joke was that there were more people from Iowa living in Long Beach than in Iowa. At Rose Bowl games, Big Ten schools had more fans cheering for them than their West Coast opponents.

The people Dad most admired in sports reflected his Tennessee roots and values.

The basketball coach at UCLA was John Wooden, who moved to the school’s Westwood campus in 1948 from Indiana. Under his leadership, UCLA teams captured 10 NCAA championship titles and became a testimonial for Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success philosophy for winning at life and basketball.

Coach Wooden was widely known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” but he wasn’t UCLA’s first Wizard.  That distinction belonged to Henry “Red” Sanders, the football coach who came to UCLA from Vanderbilit  in 1949, transforming the Bruins into a national power in the 1950s.

UCLA football coach Henry “Red” Sanders, right,  with quarterback Ronnie Knox.  Sanders was the original “Wizard of Westwood,” leading the Bruins to an undefeated season in 1954. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/85060/rec/13 )
UCLA football coach Henry “Red” Sanders, right, with quarterback Ronnie Knox. Sanders was the original “Wizard of Westwood,” leading the Bruins to an undefeated season in 1954. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/85060/rec/13 )

Dad grew up on University of Tennessee football and the single-wing offense that its coach, General Robert Neyland, used to build a juggernaut that won four national championships, including back-to-back titles in 1950 and 1951. When Coach Sanders installed the single-wing at UCLA, Dad became a loyal Bruins fan and started taking me to home games at the L.A. Coliseum.

In 1954, the Bruins went undefeated and shared the national championship with Ohio State.

The ‘55 Bruins, led by Sam “First Down” Brown, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound black tailback with electrifying speed, were 9-2 and ranked fourth nationally. For the season, Sam ran for nine touchdowns, piling up 829 yards on 144 carries, a 6.2 average. He was dazzling on kickoff and punt returns, averaging 22.2 yards on kickoffs and 13.8 yards on punts.

Sam “First Down” Brown signed with the Angels in early 1956. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/85060/rec/13)
Sam “First Down” Brown signed with the Angels in early 1956. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/85060/rec/13)

After Sam rushed for 150 yards against the University of Southern California, the Bruins’ cross-town rivals, one L.A. sportswriter wrote: “He was slipperier than a $1 at Las Vegas and more dangerous than King Farouk in a sorority house.”

“Trying to tackle the nimble-footed tailback is something like trying to grab a handful of smog,” another writer observed.

Brown also starred in baseball at UCLA. On February 4, 1956 — two days after my 10th birthday — he signed a contract to play for the Angels. “I always wanted to be a professional baseball player,” Sam said.

“He has enough power to knock a ball a mile,” said Jack Fournier, the Angel scout who signed Sam. “As for his speed, well, he can run with any of them. I’ve followed him for two years and I’m sold on the boy.”

It was a birthday gift from heaven. My favorite football player was now an Angel along with my new baseball heroes, Buzz Clarkson and Steve Bilko. So what if there was smog, I was eagerly awaiting a season in paradise.

******************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

North to Alaska

Gale “Windy” Wade had been down this road before. He was the center-fielder for the Chicago Cubs to open the 1955 and 1956 seasons. Each time he ended up back in the minors with the Los Angeles Angels. The Cubs wanted to see him play the last two weeks of the ’56 season – sort of a dress rehearsal for next year.

1)Ted Tappe / Gale Wade / Jim King:   Gale Wade, middle, at spring training camp with the Cubs in 1956 with Ted Tappe, left, and Jim King, right. (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Gale Wade, middle, at spring training camp with the Cubs in 1956 with Ted Tappe, left, and Jim King, right. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

Gale startled the Cubs by announcing he was going north to Alaska, not Chicago. He was answering the call of the wild, not the Cubs. “I’m goin’ bear huntin’. This may be the only chance that I’ll ever get to bear hunt. I’ve made plans.”

The plans called for Gale and Chuck Connors, a baseball player-turned-actor, to hunt for brown bears in Alaska immediately after the Angels played their final game in mid-September. “I look back on it now and the very fact that I refused to report at the end of the ’56 season put me in pretty bad shape. I signed my death
warrant right there.”

Gale went to spring training with the Cubs in ’57 but was traded to the then Brooklyn Dodgers before the season. He never played in the majors again.  “As I look back on it, there isn’t enough money in baseball they could’ve paid me for what I enjoyed on my trip.”

2)Gale Wade in Alaska: Gale, loaded for bear in Alaska. (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Gale, loaded for bear in Alaska. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

 

The trip had all the stuff of a television adventure show. It started with Connors, who went on to star in The Rifleman, a popular TV western from 1958-1963, backing out at the last minute.  Wade already was in Seattle where they were to meet and fly to Anchorage. He pressed on.

 

On arriving in Anchorage, Gale visited two bars so he could make the connections needed for the big hunt. The bars were located in Spenard near the airport – “the sleaziest part of Anchorage filled with bars, strip joints, liquor stores, and massage parlors,” according to one historical account of the area.

 

Standing outside his home in North Carolina, Gale displays the red pants he wore on his Alaska bear hunt in 1956 . (Photo by author)

“Back then there were only two paved roads in Anchorage,” Gale said. “And I’m telling you what, there were chuckholes all in them. A two-story building might’ve been the tallest in town.

“The bars stayed open 24 hours a day. I’d never seen such drinkin’ in all my life. They’d set a glass down and the guy behind the bar would just pour that thing full of liquor – bourbon. And the ol’ boys would drink it like it was nuthin’.”

One of the bars, Gale recalled, was the Hitching Post. He walked in, plopped down a suitcase full of hunting gear and another case with his .30-06 rifle. “I come up here to kill me a brownie,” he announced.

 

The locals knew all about Wade and the ’56 Angels from radio broadcasts of Seattle Rainiers games they listened to regularly. The Rainiers finished second, 16 ½ games behind the Pacific Coast League champions.  “First thing I knew, damn, I was a celebrity. Lord have mercy.  I had people helping me that really knew what they were doing.”

One of them was a bearded bush pilot. “Looked like he was 60 years old but he was in his 30s.”

The pilot took Gale caribou hunting west of Fairbanks before flying him to Seldovia, a tiny fishing village on the Cook Inlet. “He flew me around and didn’t charge me nuthin’.”

Gale pulled crab pots on a fishing boat for a week in exchange for transport across the Cook Inlet to Square Head Cove, a place where there were no people but plenty of brown bears. He almost didn’t make it there. “We ran into waves that would take the nose of the boat – a 45-footer – straight up and, then, right straight down.”

Gale braced himself in a corner of the cabin. “Have you ever seen it any worse?” he asked the boat’s owner and captain. He hesitated before saying, “Yeah, one time I ran into a storm here off the coast and I ‘wallered’ it out for three days.”

“That’s what he called it – ‘wallering’ it out. Well, that made me feel a little better. At least he lived.  And, by golly, we made it across.”

The captain had told Gale he would hunt with him but at the last minute he changed his mind. “You always hunt with somebody else with another gun because a brownie is hard to bring down. But I couldn’t afford a guide. So I said, ‘By God, I’ll do it alone.’”

Gale took a small boat with an outboard motor into Square Head Cove and then, headed off into the brush.

“I was going up this stream – north towards the mountain. The water is ice cold; lots of salmon in there.”

Where there’s salmon, there are usually bears. “I looked and right on the other side was this brownie, catching these salmon. He’d catch one and, then another.”

Gale is an experienced hunter. “You always shoot big game in the shoulders – break them down and, then, you got ‘em.”

The bear was on the other side of the stream, about 60 feet away. Gale dropped down to one knee and started shooting. “He’d just reached down to get another fish and I caught him right in the shoulder where I wanted to. He rose up on his hind feet so I immediately put two more shots into his shoulders while he’s standing. He’s bitin’ at where they were hittin’ in the shoulders – gruntin’ and growlin’. So I pumped a fourth shot into him.”

One bullet was left in his clip. “I always carried an extra clip on my belt. When I jacked that last bullet into the barrel, I looked down to make real sure I dropped the empty cartridge holder out and the other one in.”

When Gale looked up, the bear was glaring at him. He fired again. “I caught him straight in the neck – right under his jaw. And when that bullet hit him, by golly he went down like he was pole axed.”

Gale skinned the approximately 900 pound bear, keeping only its head.

“When I was shooting, I was very calm. And, then, I reached into my pocket for a cigarette. I couldn’t get the dad-gum cigarette out of the pack. My hand went numb. When I got it in my mouth, my thumb wouldn’t work the lighter. It was from fear, no doubt.”

Gale made it safely back to the fishing boat and eventually to Anchorage where he arranged for a woman to send the bear head to Seattle for mounting as a trophy. She never shipped it, keeping the money Gale gave her and apparently selling the bear head. “The only thing that ever really bothered me about the trip was what that woman done to me.”

The following spring Gale reported for duty with the Cubs, now led by Bob Scheffing, manager of the ’56 Angels.  “I think Bob Scheffing will give me the best chance I’ve had yet,” Gale said at the time.

Gale, far right, was back in L.A. in 1957, along with Steve Bilko, far left, and Elvin Tappe, middle. Also pictured are Bill Heymans, president of the Angels in ’57, and George Goodale, the Angels’ long-time publicist.  (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Gale, far right, was back in L.A. in 1957, along with Steve Bilko, far left, and Elvin Tappe, middle. Also pictured are Bill Heymans, president of the Angels in ’57, and George Goodale, the Angels’ long-time publicist. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

Scheffing believed Wade was ready for the majors and publicly voiced his confidence despite a wobbly start in training camp. “He was the same last year with Los Angeles,” he explained to reporters.  “Wade didn’t look good in the spring, but he got progressively better as the season wore on and he was a good player.”

In late March, Gale was traded to the Dodgers.  He was going back to Los Angeles, now affiliated with the Dodgers, who had already announced they were moving from Brooklyn to L.A. the following year. “I guess Gale is just a minor league ball player,” a disappointed Scheffing said.

Gale proved Scheffing right, spending the rest of his career in the minors. Gale was also right about never getting another chance to hunt brown bear in Alaska. “Like I said, I wouldn’t have traded all the money in baseball for that trip.”

******************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Angel Annie, the Voice of Wrigley Field

Her real name was Roberta King but she was best known as “Angel Annie.” She had a shouting voice described as “somewhere between a police siren and a dynamite explosion,” earning her the nicknames of “The Voice of Wrigley Field,”  “The Human Siren” and “The Screech.”

Angel Annie was an avid fan with her own fan club. (Courtesy Bobby Talbot)
Angel Annie was an avid fan with her own fan club. (Courtesy Bobby Talbot)

Over a 35-year period Angel Annie attended approximately 5,000 games at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field and other Pacific Coast League ballparks in Hollywood, San Diego and Oakland. This prompted Los Angeles Angel president Don Stewart to remark at the end of the 1954 season: “When she fails to show up, we’ll know we’ve had it.”

Stewart and Angel Annie wouldn’t be around to find out as he had a fatal heart attack in September 1954, four months before the 87-year-old Angel Annie died of cancer the following January. “I’ve been hollarin’ since I was born and I won’t quit till I die,” she said.

One can only imagine Angel Annie whoopin’ and hollarin’ over the 202 home runs Steve Bilko and his “Bilko Athletic Club” teammates hit in 1956.  An earplug has yet to be invented that could’ve protected fans from Angel Annie’s blood-curdling screams that she sometimes used away from the ballpark to stop traffic. “I just stand on the corner and let out one big yell as loud as I can. Everything stops. Then I can walk across the street easy.”

“She could really howl,” recalled Bobby Talbot, centerfielder for the Angels from 1951-53 and the beginning of the 1955 season.

“She was always out there rooting for her dear Angels,” said Bobby Usher, who played for L.A. from 1952-55.  “She wore an Angel cap and the buttons of all the teams in the league and where she’d been for the playoffs – the whole bit. She was a very nice lady.”

Angel Annie spoke highly of Usher, too. “Bobby Usher is as good an outfielder as they will ever have,” she said in a Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram story published shortly before she died.

“She is almost a complete mystery, and the stories circulated about her are for the most part false,” the newspaper reported.

One of those stories attributed Angel Annie’s fanaticism to a crippled son who wanted to be a baseball player. Another said she never missed Angel games because of a pledge to a dying boy. “But the most common misbelief is that there is an alliance between Angel Annie and the Los Angeles Baseball Club front office.”

Angel Annie pooh-poohed this, claiming she paid for tickets like any other fan – $4,000 altogether, she estimated. “I’ve been watching baseball since I was a little gal of 15 back in Mississippi and I never saw a team I enjoyed watching as much as the Angels of the past few years.”

When fans found out Angel Annie didn’t have a lifetime pass to attend games free, they made up a chant that they shouted with Angel Annie-like intensity at the front gate as she prepared to enter the ballpark. “Get a pass for Angel Annie, or we’ll kick you in the pants,” they chanted. “Get a pass for Angel Annie, or we’ll kick you in the pants.”

******************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The House Bilko & Buzz Bombed

The two-story apartment house is still standing, now enclosed by a tall white wrought iron fence.  More wrought iron protects the front doors. The windows are unprotected except for two trees in the front yard. Good thing Steve Bilko and James “Buzz” Clarkson are no longer launching missiles from Wrigley Field across the street.

 

1)House on 41st Place, Los Angeles:  All eyes focused on this house when Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson came to bat at L.A.’s Wrigley Field. (Photo by author)
All eyes focused on this house when Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson came to bat at L.A.’s Wrigley Field. (Photo by author)

The house on 41st Place in Los Angeles was bombarded by so many home run balls that  near the end of the 1956 season, Los Angeles Times columnist Ned Cronin observed, “The day is near when no tour of the city would be complete without riding past this spot and pointing to it as one of the outstanding landmarks of Los Angeles.”

Bilko and Buzz teamed to sock 50 homers in 1955. After Buzz was released in early ‘56, Bilko belted 55 on his own. He blasted 56 in 1957.

“No one would dream of sitting down for dinner without wearing a fielder’s glove,” the Times’ Cronin wrote of the house. “Never could tell when a line drive would make a 17-cushion billiard shot off the walls and smoke up the tablecloth in the process. Made it a little unhandy for delicate knife and fork work, but it was in the best interests of self-defense.”

The shot that caused the biggest stir was a Buzz bomb that ripped a hole through the front door. “Whatta wallop,” proclaimed a caption below Los Angeles Examiner photos of Buzz swinging and another with an artist’s arrow tracing the path of the ball from home plate to the house’s battered door being examined by kids. “The residents poured out all the exits looking for enemy aircraft,” the newspaper reported.

This Buzz bomb was big news in the Los Angeles Examiner.
This Buzz bomb was big news in the Los Angeles Examiner.

On his arrival in L.A., the L.A. Times reported: “Clarkson, drafted from Dallas, is of uncertain antiquity. He lists himself as 36 – with number 37 coming up next Sunday – but some folks insist the man is in his early 40s. Buzz apparently is the Jack Benny of baseball when it comes to counting backward.”

“He was on Social Security even then,” quipped Ed Mickelson, first baseman for the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League who also played against Buzz in the Texas League.

Buzz had a “cup of coffee” with the Boston Braves in 1952. (Author’s collection)
Buzz had a “cup of coffee” with the Boston Braves in 1952. (Author’s collection)

Like many players coming out of the old Negro Leagues, Buzz shaved off a few years so he had a better shot at the majors. He was actually three years older than he admitted. Buzz made a cameo appearance in the big leagues with the Boston Braves in 1952, getting five hits in 25 at bats for a .200 average. “The only thing against him is his age, which is indeterminable,” one reporter wrote, adding, “he can hit and he can play short” and “with his tendency to show off in numerous and wonderful ways, he’s going to pull in some customers.”

Buzz spent the next two years in the Class AA Texas League, smashing 18 homers for Dallas in 1953 and a combined 42 for Beaumont and Dallas in 1954.

Dave Hillman, the ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff,  and Jim Fanning, a catcher for the Angels in ’55 and part of ’56,  played with Buzz at Beaumont before the slugger was traded to Dallas.

Hillman had to stand on the pitcher’s mound sixty feet, six inches away from Buzz at home plate.  “You could see sawdust coming out of that bat when he hit the ball. He’d hit ‘em and the third baseman would just quiver.”

Fanning recalled the sound of the ball hitting Buzz’ bat. “In batting practice or even a game, you’d hear all these cracks and you knew right away who was hitting.  It had something to do with the way he held the bat when he made contact.  It had a different kind of crack to it.”

When Buzz joined the Angels in ’55, Bill Sweeney was the manager. One day during spring training, Sweeney asked a sportswriter sitting nearby, “Have you seen that man swish a bat?”

“Everything Buzz hit was a line drive,” the writer wrote. “Rival third basemen checked their premiums when he stepped in…”

Sweeney told another reporter: “There’s no way of telling how hard Buzz busts that ball. But I’ll say this…nobody around Wrigley Field has hit it any harder for a long, long time.”

Buzz batted cleanup in a star-studded Santurce Crabbers lineup consisting, left to right, of Willie Mays; Roberto Clemente; Buzz; Bob Thurman and George Crowe. (Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)
Buzz batted cleanup in a star-studded Santurce Crabbers lineup consisting, left to right, of Willie Mays; Roberto Clemente; Buzz; Bob Thurman and George Crowe. (Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)

Buzz played winter ball throughout his career. He was player-manager for the Santurce Crabbers in the 1954-55 season, guiding them to Puerto Rico’s national title and the Caribbean Series championship. Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, future Hall of Famers, played on the same team but Buzz batted in the clean-up spot.

In addition to Buzz and Bilko, the Angels had John Pramesa, a 6-foot-2, 210 pound catcher who hit .294 and 11 homers for L.A. in 1954.

This inspired L.H. Gregory, a sports columnist for The Oregonian, to write: “The Los Angeles infield is one of the most awesome sights in baseball, with three of the heaviest, heftiest, strongest and hardest-hitting men in baseball manning the defensive corners like bastions in a fortress…”

“Steve Bilko is the widest man across the chest and shoulders we ever laid eyes on. He’s enormous. We had heard he was inclined to fatness; in fact, he ate himself off the St. Louis Cardinals one season. If so, he’s not fat now, but just so huge as to inspire with awe. His arms are about the size of an ordinary man’s thighs. His chest is 48, his waistline a ‘perfect 39’ but flat as a board.”

 Slugging Seraphs, left to right: Buzz Clarkson; John Pramesa; and Steve Bilko. (Author’s collection)
Slugging Seraphs, left to right: Buzz Clarkson; John Pramesa; and Steve Bilko. (Author’s collection)

Of the 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pound Buzz, Gregory wrote: “Alongside the average ball player, he’s like a squatty railroad gondola car in the company of sleek aluminum-colored coaches but he hits a ball perhaps as hard as any living player. Big Clarkson has a pair of hands that clamp on anything he can reach, and a flip throw from a flat-footed stance that gets across the diamond surprisingly.”

“I can throw hard, and do when necessary,” Buzz explained. “But there’s no use in hurrying a throw. Just get it there in time to retire the batter. Saves wear and tear on the arm, too.”

Buzz played third base for the Angels but shortstop was his position earlier in his career. “He got to the ball, kind of flat footed, tossed it to first,” Fanning said. “Usually got the out; always a bang-bang play.”

“He was smart,” Angel centerfielder Gale Wade said of Buzz. “And he played a smart third base. He probably played better than a lot of younger, quicker guys because he shifted according to the hitters. And that’s the key.”

Buzz was batting .305 with five homers and 13 runs batted in when he slipped on Wrigley Field’s wet infield while fielding a bunt. He broke a bone in his left foot, putting him out of action for seven weeks. He returned to slam eight more homers, including the missile that ripped the hole in the door of the house on 41st Place.

“He called everybody Road because I don’t think he knew their names,” Fanning said.

That’s fitting as Buzz spent 1956, his last as a player, on the road, starting in L.A., stopping briefly at Tulsa in the Texas League and winding up at Des Moines in the Western League. Don Swanson pitched for all three teams and saw most of Buzz’ 18 home runs that year.  “Buzz could hit the ball as hard as ever,” Swanson said. “He was just born too soon.”

******************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

All Screwed Up

The Los Angeles Angels were a farm club of the Chicago Cubs but based on their performance in 1956, you could make a strong case that the Angels belonged in the big leagues and Cubs in the minors.

 The Angels dominated the Pacific Coast League (PCL) – the highest of the minor leagues in the 1950s – by winning 107 games and finishing 16 games ahead of runner-up Seattle. Steve Bilko piled up Babe Ruth-type numbers in home runs (55); batting average (.360) and runs batted in (164) to win the Triple Crown and earn Minor League Player of the Year honors. Five of his teammates belted 20 or more homers and three topped 100 RBIs. As a team, the Angels batted an amazing .297.

46_Ex-Angels_Freese+Bolger+Wise+Scheffing_rw
L-R, ex-Angels George Freese, Jim Bolger, Casey Wise and Bob Scheffing. (Courtesy George Freese)

The Cubs, meanwhile, finished in the National League cellar with a decade-worst 60-94 record. They finished so far behind the first-place Dodgers, a telescope was needed to see them. The keystone combination of Ernie Banks at shortstop and Gene Baker at second base was all that prevented the Cubs from being mistaken for the Keystone Kops.

“The Cubs’ success and reputation is built on their failure,” said Bill Adams, former executive director of the San Diego Hall of Champions.

That failure had its genesis in the late 1940s and 1950s when the Cubs finished last or next-to-last in the National League seven times.

Bilko was traded to the Cubs by the St. Louis Cardinals early in the 1954 season. The year before he had 21 homers and 84 RBIs – the kind of numbers expected of him when he was a 20-year-old rookie with the Cardinals in 1949.

“When I went to the Cubs, I didn’t believe it,” Bilko recalled. “The only thing I found out there was how many different ways you could lose a game.”

Steve Bilko played sparingly for Cubs in 1954
Steve Bilko played sparingly for Cubs in 1954. (Author’s collection)

Like many of the ’56 Angels, Bilko was a Cubs castoff. Gale Wade was the opening day centerfielder for the Cubs in 1955 and 1956 before being sent to L.A. Outfielders Bob Speake and Jim Bolger spent the entire 1955 season with the Cubs. Second-baseman Gene Mauch, shortstop Richie Myers and catchers Elvin Tappe and Jim Fanning were ex-Cubs as well as pitchers Dave Hillman, Hy Cohen, Bob Thorpe, Johnny Briggs, Harry Perkowski and Dwight “Red” Adams.

“In those days, we had one-a-comin’, one-a-playin’ and one-a-goin’,” said Speake, who belted 25 homers for the ’56 Angels. “But on that team, you didn’t feel the pressure of one-a-comin’.”

“That particular year all seems like a dream to me,” said Hillman, the ’56 Angels pitching ace with 21 wins. “Everybody was focused.  They knew what they were going to do, what they had to do and they went out and did it. And they did it as a team.  It’s a dream to me. It was a dream team.”

Speake, Hillman and Wade were reminiscing about the 1956 season at a fast-food restaurant in the mountains of North Carolina. Forty-six years had passed but the memories were vivid and pleasant.

“Remember how relaxed we were?” asked Wade, the team’s centerfielder who hit 20 homers in only 101 games. “We might go down three to nothing or something like that. Not one time did we ever dream that we’d even lose the game. We just sat in the dugout laughing. We knew somebody was going to get on and somebody was going to pop one out of there.”

“I still believe this and I will ‘til the day I die,” Hillman began. “If they had left us alone as a ball club in ‘57, and added a little spice here and there – a pinch hitter and a few extra pitchers – I’m confident that we could’ve won in the National League.”

“We could’ve beaten the Cubs,” Wade said.

“We could’ve beaten Pittsburgh,” Hillman added. “We could’ve beaten Cincinnati. We could’ve beaten a few others.”

“Dave,” said Speake, “off that ballclub in ’56, there were you, Drott [Dick Drott], Anderson [Bob Anderson], me and Bolger.  We went up to the Cubs in ’57 with great expectations. And then it started to be a parade of players. They just seemed to come in and go around. There wasn’t any continuity to the ball club.”

In L.A., Bob Scheffing and John Holland teamed to build the Angels first championship team in nine years. The Cubs were counting on them to do the same in Chicago, tabbing Scheffing to manage the ’57 Cubs and Holland to assemble the talent as a vice president.

At the press conference announcing his appointment for the ’57 season, Scheffing said, “The only reason I’m here is because 21 players did a helluva job for me at Los Angeles.”

Gene Mauch and  Charlie “Jolly Cholly” Grimm when the latter managed the Cubs in 1948. (Author’s collection)
Gene Mauch and Charlie “Jolly Cholly” Grimm when the latter managed the Cubs in 1948. (Author’s collection)

Holland joined a Cubs front office that already had two vice presidents – Charlie Grimm and Clarence “Pants” Rowland.

Like many of the players, Holland worked his way up the Cubs organization.

“The farm club is the lifeblood of any ball club, but I don’t believe that any ball club can be built successfully entirely from the farm system,” he said on becoming a Cubs VP. “We’re going to make changes because baseball is built on changes.”

Thirteen regulars who were on the Cubs roster to end the 1956 season were gone a month into the following season. A league-high 45 players came and went in 1957.

“It’s getting so that you can’t tell a Cub player even with yesterday’s scorecard,” a sportswriter quipped.

Complicating matters was a power struggle in the front office among the three vice presidents. The Sporting News quoted one player as saying: “Can anybody please tell me who is the boss of the show? I signed my contract with Holland and I’m taking orders from Scheffing. That’s the way it should be, but every time I look up there’s both Grimm and Rowland hanging around.”

Grimm, a long-time Cub manager, friend and confidant of team owner, P.K. Wrigley, was really running the show. And banjo-playing “Jolly Cholly” preferred veterans over home-grown talent such as shortstops Casey Wise and Eddie Winceniak.

“He [Grimm] was behind the scenes, calling the shots,” said Winceniak, an infielder who was sent to Portland after batting .240 in 17 games. “Holland knew more about us and yet he didn’t have that much power. If John would’ve had the final say, I would’ve been able to stay up there. And Casey probably would’ve stayed, too, because we were teammates in Des Moines under Holland.”

One of the six Angels gone before the ’57 season started was George Freese. Holland broke the news to the third baseman who slugged 22 homers and 113 RBIs for the Angels the year before.  “George,” Holland said, “you had a really good year against Portland. They really want you. So we’re going to send you to Portland.”

When the Dodgers announced their move from Brooklyn to L.A. in early 1957, the Portland Beavers became the Cubs’ PCL affiliate while the Dodgers linked up with the Angels .

“Hell, I didn’t come here to make the Portland ball club,” George snapped.

“It surprised the heck out of me,” Freese said. “I knew that I wasn’t the greatest fielder but I had a hellacious spring training.”

The frustration of the players was best expressed by Bob McKee, a rookie infielder. “I can’t understand this organization,” he said. “They say they are rebuilding, yet I’m being sent to Portland after playing just seven innings.  During that time, I got two hits, one to tie a game and the other to win one. That doesn’t add up to very much of a chance in my book. Especially after I was told everybody was going to receive a full shot. Had I been given that opportunity and they didn’t think I could cut it, then I’d go away feeling a lot better than I do now.”

The Cubs started the ’57 season by losing 12 of their first 15 games. They didn’t win a home game until the sixth week of the season. They were 26-46 at the all-star break in July and finished 62-92 – two wins more than 1956.

Fans stayed away from Wrigley Field. If they went out on the rooftops of the houses overlooking the playing field, it was to contemplate jumping off, not to watch a game. Attendance dropped to 670,629, the fifth straight year the Cubs failed to reach the one million mark. Dick Littlefield, a widely-traveled pitcher, checked the crowd before one game and said, “Guess nobody put it in the newspapers that I was pitching today. I know I’ve got more friends than the size of this crowd – and they’d all be here if they knew I was pitching.”

Holland and Scheffing later acknowledged the chaos they created.

Dave Hillman was 4-8 for the Cubs in ‘57 after winning 21 games for the ’56 Angels. (George Brace Photos)
Dave Hillman was 4-8 for the Cubs in ‘57 after winning 21 games for the ’56 Angels. (George Brace Photos)

“We can’t do that again,” Holland said the following spring. “A club can’t afford to keep making changes after the season opens.  Last year it was the only thing we could do because we had ripped the roster apart.”

“We were making so many changes last year that we virtually went through three spring training periods,” Scheffing said. “The ball club which started the season was entirely different from that one with which we opened spring training. And then the team was shuffled around quite a bit more later on when we made several trades that brought us new material.”

One of the players Holland and Scheffing never called was Bilko. When Steve played for them in L.A., they promised him a chance with the Cubs if they had the opportunity to get him.   “When John Holland was going up to the Cubs, he told me and a lot of people, in front of my wife, that he was getting the job because what we did for him,” Bilko said. “We’d made him a winner and stuff like that. Any chance he’d have at all to get me on his ball club, he’d do so. But it never happened.”

Bilko belonged to the Angels in ’57 and if the Dodgers wanted him for the majors, they had to purchase his contract like any other team. The Cubs had used all their options on Steve so they couldn’t acquire him unless every other team in the National League took a pass.

“I wanted them to take me up there,” Bilko said, “give me a shot – at least two or three weeks. And if I don’t do well up there in that park, do what you want. I thought I really deserved a shot to go to Chicago and play a full season.”

Bilko wound up playing for four more teams in the majors but not the Cubs.

“Up here they separate the men from the boys,” Holland admitted after returning several of his Angel stars to the minors.

The Cubs shuttled 10 players back and forth at third base; six at second base; five at shortstop; and four at first base. Seven players took turns in centerfield. “They’ve made so many changes that the guys are all afraid they’ll be gone if they have a bad day,” Winceniak said after being demoted to Portland.

When Wise, a switch-hitter, got bogged down in a slump, Scheffing told him to give it up and swing only from the right side.

“I always played better when I had a manager that believed in me,” Wise said. “When I knew they were waiting for me to screw up, I screwed up.”

That aptly describes the Cubs in the 1950s – screwed up.

******************************

The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Sing One for the Cowboy Catcher

On opening day of the Los Angeles Angels’ 1956 season Joe Hannah caught both games of a day-night doubleheader and became the father of a baby boy – Lon.  The season concluded with Joe singing and strumming “Empty Saddles in the Oat Bin” as part of an impromptu show the Angels players staged for fans.

The Sons of the San Joaquin: left to right, Lon, Jack and Joe Hannah
The Sons of the San Joaquin: left to right, Lon, Jack and Joe Hannah

The significance of these two seemingly unrelated events is that Joe, his younger brother, Jack, and Lon formed a popular singing group, The Sons of the San Joaquin, harmonizing beautifully on cowboy songs written by Jack, once a top pitching prospect for the Milwaukee Braves. The trio has recorded a saddlebag full of CDs and attracted a devoted following for their music inspired by The Sons of the Pioneers. “Jack and I just sang for fun,” Joe said. “Lon talked us into giving it a try professionally.”

Dwight “Red” Adams, a journeyman pitcher for the ’56 Angels, recalled Joe singing on the bus when the team traveled to nearby San Diego and back. “We knew he could sing a little, but, I at least, had no idea he had this exceptional talent.”

Early in the ‘56 season, Joe, then 24, was L.A.’s starting catcher. He was batting around .300 and doing a solid job defensively when the Angels acquired veteran Elvin Tappe from the Chicago Cubs in late May and immediately put him in the lineup. “It came as a jolt to me because I was one of these guys that had this impression that a person had to win his job,” Joe said. “Don’t get me wrong. I was never angry about it. But I was hurt. I was doing well. The pitchers were pitching good to me. The team was winning. And all of a sudden, I’m playing the second game of doubleheaders. I really was brokenhearted.”

Joe didn’t show his disappointment. “I can picture him now,” Adams said. “Every time you looked at him, he was grinning.  He saw the humor in everything. You couldn’t find a better guy for the role he played.”

Joe played in 93 of the Angels’ 168 games, batting .272 with one home run and 33 RBIs.

Except for a spring training trial with the Cubs in 1955, Joe never made it to the big leagues. In 1963, at age 31, he quit baseball to get a degree in music and education at Fresno State University. He went on to teach music and coach baseball in Visalia, California, for 21 years before retiring in 1987.

Enter The Sons of the San Joaquin.  At a family gathering to celebrate their father’s 85th birthday, Joe and Jack teamed with Lon to sing Sons of the Pioneers favorites. “We just loved their songs,” Joe recalled. “They were of the outdoors. They were of cowboys. Our early years in California, we lived up against the Sierra Nevada mountain range east of Visalia. I went to school in a little town called Elderwood. Cowboys would drive cattle in front of my school there.  Shoot, we were just cowboys.”

The family songfest led to the creation of The Sons of the San Joaquin and the blending of two great American traditions – cowboys and baseball. “It was baseball and cowboys,” Jack said of their childhood. “And there’s a great parallel there.”

The Hannah brothers were fans of the famous baseball players and cowboys of their time – from Bob Feller and brothers Mort and Walker Cooper in baseball to cowboys such as Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger.  “It had to do with a way of life and the character that was built in me through playing the game and mimicking these guys, impersonating them,” added Jack.

Joe Hannah, right, with veteran catcher Clyde McCullough at Cubs spring training camp in 1956
Joe Hannah, right, with veteran catcher Clyde McCullough at Cubs spring training camp in 1956

Joe and Jack were talking with Rich “Goose” Gossage, the Hall of Fame pitcher, in the lobby bar of a downtown Fort Worth, Texas, hotel after a baseball banquet honoring the brothers with an award for their community work as well as their baseball careers. Gossage was a guest speaker.

“We dream of being musicians,” Gossage quipped, adding he liked to sing in the shower. “You all dream of being baseball players.”

 

Carroll Berringer, a minor-league pitcher for 13 years before he coached 18 years in the majors, once asked Jack: “Anybody throw harder than you?”

“Nobody,” he replied.

Jack taught Charley Pride, the country music singer, how to play the guitar when they were at spring training with the major-league Angels in 1961. Pride pitched in the Negro Leagues and briefly in the lower minors. “He wanted to play my guitar but I wasn’t going to let him borrow my Martin,” Jack told Gossage. “I taught him the C chord.”

Jack was still bothered by a sore throwing arm; Charley had other problems. “You couldn’t hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle,” Steve Bilko chided Charley playfully.

Gossage pitched against Henry Aaron, Al Kaline and other baseball greats in a career that spanned from 1972-1994. He takes pride in being a throwback to the golden era of the 1950s when Joe and Jack played. “The innocence of the game is gone,” Goose said. “A lot of guys are playing for the money and they are playing for the wrong reason.”

The Hannah boys and Rich “Goose” Gossage – left to right, Lon; Jack; Goose; and Joe.
The Hannah boys and Rich “Goose” Gossage – left to right, Lon; Jack; Goose; and Joe.

The Hannah brothers played for the love of the game. Free agency and the big bucks didn’t come until 1975, long after their careers were over.

“I didn’t hit all that well except the last two years and nobody remembers it except me,” Joe said.

After hitting .298 with eight home runs and 56 RBIs for Hawaii in 1962, Joe fantasized calling Gene Mauch, second baseman for the ’56 Angels, to tell him, “I can hit now.”

Joe never called. “All I ever wanted to do was play in the major leagues. When I didn’t get a chance, I lost all interest in baseball.”

There’s a song there somewhere. Perhaps Jack can tweak a song he wrote, adding a word to the end of the title: “Sing One for the Cowboy Catcher.”

Visit the Sons of the San Joaquin website

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book published by Rowman & Littlefield about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The book features a delightful foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Ballpark That Got No Respect

It was the first ballpark to be named Wrigley Field but, if remembered at all, it’s usually as “the other Wrigley Field.” That’s fitting because the original Wrigley Field in Los Angeles was always overshadowed by the one in Chicago.

Wrigley Field was home to the PCL Angels from 1925-57 and the big league Angels in 1961. (Courtesy Dave Hillman)
Wrigley Field was home to the PCL Angels from 1925-57 and the big league Angels in 1961. (Courtesy Dave Hillman)

The L.A. Wrigley was called the “finest baseball park in the universe” when it was opened in 1925 by William K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and owner of both the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

“Wrigley put no limit on the expense in building it,” the Sporting News observed. “It was not his desire, however, to make it a better plant than the one the Cubs, his other club, use in Chicago but that has been done. Cub park is an excellent one, but the Angels have a better one.”

The lavish praise didn’t last as L.A.’s Wrigley Field wound up being put down and passed over more times than any minor leaguer that played there.  It was demolished in 1969 and if ballparks could talk, its last words would’ve been Rodney Dangerfield’s catchphrase: “I don’t get no respect.”

The same architect who created Cubs Park and the White Sox’ Comiskey Park in Chicago designed Wrigley Field in L.A. On instructions from Wrigley, Zachary Taylor Davis made the L.A. park like the one in Chicago both as it existed in 1925 and how Wrigley wanted it to be. Cubs Park was renamed Wrigley Field the next year and eventually expanded to its current seating capacity of 41,159. Lights were added in L.A. in 1930 and night baseball was played there 58 years before Chicago’s Wrigley.

A Los Angeles Daily Times story titled, NEW DIAMOND, BUILT BY GUM, IS PERFECT, paints a vivid picture of L.A’s Wrigley:

Wrigley Field’s clock tower was featured on the cover of the ’57 Angels Yearbook. (Author’s collection)
Wrigley Field’s clock tower was featured on the cover of the ’57 Angels Yearbook. (Author’s collection)

“The new park has a nine-story tower in one corner that looks like a package of gum standing on end, while the stands spread out on either side…”

“From the top deck of the stand on the right-field foul line, some 60 feet above the field and far above the fragrant aroma of the hot dogs, one gets a splendid view, not only of the ball game, but also of the city…

“Far in the distance are the skyscrapers of Los Angeles, beneath whose towering roofs are thousands of stenographers busily chewing more gum to build better ballparks.”

The grandstand seated 18,500 fans and the right field bleachers 2,000 for a capacity of 20,500.

“The playing field is one of the largest in the country measuring 345 feet from the home plate down each foul line to the fence and 427 feet to a point in centerfield,” the Sporting News reported. “Home runs have been made in the park since the Angels started to play in it, but those making them earned and were entitled to them.”

Wrigley Field_ivy_1961
The ivy on Wrigley Field’s left-field brick wall was removed for the ballpark’s big league debut in 1961. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/60838/rec/9 )

The brick wall in left field was nearly 15 feet high and in later years was covered with ivy to emulate Chicago’s Wrigley Field. A wire screen, nine feet in height, ran parallel to the right-field bleachers.

Four home runs were hit in the first game and three in the second prompting one writer to comment:  “Wrigley Field, the home of the Angels and home runs. That’s the way the official stationery will have to read if the pace set in the last two days at the immense new enclosure is maintained.”

By the time the 1956 season rolled around, the ballpark was being called “Little Wrigley” by players familiar with both.  It was widely known as a home run haven. Steve Bilko was the home pro.

If ever a player and ballpark were made for each other, it was Stout Steve and Little Wrigley.

“His years with the Angels were an ideal marriage of ballplayer to ballpark,” observed Chuck Stevens, a first baseman for the Hollywood Stars from 1948-54 and the San Francisco Seals in 1955 when Bilko entered the PCL.  “Bilko played in a lot of other ballparks and a lot of other leagues, but in L.A. it was inevitable. When I heard Steve was coming to the Angels, I said he’s going to put some numbers up.”

And he did just that – 37 in ‘55; 55 in ‘56; and 56 in ‘57.  Of the 148 home runs Bilko walloped for the Angels, 98 were at Little Wrigley.

“It was more-or-less on the same order as Wrigley Field in Chicago,” explained Bilko. “Most of the minor league parks then were built the same as the major league parks. Rochester was the same as Sportsman’s Park. Montreal, at that time, was the same dimensions as Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. They figured if a guy can play in this park he could come up to play in the major league park. After I got out to California and I hit a lot of home runs, I always wondered how I would do if I played a full year in Chicago.”

With the power-packed ’56 Angels lineup, teams couldn’t pitch around Bilko. “If you tried, other guys would sting you,” Stevens said.  The Angels slammed 202 homers – two shy of the league record. Bilko accounted for 36 of the 136 the team belted at Little Wrigley.

“Bilko’s home runs were home runs,” said Angel centerfielder Gale Wade.  “He didn’t hit these cheap fly balls.  He hit line drives and semi-line drives.”

Six Angels hit 20 or more homers, including Wade and Gene Mauch. “There’s one guy that hit 20 home runs that wouldn’t have in an ordinary park and that was me,” Mauch said. “But we would’ve won just as many games.”

Stevens disagreed, saying the outcome would’ve been different if his beloved Hollywood Stars played “The Bilko Athletic Company” at a neutral site in San Francisco. “Get the ’56 Angels out of Wrigley Field and put the Stars and the Angels in Seals Stadium and we would beat their brains out.

“I can’t get over Chuck saying that,” Mauch fumed.  “It irritates the hell out of me.”

Little Wrigley sparked the same kind of debate every time there was talk about the PCL becoming a third major league or one of the 16 teams in the majors moving to the West Coast. The ballpark’s shortcomings were magnified. Its location in the deteriorating Watts area of L.A. was strike one; parking for only 800 cars a second strike; and the short power alleys that made home runs of routine fly balls a swinging strike three.

In 1954 Bill Veeck, a former owner and baseball maverick, was hired by P.K. Wrigley, son of William and then owner of the Cubs and Angels, to come up with a plan that would make the ballpark acceptable to the majors.

Veeck proposed enlarging the playing field and extending the double deck grandstand along the base lines to completely enclose the park and seat up to 55,000 people. There would be parking for 10,000 cars.

The future Wrigley Field envisioned by Bill Veeck in 1954. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
The future Wrigley Field envisioned by Bill Veeck in 1954. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

Veeck presented an artist’s conception of this future Wrigley Field. “The new Wrigley Field should be baseball’s most modern park,” he said, “with every convenience for the fans – escalators, nurseries, snack bars, powder room facilities and restaurants. It should have all these features plus many others.”

“Bill talked to all the important people, collected the facts, evolved a working plan and lined up capital,” P.K. said. “Now it’s up to somebody to do something.”

Nobody did until early 1958 when the Dodgers relocated from Brooklyn to L.A. The Dodgers paid lip service to playing at Little Wrigley while exploring the use of the L.A. Coliseum and the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

At the same time, baseball commissioner Ford Frick criticized Little Wrigley on national television by saying he didn’t “want to see Babe Ruth’s home-run record broken by playing in a cow pasture….”

He added: “The foul lines aren’t bad and left field is about the same distance as right field, but how about some of those hitters like [Willie] Mays pulling one? They will hit it into the next county.”

The Dodgers briefly defended Little Wrigley, proposing moving the centerfield bleachers further away from home plate and adding a 12-foot arching screen atop the brick wall in left center – “a favorite target for Steve Bilko and other power hitters.”

The Dodgers waffled between Little Wrigley and the Coliseum.

“I’m not going to burn my bridges, but as of now my feeling is that the Dodgers will use Wrigley Field in 1958,” Dodgers president Walter O’Malley said.  The Dodgers quickly changed course, agreeing to play in the Coliseum until a new stadium was ready.

Over the next four years the Dodgers played in the Coliseum, site of the 1932 Olympic Games and primarily a football and track facility. Distances down the foul lines were a joke – 251 feet in left and 300 feet in right. To make it semi-serious for baseball, a 40-foot net was erected in left, with both fields angling sharply to centerfield, 440 feet from home plate. “We don’t want to acquire a reputation for Chinese home runs,” O’Malley wisecracked.

Little Wrigley was a “cow pasture” but the Coliseum’s left-field fence that became known as the “Chinese Wall” was no problem. “I don’t think Babe Ruth’s record is in particular danger,” Frick said. “Foul lines are not especially important where home runs are concerned. The rest of the wall in right center, left center and dead center determine whether you’ll get a lot of homers.”

After 33 years and some 4,000 minor-league games, Little Wrigley was snubbed by the majors in favor of a football stadium – the ultimate insult.

The ballpark continued to host ch