Monthly Archives: September 2013

Bilko’s Bartender

Every pro baseball player today has an agent. Some even have lawyers and accountants. Stout Steve Bilko, the Los Angeles Angels’ slugging seraph from 1955 to 1957, was flying solo with one exception his first season in L.A. – he had his own bartender.

8_Moe Bauer_Steve Bilko_Jim Fanning_Bob Coats_rw
Chef Steve Bilko serves roommates, left to right, Moe Bauer, Jim Fanning and Bob Coats. (Courtesy Raymond “Moe” Bauer)

In 1955, Bilko shared an efficiency apartment at the Wellington Hotel in downtown L.A. with three other players: pitcher Raymond “Moe” Bauer; catcher Jim Fanning; and outfielder Bob Coats.

“Jim and I each had a bed over by one wall,” Moe recalled. “Coatsie had one that was on the other side from us. Steve had the pull-down bed in the living room.”

Bilko did all of the cooking. “He made a deal with us,” Fanning said. “Once he cooked a meal and ate, he didn’t have anything to do with cleaning up. He did enough of that when he was hitting, however.”
“He was a good cook,” Moe added.

“Oh, he could make that Polish food like you couldn’t believe,” Fanning said.

As chef, Bilko made sure the refrigerator was full. “We had the upper part for our milk; the bottom was for Steve’s beer,” Moe chuckled.

A bartender from Steve’s hometown in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, kept the refrigerator well stocked with beer, adding a case almost every day. “He was bartending at some nightspot in L.A., not too far from the Wellington,” Moe explained. “He’d come in and turn a case of beer and that’s what Steve was drinking.”

L-R, Jim Fanning; Moe Bauer; Bilko’s personal bartender; Steve Bilko; and Bob Coats. (Courtesy Raymond “Moe” Bauer)
L-R, Jim Fanning; Moe Bauer; Bilko’s personal bartender; Steve Bilko; and Bob Coats. (Courtesy Raymond “Moe” Bauer)

The name of the bartender is not known. But there’s a photograph of him taken at L.A.’s Wrigley Field in July 1955 standing in the middle of the roommates.

Fanning was the only one with a car so the others were dependent on him for a ride to and from the ballpark. When a game ended, Bilko headed straight for the hot tub in the Wrigley Field clubhouse. “He’d have a beer here, a beer there, and a beer in the shower,” Moe said. “He’d come out and have another beer while he was putting his clothes on. We’d drive to the hotel and Steve would go to the hotel bar close at hand and he’d have a couple more beers. We’d go upstairs and try to get to sleep quickly before he came in.”

As Bilko did so often for opposing teams with his mighty home runs, he usually turned the apartment lights out at night. “You’d better get to sleep before he did,” Moe said, “because if you didn’t, the whole building trembled when he was snoring.”

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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:

And Here Comes Bilko!

The four most electrifying words in Los Angeles in 1956 were, “And here comes Bilko!” The signature phrase of Bob Kelley, the voice of the Los Angeles Angels, was used to stir radio listeners when Steve Bilko came to bat with runners on base and a rally brewing. “And here comes Bilko!” Kelley screamed time and again.

Steve Bilko
Steve Bilko (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

Bilko belted 10 home runs during spring training and then, started the regular season with a home run in his first at bat. The pitcher just happened to be San Diego’s Eddie Erautt, a former St. Louis Cardinals teammate who used to send Bilko postcards, unsigned, with the name of the slugger’s favorite beer, Kulmbacher, written on it.

Bilko hit one monster home run after another to finish with 55 and earn Minor League Player of the Year honors and inspire the team’s nickname, “The Bilko Athletic Club.” Many of his teammates had career years to establish the 1956 Angels as one of the greatest minor league teams in baseball history.

Somewhere Kelley is again shouting, “And here comes Bilko!”

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 Shot Heard Over and Over Again

Jerry Casale_BB_card_front_2 001reduced to fit blogA decade has passed since New York City was darkened by the blackout of Thursday, August 14, 2003. Pino’s Restaurant, made famous by David Halberstram’s book, The Teammates, closed the following year. Bobby Murcer, the former New York Yankees centerfielder and a regular at Pino’s, died in 2008. All that’s left are memories of the Saturday night following the blackout when I sat around a table reminiscing with Murcer and his wife, Kay, and Jerry Casale, ex-Boston Red Sox pitcher and owner of Pino’s.

The entrance to Pino’s, located on East 34th Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues, was marked by an oversized Topps 1959 baseball card. Customers received a reproduction of the card (#456) signed by Jerry.Jerry Casale_BB_card_back_2 001reducedtofitblog

In The Teammates, Halberstram writes of Pino’s: “This old-fashioned and unhip Italian restaurant, more Southern than Northern, has a warm and comfortable ambiance, and has the flavor of a ‘50s hangout. It serves hearty portions of traditional favorites and is popular with neighborhood regulars and sports stars, both present and past.”

I went to Pino’s to see Casale, a 19-game winner for the San Francisco Seals in 1956, and instigator of a bean-ball battle between the Seals and Los Angeles Angels that started when Casale decked Angel slugger Steve Bilko. “I threw a fastball that took off on me, and it went and knocked him right on his ass.”

The Angels retaliated the next inning with hard-throwing Dick Drott plunking Casale. “It wasn’t a case of cream puffs at 20 paces, but one of bullets at 60 feet, six inches,” one sportswriter reported.

“I swear to God that if I didn’t put my arm in front of my heart, it would’ve broken my heart,” Casale said. “It hit me on the left forearm. It blew up on me. And I went down and I saw stars. I couldn’t believe that a pitcher would throw at another pitcher, especially as hard as I was throwing in those days. You wouldn’t want to do that.”

Casale fired the last bullet, aiming a fastball at Drott’s mouth as he squared around to bunt. The ball smashed Dick’s right pitching hand, fracturing the index finger. He was sidelined for 15 days. “I thought it broke all his fingers. If he doesn’t put that bat in front of him, the ball would’ve gone right in his face. That’s how mad I was.”

On arriving at Pino’s, I was directed to a big man who obviously enjoyed his own cooking. “Gaylon!” Jerry yelled as if I was a long-lost cousin. “I was wondering if you would make it. Sit down.”

We were scheduled to meet the night New York City and parts of eight states were blacked out by a major power outage. Jerry was just coming out of the Holland Tunnel that afternoon when the blackout occurred. By the time he reached his restaurant, candles were on the tables and customers were having themselves a party. With no power, Jerry couldn’t serve food. But there was plenty of beer and the drinks flowed until Pino’s closed at 11 o’clock and Jerry drove his employees home.

Moments after we sat down at a big round table, an employee rushed up and said, “Jerry, there’s a request to play the tape.”

The tape is Jerry’s most treasured memento. It’s a blow-by-blow radio account of a home run he hit in 1959 for the Red Sox against “Bullet” Bob Turley, the Yankees star right-handed pitcher. Jerry jumped up from the table, turned off the ‘50s music that was playing and rolled the tape.

“[Turley] will be facing the pitcher, Jerry Casale, who’s a pretty good-hitting pitcher,” Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto begins. “He’s batting .170. He has eight base hits but he has two doubles, and two homers and eight runs batted in.”

The scene is depicted in a mural of Fenway Park behind the bar. The scoreboard shows the Red Sox leading 4 to 1 with no outs in the bottom of the second inning. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Casale stands at the plate. “Bob Turley ready, his first pitch…is high, outside, ball one.”

Suddenly, Rizzuto blurts out: “There’s a…oh, there’s a home run. Holy cow! Did he hit that one! That’s out of everything here…over the fence and across the street. Jerry Casale hits his third home run. I don’t know how he hit that ball. It was a high fastball and he swung up at it and that ball just went right out of the park. Did he hit that one? I’m telling you, boy, he hit that one. A home run by Jerry Casale, his third of the year and ninth run batted in. Ahhhh, man. Incidentally, he hit one….earlier in the year the same way, right on out of the stands and out of the park.”

Jerry’s brother, Lou, takes credit for the tape. “It’s still under investigation. He doesn’t remember it himself.”

The tape played “three, four, five times a night” – 42,000 times Jerry once estimated. “Turley keeps making the same mistake every night,” he quipped. “No matter who comes through the door – Tony Bennett, Rudy Giuliani – they say: ‘Jerry, put the tape on.’”

Bobby and Kay Murcer arrived a little after nine o’clock. When Jerry told Bobby I spent Thursday night sleeping on the sidewalk because of the blackout, Murcer asked: “Do you know where I was in ’77 during the blackout? Right field at Shea Stadium. I was playing for the Cubs. The lights went out and I stood there 20 minutes before I went into the dugout. Stayed at the Astoria and used candles to go up the stairs to my room.”

Murcer hit 252 home runs during a 17-year career that spanned three decades – 1965 to 1983. “If you’d been pitching,” Bobby said to Jerry over dinner, “I’d have 200 more homers.”

The banter continued as the music played; Jimmy Dickens was singing:

Hey, Hey, good lookin;
Whatcha got cookin’?
How’s about cookin’
Somethin’ up with me?

Johnny Mathis followed with Chances Are. Bobby and Jerry sang along:

Guess you feel you’ll always be
The one and only one for me
And, if you think you could,
Well, chances are your chances are awfully good.
The chances are, your chances are…awfully good.

On a television overhead, the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles were playing at Camden Yards. The sound was muted so the old ballplayers could enjoy the music. “He’s a good singer,” Jerry said of Bobby.

The Murcers finished dinner and were leaving when the Yankees won on a fluke play in the 12th inning. Jack Cust of the Orioles was caught in a rundown between third and home plate. Yankees third baseman Aaron Boone dropped the ball and Cust broke for home with the tying run. He fell down about two feet away and Boone tagged him out. “The Yankees are the luckiest team around,” Jerry said, shaking his head in dismay.

The conversation returned to the radio tape of his home run against the hated Yankees. “Every time I play this tape, I can feel it. I can feel the excitement, the build-up to the pitch, and I can feel the power that I had behind the pitch. God, I can just close my eyes and feel that ball just jumping out of the…oh, my God, that ball left that stadium in seconds.

“But I hit a couple like that. I hit one on opening day over the centerfield wall in 1959, my first game in the big leagues. And then I hit one in the centerfield seats off of Early Wynn. So I hit three home runs that year and each one of them had to go between 450 and 500 feet.”

A Casale homer in ’56 against the Angels at San Francisco’s Seals Stadium made headlines in the San Francisco Examiner: CASALE HITS 551 FT. HOMER.

Jack McDonald, a columnist for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, even gave the home run a name: CASALE’S THUNDER-CLAPPER.

“They’ll be talking about the thunder-clapper he got in the first game for years,” McDonald wrote. A sportswriter for the Call-Bulletin “paced off the distance from the fence to a spot near the end of the parking lot where attendants saw it hit a car and fall… added to the 404 feet from home plate to where the ball passed out of the park totes up to 551 feet.”

Marino Pieretti_Angels-reduced to fit blog
Marino Pieretti

The monster blast came off of Angel pitcher Marino Pieretti, who grew up in San Francisco’s “Little Italy” district. “I’m glad it was an Italian,” Jerry grinned. “I really hit the heck out of it but I had a lot of wind behind me to help. I wasn’t a good hitter but I had a lot of power.”

Yogi Berra was the Yankee catcher when Jerry teed off on Turley. “He was asking me how my family is, how’s my wife, how’s the kids. I couldn’t believe he was even talking to me. He’s Italian. Being Italian, I thought he took a liking to me. The pitch before I hit the home run, I turned around and the ball went by me without even looking. And right then and there I said: ‘I’ll never trust another small, fat Italian catcher again.’

“So he’s asking me how the wife is and I’m telling him to shut up. And then after I hit the home run, which was the funniest part, I got to home plate and said, “Yogi, I’m not married.”

The back of the baseball card Jerry handed me earlier reads: “During the 1959 season Jerry Casale was the Red Sox most promising young pitcher gifted with a powerful throwing arm and a talent for hitting. He finished that season with a 13 and 8 record that included three shutouts…plus three homers!”

I read the last part aloud. “Isn’t that nice?” Jerry said. “I enjoyed the homers more than I did the shutouts. It was a thrill; it was a thrill, Gaylon. And you never forget that. I can forget a lot of things in between but certain things like those home runs I never forget.”

I mentioned Turley lived near Atlanta, Georgia. “I heard from him awhile back. He said, ‘Jerry, you’re making me famous again.’ I said, ‘You keep throwin’ it, and I keep whackin’ it.’”

In 1951, Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit a pennant-winning homer that came to be known as “the shot heard ‘round the world.” Jerry’s homer wasn’t as historic but for the 27 years he operated Pino’s, it was “the shot heard over and over again.

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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:

Statuetting the ’56 Angels

There are no statues of Steve Bilko or any other members of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels but there are picture statuettes created by Jim Fanning, a backup catcher until he was sent to the lower minors six weeks into the season. “I gave away more than I sold,” Fanning said. “I didn’t make any money.”

Photographs of the players were pasted on wood and cut with a saw. About eight inches high, the statuettes were mounted on a display stand.

Steve Bilko
Steve Bilko

The players are shown in various poses. Bilko is peering down the barrel of his 32-ounce bat. Joe Hannah, dressed in catching gear, is looking up, poised to catch a foul ball. Johnny Briggs is following through on a pitch.

“We statuette the Angels,” declared an advertisement in the ’56 Angels yearbook. “Let us statuette you.”

For seventy-five cents and a coupon accompanying the ad, Fanning would make a statuette out of a fan’s favorite picture “excepting professional baseball.”

Joe Hannah
Joe Hannah

Fanning played in 88 games for the Angels in ’55, batting .226. He appeared in only 12 games in ’56, hitting .333 (9-for-27). “I went to Tulsa and caught every day. That’s really all I was concerned about. Next year (1957) I was at Chicago. And then the next year (1958) I started at Portland. Good things started to happen.”

Fanning returned to Tulsa in ’58 as a player-manager, eventually moving into the front office as a special assignment scout for the Milwaukee Braves. He went on to establish a centralized scouting bureau for baseball – the forerunner to the system that serves the majors today.  The purpose of the program, he said at the time, was “to provide more information on players we do not know enough about.”

Johnny Briggs
Johnny Briggs

Fanning left the scouting bureau to become general manager of the Montreal Expos, an expansion team that joined the National League in 1969. He immediately picked Gene Mauch to be the Expos first manager. “I flew out to Los Angeles, met him at the airport and we made our deal.”

Jim remembered their playing days together with the Angels and how much Scheffing relied on Mauch. “I would walk to the mound and Gene would come in from second base. Bob used Gene as a sounding board.”

Fanning recalled looking at some of his teammates and thinking, “How come they aren’t in the major leagues?”

Mauch was one of those players.

“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. He would say to me in the early years of the Expos: ‘You remember so-and-so? He played for San Francisco.’ Heck, I couldn’t remember the name. That’s the way he was. He would remind me what happened last year in a game. I mean his memory was unbelievable.”

Wearing a ’56 Angels cap, Bob Coats holds a statuette of himself. (Photo taken by author in 2002)
Wearing a ’56 Angels cap, Bob Coats holds a statuette of himself. (Photo taken by author in 2002)

Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, the ’56 Angels’ lone African-American, also made a big impression on Fanning. “Piper was an all-position player. I mean all positions.”

Piper was one of the first people Fanning hired for his scouting bureau. “Piper should’ve written a book, he had so much inside of him. He’d been with the Harlem Globetrotters. He played baseball a long time. He was a clutch hitter. He was a cog, a really important player. He was a fantastic person.”

Piper appeared in 64 games for the ’56 Angels, batting .316 and playing every position except shortstop, centerfield and pitcher. He led the league in pinch-hitting with 13 hits in 29 at bats for a .448 average.

Moe-Bauer-@-home_4-cropped-LD
Raymond “Moe” Bauer and his ’56 Angels statuette. (Photo taken by author in 2001)

Fanning was born on the same day (September 14, 1927) as Darius “Dave” Hillman, a 21-game-winner and ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff. “He had a good fastball. He had a super changeup. He had excellent control. You could sit on the outside or inside and he’d hit it. I played with him my first year in baseball in 1950 and then I was with him off and on along the way. He and I could go out and play a game today. I would know how exactly to call a game for him.”

Fanning and Hillman started the ’55 season with the Chicago Cubs before being sent to L.A.  They were driving west on Route 66 when the Cubs’ “Sad” Sam Jones became the first African-American to toss 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.”

In the ninth inning of the game, Jones walked three straight to load the bases before striking out the next three batters to end the game.

”If I hadn’t been sent out, I’d be catching this game,” Jim told Dave several times.

Dave finally had enough. “Yeah,” he said, “and Jones would’ve been gone in three innings.”

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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:

Bilko the Great

Elvis Presley had teenage girls swooning with his pelvic gyrations, Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis were the most popular movie stars in Hollywood according to a national survey and Rocky Marciano had just retired as the undefeated world heavyweight boxing champion.

Pat Boone, Shirley Jones, Steve Bilko and Gale Wade
L-R, Gale Wade, Shirley Jones, Steve Bilko and Pat Boone

But in the summer of 1956, it was Steve Bilko dominating the headlines of Los Angeles newspapers. “ROCKY JUST SMALL BOY BESIDE BILKO,” proclaimed the Los Angeles Mirror-News as it launched a four-part series in early August titled, “BILKO THE GREAT.”

Rocky had more knockouts than Bilko (43) but Stout Steve had more home runs (46) and he topped Rocky in a tale of the tape:

 

Bilko

vs.

Marciano

6-1

Height

5-11

230

Weight

187

17

Neck

16 ¾

46

Chest

39

40

Waist

32

14

Biceps

14

13

Forearm

12

9

Wrist

7 ½

26

Thigh

22

19

Calf

14 ¾

12

Ankle

10

 

 “When Steve Bilko was just a little tot – and try to picture that, if you can – he was known as the cryingest kid in all of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania,” Charlie Park wrote in the Mirror-News.

“He’d cry all night long, and about the only way his mother could quiet him down was to take him outside to the baseball field that adjoined their home on the edge of town. There she’d walk around the field with Steve in her arms, and pretty soon the little rascal would be sound asleep.

“With an environment like that, how could he miss growing up to be a ballplayer? And what a ballplayer!”

Bilko had opposing managers and pitchers crying for help in ’56. Sacramento Solons manager Tommy Heath threatened his hurlers with a fine and removal from the game for throwing a strike to Bilko.  “Regardless of the situation, we were supposed to walk him,” said Chet Johnson, a Sacramento pitcher who mixed clowning with a curveball.

In one game, Johnson was pitching to Bilko and doing his usual showboat routine.  “I threw the ball outside and then flexed my muscles.  After two balls way outside, that big donkey reached across the plate and slapped one right down the line and just over the fence for a home run.  But it wasn’t a strike and Heath couldn’t fine me.”

“Stop Bilko and you stop the Angels,” San Francisco Seals manager Joe Gordon told his pitchers. He ordered them not to give Bilko anything good to hit even if it meant walking him every time. “We can’t afford to let Bilko get those homers. Even when he isn’t swinging at full power, or gets only part of the ball on his bat he can murder you.”

Jerry Casale was a hard-throwing 22-year-old right hander for the Seals who went on to win 13 games for the Boston Red Sox in 1959.  “Steve looked like King Kong up there,” Jerry said.

Russ Kemmerer, a 12-game winner for the Seals in ’56, pitched 10 seasons in the majors.  “You respected what he could do,” Kemmerer said.  “You respected his power, his athletic ability and he, in turn, knew that you might not be winning a hundred games but at the same time you had the ability to get him out and when you got him out, he acknowledged it. Ted Williams was a lot like that. There was just respect.”

Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko
Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko swap autographs

“Bilko the Great” was pictured in L.A. newspapers with television’s Sgt. Bilko, actor Phil Silvers wearing an Angels cap, and Steve wearing a U.S. Army sergeant’s hat, signing baseballs for each other.

Silvers adopted the Bilko name for his character, Ernest G. Bilko, a conniving master sergeant, in his TV comedy show that ran from 1955 to 1959 and later was the basis of a 1996 movie, Sgt. Bilko, starring actor Steve Martin. “I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers said, referring to Gil Hodges and Stan Musial, perennial all-stars at the time. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”

What Bilko needed most the last month of the ’56 season was a telephone pole so he could reach pitches thrown in area codes of adjacent states. “I get so many bad pitches now that I feel like hitting at anything,” he lamented.

Sgt. Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) meets Steve Bilko
Sgt. Bilko (Phil Silvers) meets the real Bilko

After hitting his 51st homer on August 27, Bilko needed nine home runs in the Angels’ last 22 games to tie the Pacific Coast League record of 60. He managed only four more to finish with 55. On the last day of the season, Steve Bilko Day, he told Angels fans: “I’m sorry…that I missed setting a new home-run record. But next year’s coming.”

In 1957, Bilko blasted 56 homers, hiking his three-year total with the Angels to 148. He returned to L.A. in 1958 to play briefly for the Dodgers. The Angels brought him back in 1961 when they joined the American League as an expansion team. “When the major-league Angels came into being, the Coast League was already four years gone,” said Irv Kaze, public relations director for the ’61 Angels. “But Steve’s star transcended those four years.”

“If he stayed healthy, he would’ve hit 40 home runs in the big leagues,” said Albie Pearson, a teammate with the Angels in ’61 and ’62 when Bilko was hobbled by injuries. “But it was late in his career.”

Tommy Lasorda, former Dodgers manager, was a rival and teammate during the prime of Bilko’s career in the 1950s. “If he were playing today, without question, you’d see a guy hitting fifty, sixty home runs,” Lasorda said in 2003. To emphasize this point, he added: “Easy.”

Jim “Mudcat” Grant pitched against Bilko in the minors and majors. He served up the pitch that Steve sent skyrocketing out of Wrigley Field in L.A., the last home run hit in the ballpark best known as the location for the original “Home Run Derby” television series brought back to life by ESPN.

In 1992 when Mudcat saw the movie Babe starring actor John Goodman as Babe Ruth, he had a flashback to Bilko running around the bases.  “I thought about Steve Bilko, man. He had this Babe Ruth-like figure. And his thing was hittin’ home runs.”

“Bilko the Great” could be the title of a movie.  The script is ready. Bilko wrote it a half-century ago.

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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:

Back to the Fifties

Bernier+Bilko_Rotary-Kids_cropped
Smiles abound as two young fans sit on the knees of their heroes – Steve Bilko, far right, and
Hollywood Stars outfielder Carlos Bernier, far left, at a 1957 Rotary Club luncheon in L.A.
Looking on is Los Angeles Examiner publisher Frank Payne. (Courtesy USC Digital Library:
http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll44/id/85371/rec/8 )

 

The biggest change in baseball over the last half-century is the relationship between players and fans. There’s a growing economic divide made even greater by players’ security and privacy concerns. To bridge this gap, the Washington Nationals host an annual event, called NatsFest, so fans can meet current Nationals players as well as past stars such as the late Harmon Killebrew.

Killebrew made his major league debut with Washington in 1954. He slammed 42 home runs for the Nats in 1959 to lead the American League – the first of six home run titles he won during a Hall of Fame career.

One of Killebrew’s teammates with the Nats in ’59 was Russ Kemmerer, a pitcher who lost 17 games. They also played for the ’57 Nats who won only 55 games to begin a string of three straight last-place finishes.

The former Nats were sitting side-by-side signing autographs for fans at one NatsFest when Harmon said to Russ, “We’ve been signing these damn autographs for hours. Look, these people are lined up for blocks. We only won 55 games. What are they thinking of?”

Players in the 1950s were far more accessible to the fans. And they remained so after their playing days were over.

With few exceptions, the telephone numbers and addresses of the 1956 Angels and other players interviewed for The Bilko Athletic Club were listed in the phone book or available online. And they gladly shared their stories.

When Frank Diprima, a second baseman for the Angels in 1953, was interviewed, he was feeling the effects of cancer medication he was taking. “You made me feel a lot better,” Diprima said as the conversation came to a close. “You made me feel good.”

Diprima died three and one-half years later at the age of 80.

Diprima and Gene Mauch traded places in 1954, Mauch moving to L.A. and Diprima to Atlanta where Mauch was player-manager the year before.

Mauch was interviewed by telephone in August 2000, twelve years after he quit as manager of the California Angels. He had become a recluse, rarely talking with the media. We had a friendly, free-wheeling discussion about the ’56 Angels until he was asked about comments by Chuck Stevens, a member of the Hollywood Stars from 1948-54 and outspoken critic of the team. “I enjoyed the first twenty minutes of our talk and, then, I got in kind of a bad frame of mind,” Mauch admitted.

Mauch hung up before elaborating on his friendship with Steve Bilko. “Oh, I could tell you stories by the hour.”

In a Los Angeles Times story two years later, Mauch said: “Steve Bilko was a great athlete, very loose, with a great pair of hands.  He loved to eat – if you left icing on the tablecloth, he’d eat it – and he loved to drink beer. If he took better care of himself, he would have been an outstanding major league player. No one had a bad word to say about him ever. There was none better.”

Jim Brosnan and Bilko were teammates with the Angels in 1955. Brosnan went on to pitch in the majors for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Redlegs and write two books, The Long Season and Pennant Race that gave fans their first real glimpse behind clubhouse doors.

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.

“I miss him now,” Brosnan, said in a 2012 interview. “He was one of the special ones that did things that few of the others would even try to do.”

The story that best captures the Bilko mystique is the Palm Springs, California, dentist who quizzed patients to certify they were true longtime Angelenos.

“Who was Steve Bilko?” he asked.

The typical response was: “Gee, I haven’t thought of him for 30 years. What happened to him?”

“Big Steve Bilko was a demigod to us early boomers growing up in the ‘50s,” the dentist wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “He was our Sultan of Swat. Whenever he took the plate for the old Pacific Coast League Angels, we could feel the rush of air from his swing. Anything was possible when Bilko was up, and even when the Angels were far behind, no one would get his beer until Bilko had his turn at bat. My certification is showing a 95% pass rate. Can you help my patients and myself by letting us know what happened to this man who deserves to be batting cleanup in Los Angeles’ ‘Field of 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:

Baseball’s Last Great Minor League Team

Jim Bolger
Jim Bolger

In mid-June 1956, two months into the baseball season, Los Angeles Angels manager Bob Scheffing was calling his team the best he had seen in the minors.

Steve Bilko was terrorizing Pacific Coast League (PCL) pitchers with 26 home runs and a batting average of over .400. Second-baseman Gene Mauch was hitting around .375. with ten homers. Outfielders Jim Bolger and Bob Speake had a combined 24 homers.  “You can’t win if you haven’t got the horses,” Scheffing said, referring to his big boppers.

Bob Speake
Bob Speake

In early August, San Francisco Seals manager Joe Gordon proclaimed the Angels good enough to finish second to the mighty New York Yankees in the American League if they added two major league pitchers.

Bilko had 45 home runs to begin August. He needed 15 more in the next 30 games to break the all-time Coast League home run record of 60 set by Tony Lazzeri in 1925.

“More people in L.A. today know Bilko than Marilyn Monroe,” proclaimed Scheffing. “It is a mystery to me why some smart restaurant owner has not gotten a hold of that guy by now and hired him as a greeter.”

Bilkomania swept the West Coast from San Diego to San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, all Coast League cities.

Gale Wade
Gale Wade

Ralph Kiner, seven-time home-run king of the National League, retired in 1956 to become general manager of the San Diego Padres.  “He (Bilko) has as much power as any of the home-run hitters. That goes for Mickey Mantle, Ted Kluszewski and Duke Snider.”

When Bilko stepped to the plate, crowds buzzed as if zapped by a bolt of electricity. Kiner compared it to a fight by then world heavyweight boxing champion, Rocky Marciano. “It’s like waiting for the knockout punch to come. People wait for that one sudden blow.”

Mauch went on to manage 26 in the majors, his teams winning 1,902 games, twelfth best in baseball history. “The best minor league team that I ever saw, bar none!” Mauch said of the ’56 Angels.

“We had a helluva club and still finished 400 games out of first,” said Jerry Casale, a pitcher for the Seals, who placed sixth, 28 1/2 games behind the Angels. Runner-up Seattle was 16 games back. “That’s how good Los Angeles was that year.”

“It was a good team in a lousy league,” protested Chuck Stevens, a first baseman from 1948-54 for the Hollywood, the Angels’ cross-town rivals. “The league was very weak that year.”

The PCL had its own “open” classification – a notch above Class AAA and as high as a player could go in the minors.

The Seals’ Gordon said the league was much stronger in 1956 than when he was in it five years earlier. “There are twice as many good players, and the pitching has improved tremendously.”

The ’56 Angels were not on the list of the top 100 minor league teams of all time compiled for baseball’s 100th anniversary in 2001.  The 1934 Angels were rated tops, followed by the 1921 Baltimore Orioles and the 1937 Newark Bears. No argument there. The travesty is that the ’56 Angels were ignored in favor of lower-level teams such as the 1924 Okmulgee Drillers (49th), the 1961 Reno Silver Sox (55th), the 1993 Harrisburg Senators (73rd), the 1979 Saltillo Saraperos (75th), the 1978 Appleton Foxes (93rd) and the 1947 Lubbock Hubbers (97th).

“If you look at the rosters of some of the great minor league teams,” Stevens argued, “you’ll see the names of guys who went on to distinguish themselves in the majors.  That’s not the case with the ’56 Angels.”

“I managed three clubs in the big leagues that weren’t as good as the ‘56 Angels,” Mauch said, citing the 1960 and 1961 Philadelphia Phillies and the 1969 Montreal Expos.

Dave Hillman was the ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff, winning twenty-one games.  “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,” said Gale “Windy” Wade, the Angels’ hell-bent for leather centerfielder.

“We could’ve beaten Pittsburgh,” Hillman added. “We could’ve beaten Cincinnati. We could’ve beaten a few others.”

George Freese
George Freese

George Freese belted twenty-two homers and batted in 113 runs – one of four Angels with more than 100 RBI’s.  “I know what we did and the statistics we had so I don’t care what anybody says.”

Eddie Haas played briefly in the majors for the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Braves but spent most of his eleven-year career in the minors where he hit .293 with 89 homers. He was batting .275 with four home runs in late May when he was sent to the lower minors so he could play every day. “That bunch could hit. If you look back at those averages they had that year, I mean, man, I was low on the totem pole. I had to be sent out.”

Eddie continued to follow the Angels. “I kept track because, first, a lot of those guys were helpful to me. Second, I was kind of in awe of some of the seasons they were having. Bilko’s year was just phenomenal. Bolger knocked in 147 runs.  When you get into numbers like that, I was curious to see how things went after I left.”

Of the many valuable lessons Eddie learned from his Angels teammates, one in particular stuck out.

“There were no speed guns back in those days,” Eddie explained. “But I remember one phrase all those guys used if we played against a young kid that was probably throwing 95-to-98 miles an hour: ‘He’s fast but he won’t last.’ Sure enough, about the second or third time around the batting order, he would lose a little bit, and they would sit on that fastball. And, boy, they would annihilate him.”

So how good were the ’56 Angels?

The criteria used by many to measure the greatness of a minor league team are how many of its players become big league stars. This doesn’t make any more sense than measuring great college football and basketball teams based on what their players did in the pros.

Consider, for example, the 1974 Pawtucket Red Sox of the International League. Two of their players, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, became big league stars. But Pawtucket finished last in its division with a 57-87 record, hardly qualifying it as an outstanding minor league team.

The Angels’ Wade played for the 1954 Indianapolis Indians, champions of the American Association with a 95-57 record. The Indians were led by three future major league stars – pitchers Herb Score and Sam Jones, and Rocky Colavito, a slugging outfielder.

“We had some hard throwers and power hitters but it was not as good a club as the ’56 Angels,” Wade said. “We had more experienced players in L.A. Every single guy at every single position played smart baseball. That was the difference. That’s what made it a great ball club.”

Few have the knowledge to compare teams from different leagues and eras because they didn’t see them play. That leaves us with records and statistics to evaluate them. And they can be misleading.

“Everything is relative,” said John Schulian, a former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and long-time contributor to Sports Illustrated. “The ’56 Angels weren’t trying to win ballgames in the National League; they were trying to win games in the Coast League against Coast League teams.”

For all their dominance, the ’56 Angels couldn’t beat their backyard nemesis, the Stars.  Rube Samuelson, a sports columnist for the Pasadena Star-News, mused:

“Why can’t the Angels chop

Down the Hollywood’s mammy?

Hush, child, a hex is on –

The ye olde double whammy.”

The Stars earned local bragging rights for the sixth straight year, winning fourteen of twenty-four games, sweeping four doubleheaders and blanking the Angels four times. “How do you explain it?” Scheffing asked.

One claim the ’56 Angels can easily make is that they were the last great minor league team. The majors began expanding in 1961, diluting the talent in the minors and changing them forever. No minor league player would ever come close to causing the kind of frenzy Bilko did in L.A. in 1956. He put on a power display best summed up by this Scheffing quote: “Bilko can hit one off his fist over the fence.”

The Angels left for Chavez Ravine in 1962, Bilko was back in the minors in 1963 and the ballpark once acclaimed as “a monument to the national game” was leveled by the wrecking ball in 1969.  Not even the office tower built as a memorial to veterans of World War I was preserved.  At least it was the last part to come tumbling down.

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

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: