Monthly Archives: October 2013

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.

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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:

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 championship boxing matches. Soccer made its debut. The Home Run Derby television series that emerged again in the 1990s on ESPN Classic was filmed there.  A popular movie set throughout its history, Little Wrigley was used in 1958 for the cinema version of the musical, Damn Yankees.  In late 1960, L.A.’s mayor proposed a name change to George Washington Carver Park.

Baseball was out and boxing was in at Little Wrigley in 1958 with Carmen Basilio (dark trunks) mixing it up with Art Aragon.  (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/52134/rec/7)
Baseball was out and boxing was in at Little Wrigley in 1958 with Carmen Basilio (dark trunks) mixing it up with Art Aragon.
(Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/52134/rec/7)

In 1961, the American League expanded from eight to 10 teams, adding the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators.  The Angels announced they would play at Little Wrigley and used their last pick in the expansion draft to select Bilko.

“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,” wrote Morton Moss, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Examiner. “He still has a considerable rooting section. He even inspires people to poetry.”

One fan obliged:

Just read your lines on Bilko’s torso

Still feel your forte is sports – but more so!

“Big Steve was a big star in L.A.,” said Irv Kaze, public relations director for the Angels in 1961. “When the major-league Angels came into being, the Coast League was already four years gone. But Steve’s star transcended those four years.”

Steve signed for $12,500 – less than he made with the Angels in the PCL. “This could very well be my last chance,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better place to make a last stand than Wrigley Field.”

The Dodgers snubbed Wrigley Field in 1958 for a football stadium – the Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
The Dodgers snubbed Wrigley Field in 1958 for a football stadium – the Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

It was also the last stand for Little Wrigley.  The Angels planned to move in with the Dodgers at their new stadium in Chavez Ravine the next year.

“You can quote me as saying Wrigley Field will be a hitting park,” Joe DiMaggio predicted.

DiMaggio was ending his illustrious career with the New York Yankees in 1951 when a 19-year-old named Mickey Mantle hammered a homer at Little Wrigley in a spring exhibition game. The ball soared so high that the centerfielder “lost sight of it and so far that it cleared the most remote seats in the bleachers, then bounced over the wall.”

The 420-foot shot helped propel Mantle from Class C in the minors to the Yankees and stardom.

What would Mantle and other big-time sluggers do at Little Wrigley in regular-season games that counted? Surely baseball’s most coveted record, Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in a single season, was in jeopardy of being broken by a shower of cheap fly balls. The irony is that the mark was broken in 1961 by the Yankees’ Roger Maris with only two of his 61 homers coming at Little Wrigley. Mantle batted a measly .206 and hit just two of his 54 homers in L.A. The Bronx Bombers managed a mere 13 home runs, losing six of nine games.

Little Wrigley produced a single-season record of 248 homers, 122 by the Angels. “I needed a three-dollar seat to catch some of the balls that Mantle hit,” Angels centerfielder Albie Pearson recalled. “I mean, they were rockets. It was amazing the way the league kind of dwarfed that park.”

Bilko popped 12 of his 20 home runs at Little Wrigley. Altogether, the Angels parked 189 – second in the league behind the world champion Yankees’ 240.

The clock tower was the last identifying mark when the wrecker’s ball leveled L.A.’s Wrigley Field in March 1969.  (Courtesy UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives)
The clock tower was the last identifying mark when the wrecker’s ball leveled L.A.’s Wrigley Field in March 1969. (Courtesy UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives)

One of the Angels’ batboys was Scotty Keane. He was 10 years old when he got hooked on the ’56 Angels. Bilko became his hero.

“They say Yankee Stadium was a cathedral,” Scotty said. “Wrigley was the cathedral of minor league ballparks. It looked super. The fans were right on top of the action. The dugouts were small. Going up and down the stairs to the clubhouse, people could see you. I remember the accessibility of the players. Whether they stopped or not, you could see them coming in and out of the dugout.”

Scotty was kneeling in the on-deck circle when Bilko hit the last home run at Little Wrigley – a 400-foot blast over the brick wall in left field.  It came with two outs in the ninth inning of the last game of the season.  “The fact that he hit the last home run is just unbelievable.”

Dean Chance, a future Cy Young Award winner, was a 20-year-old rookie pitcher for the Angels at the time. “He hits a ball that had to be a foot over his head and hit it into outer space for a home run.  Believe me, it was unreal. What could be more fitting for that ballpark than Bilko hit a home run in the last game ever played there?”

The scene inspired a Long Beach Press-Telegram headline reading: BILKO BRINGS TEARS FROM FINALE FANS. “The tears just rolled down my face,” one fan said. “I couldn’t help it. It was so wonderful.”

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:

Opposites Attract

The teammates were a study in black and white.

Steve Bilko was a burly, beer-chugging big bopper; Bob Coats was a slender, milk-drinking singles slapper. Bilko looked like a middle linebacker, the bespectacled Coats a high school principal. The differences were even reflected in their nicknames: Stout Steve and Coatsie.

Bob Coats a study in white reduced
Despite batting a team-high .314 in 1950, Bob Coats was called the Grand Rapids Jets’ John Doe. (Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

According to one writer, Coats was one of baseball’s John Does – “a study in white when it comes to color. Quiet, modest and soft-spoken, he is the Lou Gehrig and George Kell type when it comes to personal mannerisms.”

The common thread is that both were nice guys from small towns – Bilko, Nanticoke, Pennsylvania; Coats, Woodlawn, Illinois. They also hit a baseball with authority – Bilko, long-distance bombs; Coats, line-drive shots often described as ropes.

They played on the ’55 and ’56 Los Angeles Angels teams, Bilko slamming 92 homers while Coats, a backup outfielder, batted .276 and .316 with a combined two homers. In 1957 Coats left L.A. for Memphis in the Southern Association where he posted a .327 average. Over nine minor-league seasons, Coats hit .312. He never made it to the big leagues.

“By today’s standards, he would probably be playing in the big leagues and leading off for some club,” said Johnny Goryl, a teammate in L.A. and Memphis. “He had a tremendous eye at the plate. He worked himself into good counts, he had a good on-base percentage and he wasn’t a bad outfielder.”

Coats grew up in Woodlawn, a town of 300 people located about 70 miles southeast of St. Louis. He was a St. Louis Cardinals fan. “Every Sunday, when the Cardinals were home, my friend and I would go to Mount Vernon and catch a Greyhound bus to St. Louis and then take a street car from the bus station to Sportsman’s Park, watch the ballgame and then come back.”

Three of Coatsie’s teammates in L.A. previously played for his beloved Cardinals – Bilko, second baseman Gene Mauch and Hal “Hoot” Rice, an outfielder on the ’55 team. “I was kind of in awe playing with these guys. I was just glad to be there.”

When Bilko broke in with the Cardinals in 1949, Coats was playing Class C ball in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He worked his way up the baseball chain the hard way – from D to C to B to A, and finally to the Angels in the Pacific Coast League, an open classification and the highest level of the minors.

Bilko already had seven chances in the majors (six with the Cardinals and one with the Chicago Cubs) before he joined the Angels in ’55.

“We were as opposite as could be,” Coats said.  “And yet we were good friends.”

Bilko was a celebrity in L.A., attracting attention wherever he went; Coats was as anonymous as a mail man.

“Everybody knew him,” Coats said.

Bilko and Coats were driving home one night when their car was one of two pulled over by police for going through a railroad crossing with the bars down.

One of the policemen looked in the car and saw Bilko: “You Steve Bilko?”

“Yeah, we’re just coming home from a ballgame.”

“Let’s just shoot the breeze here a few minutes,” the policeman said. “My partner has got to give that car a ticket.  Wait until they get through.”

“You want to go to a ballgame?” Steve asked.

“Yeah,” the policeman said.

“What’s your name?  I’ll leave you a couple of tickets.”

The policeman got his tickets and Steve was off the hook for a traffic violation.

“You saw it all the time,” Coats said.  “People knew him. Fans always wanted him to come to their house for dinner.”

On arriving at one fan’s house, Steve asked: “Do you have any beer?”

“I got a six-pack,” the fan said.

Steve immediately downed the six-pack. “Boy, he could chug-a-lug it,” Bob chuckled.

When Steve and Mary Bilko went to the Coats’ home for dinner one evening, there was no beer in the refrigerator. “Let’s go across the street,” Steve said.

They headed to a neighborhood bar with pool tables. “He’d have three or four beers and we’d shoot pool a little while and, then, go back to the house,” Coats recalled. “He was just a regular guy. And yet he was the star.”

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

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: