Monthly Archives: November 2013

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: