Monthly Archives: December 2013

Daring to Dream

We’re kids once and only for awhile
So follow your dreams, and do it with style.

Gaylon White_4th grade note

The worst part about being a kid is growing up. Few of our childhood dreams make it past grade school. They often are pooh-poohed by parents and teachers and eventually abandoned to cope with the harsh realities of adult life.

Syd Mead is a futurist designer, best known for his work on science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Aliens and Tron. He says, “I can think of no greater gift to oneself than to retain and add the wonder of childhood to the gathering of the adult experience.”

The White family in the early 1950s: top, left-to-right: Don, Joyce and Hooper White; bottom, left to right: Joann and Gaylon, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.
The White family in the early 1950s: top, left-to-right: Don, Joyce and Hooper White; bottom, left to right: Joann and Gaylon, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.

In writing The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Steve Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, I strived to regain the wonder of childhood I lost from 40 years of guerilla warfare in the corporate jungle.

Fortunately, my mother saved a large collection of baseball cards, yearbooks, scrapbooks and odds and ends like a note written in 1955 when I was nine years old. “It’s nice to be a baseball fan,” I scribbled. “If you want to know some baseball players names, here they are….”

The names of some of the biggest stars of the ‘50s are listed: Ray Boone, Duke Snider, Eddie Mathews, Carl Furillo, Mickey Mantle and Hank Sauer. And, then, obviously dreaming, I added Davy Crockett, Gaylon White and Don White.

In 1955, Davy Crockett was big stuff. He was “King of the Wild Frontier,” the name of a Walt Disney movie starring actor Fess Parker as Davy. I wore a coonskin cap when I wasn’t wearing my L.A. Angels baseball cap.

White Sidewalls-cropped-lldDon, 15 years old when I wrote the note, was more than a big brother. He was my first sports hero.

In 1953, Don scored 48 points for his basketball team, the White Sidewalls.  That same year, 6-foot-9 Clarence “Bevo” Francis, averaged a record 48.3 points a game to put tiny Rio Grande College on the map. The newspaper in our hometown of Santa Paula, California, reported: “Although somewhat shorter than Bevo Francis, Donnie White scored 48 points in an eighth grade basketball game Saturday, giving him a total of 64 points for the season so far and the scoring lead in the league.”

In my eyes, Don was a star, destined for greatness in basketball and baseball. He had quick hands, ran fast, and threw hard. He consistently hit balls onto the roof of a building near the field where we played pick-up games. When we went to Angel games at Wrigley Field in L.A., Don out-hustled other kids for baseballs fouled into the stands. He supplied all the baseballs we needed at home.

Don_46-Chevy-story-cropped-lldDad wanted Don to focus on basketball so he didn’t play high school baseball. He was a backup guard on the 1957 El Monte High School basketball team that won the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) central championship. He went on to put up some decent numbers as a point guard at LIFE Bible College in L.A. But I always wondered what Don would’ve done on the baseball diamond. In my mind, he could’ve traded his 1946 Chevy Fleetline for a Cadillac because home run hitters in the Fifties were driving Caddies.

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

It’s the best because there’s still that sense of wonder of what could be. As a new year begins, my hope for all kids, especially my six grandchildren (Emily, Andrew, Mary Scout, Megan, Max and Xander), is that they never lose the sense of wonder that dreams are all about.

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

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

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

A Christmas Story

This photo of Marino Pieretti singing and playing the accordion is on display at the Double Play Bar & Grill in San Francisco, across the street from where old Seals Stadium was located. (Courtesy Double Play Bar & Grill, San Francisco)
This photo of Marino Pieretti singing and playing the accordion is on display at the Double Play Bar & Grill in San Francisco, across the street from where old Seals Stadium was located. (Courtesy Double Play Bar & Grill, San Francisco)

As a former catcher, manager Bob “Grump” Scheffing liked having a few grizzled veteran pitchers around to balance the inexperience of the kid phenoms on the 1956 Los Angeles Angels pitching staff.  Marino “Chick” Pieretti, a 35-year-old right hander with six years in the majors under his belt, was ideal for the job.

 Pieretti won seven games and mentored the whiz kids in the art of pitching after joining the Angels a month into the ’56 season. With the last-place Sacramento Solons in 1955, he won 19 games with a 3.01 earned run average. He led the Pacific Coast League in innings pitched (293), and was second in complete games (25). Most amazing, was the 270 innings he averaged pitching the previous five years. “When you took Marino out of a game, you had to have a gun and point it at him,” said Johnny Briggs, a teammate in Sacramento as well as L.A.

Former New York Yankees catcher Charlie Silvera, left,  and Frank Strazzullo proudly wear their jackets honoring Marino Pieretti.
Former New York Yankees catcher Charlie Silvera, left, and Frank Strazzullo proudly wear their jackets honoring Marino Pieretti.

 

 

Described variously as a “prodigious half-pint” and “vest-pocket pitching gamecock,” Marino was listed at 5-foot-7 and 153 pounds. “Forget about 5-7; he was only 5-foot-5,” said Charlie Silvera, a former New York Yankees catcher who grew up with Marino in the North Beach area of San Francisco. And he weighed closer to 140 pounds.

Dante Benedetti, far right, coached baseball at the University of San Francisco for 29 years. He and Marino grew up in San Francisco’s North Beach area known as Little Italy.
Left to right, Bob Lagomarsino, Manny Piriano, Dan and Dante Benedetti. Dante coached baseball at the University of San Francisco for 29 years.

 

On retiring from professional baseball after the 1958 season, Marino continued playing with local semipro teams in San Francisco as well as coaching kids at Crocker Amazon Park near his home. “Every day he’d be out there from three o’clock until eight at night working with the kids,” said Dino Restelli, a former outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. “He was always willing to help somebody.”

Ex-Yankee Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia, left, and Hoover White, author Gaylon White’s beloved uncle, pose in front of mural painting of Marino at Crocker Amazon Park in San Francisco.
Ex-Yankee Rinaldo “Rugger” Ardizoia, left, and Hoover White, author Gaylon White’s beloved uncle, pose in front of mural painting of Marino at Crocker Amazon Park in San Francisco.

In 1977 Marino was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. Depressed, he stopped eating and locked himself in his room at home. Boyhood buddies Frank “Babe” Strazzullo and Dante Benedetti swung into action. They rousted Chick out of bed and hauled him off to Nick’s Rockaway Beach restaurant in Pacifica where they ate and drank like there was no tomorrow. “If you want to do this again next week,” Frank told Chick, “you’d better straighten out and live a little.”

“We started with three,” Frank said. “It kept growing and growing and growing.”

Marino’s  won-loss record for the ’56 Angels was only 7-9 but over nine Pacific Coast League seasons he posted 122 victories.
Marino won 145 games in the minors and 30 in the majors during a 17-year career.

By the time he died January 30, 1981 at age 60, Marino also was battling diabetes and heart disease. He asked his friends to continue the luncheons and raise money to buy baseball equipment for kids.   “If you don’t do all of that, I’m going to haunt you bastards,” he said. “You’re gonna be sitting around and feel a little flick behind your ears. When you do, you’ll know it’s me, serving you up one of my little knockdown pitches…my little warning.”

Benedetti died in 2005, Restelli in 2006, Strazzullo and Dante Santora in 2012. Nick Gust, the owner of Nick’s restaurant in Rockaway Beach, died December 5, 2013, at the age of 92.  Santora was 96, one of six nonagenarians attending a 2011 luncheon. “We need three more 90 year olds to field a team,” Santora quipped.

Over a 34-year period, Marino Pieretti coached some 10,000 kids in San Francisco, including Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.
Over a 34-year period, Marino Pieretti coached some 10,000 kids in San Francisco, including Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.

The Friends of Marino Pieretti meet the third Wednesday of every month at a restaurant in the San Francisco area. “This group represents Marino Pieretti’s spirit,” Benedetti said.

“Marino had a heart of gold,” added Ernie Golding, one of Marino’s many friends. “He was a giver.”

Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club and a Friends of Marino Pieretti honoree, pays tribute to the group with the following poem honed and polished by Rob “Korn King” Kennedy, the prince of limericks:

 

 

 

It was just before Christmas and all through Nick’s Rockaway
Old timers were reminiscing about baseball in the city by the Bay.
A half-century ago there were the Oaks and the Seals,
Nobody had heard of Barry Bonds, A-Rod or multi-million dollar deals.

 Every month they gather to honor Marino “Chick” Pieretti,
A man who was as Italian as ravioli and spaghetti.
Born in Lucca, Italy, and raised in North Beach,
Marino thought nothing was beyond his reach.

He played baseball well into the night
Then dreamt about it till dawn’s early light
“You stupid American,” his mother’s voice boomed off the walls,
“Play with your balls instead of all those baseballs.”

At 5-7, 153 pounds, the Seals said he was too small,
So Chick won 14 games for Washington to show them all.
What he lacked in size, he made up for with guile and guts,
An occasional fastball that knocked batters on their butts.

 In their bright green jackets, the old timers were like schoolboys,
Eating Nick’s rack of lamb, drinking wine and making lots of noise.
Frank Strazzullo, the emcee, was battling cancer and not too sturdy:
“Listen up! Let’s go, I’ve got a hot date at 1:30.”

 Nobody could hear Frank so he had to yell,
“While I’m on this earth, I’m going to give you some hell!”
The motto of Pieretti’s friends is the will to live,
Inspired by Marino, there’s also a will to give.

Marino loved teaching kids how to play the game
Fundamentals and discipline – they were his aim.
He gave away caps, uniforms, gloves and shoes,
And instilled a burning desire never to lose.

“If I had to pick a Mr. Baseball, it would be Marino Pieretti,”
Offered his long-time friend, Dante Benedetti.
He was at Crocker Amazon Park all the time
Coaching thousands of kids, loving the dirt and the grime.

 And, then, doctors said he had the Big Three:
Cancer… heart disease…diabetes – how could that be?
Marino stopped eating, locking himself in his room,
Until Frank and Dante came calling with a wide-brimmed broom.

“If you’re going to die,” they said, “let’s die happy.
Let’s go to Nick’s, and make it snappy.”
They ate and drank until they were merry
Laughing so hard at bawdy jokes it was scary.

Ex-Yankee Rugger Ardizoia came, Joe and Dom DiMaggio, too
The luncheons got bigger and louder, much like a zoo.
I feel lousy but not as lousy as you look,”
Marino joked as his weakened body shook.

San Francisco named a ball field after Chick
At Crocker Amazon Park, not far from Candlestick.
A mural there features Marino in a ‘56 Angels cap,
His game face is on and he’s takin’ no crap.

A local politico promised the park would be the best
So at the dedication ceremony Marino put him to the test.
If the field ever suffered from neglect and blight,
He’d come down with a flashlight, ready to fight.

Nearly 33 years have passed since Marino died,
The luncheons roll on like an ocean’s full tide.
Money is raised so young boys can play
Like the grand game ‘back in the day’.

There were no earrings or necklaces, no Fancy Dan stuff
Kids came ready to play and sometimes it got rough.
Everybody had a nickname – Niggy, Potatohead and, of course, Chick,
Pity the poor kid named plain ol’ Rick or Dick.

The green jacket is a symbol of Marino’s fighting spirit,
It’s not for hanging in a closet ‘cause you’re so proud to wear it.
It also serves as a reminder that Marino is on your back,
Putting a bug in your ear to never give up and just stay on track.

 To find out more about sandlot baseball in the Bay Area, check out the Good Old Sandlot Days website:  http://www.goodoldsandlotdays.com/

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

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

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

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

The Great, Good and the Ugly

1172512_10152129091943083_386832849_o
Author Gaylon White displays baseball signed by the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.  (Photo by Alan Lee)

The three autographed baseballs are a throwback to the past when baseball cards were five cents a pack and sports memorabilia was treasured for its sentimental value, not financial. They belonged to Raymond “Moe” Bauer, a left-handed relief pitcher for the 1955 and 1956 Los Angeles Angels and 1957 Portland Beavers. The baseballs are signed by most of the players on the teams and, based on their on-field performance, represent the great, good and the ugly of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The gem of the trio is a baseball signed by Steve Bilko and his ’56 Angel teammates, PCL champs and arguably the last great minor league team. Fittingly, the signatures of Bilko and George Freese are next to each other. They roomed together on road trips and after home games they relaxed in the Wrigley Field clubhouse whirlpool swilling bottles of beer. “Steve loved his beer,” George said. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.”

The ’56 Angels won 107 games to run away with the PCL championship.
The ’56 Angels won 107 games to run away with the PCL championship.

The ’55 Angels tied for third-place, a solid pitching staff complementing the power hitting of Bilko and James “Buzz” Clarkson.  In addition to the two sluggers, the ’55 Angels baseball features the autographs of Jim Brosnan, Don Elston, Omar “Turk” Lown, Joe Hatten and Emory “Bubba” Church. Brosnan and Elston won 17 games apiece and Lown 12 with a miniscule 2.13 earned run average (ERA). All of them went on to star in the majors as relief pitchers. Hatten and Church were 11 game winners. Both had success in the majors prior to joining the Angels, Hatten notching 17 victories for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and Church 15 for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1951.

George Piktuzis appeared in only two games in the majors but his autograph on the ’55 ball is worth noting because of a no-hitter he tossed against the San Francisco Seals July 21, 1955. Before hurting his arm, the 23-year-old Piktuzis was the talk of the league. “The kid looks like he’s been pitching for 20 years,” said Bill Sweeney, manager of the Angels at the time.  “He’s the best mound prospect I’ve seen in the Pacific Coast League in many a season,” added Lefty O’Doul, manager of the Oakland Oaks.  After flailing futilely at Pik’s pitches, veteran Oaks slugger Joe Brovia muttered, “I’d like to have that kid’s left arm; he’s gonna make a lot of money with it.”

Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson are seated next to each other (second row, far left) in this team photo of the 1955 Angels.  (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson are seated next to each other (second row, far left) in this team photo of the 1955 Angels. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

 

Clarkson, called Buzz by the L.A. media and fans, signed as “Bus” – short for Buster, his middle name.

In early 1957 when the Dodgers announced they were relocating from Brooklyn to L.A. the next year, the Beavers replaced the Angels as the Chicago Cubs’ Coast League affiliate. Signatures for Bauer, Freese, Casey Wise and Bob Thorpe grace both the ’56 Angels and ’57 Beavers balls.

1955 Angels baseball with autographs of Jack Warner, a coach; Piper Davis; Buzz Clarkson; Joe Hatten; Bubba Church, Steve Bilko and Jim Brosnan.
1955 Angels baseball with autographs of Jack Warner, a coach; Piper Davis; Buzz Clarkson; Joe Hatten; Bubba Church, Steve Bilko and Jim Brosnan.

As great as the ’56 Angels were in winning 107 games, the ’57 Beavers were ugly, losing 108 games to finish 41 games behind first-place San Francisco.

“Oh, God, it was an awful team,” said Wise. “When they sent me out from Chicago, I really had a bad attitude. I thought, ‘I finally made it and now I’m with this bad team.’”

“It was terrible,” agreed Eddie Winceniak, a shortstop for the ’55 Angels and the ’57 Beavers. “This guy was going somewhere, the next guy somewhere else. And we were getting guys that were just, you could say, out of the sandlot. That’s how bad it got.”

 

After posting a 6-1 record and 3.16 ERA for the ’56 Angels, Bauer had a 4-4 mark and 4.15 ERA for the Beavers.

The Angels had high hopes for lefty George Piktuzis after he tossed a no-hitter in 1955. Gene Mauch and Gale Wade also starred for the ’55 Angels.
The Angels had high hopes for lefty George Piktuzis after he tossed a no-hitter in 1955. Gene Mauch and Gale Wade also starred for the ’55 Angels.

Bill Posedel, a former pitcher for the Boston Braves and chief warrant officer in the U.S. Navy, managed the Beavers most of the season. “His concept was that everybody was in the ballgame regardless of whether they played or not,” said Bauer.  “And after a loss, you need to examine yourself to find out how you contributed to that loss. We lost over 100 games. That’s a lot of time after a ballgame to sit in front of your locker with your head in your hands, trying to figure out in the next 10-to-15 minutes how you contributed to the loss when you didn’t even get in the game.  I spent a whole lot of time doing self-examination on games I didn’t even play in.”

Portland was not a place ex-Angels wanted to be in 1957.
Portland was not a place ex-Angels wanted to be in 1957.

 

The three autographed baseballs are a slice of baseball history slowly disappearing into the past. Most of all, they are a reminder of the talented players who made PCL the grandest and greatest minor league of them all.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Of Bilko, Konerko and Wilhelm

“You know who reminds me of Steve Bilko?”

Dean Chance_Topps_1962Asking the question was Dean Chance, winner of 128 major-league games and the Cy Young Award in 1964 when he led the American League in wins (20), innings pitched (278 1/3) and earned run average (1.65), the latter still a record for the Angels franchise. Chance was 20 years old when he made his big league debut in 1961.  He won 14 games for the Angels the following year, Bilko’s last in the majors.

“Paul Konerko,” Chance continued. “Same type of swing; same motion. I’ll bet he has close to 400 home runs.”

Konerko has 434 home runs in a 17-year career that’s still going. Bilko belted 76 homers in the majors but he played regularly only in 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals when he swatted 21 round-trippers.

Steve Bilko started at first base in 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals – the only time he was an everyday player in the majors. (Author’s collection)
Steve Bilko started at first base in 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals – the only time he was an everyday player in the majors. (Author’s collection)

Like Bilko, Konerko is right handed and plays first base. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Konerko is an inch taller and 10-to-80 pounds lighter than Bilko who parried questions about his weight with a pat answer: “Somewhere between 230 and 300 pounds.”  Even Steve’s wife, Mary, ducked the question. “Why I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs,” Mrs. Bilko told one prying reporter. “The papers said he ‘trimmed down to a mere 232.’ But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?”

“I’ll tell you something about Bilko,” Chance said. “He hit Hoyt Wilhelm better than anybody I’ve ever seen. You were screwed when Wilhelm come in with that knuckleball.”

Wilhelm perfected a knuckleball that over 21 major-league seasons (1952-1972) baffled hitters and earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame with 143 wins, 227 saves and a 2.51 earned run average, the lowest of any pitcher with 2,000-plus innings after 1927.

paul-konerko-beyonderstv
Paul Konerko ranks 42nd on the list of top home run hitters of all time with 434

 

Chance and Wilhelm briefly played together for the Baltimore Orioles in 1960.  “After the first day of spring training, I always stood beside him. He threw a knuckleball that damn near tore my nuts off.  With Bilko’s compact swing and the knuckleball…check what he did lifetime against Wilhelm.”

Bilko batted .409 against Wilhelm (9-for-22) with two homers and six runs batted in. The knuckleballer struck out Bilko only once.

WilhelmHoyt1954“I remember most how he hit Hoyt Wilhelm,” Chance recalled. “Nobody else could hit him.

If Bilko played today, Chance was asked, would he hit as many homers as Konerko?

“F… yeah,” he said empathetically.

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan: