Monthly Archives: January 2014

They Could Play Football, Too!

The stylish waffle-weave uniforms worn by the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 were inspired by the football jerseys of the 1955 UCLA Bruins.  This was fitting because the slugging Seraphs were once mashers on the gridiron with more speed and firepower than a lot of football teams.

This picture statuette of Bob Speake showcases the waffle-weave uniform worn by the ’56 Angels
This picture statuette of Bob Speake showcases the waffle-weave uniform worn by the ’56 Angels

 

One of the spring training stars was Sam “First Down” Brown, an all-America tailback fresh from leading UCLA to a 9-2 record, No. 4 national ranking and the 1956 Rose Bowl. “To the public, Brown is a great football star, but to the talent hunters of professional baseball, he is a better baseball player than a footballer,”the Angels proclaimed in their ’56 yearbook.

Brown was gone by opening day but the Angels were still deep at the running back position with right-fielder Jim Bolger, a star halfback at Cincinnati Purcell High School who attracted college football scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin and many others.

 

Playing alongside Bolger in center field was Gale “Windy” Wade, a star halfback for the Bremerton, Washington, high school team in 1946. In the same backfield was Don Heinrich, later a quarterback for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League. “After all these years,” Heinrich said well into his pro career, “I still have to say I never saw anybody start faster on a quick-opening handoff than Wade. If he had decided to go into professional football, he would have made somebody take notice.”

The ’56 Angels uniform was patterned after the football jerseys worn by Sam Brown, foreground, and his UCLA teammates in 1955.  (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/84864/rec/1 )
The ’56 Angels uniform was patterned after the football jerseys worn by Sam Brown, foreground, and his UCLA teammates in 1955. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/84864/rec/1 )

Wade accepted a football scholarship from Texas Christian University, but changed his mind when a Brooklyn Dodgers scout offered him $5,000 to play baseball.

“Football was really my sport,” Wade said. “Baseball was a very difficult game for me.  I chose the wrong direction when I went into professional baseball.  I should’ve stuck with football.  The very nature of a football player is different.  And my feeling was when I went on the field was to always go all out.”

Mounted on the basement wall of Wade’s home in Dysartsville, North Carolina, is a photo showing him flying through the air and body slamming the chest of the second baseman. “He wound up in left-centerfield,” Wade said proudly.

 

For Gene Mauch, the Angels’ second-baseman, Wade’s daring style of play reminded him of “these guys on TV riding those bucking broncos and those steers… he was one of those guys.”

Rolling, cross-body crashes into an infielder to break up a double play made Gale Wade a fearful sight at second base. (Courtesy Gale Wade)
Rolling, cross-body crashes into an infielder to break up a double play made Gale Wade a fearful sight at second base. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

So was Bolger. “I never saw a guy with such intensity,” said Jack Hannah, younger brother of Joe, one of the Angel catchers. “He kind of worried me; he had that look in his eyes.”

Joe Hannah was an all-America fullback in high school at Visalia, California. “He was an awesome football player,” Jack said. “He had scholarship offers from USC, UCLA, all of the Pac Eight schools at the time. If he’d gone on and played for USC, he would’ve never played baseball. He would’ve been a pro football player.”

Left-fielder Bob Speake was a tailback on the Southwest Missouri State football team in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. In fact, the back of Speake’s 1956 Topps baseball card reads: “In high school he was a fine athlete and played football at college.”

Third-baseman George Freese was the starting quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh when he was eighteen years old.  He also played at the University of West Virginia, receiving All-America honorable mention in 1946. Freese turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The mightiest Angel of them all, Steve Bilko, was a guard and fullback in high school, winning all-star honors the two years he played before signing a contract to play pro baseball.

When the Angels unveiled their new waffle-weave uniforms for the ’56 season, John Holland, the team’s president, declared they were “a revolution in baseball,” noting: “It’s the first time a wide, football-type shoulder band of knitted-weave nylon has been introduced on the shoulder line.”

Bob Speake’s football talents were featured on the back of his 1956 Topps baseball card
Bob Speake’s football talents were featured on the back of his 1956 Topps baseball card

 

A wide blue-and-red waffle-weave stripe encircled the shoulders and ran down the sides of the pants. “The thought that went through my mind when I got to L.A. and saw the uniform in my locker was softball,” Speake says. “This can’t be true.”

 

 

The purpose of the waffle-weave stripes, Holland explained, was “to give the Angels more throwing freedom, and to make them more eye-catching.”

“Inserting the waffle-weave stripes was my idea,” said Max West, a former Angel star who went on to operate a sporting goods store. “The players liked them because they gave them freedom. They were much cooler than the regular uniforms.”

“It wore well,” Speake said, adding it was a “winner’s uniform – you had to be a winner to wear it to keep people from laughing at you.”Bob Speake_1956_back of card

“They’ll make a hit with the hemlines,” Jeane Hoffman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “even if they stumble all over the baselines!”

“Bilko loved the uniforms,” West said.

“Nobody can laugh at the ball club for what we accomplished,” Speake said.

He’s right about that. The ’56 Angels rolled like a football juggernaut to the Pacific Coast League pennant.

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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:

Life is a Knuckleball

Life is a knuckleball.

I was two years old when I was stricken with polio and sent to a hospital with a bunch of other kids. Some never went home. I did and a few years later was playing catch and, inspired by Willie “The Knuck” Ramsdell, trying to throw a knuckleball.

This photo of author appeared Dec. 6, 1948 in  Los Angeles Times.
This photo of author appeared Dec. 6, 1948 in Los Angeles Times.

 

Ramsdell pitched for the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League in 1952 and 1953. He was nearing the end of a 14-year career that included stints with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cincinnati Redlegs and Chicago Cubs in the majors and 13 different teams in the minors. Altogether, he won 177 games – 24 in the majors and 153 in the minors. Not bad for a guy, described by one sportswriter, as “seriously handicapped as a pitcher because everything but his knuckler was strictly Class D.”

 

Willie figured this out on his own.  “When I started pitching professionally for the Big Spring team in the West Texas-New Mexico League in 1938, I found the light air there made it difficult for me to get the ball to curve,” Ramsdell said. “In self-defense, I adopted the knuckler that season and it has been my most dependable pitch ever since.”

Willie had identical 5-6 records both years he was with the Angels. His earned run average the first season was a decent 3.64 but, then, it ballooned to 4.98. The next season, his last as a pro, he pitched for three teams in the lower minors and didn’t win a single game. None of this matters because Willie and the knuckler are forever linked by name.

Willie Ramsdell_Reds“Willie the Knuck” wasn’t the first to throw the knuckleball. And he wasn’t nearly as successful as Hall of Famers Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro or Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey, the most recent practitioners of the wackiest pitch ever invented.

A knuckler is like magic. It  seemingly dances, dips, darts, floats, flutters, zigs and zags.

“To the masses, it’s a circus pitch,” Dickey said.

“It’s erratic,” said Charlie Hough, a knuckleballer who won 216 games. “It’s difficult. When it is not done well, it’s really bad.”

“You can’t ever give up on it,” Dickey added. “Because once it leaves your hand, it’s up to the world what it’s going to do.”

Even the name of the knuckler is misleading. It is thrown with the finger tips, not the knuckles.  It barely spins and it moves so slowly that Willie, for example, almost had time to sneak a  shot of whiskey from the half pint usually concealed in a bag of chewing tobacco carried in his hip pocket.

“We used to kid him about a bootleg play,” said Jim Waldrip, referring to a play in football where the quarterback hides the ball by his thigh to confuse the defense. Waldrip pitched in the Class C Western Association in 1954 when Willie was player-manager of the Iola Indians.  “He was quiet a character,” Waldrip noted.

With the game on the line, Willie used a change-up to whiff Ralph Kiner, National League home run champ seven consecutive years (1946-52). “Figured I’d pull the string on him,” he quipped.

A knuckleball, like life, requires a sense of humor.

Bob Uecker, a former major league catcher, said “the best way for a catcher to handle the pitch was to wait for it to stop rolling and then pick it up.”

Mike Hargrove, a solid .290 hitter over 12 seasons in the majors, once was asked how to hit a knuckleball. “Stick your tongue out the left side of your mouth in the even innings and out the right side in the odd innings,” he said.

Perhaps the greatest life lesson to learn from the knuckler is the importance of adapting to a situation.

A hitter doesn’t know where a knuckleball is going any more than the pitcher or catcher. The hitter has to adjust his normal swing. Catchers switch to oversized gloves that are used like a backstop. The unpredictability of the knuckleball means the pitcher is always adapting to what it’s doing on a given day.

Barney Schultz, a knuckleball pitcher for the Chicago Cubs at the time, was warming up in the bullpen during a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at the Los Angeles Coliseum. One of Barney’s knucklers hit the catcher in the face. Catchers started wearing masks when they warmed up knuckleballers.

When I spent a day with Steve Bilko in 1976 at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, it was for a book I was researching on players who were great in the minors and flops in the majors.  The book I envisioned was put on hold while I raised a family and worked in the corporate world.

Dave Hillman, left, and Gale Wade, centerfielder for the ’56 Angels, are enjoying the memories in this photo taken in 2000.
Dave Hillman, left, and Gale Wade, centerfielder for the ’56 Angels, are enjoying the memories in this photo taken in 2000.

In 2000, I was having lunch with Dave Hillman, ace of the 1956 Angels pitching staff with 21 victories. He was thumbing through the ’56 Angels yearbook when he came to a photo of Hy Cohen, another Angel pitcher. “Whatever happened to Hy Cohen?”

A month into the 1956 season, Dave was nursing a sore right throwing arm. He had pitched to only one batter prior to facing the Seattle Rainiers.

 

 

“They gave me the ball to pitch,” Dave recalled. “They wanted to find out if I could make it. And if I couldn’t, I would’ve been gone. Hy was 5-0 at that point. Of course, I made it. I beat Seattle. I was on my way.

“And then Hy was shipped out. That always bothered me. I’ve thought about it many times. Why was Hy shipped out? I don’t know what happened to him. All I know is that he was gone.”

Baseball is a game of revolving doors. Players come and go quickly, sometimes never to be seen nor heard of again. Dave’s question made me curious to find out more about Cohen and why a pitcher with a perfect 5-0 record – the best in the league at the time – was sent to the lower minors.

Hy Cohen had a 5-0 won-loss record when the Angels sent him to the lower minors in 1956.
Hy Cohen had a 5-0 won-loss record when the Angels sent him to the lower minors in 1956.

I ended up interviewing Cohen and most of the other ’56 Angels. The result is this blog and the book both called The Bilko Athletic Club after the team’s nickname.

As the book was going to press I learned Bilko liked knuckleballs, too – particularly if they were being tossed by Wilhelm, perhaps the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time. Against Wilhelm, Bilko batted .409 (9-for-22) with two home runs. “He hit Hoyt Wilhelm better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Dean Chance, a teammate of Bilko’s with Angels in 1961-62, their first two years in the American League, and winner of the 1964 Cy Young Award.

 

That’s what Chance remembers most about Bilko – he could hit a knuckleball, the most unpredictable pitch in baseball and one that most resembles life.

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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 Tribute to Mom

Mom turns 93 today.

There are many nice things I could write about my mother but the biggest tribute is saluting her wisdom and vision for saving my baseball card collection after I left home for college.

Author Gaylon White with his mother, Joyce White.
Author Gaylon White with his mother, Joyce White.

This may seem trivial to some but there are legions of boys who lost their treasured cards when an overzealous mom tossed them in the trash.  A few years ago I happened to mention my good fortune to someone not so fortunate. He broke into tears as he told the sad tale of the Mickey Mantle cards his mother treated like Mickey Mouse’s droppings.

Mom didn’t follow baseball but, like Mickey, she was from Oklahoma, and knew the thousands of cards I accumulated in the 1950s were special. So she preserved them until I was out of college and living in an apartment where I had enough storage space to take them back.

 

Mom and Dad hauled the cards in the trunk of their car from Los Angeles to Kansas City, Missouri. They were neatly organized in a large cardboard box, exactly how I left them a decade earlier.

Willie Mays_1956Ernie Banks was still smiling on his 1954 Topps rookie card. The 1956 Topps card of Willie Mays was good as new and my two 1956 Topps cards of Mantle were in mint condition.

As time passed I’ve kept my mother current on the market value of the cards I purchased in a five-card pack (with bubble gum) for a nickel. The asking price on eBay for the Banks card in near-mint condition is $4,000. The Mays card is selling for nearly $800 and Mantle for $2,169.

Mickey Mantle_1956Hearing what the cards are worth today makes Mom smile. She may not know much about baseball, but she knows a good investment when she sees one.

 

 

 

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The Bilko Athletic Club is a book about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, a team of castoffs and kids built around a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs named Steve Bilko. The 320-page hardcover book,  published by  Rowman & Littlefield, features a foreword by John Schulian, former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and longtime contributor to Sports Illustrated and GQ.

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

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

Tale of the Ring

Raymond “Moe” Bauer and his son, Paul, were in Atlanta to see the Braves play the Montreal Expos, managed at the time by Gene Mauch. Moe called a batboy over to his seat near the dugout and handed him a ring. “Take this to Coach Mauch and ask him if he’ll see the person who owns this ring.”

Moments later Mauch looked up into the stands, quickly recognizing his former teammate, as skinny as ever. “Hey, Moe, come on down.”

When people asked Moe about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, he showed them the championship ring given the players after capturing the Pacific Coast League title. “It’s not a World Series ring. But it’s a beautiful ring – the most beautiful minor league ring I’ve seen. There are only 25 or so of them around.”

Moe died in 2005. Paul now wears his father’s ring on his right hand. Bob Speake, the team’s left-fielder, wore his Angels championship ring every day until 2011 when Bruce, his oldest son, celebrated his 56th birthday. “This way I know the ring will stay in the family.”

Speake was wearing his ring in 2002 when he and centerfielder Gale Wade met pitcher Dave Hillman, a 21-game winner for the ’56 Angels, in Newland, North Carolina for a mini-reunion.  Wade lives nearby in Dysartsville, North Carolina, and Hillman in Kingsport, Tennessee. Bob and Dave immediately compared their rings, and, then, chided Wade for not wearing his. “I’ve got it in a safe deposit box,” Gale explained. “I’ll give it to my grandson.”

Dave Hillman wears his championship ring proudly.
Dave Hillman proudly wears his championship ring.

The oval-shaped gold ring features a baseball diamond over two crossed bats, topped by a crown with diamonds. Four small diamonds representing infield bases flank a big round diamond in the middle. The initials L.A. are on one side of the baseball diamond, and the numerals 56 on the other. At the bottom are the letters PCL.

Mauch was involved in the design of the ring just as he was in virtually every other aspect of the team. “Bob Scheffing was our manager but Mauch was the cat’s meow on the field,” said Eddie Haas, a starting outfielder until Wade joined the Angels a month into the season.  “He told everybody where to go, what to do.”

 

The Angels closed the 1956 season with a special day for their star, Steve Bilko.  That evening Angel president John Holland treated the players and their wives to a performance by Nat “King” Cole at the swank Coconut Grove in L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel.

For Speake, the gathering symbolized the esprit de corps from Holland at the top of the organization down through Scheffing and the players. “It was just like a big family.”

“You won’t find that happening very often,” said Gene Fodge, a pitcher who won 19 games. “It was a fine thing and that’s just what 1956 was all about.”

Cole, a big Angels fan, mingled with the players and, then, entertained them with a medley of hit songs, including Unforgettable:

Unforgettable, that’s what you are

Unforgettable through near and far… ©

The players soon scattered near and far but they had their rings to remind them of an unforgettable season.

UNFORGETTABLE

By Irving Gordon

©Copyright 1951 by Bourne Co.

Copyright Renewed

All Rights Reserved International Copyright Secured

ASCAP

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

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

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

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan: