Monthly Archives: April 2014

Let’s Play Two

It was the summer of 1969 and the 100-plus temperatures in Chicago were taking its toll on the Chicago Cubs, embroiled in a heated pennant race with the New York Mets. Ernie Banks looked around the clubhouse at his weary teammates and made his now famous declaration, “It’s a great day for a ball game. Let’s play two!”

Easter Sunday was a beautiful day for baseball in Cartersville, Georgia, where author Gaylon White lives, so it was only fitting that two radio stations broadcast interviews about his book, The Bilko Athletic Club.

“I played catch with my grandkids and was able to spread the news about Steve Bilko and the ’56 Angels – my own rendition of Banks’ ‘let’s play two’ theme,” said White, a long-suffering Cub fan.

In the interview with Steve Thomson of WCCO-Radio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, White pointed out that the ’56 Angels were made up of Cub castoffs who teamed in L.A. to have career years and win 107 games, finishing 16 games ahead of their closest competitor. He also said that the Angels’ ballpark, Wrigley Field, best known nowadays as the site for ESPN Classics’ Home Run Derby, was the first to sport that name. Chicago’s Wrigley Field was called Cubs Park from 1914, the year it opened, to 1926 when it was renamed.

Marty Lurie of KNBR-Radio in Berkeley, California, called his interview with White “a good historical perspective of baseball, which we love, but, of course, of a time on the West Coast when baseball really was king.”

White discusses the old Pacific Coast League (PCL), the closest thing California fans had to the major leagues until the Dodgers and Giants relocated to Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1958.

Lurie recalled an interview he did with the late Dino Restelli, a hard-hitting outfielder from San Francisco who preferred playing in the PCL rather than in the big leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates because “it was more lucrative.”

“Bilko took a pay cut when he went back to the majors in 1958 with Cincinnati,” White added.

“No city has a greater tradition in baseball than San Francisco,” White said.

Marino Pieretti
Marino Pieretti

As an example, he cited the Friends of Marino Pieretti, a group that has met the third Wednesday of every month since 1981 to honor the pint-sized ’56 Angel pitcher who grew up in San Francisco’s Little Italy and won 115 games over seven Coast League seasons.

Pieretti was such a fiery competitor that, according to Johnny Briggs, a teammate in Sacramento as well as L.A., “you had to have a gun and point it at him” when you took him out of a game.

White described how Marino, pitching for the Sacramento Solons, was getting clobbered in a game when his manager, Tony Freitas, decided he’d seen enough. Instead of handing the ball to Freitas when he got to the pitcher’s mound, Marino heaved it over the grandstand and stomped off the field. On returning to the dugout, Freitas told Marino, “If you’d thrown the ball like that during the game, you’d still be out there.”

Listen to White’s interview with Lurie:

Listen to the interview with WCCO’s Thompson:

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

 

Bilkomania Topic of Presentation at L.A. SABR Meeting

Before Beatlemania, there was Bilkomania.

And that will be the focus of Gaylon White’s presentation on his book, The Bilko Athletic Club, at a meeting of the Allan Roth chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) Saturday, May 3 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. The group will meet from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.Nixon Reminisces_edit

The meeting coincides with a “Presidents and Baseball” exhibit that showcases the colorful history between American presidents and baseball through rare memorabilia and one-of-a-kind artifacts.

President Nixon saw his first baseball game at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field when he was “in the eighth grade, a kid around 12.” He was at Wrigley Field in 1961 when the Los Angeles Angels and the ballpark made their major league debut.. The Angels played in the Pacific Coast League – a minor league – from 1903-1957 and then, relocated, to Spokane, Washington, when the Dodgers arrived in L.A. in 1958.

Steve Bilko, the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
Steve Bilko, the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

For the Angels home opener, Bilko started in right field instead of first base, his customary position, to make room in the lineup for slugger Ted Kluszewski, also a first sacker. The Angels wore new caps featuring a halo on top. “When I came to the ballpark the day I was to play right field, I see this cap in my locker with this white thing around the top,” Bilko said. “I yelled to our clubhouse manager: ‘What’s this?  A bull’s eye so I’ll get hit on the head?'”

Bilko made a running one-handed catch, prompting Angel manager Bill Rigney to say, “Bilko didn’t look too bad out there.”

Six months earlier, then Vice President Nixon narrowly lost to Sen. John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Sitting next to Nixon was Casey Stengel, the former New York Yankees manager, and his wife, Edna. Casey confided to a reporter: “Edna offered Mr. Nixon a job as president of our next bank, but he hasn’t given her an answer yet.”

In three seasons with the Coast League Angels from 1955-57, Bilko blasted 148 home runs and was easily the biggest celebrity in L.A. both in size and popularity. His name appeared in print so many times that, according to Angels’ publicist George Goodale, “there wasn’t a movie star that could touch him.”

“When the major-league Angels came into being, the Coast League was already four years gone but Steve’s star transcended those four years, ” observed Irv Kaze, public relations director for the ’61 Angels.

The apex of Bilkomania was 1956 when Stout Steve won the PCL’s Triple Crown. Angel manager Bob Scheffing declared Bilko was better known in L.A. than Marilyn Monroe. A L.A. newspaper carried a series of articles titled “Bilko the Great.”  The same publication ran a story, “Rocky Just Small Boy Beside Bilko,” comparing Bilko’s physical measurements with those of Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight boxing champ at the time.  The L.A. Times tracked Stout Steve’s pursuit of the Coast League’s all-time home run record with the “Bilko Homerometer” while the L.A. Examiner used the “Bilko Meter.”

L-R, Ted Kluszewski and Bilko with ’61 Angels.   (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
L-R, Ted Kluszewski and Bilko with ’61 Angels. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

 

“He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one,” recalled Bobby Grich, former all-star second-baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels who was seven years old in ’56. Bilko became his hero.

“He had this Babe Ruth-like figure,” added Jim “Mudcat” Grant, a pitcher who faced Bilko in both the Coast League and the majors. “And his thing was hittin’ home runs.”

 

 

 

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

 

‘Pleasant Look Back’

The Bilko Athletic Club “is a pleasant look back at what a man and his excellent ball club could mean to a California community in the days when the Major League Baseball map extended only to St. Louis,” Bill Littlefield says on Only A Game, the nationally syndicated program he hosts weekly on National Public Radio.Only-A-Game

“The closest thing we had to Major League Baseball up until 1958 was the Pacific Coast League,” author Gaylon White tells Littlefield in their interview broadcast April 19. “Mudcat Grant, the former pitcher both in the big leagues and the Coast League, refers to it as a minor major league.”

As Littlefield points out in this review of the book, Bilko “was the pride of Los Angeles before the Dodgers arrived, and according to his manager, in the City of Stars, he was bigger than Marilyn Monroe.”

As an example of Bilko’s popularity, White cites references to the stout slugger in a Hallmark greeting card booklet featuring Peanuts cartoon characters. The excerpt from pages 90-91 of the book can be read on the Only A Game website: http://onlyagame.wbur.org/2014/04/18/excerpt-bilko-athletic-club

For highlights from Littlefield’s conversation with White and his thoughts on the book, click on the following link:  http://onlyagame.wbur.org/2014/04/19/bilko-athletic-club-white

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

 

Extraordinary Book

“Thank you so much for putting together this extraordinary book,” Dr. Alvin Augustus Jones says to author Gaylon White in wrapping up their 16-minute conversation about White’s book, The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.

: Steve Bilko broke into the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949. In 1953, he batted .251 with 21 homers and 84 RBI’s. (Author’s collection)
Steve Bilko broke into the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949. In 1953, he batted .251 with 21 homers and 84 RBI’s. (Author’s collection)

Dr. Alvin features “world leaders and thinkers” on his radio show, which is broadcast on WCBQ-AM and WHNC-AM in Raleigh, North Carolina.

With no major league teams west of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1956, the Pacific Coast League (PCL) was “our own major league,” the Los Angeles-born White tells Dr. Alvin. He goes on to explain that the majors today consist of six teams in five Coast League cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Diego and Seattle.

White traces the career of Steve Bilko, star of the ’56 Angels, from his hometown of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, to St. Louis, where he broke in with the Cardinals in 1949, to his arrival in Los Angeles in 1955. He walloped 148 home runs for the Angels over the next three seasons.

Bilko had no business being in L.A., White says, citing the slugger’s 21 homers and 84 runs batted in with the Cardinals in 1953, his first full season in the majors. Bilko was traded to the Cubs in 1954 where he languished on the bench most of the year.

The interview can be heard by clicking on the following link:

http://dralvinjones.com/detailmedia.php?id=6204

DrAlvin.Com archives over 9,500 audio and picture files: www.dralvin.com.

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

 

Beyond the Game (and the ’56 Angels)

BtG-John and Gaylon
John Vorperian interviewing Gaylon H. White on Beyond the Game.

Fielding questions from a prosecutor is something you want to avoid. But if it’s John Vorperian, a prosecutor in White Plains, New York, and the subject is baseball, it’s a totally different story.

Vorperian is host and executive producer of “Beyond the Game,” a sports talk show he has anchored on White Plains Cable Television since 2002, interviewing an all-star lineup of authors and athletes. “In a medium populated by people who are American idols one day and forgotten the next, Mr. Vorperian has been as durable and dependable as Cal Ripken, baseball’s ironman, who played in 2,632 consecutive games,” the New York Times reported in a 2007 story.

On March 13, 2014, Vorperian interviewed Gaylon H. White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club, a newly-released Rowman and Littlefield book about the 1956 Los Angeles Angels. Vorperian deftly guides White through a series of photographs from the book to take viewers beyond the game, the team and the ‘56 season.

A video of the 30-minute show can be seen on YouTube by clicking on the following link:

http://youtu.be/-VIiJEeQWj4

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

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:

Fun Times at the Ballpark

Bobby Bragan_arguing call
A familiar sight: Bobby Bragan nose-to-nose with an umpire. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

Bobby Bragan was talking about one of the many times he got thrown out of a game for a run-in with an umpire.

“I said: ‘If you don’t mind, before I leave I’ve got a message for the pitcher.’ So I walked out to the mound.  He followed me to the mound. I said: ‘I need to talk to the third baseman now.’ He followed me over there. The umpire had called the police so I’m leading this policeman and I tell him: ‘Hey, I need to talk to these players before I leave.’”

Bobby is laughing at the memory of the 1952 Texas League game between his team, the Fort Worth Cats, and the Oklahoma City Indians in Oklahoma City. “I led him to all of the positions and then walked off the field with him.  It was fun.”

Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)
Bragan bows in mock politeness as he gets thumb from amused umpire Gerry Van Keuren. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t like Bragan. He was the hot dog manager of the Hollywood Stars, a hot dog team that needed a mustard factory to cover it. One of the Stars, Carlos Bernier, was even handed hot dogs by a fan in centerfield during a game in Salt Lake City in 1962 when he played for the Hawaii Islanders. “The hot dogs,” Bernier recalled later, “are still in centerfield in Salt Lake City.  I never touch them. If he give to me after the game, I eat it. Why not?  When I finish a ballgame, I hungry all the time.”

The post-game radio show of every Stars game ended with announcer Mark Scott saying: “And remember sports fans, whether you win or lose, always be a good sport.”

Scott’s signature signoff was a homily of sorts but it was never enough to cover the antics of Bragan and Bernier.

Bragan guided the Twinks from 1953-55; Bernier was the darling of Star fans like actor George Raft for five seasons (1952 and 1954-57).

“He was never, never out,” Bragan said of Bernier. “He could be thrown out by 10 feet but to Bernier he was never out.”

Bernier slapped an effeminate umpire nicknamed “Sweets” after being called out on strikes in a game late in ’54 season. “Kind of like you’d tap a girl on the cheek,” Bragan added.

Bernier was leading the first-place Stars in hitting and stolen bases at the time. “Carlos was suspended the rest of the year. We finished in a tie and lost the playoff. Losing Carlos cost us the pennant.”

Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)
Bragan holds halo over head of Carlos Bernier, a fellow tormentor of umpires. (Author’s collection)

Bragan was so upset with the umpiring in a game against the Los Angeles Angels in 1955 that he used eight pinch-hitters in one batting spot. “I told them when they got to the plate not to take a pitch, just call time and I’d send another hitter up,” he explained. “In other words, it wouldn’t be possible for them to get a walk or strike out. I used all the players I had in the dugout.”

“If you’re going to make a joke of this game,” Bragan said to the umpires, “I’m going to show you how to really make a joke of it.”

After being ejected from a game for excessive arguing, Bragan sent the Stars’ batboy out the next inning to coach third base in his place. As the batboy trotted toward the coach’s box, the home plate umpire said, “Don’t let Bobby make a fool of you, son.”

“He’s not,” the batboy replied. “I’m enjoying it.”

Bragan’s antics made national news. (Courtesy of Bobby Bragan)
Bragan’s antics made national news. (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

Bragan’s theatrics were captured in a LIFE magazine photograph showing him lying at the feet of an umpire, still arguing after being tossed out of an exhibition game. “I tried to find creative ways to let them know when they were wrong,” he said.

After losing a 21-inning game that Bragan thought should’ve been stopped after the previous inning because of curfew, he sent coach Gordon Maltzberger to meet with the umpires at home plate the following game. Watches lined Maltzberger’s arms from wrists to elbows. An alarm clock hung around his neck.  “He was ejected before he got to home plate,” Bragan said, laughing.

Bragan was booted from another game for drawing in the dirt after arguing that an opposing player missed touching a base.  “I was trying to make a deep impression on the umpire that he had blown it.  I said, ‘You know, when they invented this game, they put home here and first, second and third. You’re not supposed to just touch two or three of them.  You touch all of them.”

Bragan was catching for the Stars when he turned in his finest performance – a strip tease following a disputed call on a bunt play.   “I took my mask and laid it down. ‘This is where the ball was,’ I said. ‘It stopped right here.’”

“Get that mask out of there,” the umpire said.

Instead, Bragan placed his catcher’s mitt on top of the mask.

Bragan shakes hand with umpire Gordon Ford after getting thrown out of a 1955 game. (Author’s collection)
Bragan shakes hand with umpire Gordon Ford after getting thrown out of a 1955 game. (Author’s collection)

“The next thing I know off comes my breast protector and the shin guards. I laid my equipment down on my way back to the dugout. Then I took my shirt off. By that time, it was time to go.  I was just trying to do something to show him up.”

After a bat-throwing incident “to show up an incompetent umpire,” Bragan was declared unfit to manage in the major leagues by Charlie Dressen, a former Brooklyn Dodger manager who piloted Oakland in 1954. “He acts like a busher on the field,” Dressen claimed.

Bragan went on to manage seven seasons in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians and the Braves both in Milwaukee and Atlanta. He became president of the Texas League, headed the national governing body of the minor leagues and established the Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation.  That’s when I was asked to write remarks for him to deliver at a baseball event in Fort Worth, Texas, honoring Joe and Jack Hannah for their contributions to education and music as teachers and members along with Joe’s son, Lon, of the popular cowboy music group, Sons of the San Joaquin.

The message on this photo signed by Bragan says it all: “Fun time.” (Courtesy of Bobby Bragan)
The message on this photo signed by Bragan says it all: “Fun time.” (Courtesy Bobby Bragan)

I was in the audience when Bragan delivered the comments verbatim without notes. In 11 years of writing speeches for corporate executives, I had never seen anybody do this. I said as much to Bobby afterwards.

This started a telephone friendship that spanned nearly a decade. I sent several photographs I had of him arguing with umpires. Bobby signed them along with a copy of the LIFE magazine photo. He sent me a baseball card picturing him with his six brothers – the “Seven of Diamonds” he called it.

The last time we talked was in 2008. I asked Bobby about a game in 1943 when he was a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Louis “Bobo” Newsom was pitching.

“The bases were loaded,” Bobby said. “Bobby Fletcher was the hitter. It was a 3-2 count and I called for a fastball. And he threw a spitball. It went down into the ground and through me. The run scored from third base. When you’re aware of a spitball, you’re ready for it. I went back to retrieve the ball and threw it to him but it was too late.”

Dodgers manager Leo Durocher was infuriated because Newsom didn’t let Bragan know a spitball was coming.  Leo confronted the temperamental pitcher in the dugout leading to a heated argument that ended with the manager telling team president Branch Rickey, “Get rid of Bobo! I don’t want to see him anymore.”

Bobo was suspended and sent packing to another team. He pitched for nine teams in the majors, winning 211 games while losing 222.

“Your memory is remarkable,” I told Bobby.

“Thank you,” Bragan replied, “I appreciate that. And I appreciate your call very much. We’ll visit again.”

When Bobby died in 2010 at the age of 92, I thought about how the disdain I had for him as a kid had turned into respect and admiration. I was reminded of how he came out of retirement in 2005 to manage one game for the independent Fort Worth Cats and, for old time’s sake, was ejected for arguing an umpire’s call. “Fun time, Gaylon,” Bobby wrote on one of the photos he sent. Indeed, it was a fun time and Bobby Bragan had the most fun of all.

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