Standing 6-foot-1 and tipping the scales around 250 pounds, Steve Bilko would be just another wide-bodied player in baseball today. Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants is 5-11 and 240 pounds; Prince Fielder of the Texas Rangers is 5-11, 275; Billy “Country Breakfast” Butler of the Kansas City Royals is 6-1, 240; Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels is 6-2, 230; Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers is 6-4, 240; David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox is 6-4, 250; and Matt “Big City” Adams of the St. Louis Cardinals is 6-3, 260.
“My best playing weight was 254 pounds,” Bilko said, admitting that he got up to 270 pounds on occasion.
In the 1950s, Bilko was considered a fat guy, harassed and hassled by managers and the news media about his weight. He had to put up with nicknames like Lard Zeppelin and Big Boy Balloon and insulting one-liners from sportswriters. “He’s got enough beef there to feed a whole wolf family if they could figure out a way to drag him away to their den,” one columnist observed in 1953.
Three years later in 1956 when Bilko was tearing up the Pacific Coast League, Sports Illustrated divided Bilko’s estimated 240 pounds into the $200,000 price tag the Los Angeles Angels placed on him. “That rates as a new high for minor league beef on the spike, amounting, as it does, to $833 a pound,” the magazine reported.
On becoming a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times in 1961, Jim Murray wrote: “I hope Steve Bilko has lost weight. The last time I saw him in the Coliseum, the front of him got to the batter’s box full seconds before the rest of him.”
In another column, Murray wisecracked: “He looks as if he had just climbed down off a beer truck – or rolled off the back of one, for that matter.”
Bilko was 20 years old and weighed around 230 pounds when he made his major-league debut late in the 1949 season with the Cardinals battling the Dodgers for the National League pennant. The Cards lost five of their last eight games, but Bilko was impressive, reaching base 10 of the 22 times he batted and hitting for a .294 average.
The Cards were expecting big things of Bilko in 1950. So when he showed up at spring training weighing 260 pounds, the baseball world was thrown off its axis.
The Sporting News devoted a full page to the subject. A banner headline proclaimed: CARDS GRIN AND GROAN OVER BEEFY BILKO. Sub-heads read: ROOKIE RATED AS PRIZE PROSPECT, BUT BATTLES SURPLUS FAT and WIFE’S MOM KEPT TABLE HEAPED FULL. Above a photo of Steve was another heading: CONTENDER FOR HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE OF N.L. The story pounded away at the fat theme: “Bilko knew that he faced the opportunity to win a regular berth in 1950, yet he permitted himself to get super lardy over the off-season.”
Joe Garagiola was a catcher for the Cardinals at the time. “They put a rubber suit on him and they made that poor fellow run around and sweat and sweat and sweat. And, then, they’d ask him to play nine innings after he was about dehydrated. He could hardly get the bat around. And he was still hitting the ball 400 feet in right-center field.”
Bilko went from being compared to baseball greats Jimmie Foxx, Johnny Mize and Lou Gehrig to J. Francis Hogan, a 6-foot-1, 240 pound catcher in the 1920s and 1930s nicknamed Shanty because he resembled a small hut.
Bilko was back in Rochester after striking out 10 times in 10 games and hitting well under his weight. “It is hoped that he will there learn to decrease his weight and increase his batting average,” one columnist wrote.
“I’ll never forget one day in St. Louis at the old ballpark, Sportsman’s Park,” Garagiola said. “He was sitting on the bench and looking out toward right-center field. Then he looked to left field. He said: ‘You know, I guess I’m just a simple guy from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, but I can hit a ball into the right-center field seats with my elbow and they want me to pull the ball where I hit long fly balls. I don’t understand that.'”
“His shoulders stretched six feet across,” said Eldon “Rip” Repulski, a teammate at Rochester and St. Louis. “He was so huge that wherever he went, people would look at him and say, ‘Oh-h-h, what a big guy that is!’”
“Steve was not fat,” said Albie Pearson, the diminutive outfielder who played alongside Bilko with the major-league Angels in 1961-62. “He was one of the biggest boned men I’ve seen. His legs – you could put mine together and make one of his.”
Eddie “The Brat” Stanky was the Cardinals manager in 1953 when Bilko belted 21 homers and batted in 84 runs while batting .249. “If you were a big guy, he’d drive you right in the ground,” said Eddie Erautt, a pitcher with the ’53 Cards. “He harassed Steve all the time.”
“Stanky always thought that if Steve would lose a little weight, he would pull the ball a little bit more,” Repulski added. “He tried his best but he was just a big-boned guy and there was nothing he could do about his weight. Steve wasn’t able to pull the ball that much either.”
“You don’t hit the ball with your belly,” Garagiola said. “I know some guys who are built like hitters and built like pitchers and all they do is look good in the hotel lobby.”
Jim Brosnan, a scholarly pitcher who went on to become a best-selling author, was a 17-game winner for the Angels in 1955. He and Bilko were roommates during spring training. “The bitch about Steve was that he was overweight, that he didn’t look like a major-league ball player, that he wasn’t a good defensive ball player. I thought it was a lot of bullshit. In his own mind, Steve was sincere about wanting to be what his managers wanted him to be – slimmer.”
Asked how much Bilko weighed when they played together in L.A., Brosnan joked, “Over a period of time, I think about 900 pounds. He must have lost that much, at least.
“The man was a great beer drinker. He had a wooden leg besides the two he was carrying which were huge – about the size of ale cans. I’m sure he kept a special tap in one knee in case he ran out.”
Bilko’s technique for losing weight was called a “steamer” and, naturally, involved beer. “He’d take a six-pack of beer into the bathroom,” Brosnan explained. “He’d seal off the door by putting towels against the bottom of the door, close the window and turn on the shower and the tap in the washbasin to hot. Then he’d sit on the edge of the bathtub while all this steam would rise and he’d drink a six-pack of beer – all six bottles. He said it helped him sweat. Of course, sweat meant you were losing weight. And this is how he’d do it.
“He was actually doing what he thought would help out – sweating a lot. I’m not crediting him with a helluva lot of common sense. But at least he had a lot of sincerity. You take a man with sincerity; put him in a major league uniform and that can pay off. I would’ve done it myself. But I’ve got a sense of humor and most managers don’t have one.”
In L.A., Bilko’s managers were hands off. Nobody bugged him about his weight except the media.
“How much does Steve weigh?” Jeanne Hoffman of the L.A. Times asked in a March 30, 1956 story titled NOT EVEN MRS. BILKO KNOWS HIS WEIGHT.
“For three years – ever since he left the Cardinals – he has managed to keep his tonnage a secret. All the Angel management knows for sure is that he strips in ‘somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds.’ Each spring, when pilot Bob Scheffing asks him what his playing weight is, big Bilko replies, ‘Not as much as last year.’ Nobody, of course, knows what he weighed last year. But billowing Bilko swears it wasn’t THAT much.”
Hoffman tried to pry the answer from Bilko’s wife, Mary. “Why, I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs.” Mary said. “The papers said he trimmed down to a mere 232 pounds.’ But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?
“Steve is very secretive about his weight at home. I suppose he sneaks out of bed at 6 a.m., hops on the bathroom scales and jumps off before anyone is up. After all, how can you expect him to be diminutive? He weighed 190 pounds his first year in high school.”
Bilko couldn’t rid himself of the “fat man” label and escape jokes about his appetite. On being selected by the Angels in the American League expansion draft in 1961, Los Angeles Examiner columnist Morton Moss wrote: “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.”
Even former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower weighed in with a comment at the Angels spring training camp in Palm Springs. “They tell me you’re off about 30 pounds in weight,” Ike said to a surprised Bilko.
In 1962, the Angels gave players bicycles to ride around Palm Springs during spring training. Danny Thomas, a television comedian and actor, quipped: “When Bilko got his, instead of riding it, he sprinkled it with ketchup and started eating.”
Baseball Digest reported Bilko ate at one sitting “five lobster cocktails, a triple order of spaghetti and chicken topped off with a loaf of garlic bread, a cheese cake and a half dozen cups of coffee.”
“He loved to eat – if you left icing on the tablecloth, he’d eat it,” said Gene Mauch, a teammate with the Angels in 1955-56.
After socking 148 homers for the Angels in three Coast League seasons, Bilko returned to the majors in 1958 with the Cincinnati Redlegs.
“I spoke kindly to him by accident and I hear it was the right thing to do,” Redlegs Manager George “Birdie” Tebbetts told columnist Red Smith during spring training. “When he told me what he weighed, I said, ‘I’m not going to harass you about weight. I’d like you to be lighter, but you can call your own shots. I’m not going to suggest knocking yourself out. I heard afterward that he told another player, ‘That’s the first manager ever mentioned weight to me without wanting to kill me.’”
George Freese was Bilko’s roommate on the road in ’56. They were the last players to leave Wrigley Field after home games. They talked and guzzled bottles of beer in the hot tub until Angel trainer Joe Liscio got leg cramps delivering them. It was a task better suited for a beer truck.
“Steve loved his beer,” Freese said. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.”
Freese insists Bilko had all the right stuff to be a legend in the majors just as he was in the minors. “I still feel that if everybody had left him alone and let him play his own way in the majors, he would’ve made it, Instead, everyone tried to change him and make him look like a Mr. America in tights.”
“I just wonder what Steve Bilko would do today?” Garagiola asks.
Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers manager, was an eyewitness to Bilko’s 56 home runs in ’57 when they played for the Angels. “If he were playing today, without question, you’d see a guy hitting 50, 60 home runs,” Lasorda says, adding for emphasis: “Easy.”
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:
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