Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Other Wrigley Field

Wrigley Field in Chicago celebrates its 100th anniversary this year to great fanfare while the site of the original Wrigley Field in Los Angeles goes unnoticed by the people using the senior citizens center and recreational area that took its place after the storied ballpark was demolished in 1969.

The exterior of Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field in 1961.  (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47209/rec/6)
The exterior of Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field in 1961. (Courtesy USC Digital Library)See Below*

The L.A. Wrigley was called the “finest baseball park in the universe” when it was opened in 1925 by William K. Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate and owner of both the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The same architect who created Cubs Park and the White Sox’ Comiskey Park in Chicago designed Wrigley Field in L.A. On instructions from Wrigley, Zachary Taylor Davis made the L.A. park like the one in Chicago both as it existed in 1925 and how Wrigley wanted it to be. Cubs Park was renamed Wrigley Field the next year and eventually expanded to its current seating capacity of 41,159. Lights were added in L.A. in 1930 and night baseball was played there 58 years before Chicago’s Wrigley.

Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim 23 miles across the English Channel in both directions, waves to Wrigley Field crowd in this 1952 photo. (Courtesy USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/76969/show/76968/rec/9 )
Florence Chadwick, the first woman to swim 23 miles across the English Channel in both directions, waves to Wrigley Field crowd in this 1952 photo. (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below**

“It was not his desire, however, to make it a better plant than the one the Cubs, his other club, use in Chicago but that has been done. Cub park is an excellent one, but the Angels have a better one,” the Sporting News observed.

The lavish praise didn’t last as Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field wound up being put down and passed over more times than any minor leaguer that played there.  If ballparks could talk, its last words in 1969 would’ve been Rodney Dangerfield’s catchphrase:  “I don’t get no respect.”

The centennial of Chicago’s Wrigley Field is being celebrated by five new books, including George Will’s A Nice Little Place on the North Side.  The story of the “other Wrigley Field” is the subject of a chapter, Little Wrigley, in the book, The Bilko Athletic Club. The chapter begins with this ode to the forgotten ballpark, its most popular fan (Angel Annie) and slugger (Steve Bilko):

Warren Giles, president of the National League, toured L.A.’s Wrigley Field in January 1958 but the Dodgers snubbed the ballpark for the mammoth Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/42942/rec/59 )
Warren Giles, president of the National League, toured L.A.’s Wrigley Field in January 1958 but the Dodgers snubbed the ballpark for the mammoth Los Angeles Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below***

Where have you gone, Steve Bilko?

Wrigley Field turns its lonely eyes to you

What’s that you say, Angel Annie?

Wrigley Field has left and gone away.

 

To learn more about Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, click on the following link to a 2009 story by Tom Hoffarth of the Los Angeles Daily News:

http://www.insidesocal.com/tomhoffarth/2009/03/20/wrigley-field-l/#comment-1

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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:

 

* http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47209/rec/6

** http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/76969/show/76968/rec/9

*** http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/42942/rec/59

Baseball and Life

The telephone line went dead seconds into the WBKV-AM Morning Show interview with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club. At the end of the West Bend, Wisconsin, radio program, host Jesse Averill apologized for the technical problems. “No problem, that’s life,” White replied.

Steve Bilko played for the Cincinnati Reds and five other major-league teams.
Steve Bilko played for the Cincinnati Reds and five other major-league teams.

Earlier in the interview Averill said: “To me, this book sounds like it would appeal not only to sports fans – baseball fans – but everybody. It’s very intriguing the whole aspect of having success in one area and it not translating over.”

The 1956 Los Angeles Angels, nicknamed The Bilko Athletic Club after star Steve Bilko, were made up mostly of Cub castoffs that had experienced both success and failure in their careers.

“In sports, the higher up you go to the majors, the line separating success and failure is very, very thin,” White said. “This team and baseball is a lot like life and there are a lot of lessons to be learned from it.”

Listen to White’s interview with Averill:

 

Bilko and Hurdle Linked by History

Steve Bilko, the star of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels and namesake for the book, The Bilko Athletic Club, will always be connected to Clint Hurdle, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, by the March 20, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated.

Clint Hurdle_SI CoverHurdle was featured on SI’s cover in a Kansas City Royals uniform, a happy, carefree 20-year-old with a promising career ahead of him. The headline emphasizes this point in bright yellow letters: THIS YEAR’S PHENOM. In the back of the magazine, there’s a matter-of-fact notice of Bilko’s death at age 49:  “Bilko, a minor league player of exceptional promise who once hit 56 home runs for Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), found the majors a struggle and retired with a career batting average of .249 and 76 home runs.

The photo could have been of Bilko at spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950 when he was 21 and Cardinals owner Fred Saigh announced to baseball writers: “Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the future great names in baseball.”  One of the names Saigh had in mind was Lou Gehrig, the legendary baseball great. “Bilko will make baseball fans forget Lou Gehrig.”

It didn’t happen any more than Hurdle becoming the next phenom. As he said after his rookie season:  “If I’d done everything I was supposed to, I’d be leading the league in homers, have the highest batting average, have given $100,000 to the Cancer Fund, and be married to Marie Osmond.”

Steve Bilko in 1976 outside Dana Perfume Plant in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, where he worked at the time. (Photo by author)
Steve Bilko in 1976 outside Dana Perfume Plant in Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, where he worked at the time. (Photo by author)

Bilko and Hurdle both spent parts of 10 seasons in the majors. In 600 games, Bilko batted .249, belted 76 home runs and drove in 276 runs. In 515 games, Hurdle hit .259 with 32 home runs and 193 runs batted in.

“I just wonder what Steve Bilko would do today?” Joe Garagiola asked around the time Hurdle appeared on the SI cover.

Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers manager and a teammate of Bilko’s with the ’57 Angels, answered that question in 2003 when Bilko was inducted into the PCL’s Hall of Fame: “If he were playing today, without question, you’d see a guy hitting 50, 60 home runs.  Easy.”

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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:

Memories of Bilko

Almost everybody in the meeting room at the Huntington Beach, California, Public Library had fond memories of Steve Bilko when he played for the Los Angeles Angels in the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).  The occasion was the 29th annual PCL Historical Society and one of the topics for discussion was The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.

One fan recalled taunting Bilko from the stands with a buddy and Stout Steve stealthy flipping them the bird while using his first baseman’s glove to conceal the gesture as much as possible. Most of the fans, now in their 60s and 70s, described how Bilko was their first boyhood hero, his mammoth home run shots at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles etched forever in their minds.

Joe Duhem was an outfielder-first baseman in 1956-57 for the Hollywood Star, the Angels’ cross-town rivals. “I got a single and I was on first base,” Duhem said. “It was the first time I met Bilko. I rounded first base, came back and we talked for a few minutes. He said, ‘Are you having fun out here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, as long as I’m getting’ on base, I’m having a lot of fun.’ He was a super guy. He said, ‘Good luck to you.’ I thought it was really nice that he said something. Most guys don’t talk to you when you’re on first base. They’re mad at you because you got a base hit.”

George Genovese had a “cup of coffee” in the majors with the Washington Senators in 1950.
George Genovese had a “cup of coffee” in the majors with the Washington Senators in 1950.

George Genovese has spent 74 of his 92 years in baseball as a player and scout extraordinaire, helping the San Francisco Giants land such future stars as George Foster, Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Gary Matthews, Matt Williams, Dave Kingman, Royce Clayton, Garry Maddox and Chili Davis.

During the winter of 1947-48, Genovese and Bilko played for Colon in the Canal Zone League. The 19-year-old Bilko was leading the league with a .381 batting average in early March when he left Colon to report to the Rochester Red Wings for spring training.

“He had tremendous power,” the 5-foot-6, 160-pound Genovese said. “He hit balls outasight. Once in awhile, I’d say, ‘Let’s hit for distance.’ Bilko was a great kid; I enjoyed hanging around with him.”

Genovese described monstrous home runs hit by Bilko and Frank Howard, a 6-foot-7, 255-pound outfielder, on back-to-back pitches for the Spokane Indians in 1959. “If you put them together, they must’ve been a mile and a half in distance. I swear they’ve got to be the longest balls I’ve ever seen.”

Hy Cohen pitched for the Angels in 1955 and the early part of the ’56 season. Days after arriving in L.A., a local columnist pegged him as a look-alike for Robert Mitchum, the movie actor.  Bob Kelley, the Angels’ play-by-play radio announcer, interviewed Hy on a pregame show. “You’re young and a good-looking kid, Hy,” Kelley said. “What do you think about women?”

Author Gaylon White and Hy Cohen at PCLHS reunion.
Author Gaylon White and Hy Cohen at PCLHS reunion.

“Hey, Bob, I’m not going to get married until I’m at least 30. That’s far from my mind.”

By the end of the ’55 season, the 24-year-old Hy married Terry Davis, a local girl he met through Stu Nahan, an assistant to Kelley who went on to become a well-known sportscaster in L.A. Nahan and Chuck Connors, the former Cub and Angel who found stardom on the The Rifleman television show, attended the wedding ceremony. So did Irv Kaze, public relations director for the Hollywood Stars. Most of Hy’s teammates were there, including Bilko, Gene Mauch, Don Elston, Buzz Clarkson and Gale Wade.

“For all the celebrity that he had, Bilko was still just a simple guy,” Hy said, adding that Bilko and Mauch helped themselves to the liquor left over from the reception. “They took a whole case of something.”

Following the PCL reunion, author Gaylon White met with Joe Hannah and his, wife, Carol in Visalia, California, where they live. Joe is featured in the chapter titled, The Singing Catcher.

Carol and Joe Hannah
Carol and Joe Hannah

Over lunch, Joe recounted how he pitched to Bilko in home run exhibitions staged for fans between games of Sunday doubleheaders. “He asked me to do it,” Joe said. “I always had great accuracy. He wanted to hit some over right field. He wanted to send some over centerfield. And he wanted to hit some over left field. And, then, he’d hit ‘em over the fence.”

“Steve Bilko, with his great ability to lift the ball, is the best I’ve ever seen at this home-run contest business,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing told The Sporting News in 1963. “Once I saw him hit 10 out of 12.”

“He was amazing,” Joe said. “He’d hit it over the fence almost every time.”

You can’t help wondering how many home runs Bilko would’ve hit on the 1960 television show, Home Run Derby, filmed at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.  It’s quite possible he would’ve beaten Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Harmon Killebrew – all the other big league stars featured on the show. After all, Bilko was Wrigley Field’s “home pro.”

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

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:

When Numbers Lie

When Steve Bilko was asked what he weighed during the 1955-57 seasons he was blasting home runs a la Babe Ruth for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), he politely answered, “Somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds.”

Wilson, the sporting goods company, had mercy on Bilko, tagging his ’57 jersey size 48 when it actually measures size 54.
Wilson, the sporting goods company, had mercy on Bilko, tagging his ’57 jersey size 48 when it actually measures size 54.

It will always be a mystery how much Bilko weighed in 1957 when he socked the last 56 of his 148 homers for the Angels. But the home jersey he wore that season suggests he was carrying around a lot more than the 235 pounds listed in the team’s yearbook.

The jersey is tagged size 48 but it measures roughly 27 inches side to side, making it a size 54. “We call it mercy tagging so they weren’t kidded in the locker room,” explained a sports memorabilia collector who asked not to be identified. “If they had a 54 tag on it, Bilko wouldn’t be able to live it down. Everybody would be calling him a ‘Fat Ass’ or whatever else. So they tagged them this way.”

In the 1950s, uniform manufacturers rarely used a size larger than 48 for the tagging. “Most of the players wore a size 42 or 44 and they are true to size,” the collector said. “You measure them out, they are absolutely perfect.”

Steve Bilko holds autographed ball he clouted for his 56th homer in 1957 as Gene Lillard, right, holds the bat he used to tie the team record set by Lillard in 1935.
Steve Bilko holds autographed ball he clouted for his 56th homer in 1957 as Gene Lillard, right, holds the bat he used to tie the team record set by Lillard in 1935.

Another beneficiary of “mercy tagging” was Francis “Lefty” O’Doul, who managed five Coast League teams from 1935 through 1957, a 23-year period in which he put on a lot of weight near the end.  “That was a period he was called Hefty Lefty.”

The jersey O’Doul wore in 1955 as manager of the Oakland Oaks is tagged size 48 but it’s actually a size 54. “I have about 30 PCL jerseys. These are the only two that have that type of anomaly.”

The front of Bilko’s jersey worn at home games during the 1957 season.
The front of Bilko’s jersey worn at home games during the 1957 season.

Bilko’s jersey “turned up about two years ago outside of the hobby and survived just by chance.”

The only one known to exist, the Bilko jersey was given to a player who used it in semipro baseball around 1960. “It has Bilko’s number 30 on the back. Everything is original.”

Bilko wore number 42 his first season with the Angels in 1955 and the number 30 in 1956-57.

“Bilko wasn’t fat,” the collector added. “He was stocky.”

Over the years Bilko became very sensitive about his weight, rarely getting on the scales and never revealing the results.

“There’s one thing he does not like and that’s being kidded about his weight by strangers,” said George Freese, Bilko’s roommate on the road in ’56. “If someone comes up to him and makes some crack about him being heavy, he’ll tell them to mind their own business.”

After making his major league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals late in the 1949 season, Bilko had an operation for varicose veins over the winter. He wasn’t able to do much so he ballooned to around 260 pounds.

: Bilko wore number 30 in 1956-57 after wearing the number 42 in 1955 – the now retired number worn by Jackie Robinson.
Bilko wore number 30 in 1956-57 after wearing the number 42 in 1955 – the now retired number worn by Jackie Robinson.

At the Cardinals’ spring training camp in 1950 Bilko said “one coach decided I would have to lose 40 pounds and another decided I would have to become a pull hitter. Between the two of them I went crazy. I starved 40 pounds off myself in six weeks and felt terrible.”

Bill Sweeney was the Angels manager in 1955 when a beleaguered Bilko arrived in L.A.

“Do I have to worry about my weight?” Steve asked.

“I don’t care what you weigh,” Sweeney said.  “Just play between the lines.”

That’s just what Bilko did, winning the PCL’s home run title and Most Valuable Player award three straight years and prompting Bob Scheffing, the Angels manager in ’56, to say: “More people in L.A. today know Bilko than Marilyn Monroe.”

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

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: