Monthly Archives: July 2014

Thank you, Mr. Freese

George Freese – Sept. 12, 1926 – July 27, 2014
George Freese – Sept. 12, 1926 – July 27, 2014

George Freese, all-star third baseman for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, died July 27, 2014, in Portland, Oregon. He was 87. George played in only 61 games in the majors, batting .257 with three homers, but his minor-league career spanned 17 seasons, six in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) where he played for the Angels, Hollywood Stars, Portland Beavers and San Diego Padres. Overall, he hit .301 in the minors, slugging 195 home runs, 124 of them in the PCL. Freese batted fifth in the Angels’ power-packed lineup behind Steve Bilko. When teams pitched around Bilko, he made them pay with 113 runs batted in. “With ducks on the pond he’s their most dangerous hitter,” said Royce Lint, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers. In 18 games against Portland in ’56, George hammered Beaver pitching for a .381 average, 10 home runs and 32 RBIs. “He was one of two players that I ran into in 13 years of minor league baseball that could hit the curveball better than the fastball,” said Marland “Duke” Doolittle, a catcher in 1954 for Memphis in the Southern Association.

Freese slugged 35 homers for the Portland Beavers in 1958. (Photo courtesy of Barry McMahon)
Freese slugged 35 homers for the Portland Beavers in 1958. (Photo courtesy of Barry McMahon)

Bobby Bragan managed George in Hollywood in 1955 and his younger brother, Gene, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Gene had a little more flash to him but George was more stable. He was soft-spoken and did the job every day.” The last players to leave Wrigley Field, the Angels’ home ballpark, after a day game were Freese and Bilko. When the game was over, they immediately headed for the two hot tubs in the clubhouse where they talked and guzzled bottles of beer until Angels trainer Joe Liscio got leg cramps delivering them. It was a task better suited for a beer truck. “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.” This continued until rush hour traffic cleared and they went home.

Angel wings and halo hit George perfectly. (Courtesy George Freese)
Angel wings and halo fit George perfectly. (Courtesy George Freese)

George played for Hollywood in 1955, hitting a home run in the decisive fifth game to beat the Angels in their season-ending playoff series. Over the winter the Stars demoted Freese to a team in the lower minors because “he can’t play any position well enough for us to keep him.”  The Angels thought otherwise and selected him in the minor league draft. “If we couldn’t beat him, we’d join him,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing said. “I was surprised as hell when I found out they were going to send me to double-A ball because I had a good half-year in Hollywood,” George said. He hit .302 for the Stars after batting .257 in 51 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the winter of 1955-56, he was a big gun in the Puerto Rican League before he ended up with a broken finger.

Freese batted .257 in 51 games for the Pirates in 1955.
Freese batted .257 in 51 games for the Pirates in 1955.

Never mind that George was damaged goods, doubtful if he could play. Angels president John Holland called George’s release by the Stars “typical Hollywood gratitude” and predicted he would outperform his replacement with the Stars and hit as many balls out of Wrigley Field as Bilko. As it turned out, Gene was the Stars’ third baseman the last half of the ’56 season. George finished with a .291 average, 17 points better than Gene, and doubled his home run output — 22 to 11. Freese and Bilko, roommates on the road, set a goal of combining to hit more than 60 home runs, the Holy Grail because it was the single-season record in both the PCL and majors. They teamed to blast 77. At 18, George was the starting quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh.  He also played at the University of West Virginia, receiving All-America honorable mention in 1946. He turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers to play pro baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. By the time he reached L.A., George had the reputation of a good-hit, no-field third baseman.  “My fielding was questionable,” Freese said. “That’s what kept me out of the big leagues. I knew I could hit.”

George treasured this photo of him with Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko. (Courtesy George Freese)
George treasured this photo of him with Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko. (Courtesy George Freese)

George’s best years were in Portland where he slammed a combined 56 homers in 1958-59.   In 2008, he was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame for his outstanding career with the Beavers.  “Freese had great power – pull power,” said Eddie Basinski, a Portland infielder. During the ’56 season, Bilko was asked to attend a press reception with actor, Phil Silvers, to promote the TV show featuring Silvers as Sgt. Bilko. Steve balked:  “I won’t go unless George goes.” George borrowed a sports coat from Steve and they went to the party. “The coat fit me like a blanket,” George joked, adding. “I have a picture of Steve, Phil Silvers and myself. Boy, do I treasure it.” On the final day of the ‘56 season, the entire Angels infield was honored at Wrigley Field for being named to Look magazine’s PCL all-star team. Prior to the award ceremony, the emcee, Chuck Connors, a ball player-turned actor, took George aside to coach him on what to say on receiving the award. George stepped to the microphone on the pitcher’s mound and delivered the line Connors gave him: “I want to thank the Hollywood Stars for making this possible.”

Now, it’s only fitting that we pay our respect to George by saying, “Thank you, Mr. Freese, for the making the Angels’ amazing season in 1956 possible.”

Watch this 2008 interview with George Freese fillowing his induction into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=ApmetR_fVxk

Link to George Freese obituary published in The Oregonian:

http://obits.oregonlive.com/obituaries/oregon/obituary.aspx?n=george-walter-freese&pid=171945193&fhid=22686

Talkin’ Baseball

The best part of writing a baseball book is talking about it with people who remember the golden era of the 1950s.

Baseball at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library –http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/60067/rec/12
Baseball at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. (Courtesy USC Digital Library – http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/60067/rec/12

L.A. Tarone of the Sports Hub 102.3 radio in Pittston, Pennsylvania, and Mike Schikman of WSVA-AM in Harrisonburg, Virginia, demonstrated their baseball knowledge in interviews with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Steve Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

To give listeners an idea of Bilko’s awesome power, Tarone said: “If I were to mention the names of Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg, he would fit into that mold except he wasn’t a dead pull-hitter.”

Kiner and Greenberg are both Hall of Famers, Kiner hammering 369 home runs and Greenberg 331. Bilko blasted 313 in the minors and 76 in the majors, playing mostly part-time.

A comment in the book by Tommy Lasorda, former Los Angeles Dodgers manager, that Bilko would easily hit 50-60 home runs today prompted Tarone to mention Adam Dunn, slugging first baseman for the Chicago White Sox. Dunn began the 2014 season, his 14th in the majors, with 440 home runs and 2,220 strike outs. “Adam Dunn could’ve been Steve Bilko except he struck out a lot more than Bilko ever did and he had a nice long career in the major leagues.”

Steve Bilko’s 1951 Bowman card.
Steve Bilko’s 1951 Bowman card

Bilko hit 21 homers while striking out a National League-leading 125 times for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1953 – the only year he was a day-to-day starter.  Dunn has topped that number 12 times, including a league-high 222 whiffs for the White Sox in 2012.

In the interview with WSVA’s Schikman, White recounts Bilko’s 1948 season with the Lynchburg, Virginia, Cardinals of the Class B Piedmont League when, as a 19-year-old, he batted .333 and socked 20 homers.

The Brooklyn-born Schikman, a Dodgers fan before they relocated to Los Angeles in 1958, wanted to know what it was like to be there at the time.

“I loved watching baseball at Wrigley Field in L.A.,” said White, who was 12 years old in 1958. “It was a real ballpark just like the one in Chicago.”

The Dodgers elected to play at Los Angeles’ mammoth Coliseum instead of Wrigley Field. “The worst possible baseball park,” White said, adding, “The best part about it was listening to Vin Scully on the transistor radios which people brought so they’d know what was going on down on the field.”

To listen to White’s Sports Hub interview with Tarone, click on the following link:

Here’s the link for the interview with WSVA’s Schikman:

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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 Name Made to Remember

 

Sgt. Bilko is title of this painting that's part of artist Ben Sakoguchi Orange Crate Label Series.  (http://www.bensakoguchi.com/larger/orange_group7_larger11.php )
Sgt. Bilko is title of this painting that’s part of artist Ben Sakoguchi Orange Crate Label Series. (http://www.bensakoguchi.com/larger/orange_group7_larger11.php )

“The name, Bilko, was made to remember,” says John Schulian, a sports columnist turned television screenwriter. “Two syllables, punchy with a K.  It was made for headlines because it’s short. It goes all over the place.”

The Bilko name was all over the country in 1955 because of Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph, and Sgt. Bilko, the character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers in the hit television show, You’ll Never Get Rich. “I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers said, referring to Gil Hodges and Stan Musial, future Hall of Famers. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”

“It was my name or Kluszewski’s,” Steve explained, citing Ted Kluszewski, a muscular power hitter with the Cincinnati Redlegs at the time. “Bilko is a lot easier to say than Kluszewski.”

Still another version of the story has it that Nat Hiken, producer of Silvers’ TV show, adopted his name for the scheming Army master-sergeant, Ernest G. Bilko, because Bilko was his favorite player. Forty years later the TV show was turned into a movie, Sergeant Bilko, starring comedian Steve Martin.

The real Bilko was making headlines long before Sgt. Bilko. He was 16 when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him and by age 20, he was being compared with baseball greats Jimmie Foxx, Johnny Mize and even Lou Gehrig. The one full season he had with the Cardinals in 1953 he batted .251 with 21 homers and 84 runs batted in.  Those are rookie-of-the-year numbers today but they weren’t good enough to keep the Cardinals from trading him to the Chicago Cubs the next season.

Bilko was with the Cubs in March 1955 when they played an exhibition game in Mesa, Arizona, against their Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels. “Sweeney kept looking at me and looking at me,” Bilko recalled.

“Don’t look at me!” Bilko told Bill Sweeney, the L.A. manager. “I’m not going to California!”

A homemade Bilko banner pays tribute to Stout Steve Bilko, known as the "home pro" at Los Angeles' Wrigley Field because of all the long-range missles he launched there. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic)
A homemade Bilko banner pays tribute to Stout Steve Bilko, known as the “home pro” at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field because of all the long-range missles he launched there. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic)

“It turned out going to Los Angeles was the greatest thing to happen to me,” Bilko said. “From that point on everybody knew, and I knew, that I could hit. I just hadn’t got the chance. In Los Angeles, I was just left alone.”

Over the next three years, Bilko belted 148 home runs for the Angels to become the Sergeant of Swat and the biggest celebrity in a town full of them.

“I didn’t want to be a big celebrity,” Bilko said. “I was satisfied with doing a good job, being with my family and stuff like that.  When I was done playing ball, I was content to go home and be with my kids.  We went to shows but they were shows like Lawrence Welk.  I used to go see Roller Derby.  But other than that, we never went anywhere.”

The shy, introverted Bilko and gaudy L.A. made for an odd couple. “I mixed with a couple of movie stars like John Wayne but they were really baseball fans.  They were like we were.  If I went anywhere, it was always with the type of people who live around here.”

For Bilko, “here” was Nanticoke – the Northeast Pennsylvania town where he was born and lived until he died in 1978 at the age of 49.

Last week in nearby Wilkes-Barre, the Times Leader newspaper saluted the memory of Bilko with a page one article about his oldest son, Steve, Jr., and The Bilko Athletic Club, and a story in the sports section based on interviews with five ’56 Angel teammates: pitchers Bob Anderson, Dave Hillman and Hy Cohen; catcher Jim Fanning and centerfielder Gale Wade.   “Tremendous response to our Bilko stories,” says Bill O’Boyle, a Times Leader writer.

The stories can be viewed by clicking on the following links:

Nanticoke Native Remembered as Baseball Superstar – http://www.timesleader.com/news/news/1518296/Nanticoke-native-remembered-as-baseball-superstar

Steve Bilko’s teammates recall how the Nanticoke native blasted his way to the top of the Pacific Coast League – http://www.timesleader.com/news/sports/1537506/Strong-sensation

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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:

Confessions of a Conscientious Man

Bruce Winkworth was browsing through the baseball books in a used book store near his home in Raleigh, North Carolina, when he saw a cover photo of what looked like Steve Bilko. “After moving my gaze several inches upwards, I saw the title: The Bilko Athletic Club. That was it for me. I had to have that one.”

Bruce Winkworth
Bruce Winkworth and his $8 book.

In an e-mail to author Gaylon White, Winkworth describes himself as “a nearly typical 62-year-old American male” who grew up collecting records, comic books and baseball cards. “Thanks to baseball cards, I developed an early interest in the golden age of minor league baseball, the 1940s and ’50s. The backs of baseball cards were an absolute treasure trove of useless information, especially the minor league statistics, when Topps decided to use them.”

Winkworth and his brother “knew all about Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs in 1927. Our father told us many times of Jimmie Foxx hitting 58 homers in 1932 and Hank Greenberg matching that with 58 in 1938. No one ever bothered to tell us, however, that Steve Bilko hit 55 homers for the Angels in the PCL in 1956….

“I bought your book and started it last night. I’m only a couple of chapters into it, but I can tell it’s going to be my favorite book of the summer. I love books like yours but never expect to stumble across one, so when I do, it’s definitely a big deal.”

Bilko’s 1955 Topps baseball card
Bilko’s 1959 Topps baseball card

In opening the book, Winkworth “could tell by the crackling sound the cover made that whoever sold it to the used book store hadn’t bothered to read it.” When White’s business card fell out, he realized it was a review copy.

“Now I feel bad. I paid $8 for your book, of which you won’t see one dime. On top of that, you sent this copy to some writer somewhere on the good faith that that writer would read it and hopefully write a good review. And clearly neither will happen. None of that’s my fault, of course, but it’s good to have a conscience.”

Winkworth has a blog and a plan. “When I finish your book, I promise to write a detailed review – and based on what I’ve read so far I’m pretty sure it will be a very positive review – and publish it on my blog, which in turn will be seen by several close family members before dying in cyberspace.

Steve Bilko_1952_Topps“If you go to the blog now, you’ll notice that I haven’t posted anything since my best friend died at the end of April,” Winkworth adds. “That cut down on the inspiration pretty thoroughly for a time, but I’m starting to feel the itch again, and I credit part of that to finding your book.”

Winkworth is a man of his word, snapping out of his writing funk with a book review as good as anything you’ll read in the New York Times.  Click on the following link to read what he has to say about his bargain find: http://theunofficialscorer.blogspot.com/2014/07/book-review-bilko-athletic-club.html

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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:

The Legend of Steve Bilko

The legend of Steve Bilko was the topic of the KTLA-TV Morning News program interview with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.

KTLA Interview

In 1956, Bilko was King Kong of the Pacific Coast League, Paul Bunyan of the Bushes, the Sergeant of Swat. Stout Steve was his name, smashing monster-sized home runs his game. He belted 148 of them in three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of the Coast League, the closest thing to the majors in L.A. until the Dodgers moved into town from Brooklyn in 1958. At the peak of Bilko’s popularity in ’56, he was better known in L.A. than Marilyn Monroe. Bilko was even a bigger household name than Mickey Mantle because of Sgt. Bilko, the TV character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers. A L.A. Times columnist even suggested that Mantle and Bilko throw their hats into the 1956 U.S. presidential race: “A vote against Mantle and Bilko is a vote against home, mother and bottled beer.” Watch the KTLA interview:

http://ktla.com/2014/07/14/author-of-the-bilko-athletic-club/

 

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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:

The Name is Bilko

“Steve Bilko is a great, lummocking, broad-shouldered, wide-beamed broth of a boy,” Red Smith wrote in a nationally syndicated sports column titled, The Name is Bilko, published in March 1950.

This was the renowned sports columnist’s first glimpse of Bilko. He’d heard about him two years earlier from Bob Hannegan, the president of the St. Louis Cardinals: “There’s a kid named Bilko, a great big kid who can really powder that ball.  He’s pretty crude, just a kid in Class C now, but remember the name, Bilko. You’ll hear about him.”

Joe Maday, right, called himself Steve Bilko’s No. 1 fan.
Joe Maday, right,  of Nanticoke shows Steve Bilko a bass he caught in a nearby lake.

Cardinal owner Fred Saigh had even higher hopes for Bilko. “Gentlemen,” he announced to baseball writers at spring training in 1950, “you are looking at one of the future great names in baseball.”

One of the names the former tax and corporate lawyer had in mind was New York Yankee legend, Lou Gehrig. “Bilko will make baseball fans forget Lou Gehrig.”

Bilko was 16 and about to begin his junior year in high school when Cardinals scout Benny Borgman signed him on a coal bank behind a ballpark in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. Borgman had just watched Bilko wallop three mighty homers in a game. The first one soared over the coal pile Borgman was standing on along the left-field fence. “I was convinced,” Borgman said later, “that here was a guy who would one day hit 65 home runs in a single season.”

To Bobby Grich, seven years old in 1956 when Bilko hit 55 homers for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League, the slugger was “Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle all rolled into one.” Grich grew up to become an all-star second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels.

Bilko was King Kong of the Coast League, socking 148 homers for the Angels from 1955-57.  Altogether, he belted 313 in the minors. It was a different story in the majors where he hit 76 homers in parts of 10 seasons. Only once, in 1953, was he in the lineup every day. By today’s standards, his numbers weren’t that bad: 21 homers, 84 runs batted in and a .251 batting average. “He was good enough then,” said Ralph Kiner, seven-time National League home run champion and long-time sportscaster for the New York Mets. “I thought he should’ve stayed.”

Instead, the Cardinals traded Bilko to the Chicago Cubs in 1954. The Cubs parked him on the bench before dispatching him to L.A. in 1955. “The sad part is he backed up so many big-name first basemen for so many years,” said Frank Higgins, one of many Nanticoke residents who closely followed Bilko’s baseball career.

“He has been our representative in the major leagues,” explained Joe Maday of Nanticoke. “We’ve grown up with this man.  We were Stan Musial fans but we were looking for Bilko’s name in the box score.  We looked every day.  What he’d do – oh-for-four, one-for-three, two-for-four?

In 1960 with Detroit, Bilko played behind Norm Cash, a star rookie
In 1960 with Detroit, Bilko played behind Norm Cash, a star rookie.

“I was in Tampa, Florida, two years ago,” Joe continued.  “Moose Skowron asked me to relay a message to Steve:  ‘Ask Bunky if he can remember a home run he hit off Bobby Shantz?’  He hit the ball into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium where Mantle and Maris never came near.

“We’re all Steve’s friends,” Joe added.  “But we’re still in awe of him.”

That awe is the legacy Bilko left behind when he died in 1978 at the age of 49.

“He really had everything,” Borgman, the scout, said after hearing of Bilko’s death. “Scouts dream about finding that kind of guy. No matter how it ended I know one thing. On one August afternoon in Honey Pot, he was beautiful.”

“Nanticoke natives of a certain age will never forget his long-ball exploits,” Jonathan Bombulie of the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice writes in a June 28 story  about The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Bilko and the ’56 Angels.

“For a generation of baseball fans in Nanticoke and Southern California, of course, Bilko’s career was always more than decent.  He was larger than life, and the story of his days on the diamond bring back floods of warm memories.”

The Bilko Athletic Club, Bombulie concludes, “lets everyone else get a little taste of those memories, too.”

The full story can be viewed by clicking on the following link: http://m.citizensvoice.com/sports/nanticoke-s-bilko-was-king-of-the-pcl-in-the-1950s-1.1710979 ]

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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:

Broz, Bilko and Beer

Jim Brosnan wasn’t going to take the phone call until he found out it was about Steve Bilko. They played for the 1955 Los Angeles Angels, “Broz” winning 17 games and “Stout Steve” blasting 37 home runs. “He was the greatest right-hand hitter I saw in 1955,” Broz said.Jim Brosnan_1957

“He hit the ball so far that you loved it and hoped he hit it again,” Broz said in the   2012 interview. “I miss him now because he was one of the special ones that did things that few of the others would even try to do.”

They roomed together at a downtown L.A. hotel during spring training and several times on the road, the beer-loving Bilko providing wonderful material for the stories Brosnan told later as a writer.

“The best thing he could do was the thing that he did – drink beer. He would buy beer incidentally. There are a lot of beer drinkers who don’t buy beer. But he’d buy them in order to keep people around drinking with him. I think that’s a good attribute. I had a few beers on ol’ Steve. When he ordered those six-packs up in the hotel, he ordered one for me.”

Brosnan died June 29, 2014, at the age of 84. In nine major-league seasons with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Redlegs and Chicago White Sox, he posted a 55-47 record and a 3.54 earned run average with 67 saves. He’s best remembered, however, as the author of two books, The Long Season and Pennant Race, that took fans inside the locker room for the first time.

Illustration by Eric James Spencer
Illustration by Eric James Spencer

“Traditionally there are two kinds of baseball players – tobacco-chewing, monosyllabic hard rocks and freshly laundered heroes too young to appear in razor-blade commercials,” John Corry of the New York Times wrote, adding Brosnan was “in a third class” who “wrote a book about the other two kinds.”

Bilko isn’t featured in the books but he has a starring role in a Brosnan story, The Best Laid Plans of Baseball Fans Descend Like a Plague of Locusts, published by Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1969. Editors changed Brosnan’s suggested title: The Wistful World of the Baseball Fan…From Tinkers to Lovers to Chants.

“Baseball is an imperfect game,” Brosnan begins the article. “It can be improved. Ask any fan. Often as not he’ll have a helpful hint for your favorite player, for his chosen team, for umpires in general, and even for the Commissioner, whoever he is.”

Brosnan describes a fan – “Bilko’s self-made pen pal” – who was convinced the slugger would hit better if he stood closer to the plate. “A stream of misspelled missives inundated Steve’s locker at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.”

Illustration by Eric James Spencer
Illustration by Eric James Spencer

“Move up on the plate about a foot,” the fan urged. “I’ll watch you on TV.”

In a game against the Hollywood Stars, Bilko, using his normal stance, struck out three times but belted a game-winning homer. “Could have hit four!” the fan lamented in a telegram. “Still too far from plate!”

When Bilko was blanked the next game, he got a call on the clubhouse phone from the same fan. “You’re not paying attention. I’ll be out there Sunday. You better move up on the plate.”

“Bilko showed up for the Sunday doubleheader, dutiful and defiant,” Brosnan writes. “Batting fourth he cleaned up at the expense of the entire Hollywood pitching staff. Steve’s ardent advisor failed to appear. He was a True Fan, notable for caution as much as counsel. Like patrons of a zoo, you can talk to the animals all you want, but don’t touch. Above all, don’t let the beast get to you.”Bilko on scale

Brosnan and Gaylon White, author The Bilko Athletic Club, talked and corresponded about Bilko as far back as 1976.

“When I mention the name Steve Bilko, what’s the first thing you think of?” White asked in their first conversation.

“Beer. The man was a great beer drinker.”

“I understand he had a wooden leg.”

“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.”

“How much did he weigh?”

“Over a period of time, I think about 900 pounds. He must‘ve lost that much, at least.

Jim Brosnan signed his letters “Broz”
Jim Brosnan signed his letters “Broz”

“Was he constantly dieting?”

“In his way, he was constantly dieting.”

“What was his way?”

“He’d take a six-pack of beer into the bathroom. 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.

Bilko’s technique for losing weight was called a “steamer.”

“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.”

Brosnan recalled the time in the Dominican Republic when Bilko turned down a sure bet for $1,000 with a young Dominican named Ramon Ibarre. Ramon was general manager of the team Brosnan and Bilko played for there and nephew of that country’s iron-fisted dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The bet was that Steve couldn’t consume two quarts of beer in an hour, drinking the beer out of a shot glass at minute intervals. He had to keep both hands on the table between drinks so he couldn’t massage his stomach for relief.

“Theoretically, you can do it but the beer plus the gas goes right to the brain and you become disoriented,” Brosnan said. “Bilko had heard of this bet many years before when a great beer drinker named John Grodzicki, a pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1940s, tried it and fell on his face. Grodzicki was humiliated. But Bilko trained himself so he could drink beer without getting up to take a pee. He knew he could do it and he’d do it for nothing right in front of Ibarre. Bilko did it without any problem.”

At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Brosnan was almost as wiry as the wire-framed glasses he wore. The 6-foot-1 Bilko weighed “between 200 and 300 pounds.” That’s what he told writers asking about his weight.

Bill Sweeney was the Angel manager the first month of the ’55 season before health problems forced him out.  “One of the great winos of all time,” Broz described Sweeney, who died two years later following emergency surgery for a perforated ulcer.

“We knew Sweeney was on his last leg, mostly because he could barely walk. We’re up in Oakland. Bilko and I are standing at the top of the dugout. Now there are two steps down in the dugout. We’re l0 feet away from Sweeney. Some guy comes over and asks Bill for the starting lineup. He pointed at Bilko and said, ‘He’s pitching.’ And he pointed to me and said, ‘He‘s hitting fourth.’”

Brosnan ended his last conversation with White, saying: “I’m glad we talked.  I’m going to feel better because I talked to you.”

Actually, it was talking about Bilko that made Brosnan feel better.

“Oh, he was a character,” Broz said. “He was a really good guy.”

So was Broz.

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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:

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