Monthly Archives: November 2014

Wow!

(First of a series based on author Gaylon White’s recent  visit to Nanticoke, PA)

Stephen Thomas Bilko was a self-described “simple guy from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.” He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to because his bat spoke volumes – 148 home runs in three seasons (1955-57) with the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League.

This 1955 photo shows Bilko, left, holding MVP award won by teammate Gene Mauch, center, the previous year. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1
This 1955 photo shows Bilko, left, holding MVP award won by teammate Gene Mauch, center, the previous year. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1

At 6-foot-1 and 240-something pounds, Bilko looked more like a lumberjack, plumber or one of the coal miners he grew up around in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke. After his first season in L.A., Bilko was bigger than any Hollywood celebrity, his name adopted by actor-comedian Phil Silvers for the scheming Sgt. Bilko he made famous initially on the television show, You’ll Never Get Rich.

By the middle of the 1956 season, Bilko was being called the “greatest thing to happen to the Angels since wings” and “to Los Angeles since Shirley Temple and Rin Tin Tin.”

In the mid-Fifties, L.A. was a far simpler place, made up mostly of transplants from other states – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Iowa, and Michigan, to name a few. They could relate to Bilko because he was like many of them. He drank beer and smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes while watching Lawrence Welk or Roller Derby on TV. If you bought him a beer, he returned the favor because that’s what folks do back home in Nanticoke. He liked country music, especially Hank Snow and Hank Williams. One of his favorite songs was A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation by Marty Robbins.

Bilko was as big a celebrity in L.A. as any movie star.  Here, he poses with actress Terry Moore. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Bilko was as big a celebrity in L.A. as any movie star. Here, he poses with actress Terry Moore. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Near the end of the ’55 season, the Angels swept a doubleheader from their cross-town rivals, the Hollywood Stars. According to the Los Angeles Times, there were “15,217 screaming customers” at Wrigley Field. Between games, Bilko was presented a trophy as the Angels’ most valuable player and an envelope with a check representing “a token of Angel management’s appreciation” for his league-leading 37 home runs, .328 batting average and 124 runs batted in.

“Bilko was called upon to say something befitting the occasion,” wrote Ned Cronin, a Times sports columnist. “There have been many speeches made by and for outstanding athletes.

“Steve made a bum of every athletic orator in history. This Patrick Henry of the diamond cleared his throat, stepped up to the microphone and said: ‘Wow!’”

That simple speech was repeated over and over again last weekend in Nanticoke.

IMG_5130
Three generations of Bilkos pose with author Gaylon White in the boyhood home of Stephen Thomas Bilko.  L-R, Stephen Robert, White, Stephen Michael, and Stephen Richard.

From a book signing event for The Bilko Athletic Club at the Nanticoke Historical Society to a get-together of Bilko family and friends at the home of Steve’s eldest son, Stephen Richard, the word of the weekend was: Wow!

On retiring from pro baseball in 1964, Bilko returned to Nanticoke and worked for awhile as a milkman for a local dairy.

“We’d ask Mr. Bilko to autograph our bill,” said Debbie Ropers Reddy.

Debbie recalled Bilko taking time to “chat a little bit” around the kitchen table. “How are you Mrs. Ropers?” he asked. “How’s the family?”

“We always admired him,” she said.

To Joe Kowalchin and others in Nanticoke, Bilko was “Bunky.” Nobody knows why.

The nickname is mentioned once in The Bilko Athletic Club when Joe Maday, Steve’s self-proclaimed No. 1 fan, relayed a message to Steve from Bill “Moose” Skowron, a former New York Yankee: “Ask Bunky if he can remember a home run he hit off Bobby Shantz?”

Playing for the Detroit Tigers in 1960, Bunky hit a mighty blast into the upper deck at old Yankee Stadium. Ryne Duren was a pitcher for the Yankees at the time.

“Bobby Shantz threw him a hanging curveball,” Duren told me in a 2001 interview. “Did you ever see a guy swing as hard as he could and miss? Well, this time Bilko swung as hard he could and hit the ball. It went way up in the top deck and right up the exit hole. He just stood there and watched it, and gave the bat a flip. I can still see it like it was yesterday.”

Only three others hit a ball into the same area. “They told me it must have gone 600 feet,” Bilko said. “Shantz threw his glove in the air. I told him I was paying him back for all the times he struck me out.

“If he was playing ball now, he’d be making millions,” Jerry Olejar said at the book signing.

Bilko gives batting tips to actor David Nelson, oldest son of Ozzie and Harriett who starred in a popular TV show by the same name. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Bilko gives batting tips to actor David Nelson, who starred with his brother, Ricky, and parents in the popular TV sitcom, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

“I’d be over at the house because we lived right next door to each other and he’d say, ‘I come 10 years too early,’” Kowalchin said.

Bob Scheffing, Bilko’s manager his first two seasons in L.A., said as much in 1978 when Bilko died at the age of 49.

“I’ve always said that if Steve had come along in the ‘60s, he would have been a hell of a major league player. I think those two years he had in the American League proved it.”

Back in L.A. in 1961 with the fledging big-league Angels, Bilko slugged 20 homers despite playing part-time. He was hitting .287 with eight round-trippers in 1962 when a leg infection ended his season and major-league career.

The nickname Bunky was still the topic of conversation Saturday night at the Bilko home in Honey Pot.

Stephen Richard and his wife, Mary, live in the same house as did Steve’s father and grandfather, Stephen Joseph.  Bilko’s grandson, Stephen Michael, was there with his 3 ½-year-old son, Stephen Robert.

Long-time neighbors Paul and Ken Huber camped around the dining room table covered with Polish favorites like kielbasa and pierogi. “The Hotel Bilko is like the Hotel California,” Paul said. “You can check in any time you want but you can never leave.”

“Everybody had nicknames,” explained Paul. “They called me Hubie. This guy Val, another nickname, he starts calling me Scooby. I like Scooby better.”

If you lived in Honey Pot, you had a nickname. John became Yeaker. There was Zughead, Booney and Dupps. “Nobody went by their right name,” Paul said.

He looked at me and announced, “Your new Honey Pot nickname is Whiteski.”

All I could say was: “Wow!”

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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 Il dlustrated 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 Story Behind the Picture of Bilko & Ike

A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. So it’s only fitting that this story about the Associated Press wire-service photo of former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signing Steve Bilko’s first basemen’s mitt is exactly one thousand words long.

Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs Steve Bilko’s glove as Ted Kluszewski looks on and Bill Rigney mugs the camera. (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower signs Steve Bilko’s glove as Ted Kluszewski looks on and Bill Rigney mugs the camera. (Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)

The picture was taken March 1, 1961, in Palm Springs, California, at the spring training camp of the newly-formed Los Angeles Angels, one of two expansion teams to join the American League in 1961.

Bilko was the most popular baseball player to wear a L.A. uniform up to that time, blasting 148 homers in three seasons (1955-57) for the Angels of the old Pacific Coast League. He also played for the Los Angeles Dodgers long enough in 1958 to help them win a public referendum to build a new ballpark at the desired location in Chavez Ravine. “No Bilko, no Dodger Stadium,” said Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers general manager.

Ike was still well-liked even after eight years in the White House. Unable to play golf because of a two-week bout with lumbago, he showed up at Palm Springs’ Polo Grounds to watch the Angels’ first intrasquad game. “I was as surprised as everyone,” said Irv Kaze, the team’s publicist. “I happened to look up and saw a man wearing a white cap sitting in the grandstand. The only two men I could think of who wear white caps were Babe Ruth and Eisenhower and I knew Ruth was dead.”

Bilko started spring training for the ’61 Angels with a bang, bashing five balls over the fence in his first workout. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)
Bilko started spring training for the ’61 Angels with a bang, bashing five balls over the fence in his first workout. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)

Kaze rushed to where Ike was sitting with two golfing buddies. “Mr. President,” Kaze said, “Mr. Rigney, the Angel manager, and I would like to have you on the field.”

“Fine, can I bring my friends with me?” Ike asked.

That’s how Ike wound up posing for pictures and sitting in the dugout during the game.

Three days earlier Bilko arrived from his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, and, according to the Los Angeles Herald-Express, “used his weight to slam five out of the park.” The newspaper published a photo of one mighty swing with “BILKO BOOMS ‘EM” scrawled in big letters across the top. A caption heading below announced, “BILKO ‘ROUNDS’ INTO FORM EARLY.”

“It bugs me the way people fret about my weight,” Bilko said afterwards. “It’s getting so bad that when I walk down the street at home (Nanticoke), people don’t say, ‘How are you, Steve?’ They say, ‘How much do you weigh?’

“It’s like I was a freak or something. I’m not going to have anyone tell me what to weigh anymore.”

Bilko recalled spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950 when he supposedly weighed 260 and was forced to wear a rubber suit so he could lose 40 pounds. “I wasn’t the same for two years after that.”

In his three years with the Coast League Angels, nobody badgered Bilko about his weight except the media. “How much does Steve weigh?” a Los Angeles Times reporter asked in a 1956 story titled NOT EVEN MRS. BILKO KNOWS HIS WEIGHT.

Mary Bilko played it coy, saying: “Why, I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs. The papers said he trimmed down to a mere 232 pounds. But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?”

Ike thought Big Klu, left, and Bilko would make good bodyguards.  (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1 )
Ike thought Big Klu, left, and Bilko would make good bodyguards. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1 )

Bilko weighed 242 pounds when he joined the Angels. “My best playing weight is 240. I’m not going under that.”

In the AP wire photo, Ike is wearing an Angel cap and standing between Bilko and Ted Kluszewski, a 248-pounder prone to cut off the sleeves of his uniform to better display the biggest arms in baseball. Next to Big Klu is Rigney, looking at the camera instead of Ike autographing Bilko’s glove.

Rigney introduced Bilko and Big Klu to Ike. “These are our first basemen,” he said.

“I hope they don’t sit on it,” Ike joked, “or they’d flatten it out.”

Ike flashed his famous smile as he posed between the two mashers. “They’d make a couple of good bodyguards,” he said.

There are different accounts of what Ike said to Bilko about his weight. One has Ike needling, “They tell me you’re off about 30 pounds in weight.” Another has him saying, “They tell me you’re about 10 pounds lighter this season.”

Bilko grinned and nodded his head, knowing his teammates planted the question based on the comments he made about his weight earlier in the week.

“How old are you?” Ike asked.

“Thirty-two,” Bilko replied.

Ike wished Bilko good luck before moving to the dugout to watch the four-inning game.

Big Klu and Bilko serve as bookends for three ’61 Angel teammates: L-R, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte and Bob Cerv.  (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)
Big Klu and Bilko serve as bookends for three ’61 Angel teammates: L-R, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte and Bob Cerv. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/47316/rec/1)

He tried to cheer up pitcher Tom Morgan after he was roughed up in the first inning. “You did all right out there, son.”

“I sure did,” Morgan said. “I hit all their bats.”

Albie Pearson, the littlest Angel at 5-foot-5 and 140-pounds, played two years for the Washington Senators when President Eisenhower was in office. “Mr. President, you did me wrong when I was with the Senators. Every time you would throw out the baseballs at the opener, I used to wave hoping you would throw one to me.

“Gosh, Albie,” chuckled Ike, “you’re so small I couldn’t see you.”

Ike greeted another ex-Senator, pitcher Tex Clevenger. “I wonder if Ike knows Clevenger’s first name is Truman,” mused an Angel executive, referring to former President Harry Truman.

“In all the time I was with Washington, I never saw Ike in the Senator dugout,” said Eddie Yost, a veteran third baseman who played 14 years for the Senators.

When Bilko dived for a hot smash at first base, Ike cracked, “That will take some of the pounds off the big boy.”

“Take a look at him,” one of Ike’s friends said to a reporter. “He’s like a kid having a whale of a time at this game.”

The photo of Ike, Bilko, Big Klu and Rigney is preserved in the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Bilko’s oldest son, Steve, has a framed copy. He has no idea what happened to the glove Ike signed. Until now, he didn’t know the thousand-word story behind the picture.

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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:

Back to Nanticoke

Gerald Ford was president of the United States but not for long. Happy Days was the top-rated television show, a much-needed antidote for the misery index to follow under Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter. Author Gaylon White was 30 – the uniform number for broad-shouldered Steve Bilko in 1956-57 when he belted 111 home runs to become known as Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph.

Steve Bilko, left, and Albie Pearson posed for this picture in 1957. (Author’s collection)
Steve Bilko, left, and Albie Pearson posed for this picture in 1957. (Author’s collection)

On Saturday, October 2, 1976, White spent a day with Stout Steve at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. He returns to Nanticoke Saturday, November 15, to sign copies of his book, The Bilko Athletic Club, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. at the Nanticoke Historical Society, 495 East Main Street, Nanticoke.

Steve Bilko, Jr., and other Bilko family members are planning to attend the event honoring Stout Steve, who was 49 years old when he died March 7, 1978. Bilko’s sons, Steve, Jr., and Tom led the Nanticoke Area High School to championships in football, baseball and basketball in the late 1960s. They both played football at Villanova University.

Photos covering Stout Steve’s legendary career will be on display. One of them features Bilko and diminutive Albie Pearson when they played for the Angels and San Francisco Seals in 1957. Both are wearing the number 30 but the similarities stop there. “He was one of the biggest boned men I’ve seen,” said Pearson, a 5-foot-5, 140-pound outfielder. “His legs – you could put mine together and make one of his.”

The Seals won 101 games to claim the old Pacific Coast League’s last championship. The next year the Dodgers and Giants relocated to L.A. and San Francisco, forcing the Coast League to restructure with teams in Phoenix, Spokane and Salt Lake City.

“In the Coast League he was King Kong,” Pearson said of Bilko. “I tell you: if you didn’t get the ball in on his hands, he’d just kill you.

“You talk about a man who could hit a ‘crippled pitch,’ it was Steve Bilko. When I use the word ‘cripple,’ I mean the one that sometimes you get on 2-and-0  and 3-and-1 counts. He would just sit on a breaking ball or a fastball and he would eat your lunch.”

Bilko and Pearson were teammates in 1961-62 when the Angels joined the American League. In 1961, Bilko belted 20 home runs in only 294 official at bats. He was hitting .287 with eight homers in 1962 when a leg injury ended his season and big league career. “If he stayed healthy, he would’ve hit 40 home runs in the big leagues,” Albie said. “But it was late in his career.”

 For more information on the book signing event, visit the Nanticoke Historical Society website: http://www.nanticokehistoryonline.org/index.html

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

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:

Patience Pays

“Good things come to those to wait…and wait…and wait,” Ernie Banks once told Chicago Cub fans.

Cub faithful are still waiting – 10 years since the Steve Bartman incident; 30 years since a ground ball trickled through Leon Durham’s legs in the finale of the 1984 National League Championship Series; 69 years since the Cubs were in a World Series and 106 years since they won one.

Dave "Mr. Automatic" Hillman shows Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks knuckler he used to blank Pittsburgh Pirates on a two-hitter in 1959. (Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)
Dave “Mr. Automatic” Hillman shows Ernie “Mr. Cub”
Banks knuckler he used to blank Pittsburgh Pirates on a two-hitter in 1959.
(Associated Press Wirephoto / National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, N.Y.)

It has been a mere 58 years since Dave Hillman won 21 games to lead the 1956 Los Angeles Angels to the Pacific Coast League crown. He led the Angels in innings pitched (210), complete games (15) and shutouts (three).

Hillman was at his best against the league’s best, going undefeated (8-0) against the runner-up Seattle Rainiers and third-place Portland Beavers.

He was an amazing 11-2 at L.A.’s Wrigley Field, a hitter’s paradise that most pitchers wanted to avoid. “It made me a better pitcher. You don’t take unnecessary chances. In a larger ballpark, you can make a mistake. I was always aware that being in a small ballpark, I had to be real careful.”

For all of his success with the Angels in ’56, Hillman got little recognition. “But for a sore arm that kept him inactive for the first five weeks, Hillman would have, at the very least, 25 enemy scalps dangling from his belt right now,” one L.A. sportswriter offered near the end of the season.

That was about it until the publication of The Bilko Athletic Club.

Dave Hillman, left, was featured on Bill Meade's sports talk show on WXSM radio in Tri-Cities area of Tennessee.
Dave Hillman, left, was featured on Bill Meade’s sports talk show on WXSM radio in Tri-Cities area of Tennessee.

A full chapter is devoted to Mr. Automatic, the nickname teammate Dwight “Red” Adams bestowed on him long after the ’56 season. “He went out there time and time again and pitched you that good ball game,” Adams said.

In recent months, Hillman, now 87, has appeared on a sports talk show in the northeast area of Tennessee where he lives. He’s been the subject of stories in the Kingsport Times-News and, most recently, a story by sports columnist Trey Williams in the Johnson City Press*.

“It was an inspiration to me and an honor to me to play on that ballclub,” Hillman told Williams, adding: “It was a magical thing.”

Hillman was part of that magic and he’s finally getting the credit he deserves. Banks, a teammate with the Cubs, was right after all. Good things eventually do come to those who wait, and live, long enough.

 

 

*To read the online version of Trey Williams’ column in the Johnson City Press, click on the following link: http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/article/121559/kingsport-major-leaguer-recalls-championship-days

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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: