Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Bilko-Sized Blast from the Past

(Fourth in a series based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA)

Stout Steve Bilko had 54 home runs and 16 games remaining in the 1957 season to break the Pacific Coast League’s single-season record of 60 set in 1925. He had been down this road the year before, the “Bilko Homerometer” and “Bilko Meter” in the newspapers topping out at 55.

:  George Goodale was a PR man for Gene Autry before promoting the L.A. Angels. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
George Goodale was a PR man for Gene Autry before promoting the L.A. Angels. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

It was time to rally the troops on Stout Steve’s behalf. George Goodale, a publicist for Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, before tub-thumping for the Los Angeles Angels, called on his celebrity friends in Hollywood to stage an old-fashioned telegram-writing campaign. Goodale, then, turned the Bilko telegrams into a two-page press release that’s a testament to how big a star Stout Steve was in L.A. at the time.

Mary Bilko, the wife of Stephen Richard Bilko, Stout Steve’s eldest son, found the document among photos and newspaper articles stashed in a plastic pouch.

Mary immediately noticed a message from Jayne Mansfield, a blonde bombshell who starred in the 1957 movie, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? “Dear Stevie,” the telegram began. “Success spoiled Rock Hunter. I know it won’t spoil you. Love.”

Lawrence Welk, the band leader, wrote Bilko: “Every Little Leaguer in Los Angeles and all your fans are hoping you’ll go over the top in home runs. Every one of us are with you every time you swing your bat.”

Phil Silvers, Sgt. Bilko in the popular television series, You’ll Never Get Rich, sent a telegram along with actresses Barbara Rush and Terry Moore.

Betty White, the ageless actress of Golden Girls fame, reminded Bilko that “every baseball fan in Los Angeles is pulling for [a] home run for you every time you step to the plate. Send ‘em sailing Steve, we’re all with you.”

Joan Collins, the British actress, wrote, “Dear Steve: I don’t know a Louisville Slugger from a cricket wicket but I know you’ll jolly well give it a go.”

At home in Nanticoke, Stout Steve didn’t talk much about baseball. He told his two boys, Steve and Tom, “If you need any help hitting or throwing or any baseball knowledge or tips, just come and ask.”

:  George Goodale was a PR man for Gene Autry before promoting the L.A. Angels. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Charley Locke of the Baltimore Orioles was on the receiving end of this Jayne Mansfield kiss. (Courtesy Barry McMahon)

“But he’d never tell us what to do,” Steve said. “We had a lot of success in high school so who needs dad? We’re doing good. So we never asked. I wish I did just for the hell of it.”

After Steve and Tom were named all-state in baseball in 1969, Stout Steve wrote Goodale, “I think they’ve surpassed me. Tom can hit them as far as anyone.”

Sorting through a stack of photos, Mary came across one showing Stout Steve with three St. Louis Cardinal teammates: Tom Poholsky, a pitcher; Stan Musial; and Joe Garagiola.

Garagiola went on to an illustrious career in broadcasting, often telling Bilko stories on Monday night Game of the Week telecasts. “I saw him hit a ball, it was in Maine or Vermont, one of those little towns there, I can’t remember, and there was a mountain beyond left field. I thought the ball was going to go through that mountain. That’s how hard he hit it.” [See Garagiola_1 audio clip below]

Garagiola recalled spring training with the Cardinals in 1950 when Bilko reported 30 pounds overweight. “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-centerfield.” [See Garagiola_2 audio clip below]

 Singer Jana Lund gives Stout Steve a good-luck kiss as encouragement to hit another home run.  (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Singer Jana Lund gives Stout Steve a good-luck kiss as encouragement to hit another homer. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

I interviewed Garagiola at Royals Stadium in Kansas City July 7, 1975. The sounds of batting practice can be heard in the background of our tape-recorded conversation.

“I’ll never forget one day in St. Louis at the old ballpark, Sportsman’s Park. He was sitting on the bench and looking out toward right-centerfield. 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-centerfield seats with my elbow and they want me to pull the ball where I hit long fly balls. I don’t understand that.'” [See Garagiola_2 audio clip below]

I mentioned how Bilko was Babe Ruth to me and a legion of L.A. kids. “I can see where Bilko would give you that kind of hope of maybe the next Babe Ruth. When he hit a ball, he hit it. It sounded, it looked and it acted like a home run.” [See Garagiola_3 audio clip below]

Of course, Bilko didn’t become another Babe. He didn’t even break the Coast League home run mark in 1957. He belted two more to give him 56 and, then, the Bilko Homerometer went kerplunk. In parts of 10 seasons in the majors, he hit only 76 homers, leading one big league manager to derisively call him, “Beer Barrel Bilko”.

“Managers have never really understood Bilko,” Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1961. “He has been given up on by more of them than any player in the history of the game.

“It became almost a crusade with managers to slim Bilko down to a point where he was merely fat. Bilko struggled to oblige. But he was up against overwhelming odds – his appetite.”

: L-R, Bilko, Tom Poholsky, Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola.  (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
L-R, Bilko, Tom Poholsky, Stan Musial and Joe Garagiola. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Garagiola put Bilko’s weight into perspective by referencing two famous fitness gurus and two star pitchers who looked like they could use their help. “If conditioning meant that much, Jack LaLanne would be a 20-game winner; Vic Tanny would hit .400. I don’t say you’re out of shape but Babe Ruth – was Babe Ruth a picture of condition? You know, you don’t hit it with your belly. Mickey Lolich is an outstanding left-hand pitcher and all I hear about is his belly. Wilbur Wood wins games and he’s not built like a pitcher. I know some guys who are built like hitters and built like pitchers and all they do is look good in the lobby.” [See Garagiola_4 audio clip below]

I left behind the recordings of Garagiola’s comments so Steve and Mary Bilko could preserve them along with the press release listing the Bilko telegrams and photos of Stout Steve from his playing days. They are Bilko-sized blasts from the past that we can enjoy and muse as Garagiola did nearly 40 years ago, “I just wonder what a Steve Bilko would do today.” [See Garagiola_5 audio clip below]

Garagiola Audio Clip #1

Garagiola Audio Clip #2

Garagiola Audio Clip #3

Garagiola Audio Clip #4

Garagiola Audio Clip #5

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

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:

A Sunday Drive with the Bilkos

(Third in a series based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA)

There was only one way in and out of the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke in 1976 when I visited Stephen Thomas Bilko, also known as Stout Steve the Slugging Seraph. Today, there are two roads. In Honey Pot, that’s progress.

“This guy has had scaffolding here since my father died,” said Stephen Richard Bilko as we passed a house in the neighborhood on a Sunday drive around Nanticoke. Steve’s dad died in 1978.

Three generations of Steve Bilkos. L-R, Stephen Richard; Stephen Robert and Stephen Michael.
Three generations of Steve Bilkos. L-R, Stephen Richard; Stephen Robert and Stephen Michael.

A scorecard is needed to keep track of the Bilkos named Steve. Starting with Stephen Thomas, there’s his father, Stephen Joseph; his eldest son, Stephen Richard; grandson, Stephen Michael; and great grandson, Stephen Robert.

The wood-framed houses are a throwback to the days when Honey Pot was a melting pot of Poles, Slovaks and Irish working in the nearby coal mines. Stephen Joseph was the last miner in the area to use mules to transport coal cars underground.

The front doors of the houses virtually open onto narrow streets named Rock, River, The Ditch and Pikes Peak, where it’s claimed you can see the court house in Wilkes-Barre on a clear day. Stephen Richard and his wife, Mary, live on Honey Pot Street in the same house where his father and grandfather once lived. A telephone pole sticks up out of the Bilko’s asphalt driveway.

“Wherever a board fell off the truck, that’s where you built the house,” Steve said. “There are two Honey Pot streets. Supposedly, this is the original Honey Pot Street and the other one an alley. There used to be two-way traffic. But there were all these collisions and close calls in front of our home so we had a petition signed to make it one way. Thank God!”

Adding to the confusion is the willy-nilly numbering of the houses. “You pick your own number,” Mary added with a laugh. “We’re six, next door is four and, then it goes to 11. Across the street is 120.”

“Delivery trucks ride around for hours up here,” Steve said. “I feel sorry for them and go out after awhile and help them out.”

It’s amazing that Benny Borgman, the St. Louis Cardinal scout who signed Steve’s dad, was able to find the Honey Pot ballpark.

Borgman first spotted Stout Steve playing in nearby Wilkes-Barre. He was in awe of the 16-year-old slugger’s massive arms and powerful wrists and how far they could propel a baseball. He followed the boy wonder the entire summer of 1945, waiting for the opportune moment to sign him to a contract.

“I figured I’d wait until he got to his home town,” Borgman told Jerry Izenberg, a sports columnist for the Long Island, New York, newspaper, Newsday. “I figured by then the other scouts still wouldn’t have figured out where it was. Any kid who operated out of Honey Pot was going to be tough to find.”

Honey Pot overlooks Nanticoke, even though it sits like a bowl inside a hill. “We’re up on a little pedestal,” Steve said. “We call it the capital of Nanticoke; Honey Pot – we don’t associate with Nanticoke.”

Borgman made his move near the end of the ’45 season. He took a train to Scranton, rented a car and headed for Honey Pot.

Ted Hiller Park in Honey Pot.
Ted Hiller Park in Honey Pot.

“The ballpark was a big wide open kind of pasture and they didn’t charge admission,” Borgman said. “There was this big coal pile out on the left-field line so I walked out there and climbed it for a better view. By the time the third inning rolled around there were three other guys out there and each one of them was a major league scout. Some secret battle plan.”

The ballpark is still there. It’s home to the Nanticoke Teener League and named after its founder and long-time president, Ted Hiller. Home plate is where left field used to be. The coal pile is gone.

“The field was not level like it’s now,” Steve said. “All around the infield, from first to third, it would go up about seven or eight feet and, then, you’d have a plateau for the outfield.”

Borgman watched as the right-handed hitting Bilko stepped to the plate and slammed a fastball over the coal pile and the heads of the scouts. “It would have been out of Yankee Stadium,” Izenberg wrote. “Yankee Stadium? Hell, it would have been out of the Grand Canyon.”

In Bilko’s next two at bats, he belted opposite-field homers. When the game was over, all of the scouts except Borgman “developed shin splints sliding down the coal pile to get to Bilko.”

Borgman walked straight toward Bilko’s father. “Listen, it didn’t take a genius to figure out the kid was underage,” Borgman related to Izenberg. “What I wanted was the father.”

Borgman drove Pop Bilko home to Honey Pot Street where for they talked baseball for hours while quenching their thirst with locally-brewed Gibbons beer. “If it’s Gibbons, it’s good,” Steve smiled as he recited the advertising jingle for the beer his father enjoyed by the six-pack.

Souvenir Gibbons coaster from the author’s visit to Sivick’s Club in 1976.
Souvenir Gibbons coaster from the author’s visit to Sivick’s Club in 1976.

When a Philadelphia Phillies scout arrived around 1 a.m. with Stout Steve, Izenberg reported that “he took one look at Benny and the old man hoisting a few together, said one four letter word and left. An hour later, Steve Bilko was signed.”

We left Ted Hiller Ballpark, headed for downtown and the Hanover section of Nanticoke. “We hated Hanover, the east side,” Steve said. “We loved to beat the pants off them. And they would despise us just as much.”

In the late 1960s, Steve and his brother, Tom, led Nanticoke Area High School to championships in football, baseball and basketball. They both played football at Villanova, Steve signing as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 1973. A shoulder injury prompted him to give up football and return to Honey Pot to teach and coach at the high school.

We drove past Sivick’s Club, one of Stout Steve’s favorite watering holes. It’s now a gun shop. Yeager’s, the tavern where eight-ounce glasses of draft beer sold for 20 cents apiece in 1976, is a pizza place these days.

The Bilkos attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church – the highest point in downtown Nanticoke.

The parish closed in 2010 as part of a consolidation of Catholic churches in Nanticoke.

Stout Steve sang in the choir. “It was the only church in the area that had an all-men’s choir. They sounded really great. People from other parishes came to hear the men sing.”

The Eagles Club is “where they’d have a couple of beers before and after choir practice.”

“There’s always some club in this area that you needed to belong to,” said Paul Huber, a friend and neighbor of the Bilkos. “The Honey Pot Club, the Eagles Club, the Ali Baba Club, ACON (Athletic Club of Nanticoke).” There’s also the Fireman’s Club, a combination club and fire station in Honey Pot. Stephen Joseph was one of the founders; Stout Steve, one of its regulars.

“To communicate or be social, you were a member of one club or another – or both,” added Steve.

Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club at St. Joseph’s Cemetery. He was 49 when he died suddenly from a heart attack.

:  Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club in Nanticoke.
Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club in Nanticoke.

The gravestone is easy to spot because the big, capital letters spelling BILKO grab your attention just as they did in the Los Angeles newspaper headlines when he bashed a combined 111 home runs in 1956 and 1957 – the peak of his popularity in L.A. There are four squares under the Bilko name, two blank and the other two reading: STEPHEN T. 1927-1978 and MARY S. 1929 –.

Steve’s mom also is named Mary – Mary Sunder. She lives with her daughter, Sharon, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

I couldn’t help but notice the birth year for Stout Steve was wrong. He was born in 1928 (November 13), not 1927. And there’s no inscription or visual cues such as a bat or baseball to suggest he was one of the greatest minor league players of all time.

“At least he’s buried right behind the 400 Club,” I joked. “Not even Ted Williams can say that.”

We laughed as Williams, baseball’s last .400 hitter, was cryogenically frozen after he died in 2002, his remains stored in an Arizona lab.

Our Sunday drive continued on to the Hanover section where Mary Sunder grew up. We were about three miles from Honey Pot. “My grandfather wouldn’t give the car to my father to come over here. So he walked.”

“Coming up is the monument for Pete Gray,” Steve announced.

A bronze plaque near the entrance to the Hanover Recreation Park honors Gray, the only one-arm man to play major league baseball. He was born and lived in Hanover until he died in 2002.

We came to a residential area where a baseball field and school used to be. “There’s no longer a school here but this is where I went to first grade when we lived in the Hanover section with my mother’s parents.”

This plaque pays tribute to Nanticoke’s Pete “One Arm” Gray.
This plaque pays tribute to Nanticoke’s Pete “One Arm” Gray.

Stephen T. and Mary moved in with the Sunders after they were married in January 1950. In March he showed up at the Cardinals spring training camp weighing 260 pounds – 30 pounds over his playing weight the year before.

“I have been living with my mother-in-law,” Stout Steve explained, adding, “She cooked some fine dishes, just for me. How could I turn her down?”

The Bilkos lived in three rooms upstairs until 1958 when Stout Steve returned to the majors after three banner years in L.A. Down in the cellar, Grandpa Sunder had a coal stove where he’d make an egg-and-green-onion dish for grandsons Steve and Tom. “We thought it was the cat’s meow,” Steve said.

Back in Honey Pot that evening Steve recalled how his father made scrambled eggs every morning for him, Tom and Sharon before driving to nearby Mountain Top where he worked for Dana Perfume Company as an inspector of raw materials. “He was a dynamite cook.”

Mary and Steve Bilko with one of their three children. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)
Mary and Steve Bilko with one of their three children. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

“Tuna casserole,” Mary noted. “Topped it with crushed potato chips. I make it ‘til today.”

Another Bilko specialty was kielbasa. “Charred it on both sides,” Steve said. “Dip in ketchup and a hot sauce…more hot sauce, less hot sauce, depending on how hot you like it. He made a mean chef salad, too. All kinds of meats in there; it was delicious.”

Mary served one of her specialties – a creamy peanut and chocolate concoction called Jimmy Carter Cake. If more people had eaten this cake, Carter would still be president of the United States.

Steve was mulling over my remark about his father’s gravestone lacking any reference to his baseball career. “I hadn’t thought about it before but you’re right: nobody would know he ever played baseball.”

I was thinking about two comments, one by Borgman, the Cardinal scout, and the other by a guy named Rich that I met in 1976 at a West Nanticoke bar the night before I visited Stout Steve in Honey Pot.

“I was convinced that I had made history,” Borgman said of Bilko’s signing. “I was convinced that here was a guy who would one day hit 65 home runs in a single season.”

Bilko was busy signing autographs for his legion of fans at an Old-Timers game in L.A. in 1976.  (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)
Bilko was busy signing autographs for his legion of fans at an Old-Timers game in L.A. in 1976. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

Rich claimed he lived “down the street” from Bilko in Honey Pot. He knew all about Stout Steve’s exploits as a home run hitter and beer drinker. “Go over to Honey Pot and ask anyone about Bilko,” he said. “They‘ll tell you. Honey Pot takes care of its own.”

Thirty-eight years have passed. There’s no ballpark in Honey Pot named after Bilko. There are no plaques recognizing him as a minor-league superstar, genuine folk hero and Honey Pot’s goodwill ambassador to the world. It’s time that Honey Pot takes care of its own.

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

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:

‘One of the Best Sports Books of 2014’

(The series of stories based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA, will resume Monday, Dec. 15)

“The very best era of baseball is when you were a kid,” says Bill Swank, a San Diego baseball historian.

For baby boomers that grew up during the golden era of baseball in the 1950s, this is especially true.

As the prices on the back cover of the ’56 Angels Yearbook suggest, you could eat “economically” at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.
As the prices on the back cover of the ’56 Angels Yearbook suggest, you could eat “economically” at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.

Our parents didn’t go bankrupt taking us to games and letting us gorge ourselves on hot dogs and soft drinks. You could have two of each plus an ice cream for under a dollar.

Players were approachable and often mixed with fans, more than willing to sign autographs.

And minor league games were just as important as any big league game. They really mattered – on the field and in the standings.

The Bilko Athletic Club is not a history book but there’s a lot of history in it for fans who want a Steve Bilko-sized blast from the past.

“One of the best sports books of 2014,” Bruce Miles wrote recently in the Chicago Daily Herald, adding that the book is “one you definitely should put on your holiday wish list.” You can read Miles’ article and interview with Author Gaylon White by clicking on the following link: http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20141130/sports/141139966/

Hal Ramey, long-time sports director at KCBS-Radio in San Francisco, featured the book on his popular sports show, calling it a “great read”. You can listen to the two-part series by clicking on the MP3 files below.

Free copies of this photo signed by Dave Hillman will be available at book signing events this week in Kingsport, TN.
Free copies of this photo signed by Dave Hillman will be available at book signing events this week in Kingsport, TN.

White and Dave Hillman, the ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff with 21 victories, will be at two book signing events in Kingsport, Tennessee. The first is 6-7:45 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 9 at the Kingsport Public Library, 400 Broad Street: http://www.kingsportlibrary.org/events/gaylon-white-author-talk-and-book-signing/ . The second is 12 noon -2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 10 at Sloopy’s Diner, 819 N. Eastman Road. The hot dogs at Sloopy’s may cost a little more than they did in 1956 but the conversation and free autographed photographs of Hillman, a long-time Kingsport resident, will make them taste better.

 

 

 

Hal Ramey Interview on KCBS-Radio in San Francisco – Part 1

 

Hal Ramey Interview on KCBS-Radio in San Francisco – Part 2

 

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

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 Last Real American Sports Hero’

(Second of a series based on a recent visit to Nanticoke, PA, by Author Gaylon White)

Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray called Steve Bilko “an authentic folk hero.” Ron Kalb, 12 years old in 1956 when Bilko was imitating Mickey Mantle on the West Coast, still considers him “the last real American sports hero.”

Mary and Steve Bilko with their daughter, Sharon. The three Bilko kids were five and under in 1956 when Steve had his banner year. (Courtesy Stephen R.
Mary and Steve Bilko with their daughter, Sharon. The three Bilko kids were five and under in 1956 when Steve had his banner year. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Nearly 2,700 miles separates Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, from Los Angeles. In the mid-1950s and early 1960s when there was no ESPN or 24/7 sports coverage, the distance between the two was better measured in light years. As far as Bilko’s friends and neighbors in Nanticoke are concerned, he might as well have been bashing home runs on another planet.

To fully appreciate the impact Bilko had on L.A. baseball, you had to be there to see and believe it.

Harry Turtledove, a Hugo Award winning author, was seven years old in ’56 when Bilko became his first baseball hero by winning the Pacific Coast League’s Triple Crown. “It’s funny: I remember that he did that. I know Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown the same year, but I don’t remember it.”

To Bobby Grich, a seven-year-old in nearby Long Beach, California, Bilko was “Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.” Grich grew up to be an all-star second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels.

Bilko was idolized by kids in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
Bilko was idolized by kids in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

At the peak of his popularity in ’56, Bilko’s three children, Stephen, Thomas and Sharon, were five years old or under – too young to comprehend how big a hero their father was to other kids.

Even today, Stephen, now 63, is amazed by the depth and magnitude of his father’s fame on the West Coast. “He didn’t talk much about himself and he never talked about L.A. because he didn’t think people would believe the stories.”

Stephen and his wife, Mary, have a smattering of news articles, fan mail and photos of the so-called Angel Atlas with television and movie stars like Phil Silvers, Pat Boone, Shirley Jones and former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mary was sorting through them when she came across a letter dated March 8, 1978. It was laminated, suggesting it was special. “Do you know Ron Kalb?” She handed me the letter and I started reading it:

I am shocked and heartbroken to learn that Steve has died. I have thought of him often since his retirement from baseball, and today I feel a great personal loss.

I grew up in Los Angeles in the days when Big Steve Bilko was a superstar with the PCL Los Angeles Angels. No one used the term “superstar” in those days, but Steve Bilko surely was one. I was 13 or 14 years old then, and Steve Bilko was my god. To this day, I consider him the last real American sports hero. 

Today’s sports figures are surrounded by press agents, business agents, lawyers, fast cars, and faster women. They are surly and they are vain.

Steve Bilko was modest. He was big, in every sense of the word, gentle and kind. He never spoke ill of anyone and hit home runs like clockwork. That’s a real hero. That was Steve Bilko.

He always gave us someone to look up to, someone to imitate. He gave us a small voice inside that said, “Try harder; be better; be like Big Steve.”

I stopped half-way through the letter, handing it back to Mary. I was trying to place Ron Kalb’s name among the hundreds of people who shared their memories of Bilko. “Let me see that again,” I said to Mary. I continued reading:

He also gave me the most thrilling moment of my life. It was 1958. The Dodgers had traded Don Newcombe to the Reds for Bilko. Was it possible? It was just too good to be true! Big Steve was coming home and in a Dodger uniform. But it got better when my friend’s dad said he’d take us to the Coliseum to see Bilko’s L.A. homecoming against the Milwaukee Braves.

As Ed Mickelson describes in his book, Out of the Park, Bilko was his  nemesis in Cardinal organization.
As Ed Mickelson describes in his book, Out of the Park, Bilko was his nemesis in Cardinal organization.

I was now certain Ron lived next to Ed Mickelson in Chesterfield, Missouri.

Like Bilko, Mickelson was a first baseman in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. In fact, Steve was his nemesis, the player blocking his path to the majors. In his autobiography, Out of the Park, Mickelson writes: “I was becoming aware that the Cardinals had decided that Steve Bilko was their first baseman of the future. He was touted as the next Jimmie Foxx. I tried not to let it get to me, but I felt that no matter what I did, Bilko was their man.”

 I spoke with Mickelson on the phone several times before meeting him in St. Louis. Eventually he made it to the big leagues, playing briefly for the Cardinals, St. Louis Browns and Chicago Cubs. We talked soon after my book, The Bilko Athletic Club, came out. Ron was on the line when Mickelson announced, “Ron has a bone to pick with you.”

Ron didn’t feel I did justice to a home run Bilko hit in that game at the Coliseum – his first start for the Dodgers. My account made it sound like Bilko hit the ball over the Coliseum’s “Chinese Wall” – a 40-foot-high screen in left field and a chip-shot 251 feet away from home plate.

This is the Bilko swing that Ron Kalb, then 15, remembers 56 years later. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )
This is the Bilko swing that Ron Kalb, then 15, remembers 56 years later. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

I based my description of the home run on L.A. newspaper stories and Bilko telling me that one of the two runners on base, John Roseboro, fell flat on his face looking for the ball as he rounded second. “I’m glad in a way that he fell,” Bilko said. “It gave me more time to go around the bases and listen to the cheers.” One of those cheering was Ron, then 15. And he describes it better than anybody in his letter:

In the very first inning, Big Steve came to bat with two men on. Before the P.A. announcer could say his name, we, and thousands of others leaped to our feet and shouted ourselves hoarse. The count went to three-and-one, which was always Steve’s best situation at the plate. We held our collective breath. Steve got a high fastball and drilled it high and deep to straightaway center. Wes Covington, the Brave outfielder, didn’t move or even look up. He knew it. The ball sailed 40 or 50 feet over his head, far back into the seats. It was a typical, prodigious Bilko homer. We jumped up and down; we hugged each other; we hugged strangers; we almost cried. We stood and cheered for at least five minutes. God, how we loved that man!

Ron ended his letter to Mrs. Bilko this way:

Steve Bilko and the feelings he inspired in us represent all that is noble in sports. But those days are gone forever. And now so is Big Steve. Yes, his memory can fill the void left in my heart, but no one can fill the void he leaves in professional sports. I thought you’d like to know.

  I called Ron and read him the letter as the Bilkos listened. He didn’t keep a copy. “In those days, I don’t know if they even had copy machines.” Ron went on to distinguished career in public relations, marketing and public affairs spanning 35 years. “I’m so pleased and honored that they kept that letter and you were able to find it. My God, who would’ve thought?”

“I’m crying here,” Stephen said. “I’m too choked up to talk.”

Bilko receives a hero’s welcome from Carl Furillo (6) and John Roseboro (8) after his storybook three-run homer in 1958. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )
Bilko receives a hero’s welcome from Carl Furillo (6) and John Roseboro (8) after his storybook three-run homer in 1958. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

“He was inspirational, he was a hero and I think he was probably one of the last true American heroes in sports,” Ron told the Bilkos. Following our conversation, Ron sent this e-mail message: “I believe with great certainty that the sentiments in my letter represent thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of other fans who followed Big Steve’s career.” “

His impact on people’s lives was deeply felt, a fact that your book, Gaylon, articulates with grace and brilliance worthy of the man himself. He shined so brightly and, sadly, so shortly, but I’ll always feel blessed to have lived my life at a time when I could share the warm glow he generated.”

Vin Scully, the golden voice of the Dodgers, couldn’t have said it more beautifully.

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

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: