Anybody that collected baseball cards in 1957 can vividly remember one showing Ted Kluszewski in a Cincinnati Redlegs uniform with the sleeves slashed to show the most powerful arms outside of a military installation. He was already known as “Big Klu” because of his size, 6-foot-2 and nearly 250 pounds. The card symbolized strength and raw power before that image was corrupted by sluggers on steroids.
Big Klu is one of 50 players eligible for election in 2016 to the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals. This stirs memories of his bulging biceps and the 1961 season when he shared first base duties for the Los Angeles Angels with Stout Steve Bilko, aka the Slugging Seraph for the Angels of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).
The Shrine of the Eternals recognizes players who have altered the baseball world in ways that supersede statistics. Bilko was inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals in 2015. If Big Klu is one of the top three vote getters, he and Bilko will be together again.
The Angels were forced to leave L.A. in 1958 by the Dodgers. They were resurrected by the American League as part of its westward expansion.
To attract fans to L.A.’s Wrigley Field, a quaint, cozy ballpark the Dodgers snubbed to play in a 100,000-seat football stadium, the Coliseum, the Angels needed Big Klu and Stout Steve to flex the muscles that made them famous.
Big Klu banged 171 home runs for the Cincinnati Redlegs from 1953-57 while Bilko walloped 148 during the 1955-56-57 seasons for the Angels in the PCL, an open classification league. The Angels picked both in the expansion draft, Big Klu for $75,000 and Bilko for $25,000.
“I’ve never seen Wrigley Field but they tell me it’s not too big,” Big Klu said.
He arrived at the Angels’ spring training camp in Palm Springs, California, with his wife and a pet boxer described by one sportswriter as “merocious looking.” Big Klu was equally fierce, immediately smacking a ball over the right-field fence at the 380-foot mark. “Boy, oh boy, is he going to like Wrigley Field,” Angel Owner Gene Autry gushed.
Everybody knew Bilko was itching to get back to Wrigley Field where he was the acknowledged home pro. “Wrigley is the one park that was really built for me,” Bilko explained.
“Big Boy belted the first ball pitched to him for a 375-foot homer,” John Hall reported in the Los Angeles Mirror. “He soon sent four more over the left-centerfield screen, and powered drives to all corners of the outfield.”
Bilko socked two more homers his second day to give him seven in two days of practice. Big Klu poked a pair. The arms race was on.
“We’ll let them know we’re in the league,” declared Angel President Bob Reynolds.
“These are our first basemen,” Angel Manager Bill Rigney introduced Bilko and Big Klu to President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he made a surprise appearance at the team’s first intra-squad game.
“I hope they don’t sit on it,” Ike quipped, “or they’d flatten it out.
On posing for photos between the two mashers, Ike said, “They’d make a couple of good bodyguards.”
Big Klu was the first to wear a sleeveless baseball shirt. “It was not for show,” said Albie Pearson, Big Klu’s roommate on road trips. “He literally was so cramped with his massive arms that he started cutting off the sleeves and Cincinnati ended up with the sleeveless shirts.”
At 5-foot-5, 140 pounds, Little Albie was the smallest player in the majors.
Big Klu once told Albie if he didn’t behave, he’d push both beds together for himself and stick Albie in a drawer to sleep. “He was a massive man and he had a look like he wanted to kill you. But he was one of the tenderest men I’ve ever known.”
On another occasion Albie was taking batting practice at Wrigley Field before a game against the Cleveland Indians. Up walked Willie Kirkland, a solidly-built outfielder who could’ve passed for a middle linebacker.
“Hey, Little Man,” Kirkland teased. “You know what? I might have a hankering when you come out of that cage to pinch your head right off your shoulders.”
Instead, Big Klu walked up to Kirkland and put an arm around his shoulder. “Willie,” he said, “you’re talking to my roommate. I’ll tell you something, Willie. You mess with him; you’re going to have to mess with me. And guess what, Willie? This tree has never been cut down.”
Nobody knew for sure what the 6-foot-1 Bilko weighed because he refused to get on the scales. He coyly deflected questions by saying he weighed “somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds” or “same as last year” – whatever that was.
“Steve was not fat,” Albie said. “He was one of the biggest boned men I’ve seen. His legs – you could put mine together and make one of his.”
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.”
Steve smiled politely. He knew Ike had help from one of his teammates.
Bilko suspected a practical joke soon after he arrived at Wrigley Field for the home opener against the Minnesota Twins. He was in the starting lineup but not at his usual position of first base. Klu was at first; Steve was in right field, the first time he had played outfield since high school. “The Bilko Experiment,” one sportswriter called it.
“We need his bat,” Rigney said. “We need anybody’s bat.”
The Angels had new caps featuring a halo on top. On seeing one in his locker, Steve yelled to the clubhouse manager, “What’s this? A bull’s eye so I’ll get hit on the head?'”
Hall observed in the Mirror: “As an outfielder, Bilko is no Willie Mays. But he didn’t make a single mistake in his debut, and Big Boy is still the most popular guy on the Wrigley premises.”
The ’61 Angels played their first eight games on the road, losing seven of them. This brought dire predictions that they would be lucky to win 50. “One of the worst clubs ever assembled,” columnist Jimmy Cannon proclaimed from his ivory tower in New York City, the fountain of all baseball knowledge in the 1950s. “They are in these uniforms because they proved their inefficiency.”
“Their purpose in life,” syndicated columnist Red Smith wrote of the Angels, “is to provide tax deductions for Autry, Bob Reynolds and associates, and comic relief for the baseball public.”
Big Klu wasn’t amused. He said the Angels could place as high as fifth in the 10-team league. “You can bet on it.”
The Angels finished eighth but their 71 wins still stand as the most by any expansion team in baseball history.
“How old are you?” Ike asked Bilko at spring training camp.
“Thirty-two,” Steve replied.
Ike didn’t bother to ask the 36-year-old Klu. Perhaps he didn’t want to upset Big Klu and his “merocious looking” boxer.
Big Klu slammed 15 homers for the Angels despite back problems that limited him to 290 plate appearances, many as a pinch-hitter. Stout Steve went to bat 354 times and belted 20 balls out of the park to give the hulking pair a combined 35.
Big Klu hit the Angels first home run of the season, Bilko hit the last one in the last major-league game played at Wrigley Field. Not bad for two guys who were the poster boys for a team that will always be remembered as “The Over-the-Hill Gang.”
To view the official news release on the 50 eligible candidates for the Baseball Reliquary’s 2016 election of the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, click on the following link:
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 be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
- Rowman & Littlefield
- Sales Spider
- Tower books
- Powell’s Books
- Rakuten.com Shopping
- BetterWorld Books
- The Book Depository
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