Monthly Archives: January 2016

Ike’s Bodyguards

Big Klu_1957 Topps card
Oh, to be like Big Klu!

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).

/ Big Klu and Stout Steve in 1961 (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below*
Big Klu and Stout Steve in 1961 (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below*

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.

The Angels released Big Klu after the 1961 season.
The Angels released Big Klu after the 1961 season.

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.

Bilko, President Eisenhower, Big Klu and Angel Manager Bill Rigney (Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
Bilko, President Eisenhower, Big Klu and Angel Manager Bill Rigney (Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

“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.”

SI_Redleg Musclemen
L-R, Wally Post, Klu and Gus Bell in sleeveless uniforms inspired by Big Klu.

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.”

A halo for the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)
A halo for the Angel Atlas. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

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.

/  L-R, five members of “The Over the Hill Gang”: Big Klu, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte, Bob Cerv and Bilko (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below**
L-R, five members of “The Over the Hill Gang”: Big Klu, Eddie Yost, Bob Aspromonte, Bob Cerv and Bilko (Courtesy USC Digital Library) See Below**

“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:

http://www.baseballreliquary.org/2015/12/candidates-for-2016-election-of-the-shrine-of-the-eternals/

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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 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:

 

Season Opener

No reason to wait until April for the baseball season to begin.

Tune in 10 a.m. Tuesday, January 12 to Daytime Tricities on WJHL-TV, Johnson City, Tennessee, to see Dave Hillman, aka Mr. Automatic, and author Gaylon White discuss the 1956 Los Angeles of the old Pacific Coast League, the inspiration for the book, The Bilko Athletic Club.

Dave Hillman at his home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo by Alan Lee
Dave Hillman at his home in Kingsport, Tennessee. Photo by Alan Lee

Dave earned the nickname Mr. Automatic in 1956 when he won 21 games for the Angels despite missing the first six weeks of the season because of a sore arm.

Pitching for the for the Coeburn Blues in the Lonesome Pine League in 1948-49, Dave was dubbed “Fireball” as scouts came to see if he was as fast as his nickname.

Tim Murchison, a scout for the Chicago Cubs, was in the stands for a Saturday night game in St. Paul, Virginia. He sat next to Dave’s parents.

“I was firing away,” Dave recalled. “They didn’t have big catcher’s mitts in those days – just small ones with very little padding. Every time I threw a fast ball, the catcher backed up. And, then, the umpire kept backing up.”

After the game, Murchison told Dave’s mother: “I’m going to sign that boy if it takes everything I got.”

Dave signed with the Cubs in 1950, moved to nearby Kingsport, Tennessee, with his wife Imogene and their one-year-old daughter, Sharon, and began his climb up the pro baseball ladder.

By the end of the 1956 season in Los Angeles, Dave had another nickname – “The Slim Virginian.”

A few years later, The Virginian, a tough ranch foreman played by actor James Drury, became a popular western television series. Nobody knew the real name of the foreman. He was known only as The Virginian.

Ironically, few people know Hillman by his real name – Darius Dutton. Dave is a nickname given to him by his boyhood hero, John S. Blackwell, in their hometown of Dungannon, tucked in the Appalachian foothills of southwest Virginia near the Tennessee border.

Darius was born September 14, 1927 – the fifth of Carmel and Ollie Hillman’s seven children. Carmel was a carpenter for the Clinchfield Railroad, now CSX, which runs through Dungannon to the coal mines in the area.

About 400 people lived in Dungannon while Hillman was growing up. Everybody knew each other because, in many cases, they were related.

John and Dave, for example, were distant cousins. “My grandmother was a Blackwell.”

One day Dave Macon, a banjo player in the Grand Ol’ Opry, came to town to perform at the local school. While picking and singing, Macon flipped his banjo in the air, caught it and continued playing without a break in the music.

Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic in 1956.
Dave Hillman was Mr. Automatic in 1956.

John was a jovial guy with a hee-haw type of laugh that filled the school auditorium. “I was sitting behind him and laughed until I cried. The next day he started calling me Uncle Dave Macon. As the years went by he cut it down to Uncle Dave. And then it became Dave.”

John was 16 years older than Dave. He left Dungannon briefly in the early 1930s to pitch professionally for Richmond, Virginia, before returning to operate his father’s grocery store and play baseball on weekends in the semipro Lonesome Pine League. Dave was only five the first time he saw John pitch but he remembers it well: “He had the darnedest curveball of any human being I had ever seen in my life. And he could throw hard.”

Dave was a scrawny nine-year-old when he started playing catch with Blackwell. “He’d monkey around throwing the ball. He could throw a knuckleball, curveball and everything else. We played burn-out.”

On graduating from high school, Dave weighed only 138 pounds. He wasn’t much bigger (160 pounds) when he pitched for the Angels in 1956. “I didn’t do like a lot of kids and throw with my arm; I used my legs to leverage my weight. And I figured out what I had to do to get more spin on the ball.”

There was no baseball team or coaches at Dave’s high school. All he had to go on was what he learned from playing catch with Blackwell. “It stuck with me all my life.”

At 8:30 the morning of February 14, 1939, Dave, then 11, was sitting in class at school when his teacher, Carrie Addington, received news that her brother, John Blackwell, was dead after a shootout with a deputy sheriff at Dungannon’s Poplar Cabin Filling Station.

John S. Blackwell is buried at the Fincastle Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia.
John S. Blackwell is buried at the Fincastle Cemetery near Dungannon, Virginia.

John was a free spirit who liked to drive his truck through the streets after a big rain storm, splashing water everywhere. He carried a pistol and was known to be trigger happy. The day before the gun battle he shot out Dungannon’s new street lights for the fun of it.

Word spread quickly that Ben Sluss, a deputy sheriff, was going to arrest John for vandalism.

John was sitting behind the counter as Sluss crossed the street to enter the service station. John removed a pistol from his pocket and placed it on top of a nearby safe. He thought Sluss was coming to take him to jail.

Sluss actually was on his way to deliver money John had asked him to collect on bad checks he had been given.

“How are you, John?” Sluss inquired.

“All right,” replied John.

When Sluss reached in his pocket for the money, John grabbed his pistol and started shooting. Sluss was struck by three bullets but somehow fired back after falling to the floor. John was killed by a bullet to the head. Sluss died the next day from his gunshot wounds.

Dave flashes the ring the ’56 Angels received for winning the PCL championship.
Dave flashes the ring the ’56 Angels received for winning the PCL championship.

“They let us out of school,” Dave recalled. “I went to the filling station where he was shot. The filling station was next to the barber shop. They put his body on the pool table in the barber shop. They had his shirt off. There was no blood but plenty of bullet holes. There was one through the shoulders, another in the chest. I was in shock because I loved the fellow. I thought a lot of him.”

Dave wound up pitching in the majors for the Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Redlegs and New York Mets. He retired from baseball in 1962, returning to Kingsport where he has lived ever since.

 

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

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:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan: