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

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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:

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