A Name Made to Remember

 

Sgt. Bilko is title of this painting that's part of artist Ben Sakoguchi Orange Crate Label Series.  (http://www.bensakoguchi.com/larger/orange_group7_larger11.php )

Sgt. Bilko is title of this painting that’s part of artist Ben Sakoguchi Orange Crate Label Series. (http://www.bensakoguchi.com/larger/orange_group7_larger11.php )

“The name, Bilko, was made to remember,” says John Schulian, a sports columnist turned television screenwriter. “Two syllables, punchy with a K.  It was made for headlines because it’s short. It goes all over the place.”

The Bilko name was all over the country in 1955 because of Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph, and Sgt. Bilko, the character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers in the hit television show, You’ll Never Get Rich. “I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers said, referring to Gil Hodges and Stan Musial, future Hall of Famers. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”

“It was my name or Kluszewski’s,” Steve explained, citing Ted Kluszewski, a muscular power hitter with the Cincinnati Redlegs at the time. “Bilko is a lot easier to say than Kluszewski.”

Still another version of the story has it that Nat Hiken, producer of Silvers’ TV show, adopted his name for the scheming Army master-sergeant, Ernest G. Bilko, because Bilko was his favorite player. Forty years later the TV show was turned into a movie, Sergeant Bilko, starring comedian Steve Martin.

The real Bilko was making headlines long before Sgt. Bilko. He was 16 when the St. Louis Cardinals signed him and by age 20, he was being compared with baseball greats Jimmie Foxx, Johnny Mize and even Lou Gehrig. The one full season he had with the Cardinals in 1953 he batted .251 with 21 homers and 84 runs batted in.  Those are rookie-of-the-year numbers today but they weren’t good enough to keep the Cardinals from trading him to the Chicago Cubs the next season.

Bilko was with the Cubs in March 1955 when they played an exhibition game in Mesa, Arizona, against their Pacific Coast League affiliate, the Los Angeles Angels. “Sweeney kept looking at me and looking at me,” Bilko recalled.

“Don’t look at me!” Bilko told Bill Sweeney, the L.A. manager. “I’m not going to California!”

A homemade Bilko banner pays tribute to Stout Steve Bilko, known as the "home pro" at Los Angeles' Wrigley Field because of all the long-range missles he launched there. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic)

A homemade Bilko banner pays tribute to Stout Steve Bilko, known as the “home pro” at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field because of all the long-range missles he launched there. (UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections, Los Angeles Times Photographic)

“It turned out going to Los Angeles was the greatest thing to happen to me,” Bilko said. “From that point on everybody knew, and I knew, that I could hit. I just hadn’t got the chance. In Los Angeles, I was just left alone.”

Over the next three years, Bilko belted 148 home runs for the Angels to become the Sergeant of Swat and the biggest celebrity in a town full of them.

“I didn’t want to be a big celebrity,” Bilko said. “I was satisfied with doing a good job, being with my family and stuff like that.  When I was done playing ball, I was content to go home and be with my kids.  We went to shows but they were shows like Lawrence Welk.  I used to go see Roller Derby.  But other than that, we never went anywhere.”

The shy, introverted Bilko and gaudy L.A. made for an odd couple. “I mixed with a couple of movie stars like John Wayne but they were really baseball fans.  They were like we were.  If I went anywhere, it was always with the type of people who live around here.”

For Bilko, “here” was Nanticoke – the Northeast Pennsylvania town where he was born and lived until he died in 1978 at the age of 49.

Last week in nearby Wilkes-Barre, the Times Leader newspaper saluted the memory of Bilko with a page one article about his oldest son, Steve, Jr., and The Bilko Athletic Club, and a story in the sports section based on interviews with five ’56 Angel teammates: pitchers Bob Anderson, Dave Hillman and Hy Cohen; catcher Jim Fanning and centerfielder Gale Wade.   “Tremendous response to our Bilko stories,” says Bill O’Boyle, a Times Leader writer.

The stories can be viewed by clicking on the following links:

Nanticoke Native Remembered as Baseball Superstar – http://www.timesleader.com/news/news/1518296/Nanticoke-native-remembered-as-baseball-superstar

Steve Bilko’s teammates recall how the Nanticoke native blasted his way to the top of the Pacific Coast League – http://www.timesleader.com/news/sports/1537506/Strong-sensation

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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:

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