In late March 1956, Mary Bilko met Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jeane Hoffman at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field for an interview. It was Mrs. Bilko’s first visit to L.A. where her husband, Steve, was on his way to becoming a celebrity as big as any in nearby Hollywood.
Steve was making a home run derby of batting practice, but the smog was so dense that it was hard to see the balls flying out of the park. Jeane apologized for the smog but Mrs. Bilko insisted it was a wonderfully clear day.
“Oh, no, it isn’t,” Jeane said. “On a really clear day, you can see the mountains.”
“You mean,” Mrs. Bilko gasped, “there are mountains here?”
L.A. has mountains that sometimes are snowcapped and there are also hundreds of beaches and vast deserts nearby. “Where else can you drive to the beach, the mountains and the desert in the same day?” my dad liked to say.
“Man, this is paradise,” he often reminded me after I grew up and left California for the promise of cleaner air and more elbow room in other states.
Dad was born some 2,000 miles away in Spring City, Tennessee, a town of about 2,000 people near Chattanooga. Los Angeles was another world and yet he made himself right at home along with thousands of others who migrated from the South and Midwest in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Long Beach, for example, is a bedroom city to L.A. with a population of about 100,000 in the 1950s. A popular joke was that there were more people from Iowa living in Long Beach than in Iowa. At Rose Bowl games, Big Ten schools had more fans cheering for them than their West Coast opponents.
The people Dad most admired in sports reflected his Tennessee roots and values.
The basketball coach at UCLA was John Wooden, who moved to the school’s Westwood campus in 1948 from Indiana. Under his leadership, UCLA teams captured 10 NCAA championship titles and became a testimonial for Coach Wooden’s Pyramid of Success philosophy for winning at life and basketball.
Coach Wooden was widely known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” but he wasn’t UCLA’s first Wizard. That distinction belonged to Henry “Red” Sanders, the football coach who came to UCLA from Vanderbilit in 1949, transforming the Bruins into a national power in the 1950s.
Dad grew up on University of Tennessee football and the single-wing offense that its coach, General Robert Neyland, used to build a juggernaut that won four national championships, including back-to-back titles in 1950 and 1951. When Coach Sanders installed the single-wing at UCLA, Dad became a loyal Bruins fan and started taking me to home games at the L.A. Coliseum.
In 1954, the Bruins went undefeated and shared the national championship with Ohio State.
The ‘55 Bruins, led by Sam “First Down” Brown, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound black tailback with electrifying speed, were 9-2 and ranked fourth nationally. For the season, Sam ran for nine touchdowns, piling up 829 yards on 144 carries, a 6.2 average. He was dazzling on kickoff and punt returns, averaging 22.2 yards on kickoffs and 13.8 yards on punts.
After Sam rushed for 150 yards against the University of Southern California, the Bruins’ cross-town rivals, one L.A. sportswriter wrote: “He was slipperier than a $1 at Las Vegas and more dangerous than King Farouk in a sorority house.”
“Trying to tackle the nimble-footed tailback is something like trying to grab a handful of smog,” another writer observed.
Brown also starred in baseball at UCLA. On February 4, 1956 — two days after my 10th birthday — he signed a contract to play for the Angels. “I always wanted to be a professional baseball player,” Sam said.
“He has enough power to knock a ball a mile,” said Jack Fournier, the Angel scout who signed Sam. “As for his speed, well, he can run with any of them. I’ve followed him for two years and I’m sold on the boy.”
It was a birthday gift from heaven. My favorite football player was now an Angel along with my new baseball heroes, Buzz Clarkson and Steve Bilko. So what if there was smog, I was eagerly awaiting a season in paradise.
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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