A Sunday Drive with the Bilkos

(Third in a series based on Author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA)

There was only one way in and out of the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke in 1976 when I visited Stephen Thomas Bilko, also known as Stout Steve the Slugging Seraph. Today, there are two roads. In Honey Pot, that’s progress.

“This guy has had scaffolding here since my father died,” said Stephen Richard Bilko as we passed a house in the neighborhood on a Sunday drive around Nanticoke. Steve’s dad died in 1978.

Three generations of Steve Bilkos. L-R, Stephen Richard; Stephen Robert and Stephen Michael.

Three generations of Steve Bilkos. L-R, Stephen Richard; Stephen Robert and Stephen Michael.

A scorecard is needed to keep track of the Bilkos named Steve. Starting with Stephen Thomas, there’s his father, Stephen Joseph; his eldest son, Stephen Richard; grandson, Stephen Michael; and great grandson, Stephen Robert.

The wood-framed houses are a throwback to the days when Honey Pot was a melting pot of Poles, Slovaks and Irish working in the nearby coal mines. Stephen Joseph was the last miner in the area to use mules to transport coal cars underground.

The front doors of the houses virtually open onto narrow streets named Rock, River, The Ditch and Pikes Peak, where it’s claimed you can see the court house in Wilkes-Barre on a clear day. Stephen Richard and his wife, Mary, live on Honey Pot Street in the same house where his father and grandfather once lived. A telephone pole sticks up out of the Bilko’s asphalt driveway.

“Wherever a board fell off the truck, that’s where you built the house,” Steve said. “There are two Honey Pot streets. Supposedly, this is the original Honey Pot Street and the other one an alley. There used to be two-way traffic. But there were all these collisions and close calls in front of our home so we had a petition signed to make it one way. Thank God!”

Adding to the confusion is the willy-nilly numbering of the houses. “You pick your own number,” Mary added with a laugh. “We’re six, next door is four and, then it goes to 11. Across the street is 120.”

“Delivery trucks ride around for hours up here,” Steve said. “I feel sorry for them and go out after awhile and help them out.”

It’s amazing that Benny Borgman, the St. Louis Cardinal scout who signed Steve’s dad, was able to find the Honey Pot ballpark.

Borgman first spotted Stout Steve playing in nearby Wilkes-Barre. He was in awe of the 16-year-old slugger’s massive arms and powerful wrists and how far they could propel a baseball. He followed the boy wonder the entire summer of 1945, waiting for the opportune moment to sign him to a contract.

“I figured I’d wait until he got to his home town,” Borgman told Jerry Izenberg, a sports columnist for the Long Island, New York, newspaper, Newsday. “I figured by then the other scouts still wouldn’t have figured out where it was. Any kid who operated out of Honey Pot was going to be tough to find.”

Honey Pot overlooks Nanticoke, even though it sits like a bowl inside a hill. “We’re up on a little pedestal,” Steve said. “We call it the capital of Nanticoke; Honey Pot – we don’t associate with Nanticoke.”

Borgman made his move near the end of the ’45 season. He took a train to Scranton, rented a car and headed for Honey Pot.

Ted Hiller Park in Honey Pot.

Ted Hiller Park in Honey Pot.

“The ballpark was a big wide open kind of pasture and they didn’t charge admission,” Borgman said. “There was this big coal pile out on the left-field line so I walked out there and climbed it for a better view. By the time the third inning rolled around there were three other guys out there and each one of them was a major league scout. Some secret battle plan.”

The ballpark is still there. It’s home to the Nanticoke Teener League and named after its founder and long-time president, Ted Hiller. Home plate is where left field used to be. The coal pile is gone.

“The field was not level like it’s now,” Steve said. “All around the infield, from first to third, it would go up about seven or eight feet and, then, you’d have a plateau for the outfield.”

Borgman watched as the right-handed hitting Bilko stepped to the plate and slammed a fastball over the coal pile and the heads of the scouts. “It would have been out of Yankee Stadium,” Izenberg wrote. “Yankee Stadium? Hell, it would have been out of the Grand Canyon.”

In Bilko’s next two at bats, he belted opposite-field homers. When the game was over, all of the scouts except Borgman “developed shin splints sliding down the coal pile to get to Bilko.”

Borgman walked straight toward Bilko’s father. “Listen, it didn’t take a genius to figure out the kid was underage,” Borgman related to Izenberg. “What I wanted was the father.”

Borgman drove Pop Bilko home to Honey Pot Street where for they talked baseball for hours while quenching their thirst with locally-brewed Gibbons beer. “If it’s Gibbons, it’s good,” Steve smiled as he recited the advertising jingle for the beer his father enjoyed by the six-pack.

Souvenir Gibbons coaster from the author’s visit to Sivick’s Club in 1976.

Souvenir Gibbons coaster from the author’s visit to Sivick’s Club in 1976.

When a Philadelphia Phillies scout arrived around 1 a.m. with Stout Steve, Izenberg reported that “he took one look at Benny and the old man hoisting a few together, said one four letter word and left. An hour later, Steve Bilko was signed.”

We left Ted Hiller Ballpark, headed for downtown and the Hanover section of Nanticoke. “We hated Hanover, the east side,” Steve said. “We loved to beat the pants off them. And they would despise us just as much.”

In the late 1960s, Steve and his brother, Tom, led Nanticoke Area High School to championships in football, baseball and basketball. They both played football at Villanova, Steve signing as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns in 1973. A shoulder injury prompted him to give up football and return to Honey Pot to teach and coach at the high school.

We drove past Sivick’s Club, one of Stout Steve’s favorite watering holes. It’s now a gun shop. Yeager’s, the tavern where eight-ounce glasses of draft beer sold for 20 cents apiece in 1976, is a pizza place these days.

The Bilkos attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church – the highest point in downtown Nanticoke.

The parish closed in 2010 as part of a consolidation of Catholic churches in Nanticoke.

Stout Steve sang in the choir. “It was the only church in the area that had an all-men’s choir. They sounded really great. People from other parishes came to hear the men sing.”

The Eagles Club is “where they’d have a couple of beers before and after choir practice.”

“There’s always some club in this area that you needed to belong to,” said Paul Huber, a friend and neighbor of the Bilkos. “The Honey Pot Club, the Eagles Club, the Ali Baba Club, ACON (Athletic Club of Nanticoke).” There’s also the Fireman’s Club, a combination club and fire station in Honey Pot. Stephen Joseph was one of the founders; Stout Steve, one of its regulars.

“To communicate or be social, you were a member of one club or another – or both,” added Steve.

Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club at St. Joseph’s Cemetery. He was 49 when he died suddenly from a heart attack.

:  Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club in Nanticoke.

Stout Steve is buried directly behind the 400 Club in Nanticoke.

The gravestone is easy to spot because the big, capital letters spelling BILKO grab your attention just as they did in the Los Angeles newspaper headlines when he bashed a combined 111 home runs in 1956 and 1957 – the peak of his popularity in L.A. There are four squares under the Bilko name, two blank and the other two reading: STEPHEN T. 1927-1978 and MARY S. 1929 –.

Steve’s mom also is named Mary – Mary Sunder. She lives with her daughter, Sharon, in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

I couldn’t help but notice the birth year for Stout Steve was wrong. He was born in 1928 (November 13), not 1927. And there’s no inscription or visual cues such as a bat or baseball to suggest he was one of the greatest minor league players of all time.

“At least he’s buried right behind the 400 Club,” I joked. “Not even Ted Williams can say that.”

We laughed as Williams, baseball’s last .400 hitter, was cryogenically frozen after he died in 2002, his remains stored in an Arizona lab.

Our Sunday drive continued on to the Hanover section where Mary Sunder grew up. We were about three miles from Honey Pot. “My grandfather wouldn’t give the car to my father to come over here. So he walked.”

“Coming up is the monument for Pete Gray,” Steve announced.

A bronze plaque near the entrance to the Hanover Recreation Park honors Gray, the only one-arm man to play major league baseball. He was born and lived in Hanover until he died in 2002.

We came to a residential area where a baseball field and school used to be. “There’s no longer a school here but this is where I went to first grade when we lived in the Hanover section with my mother’s parents.”

This plaque pays tribute to Nanticoke’s Pete “One Arm” Gray.

This plaque pays tribute to Nanticoke’s Pete “One Arm” Gray.

Stephen T. and Mary moved in with the Sunders after they were married in January 1950. In March he showed up at the Cardinals spring training camp weighing 260 pounds – 30 pounds over his playing weight the year before.

“I have been living with my mother-in-law,” Stout Steve explained, adding, “She cooked some fine dishes, just for me. How could I turn her down?”

The Bilkos lived in three rooms upstairs until 1958 when Stout Steve returned to the majors after three banner years in L.A. Down in the cellar, Grandpa Sunder had a coal stove where he’d make an egg-and-green-onion dish for grandsons Steve and Tom. “We thought it was the cat’s meow,” Steve said.

Back in Honey Pot that evening Steve recalled how his father made scrambled eggs every morning for him, Tom and Sharon before driving to nearby Mountain Top where he worked for Dana Perfume Company as an inspector of raw materials. “He was a dynamite cook.”

Mary and Steve Bilko with one of their three children. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

Mary and Steve Bilko with one of their three children. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

“Tuna casserole,” Mary noted. “Topped it with crushed potato chips. I make it ‘til today.”

Another Bilko specialty was kielbasa. “Charred it on both sides,” Steve said. “Dip in ketchup and a hot sauce…more hot sauce, less hot sauce, depending on how hot you like it. He made a mean chef salad, too. All kinds of meats in there; it was delicious.”

Mary served one of her specialties – a creamy peanut and chocolate concoction called Jimmy Carter Cake. If more people had eaten this cake, Carter would still be president of the United States.

Steve was mulling over my remark about his father’s gravestone lacking any reference to his baseball career. “I hadn’t thought about it before but you’re right: nobody would know he ever played baseball.”

I was thinking about two comments, one by Borgman, the Cardinal scout, and the other by a guy named Rich that I met in 1976 at a West Nanticoke bar the night before I visited Stout Steve in Honey Pot.

“I was convinced that I had made history,” Borgman said of Bilko’s signing. “I was convinced that here was a guy who would one day hit 65 home runs in a single season.”

Bilko was busy signing autographs for his legion of fans at an Old-Timers game in L.A. in 1976.  (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

Bilko was busy signing autographs for his legion of fans at an Old-Timers game in L.A. in 1976. (Courtesy Stephen Richard Bilko)

Rich claimed he lived “down the street” from Bilko in Honey Pot. He knew all about Stout Steve’s exploits as a home run hitter and beer drinker. “Go over to Honey Pot and ask anyone about Bilko,” he said. “They‘ll tell you. Honey Pot takes care of its own.”

Thirty-eight years have passed. There’s no ballpark in Honey Pot named after Bilko. There are no plaques recognizing him as a minor-league superstar, genuine folk hero and Honey Pot’s goodwill ambassador to the world. It’s time that Honey Pot takes care of its own.

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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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