The Los Angeles Angels were a farm club of the Chicago Cubs but based on their performance in 1956, you could make a strong case that the Angels belonged in the big leagues and Cubs in the minors.
The Angels dominated the Pacific Coast League (PCL) – the highest of the minor leagues in the 1950s – by winning 107 games and finishing 16 games ahead of runner-up Seattle. Steve Bilko piled up Babe Ruth-type numbers in home runs (55); batting average (.360) and runs batted in (164) to win the Triple Crown and earn Minor League Player of the Year honors. Five of his teammates belted 20 or more homers and three topped 100 RBIs. As a team, the Angels batted an amazing .297.
The Cubs, meanwhile, finished in the National League cellar with a decade-worst 60-94 record. They finished so far behind the first-place Dodgers, a telescope was needed to see them. The keystone combination of Ernie Banks at shortstop and Gene Baker at second base was all that prevented the Cubs from being mistaken for the Keystone Kops.
“The Cubs’ success and reputation is built on their failure,” said Bill Adams, former executive director of the San Diego Hall of Champions.
That failure had its genesis in the late 1940s and 1950s when the Cubs finished last or next-to-last in the National League seven times.
Bilko was traded to the Cubs by the St. Louis Cardinals early in the 1954 season. The year before he had 21 homers and 84 RBIs – the kind of numbers expected of him when he was a 20-year-old rookie with the Cardinals in 1949.
“When I went to the Cubs, I didn’t believe it,” Bilko recalled. “The only thing I found out there was how many different ways you could lose a game.”
Like many of the ’56 Angels, Bilko was a Cubs castoff. Gale Wade was the opening day centerfielder for the Cubs in 1955 and 1956 before being sent to L.A. Outfielders Bob Speake and Jim Bolger spent the entire 1955 season with the Cubs. Second-baseman Gene Mauch, shortstop Richie Myers and catchers Elvin Tappe and Jim Fanning were ex-Cubs as well as pitchers Dave Hillman, Hy Cohen, Bob Thorpe, Johnny Briggs, Harry Perkowski and Dwight “Red” Adams.
“In those days, we had one-a-comin’, one-a-playin’ and one-a-goin’,” said Speake, who belted 25 homers for the ’56 Angels. “But on that team, you didn’t feel the pressure of one-a-comin’.”
“That particular year all seems like a dream to me,” said Hillman, the ’56 Angels pitching ace with 21 wins. “Everybody was focused. They knew what they were going to do, what they had to do and they went out and did it. And they did it as a team. It’s a dream to me. It was a dream team.”
Speake, Hillman and Wade were reminiscing about the 1956 season at a fast-food restaurant in the mountains of North Carolina. Forty-six years had passed but the memories were vivid and pleasant.
“Remember how relaxed we were?” asked Wade, the team’s centerfielder who hit 20 homers in only 101 games. “We might go down three to nothing or something like that. Not one time did we ever dream that we’d even lose the game. We just sat in the dugout laughing. We knew somebody was going to get on and somebody was going to pop one out of there.”
“I still believe this and I will ‘til the day I die,” Hillman began. “If they had left us alone as a ball club in ‘57, and added a little spice here and there – a pinch hitter and a few extra pitchers – I’m confident that we could’ve won in the National League.”
“We could’ve beaten the Cubs,” Wade said.
“We could’ve beaten Pittsburgh,” Hillman added. “We could’ve beaten Cincinnati. We could’ve beaten a few others.”
“Dave,” said Speake, “off that ballclub in ’56, there were you, Drott [Dick Drott], Anderson [Bob Anderson], me and Bolger. We went up to the Cubs in ’57 with great expectations. And then it started to be a parade of players. They just seemed to come in and go around. There wasn’t any continuity to the ball club.”
In L.A., Bob Scheffing and John Holland teamed to build the Angels first championship team in nine years. The Cubs were counting on them to do the same in Chicago, tabbing Scheffing to manage the ’57 Cubs and Holland to assemble the talent as a vice president.
At the press conference announcing his appointment for the ’57 season, Scheffing said, “The only reason I’m here is because 21 players did a helluva job for me at Los Angeles.”
Holland joined a Cubs front office that already had two vice presidents – Charlie Grimm and Clarence “Pants” Rowland.
Like many of the players, Holland worked his way up the Cubs organization.
“The farm club is the lifeblood of any ball club, but I don’t believe that any ball club can be built successfully entirely from the farm system,” he said on becoming a Cubs VP. “We’re going to make changes because baseball is built on changes.”
Thirteen regulars who were on the Cubs roster to end the 1956 season were gone a month into the following season. A league-high 45 players came and went in 1957.
“It’s getting so that you can’t tell a Cub player even with yesterday’s scorecard,” a sportswriter quipped.
Complicating matters was a power struggle in the front office among the three vice presidents. The Sporting News quoted one player as saying: “Can anybody please tell me who is the boss of the show? I signed my contract with Holland and I’m taking orders from Scheffing. That’s the way it should be, but every time I look up there’s both Grimm and Rowland hanging around.”
Grimm, a long-time Cub manager, friend and confidant of team owner, P.K. Wrigley, was really running the show. And banjo-playing “Jolly Cholly” preferred veterans over home-grown talent such as shortstops Casey Wise and Eddie Winceniak.
“He [Grimm] was behind the scenes, calling the shots,” said Winceniak, an infielder who was sent to Portland after batting .240 in 17 games. “Holland knew more about us and yet he didn’t have that much power. If John would’ve had the final say, I would’ve been able to stay up there. And Casey probably would’ve stayed, too, because we were teammates in Des Moines under Holland.”
One of the six Angels gone before the ’57 season started was George Freese. Holland broke the news to the third baseman who slugged 22 homers and 113 RBIs for the Angels the year before. “George,” Holland said, “you had a really good year against Portland. They really want you. So we’re going to send you to Portland.”
When the Dodgers announced their move from Brooklyn to L.A. in early 1957, the Portland Beavers became the Cubs’ PCL affiliate while the Dodgers linked up with the Angels .
“Hell, I didn’t come here to make the Portland ball club,” George snapped.
“It surprised the heck out of me,” Freese said. “I knew that I wasn’t the greatest fielder but I had a hellacious spring training.”
The frustration of the players was best expressed by Bob McKee, a rookie infielder. “I can’t understand this organization,” he said. “They say they are rebuilding, yet I’m being sent to Portland after playing just seven innings. During that time, I got two hits, one to tie a game and the other to win one. That doesn’t add up to very much of a chance in my book. Especially after I was told everybody was going to receive a full shot. Had I been given that opportunity and they didn’t think I could cut it, then I’d go away feeling a lot better than I do now.”
The Cubs started the ’57 season by losing 12 of their first 15 games. They didn’t win a home game until the sixth week of the season. They were 26-46 at the all-star break in July and finished 62-92 – two wins more than 1956.
Fans stayed away from Wrigley Field. If they went out on the rooftops of the houses overlooking the playing field, it was to contemplate jumping off, not to watch a game. Attendance dropped to 670,629, the fifth straight year the Cubs failed to reach the one million mark. Dick Littlefield, a widely-traveled pitcher, checked the crowd before one game and said, “Guess nobody put it in the newspapers that I was pitching today. I know I’ve got more friends than the size of this crowd – and they’d all be here if they knew I was pitching.”
Holland and Scheffing later acknowledged the chaos they created.
“We can’t do that again,” Holland said the following spring. “A club can’t afford to keep making changes after the season opens. Last year it was the only thing we could do because we had ripped the roster apart.”
“We were making so many changes last year that we virtually went through three spring training periods,” Scheffing said. “The ball club which started the season was entirely different from that one with which we opened spring training. And then the team was shuffled around quite a bit more later on when we made several trades that brought us new material.”
One of the players Holland and Scheffing never called was Bilko. When Steve played for them in L.A., they promised him a chance with the Cubs if they had the opportunity to get him. “When John Holland was going up to the Cubs, he told me and a lot of people, in front of my wife, that he was getting the job because what we did for him,” Bilko said. “We’d made him a winner and stuff like that. Any chance he’d have at all to get me on his ball club, he’d do so. But it never happened.”
Bilko belonged to the Angels in ’57 and if the Dodgers wanted him for the majors, they had to purchase his contract like any other team. The Cubs had used all their options on Steve so they couldn’t acquire him unless every other team in the National League took a pass.
“I wanted them to take me up there,” Bilko said, “give me a shot – at least two or three weeks. And if I don’t do well up there in that park, do what you want. I thought I really deserved a shot to go to Chicago and play a full season.”
Bilko wound up playing for four more teams in the majors but not the Cubs.
“Up here they separate the men from the boys,” Holland admitted after returning several of his Angel stars to the minors.
The Cubs shuttled 10 players back and forth at third base; six at second base; five at shortstop; and four at first base. Seven players took turns in centerfield. “They’ve made so many changes that the guys are all afraid they’ll be gone if they have a bad day,” Winceniak said after being demoted to Portland.
When Wise, a switch-hitter, got bogged down in a slump, Scheffing told him to give it up and swing only from the right side.
“I always played better when I had a manager that believed in me,” Wise said. “When I knew they were waiting for me to screw up, I screwed up.”
That aptly describes the Cubs in the 1950s – screwed up.
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.
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