As the Worm Turns

Baseball has had its share of drinkers.

Babe Ruth was as legendary for his beer drinking as he was for his home runs.

Hall of Famer Wade Boggs denies that he once downed 64 beers on a cross-country flight but admits, “It was a few Miller Lites.”

Steve Bilko

Steve Bilko

Unlike Ruth and Boggs, Steve Bilko isn’t enshrined at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  But he’s a Hall of Famer in the beer-drinking department.

“He could drink more beer in one sitting than anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Ted Bowsfield, a pitcher and teammate of Bilko’s with the Los Angeles Angels in 1961 and 1962. “Unlimited capacity for it. The thing that baffled me – he never went to the bathroom. I think he had a wooden leg.”

“Bilko could drink more beer than you could haul in a vehicle,” said Gale Wade, a centerfielder for the Angels in the Pacific Coast League from 1955-57 when Bilko was belting 148 homers along with his beers. “He could down a six-pack and not even think about it. It was nothing.”

“Steve loved his beer,” recalled George Freese, a third-baseman for the ’56 Angels who would drink beer with Bilko while relaxing in the clubhouse whirlpool after home games. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.”

Gail_Harris_(baseball)

Eddie Erautt, a pitcher and former St. Louis Cardinals teammate, often sent Steve postcards, unsigned, with the name of Steve’s favorite beer, Kulmbacher, written on it.

The story goes that in 1958 when Bilko played for the Cincinnati Redlegs, he hopped off the team bus during a brief stop to buy a case of cold beer. By the time he got his change, he emptied two bottles.

It doesn’t matter whether some drinking stories are fact or fiction. They are so good they are passed on from one player to another. Take, for example, a story related by Gail Harris to Dave Hillman, a 21-game winner for the ’56 Angels.

One of Gail’s teammates when he played for the New York Giants from 1955 to 1957 was James “Dusty” Rhodes, a hard-hitting and hard-drinking outfielder that Giants manager Leo Durocher used primarily as a pinch-hitter. He gained fame in the 1954 World Series, going 4-for-6 with two home runs and seven runs batted in as the Giants swept the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians in four games. “I couldn’t buy a drink in New York after that ’54 Series,” Rhodes said.Jim Dusty Rhodes_Topps_1954

In his autobiography, Nice Guys Finish Last, Durocher called Rhodes “the worst fielder who ever played in a big league game who made training rules forgotten.” He added: “And, boy, he could hit.”

Durocher wanted to play Rhodes every day. “If you stop drinking, Dusty, you’ll get to play more. You’ll do a better job in the outfield.”

Dusty paid little attention to Durocher and kept on drinking gin. Finally, Leo decided to fill a glass with gin and put in two juicy earthworms to demonstrate what it can do to a person. The worms turned white, shriveled up and died.

Dusty watched as Durocher made his point: “It goes to show you, Dusty, what gin will do to you. What does that tell you?”

“Well,” Dusty mused, “as long as you drink gin, Leo, you won’t have worms.”

 

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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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