Back to the Fifties

Bernier+Bilko_Rotary-Kids_cropped

Smiles abound as two young fans sit on the knees of their heroes – Steve Bilko, far right, and
Hollywood Stars outfielder Carlos Bernier, far left, at a 1957 Rotary Club luncheon in L.A.
Looking on is Los Angeles Examiner publisher Frank Payne. (Courtesy USC Digital Library:
http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/p15799coll44/id/85371/rec/8 )

 

The biggest change in baseball over the last half-century is the relationship between players and fans. There’s a growing economic divide made even greater by players’ security and privacy concerns. To bridge this gap, the Washington Nationals host an annual event, called NatsFest, so fans can meet current Nationals players as well as past stars such as the late Harmon Killebrew.

Killebrew made his major league debut with Washington in 1954. He slammed 42 home runs for the Nats in 1959 to lead the American League – the first of six home run titles he won during a Hall of Fame career.

One of Killebrew’s teammates with the Nats in ’59 was Russ Kemmerer, a pitcher who lost 17 games. They also played for the ’57 Nats who won only 55 games to begin a string of three straight last-place finishes.

The former Nats were sitting side-by-side signing autographs for fans at one NatsFest when Harmon said to Russ, “We’ve been signing these damn autographs for hours. Look, these people are lined up for blocks. We only won 55 games. What are they thinking of?”

Players in the 1950s were far more accessible to the fans. And they remained so after their playing days were over.

With few exceptions, the telephone numbers and addresses of the 1956 Angels and other players interviewed for The Bilko Athletic Club were listed in the phone book or available online. And they gladly shared their stories.

When Frank Diprima, a second baseman for the Angels in 1953, was interviewed, he was feeling the effects of cancer medication he was taking. “You made me feel a lot better,” Diprima said as the conversation came to a close. “You made me feel good.”

Diprima died three and one-half years later at the age of 80.

Diprima and Gene Mauch traded places in 1954, Mauch moving to L.A. and Diprima to Atlanta where Mauch was player-manager the year before.

Mauch was interviewed by telephone in August 2000, twelve years after he quit as manager of the California Angels. He had become a recluse, rarely talking with the media. We had a friendly, free-wheeling discussion about the ’56 Angels until he was asked about comments by Chuck Stevens, a member of the Hollywood Stars from 1948-54 and outspoken critic of the team. “I enjoyed the first twenty minutes of our talk and, then, I got in kind of a bad frame of mind,” Mauch admitted.

Mauch hung up before elaborating on his friendship with Steve Bilko. “Oh, I could tell you stories by the hour.”

In a Los Angeles Times story two years later, Mauch said: “Steve Bilko was a great athlete, very loose, with a great pair of hands.  He loved to eat – if you left icing on the tablecloth, he’d eat it – and he loved to drink beer. If he took better care of himself, he would have been an outstanding major league player. No one had a bad word to say about him ever. There was none better.”

Jim Brosnan and Bilko were teammates with the Angels in 1955. Brosnan went on to pitch in the majors for the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Redlegs and write two books, The Long Season and Pennant Race that gave fans their first real glimpse behind clubhouse doors.

Brosnan recalled the time in the Dominican Republic when Bilko turned down a sure bet for $1,000 with a young Dominican named Ramon Ibarre. Ramon was general manager of the team Brosnan and Bilko played for there and nephew of that country’s iron-fisted dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The bet was that Steve couldn’t consume two quarts of beer in an hour, drinking the beer out of a shot glass at minute intervals. He had to keep both hands on the table between drinks so he couldn’t massage his stomach for relief.

“Theoretically, you can do it but the beer plus the gas goes right to the brain and you become disoriented,” Brosnan said. “Bilko had heard of this bet many years before when a great beer drinker named John Grodzicki, a pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1940s, tried it and fell on his face. Grodzicki was humiliated. But Bilko trained himself so he could drink beer without getting up to take a pee. He knew he could do it and he’d do it for nothing right in front of Ibarre. Bilko did it without any problem.

“I miss him now,” Brosnan, said in a 2012 interview. “He was one of the special ones that did things that few of the others would even try to do.”

The story that best captures the Bilko mystique is the Palm Springs, California, dentist who quizzed patients to certify they were true longtime Angelenos.

“Who was Steve Bilko?” he asked.

The typical response was: “Gee, I haven’t thought of him for 30 years. What happened to him?”

“Big Steve Bilko was a demigod to us early boomers growing up in the ‘50s,” the dentist wrote the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “He was our Sultan of Swat. Whenever he took the plate for the old Pacific Coast League Angels, we could feel the rush of air from his swing. Anything was possible when Bilko was up, and even when the Angels were far behind, no one would get his beer until Bilko had his turn at bat. My certification is showing a 95% pass rate. Can you help my patients and myself by letting us know what happened to this man who deserves to be batting cleanup in Los Angeles’ ‘Field of Dreams’?”

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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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