Baseball Card in the Making

Sy Berger Photo Courtesy of Marty Appel

Sy Berger (Courtesy of Marty Appel)

Someone at Topps needs to design a baseball card featuring Sy Berger, father of modern-day cards, with Glenn Burke, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics from 1976-79, and Stout Steve Bilko, the Slugging Seraph and Sergeant of Swat in the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The trio was elected to the Shrine of the Eternals by members of the Baseball Reliquary, a national organization dedicated to fostering an appreciation of American art and culture through the context of baseball history. The Shrine is the diehard baseball fan’s answer to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, recognizing both the obscure and the famous who have impacted baseball in ways that transcend statistics.

“I’m ecstatic about it,” said Stephen R. Bilko, Stout Steve’s eldest son, on hearing the news. “My father never ceases to amaze me. All these years later you find out more and more how popular and famous he was. He was like a church mouse. He wouldn’t say boo about all of his accomplishments.”

“He was so humble,” said Gale “Windy” Wade, the Angels’ centerfielder from 1955-57, who also was up for election. “He defintely deserves to be in that group. No question about it.”

Dave Hillman was a 21-game winner for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 when Bilko won the PCL’s Triple Crown with a .360 batting average, 55 home runs and 164 runs batted in.

“He was a steam engine on that ballclub,” Hillman said. “It was great to see him hit. You wondered how far he was going to hit it because you knew he was going to hit one. He was a humdinger.”

Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph

Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph

Bilko is the second player from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, to be named to the Shrine of the Eternals, joining Pete “One Arm” Gray. Bilko grew up in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke; Gray in the Hanover area. “How about that?” Stephen asked, adding: “This little rinky-dink town.”

Bilko was elected on his fourth try. It was the fifth year on the ballot for Berger and eighth for Burke.

Berger topped all vote getters with 33 percent while Bilko and Burke were named on 31 percent of the ballots. Runners-up were Bob Costas (30 percent), Bo Jackson and J.R. Richard (29 percent), and Charlie Finley and Lisa Fernandez (26 percent). In his first year of eligibility, Wade got four percent.

Steve Bilko’s 1952 Topps card

The three B’s will formally be inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals in a public ceremony Sunday, July 19, 2015 at the Donald R. Wright Auditorium in the Pasadena, California, Central Library.

They will join 48 other baseball luminaries inducted since elections began in 1999. The list includes such Hall of Famers as Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Josh Gibson, Buck O’Neil, Casey Stengel and Dizzy Dean as well as players who have to buy a ticket to get into the Cooperstown, New York, museum: Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Bill Buckner, Jim Bouton, Jimmy Piersall, and Dock Ellis, to name a few.

Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson are persona non grata in Cooperstown because they were implicated in baseball gambling scandals. They are in the Shrine of the Eternals along with Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, the head of the Major League Baseball Players Association from 1966-82. Flood and Miller teamed to give players the salaries and bargaining power they enjoy today. Also in the Shrine of the Eternals are Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso and Luis Tiant,  passed over recently by the Hall of Fame’s Golden Era Committee.

Bilko’s 1958 Topps card

Bilko’s 1958 Topps card

“He was by far the biggest sports star in Los Angeles history prior to the arrival of the Dodgers,” the Baseball Reliquary described Bilko in announcing his election. “His pop culture was so huge that when comedian Phil Silvers needed a name for a character in his new television sitcom, he picked Bilko. Recognizing his popularity with local fans, the Dodgers added Bilko to their roster as a gate attraction for their inaugural campaign in Los Angeles. The Angels (the American League expansion team) did likewise in 1961, providing Bilko with a final chance to awe the fans at his old haunt, Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field. For those who saw him play in the PCL, he will always be remembered as a superstar. That his glory years coincided with the demise of a much-loved league adds a wistful touch to his legend.”

Steve Bilko_1952

Bilko’s 1962 Topps card

Berger joined the Brooklyn-based Topps Chewing Gum Company as an assistant sales manager in 1947 and went on to co-design the 1952 Topps set, the most popular ever produced and now valued at more than $100,000. Bilko’s 1952 Topps card in near-mint condition ranges in price from $85 to $920. Berger became a Topps vice president and, then, served as a consultant and board member until he retired in 2003.

Burke was a fleet-footed outfielder for the Dodgers and Athletics and the first big-league ballplayer to publicly acknowledge he was gay. He’s also credited for the birth of the high five, slapping Dusty Baker’s hand after Dusty hit a home run for the Dodgers in 1977. Burke revealed in his autobiography, Out at Home: The Glenn Burke Story, that Dodgers’ management, in an attempt to conceal his homosexuality, offered to pay for his honeymoon if he married a woman. He died in 1995 of complications from an AIDS-related illness. A documentary film based on Burke’s life was released in 2010. “They can’t ever say now that a gay man can’t play in the majors,” he said, “because I’m a gay man and I made it.”

Glenn Burke

Glenn Burke

For more information on the Baseball Reliquary and the Shrine of the Eternals, click on the following link: http://www.baseballreliquary.org/

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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:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

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