Baseball’s Last Great Minor League Team

Jim Bolger

Jim Bolger

In mid-June 1956, two months into the baseball season, Los Angeles Angels manager Bob Scheffing was calling his team the best he had seen in the minors.

Steve Bilko was terrorizing Pacific Coast League (PCL) pitchers with 26 home runs and a batting average of over .400. Second-baseman Gene Mauch was hitting around .375. with ten homers. Outfielders Jim Bolger and Bob Speake had a combined 24 homers.  “You can’t win if you haven’t got the horses,” Scheffing said, referring to his big boppers.

Bob Speake

Bob Speake

In early August, San Francisco Seals manager Joe Gordon proclaimed the Angels good enough to finish second to the mighty New York Yankees in the American League if they added two major league pitchers.

Bilko had 45 home runs to begin August. He needed 15 more in the next 30 games to break the all-time Coast League home run record of 60 set by Tony Lazzeri in 1925.

“More people in L.A. today know Bilko than Marilyn Monroe,” proclaimed Scheffing. “It is a mystery to me why some smart restaurant owner has not gotten a hold of that guy by now and hired him as a greeter.”

Bilkomania swept the West Coast from San Diego to San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, all Coast League cities.

Gale Wade

Gale Wade

Ralph Kiner, seven-time home-run king of the National League, retired in 1956 to become general manager of the San Diego Padres.  “He (Bilko) has as much power as any of the home-run hitters. That goes for Mickey Mantle, Ted Kluszewski and Duke Snider.”

When Bilko stepped to the plate, crowds buzzed as if zapped by a bolt of electricity. Kiner compared it to a fight by then world heavyweight boxing champion, Rocky Marciano. “It’s like waiting for the knockout punch to come. People wait for that one sudden blow.”

Mauch went on to manage 26 in the majors, his teams winning 1,902 games, twelfth best in baseball history. “The best minor league team that I ever saw, bar none!” Mauch said of the ’56 Angels.

“We had a helluva club and still finished 400 games out of first,” said Jerry Casale, a pitcher for the Seals, who placed sixth, 28 1/2 games behind the Angels. Runner-up Seattle was 16 games back. “That’s how good Los Angeles was that year.”

“It was a good team in a lousy league,” protested Chuck Stevens, a first baseman from 1948-54 for the Hollywood, the Angels’ cross-town rivals. “The league was very weak that year.”

The PCL had its own “open” classification – a notch above Class AAA and as high as a player could go in the minors.

The Seals’ Gordon said the league was much stronger in 1956 than when he was in it five years earlier. “There are twice as many good players, and the pitching has improved tremendously.”

The ’56 Angels were not on the list of the top 100 minor league teams of all time compiled for baseball’s 100th anniversary in 2001.  The 1934 Angels were rated tops, followed by the 1921 Baltimore Orioles and the 1937 Newark Bears. No argument there. The travesty is that the ’56 Angels were ignored in favor of lower-level teams such as the 1924 Okmulgee Drillers (49th), the 1961 Reno Silver Sox (55th), the 1993 Harrisburg Senators (73rd), the 1979 Saltillo Saraperos (75th), the 1978 Appleton Foxes (93rd) and the 1947 Lubbock Hubbers (97th).

“If you look at the rosters of some of the great minor league teams,” Stevens argued, “you’ll see the names of guys who went on to distinguish themselves in the majors.  That’s not the case with the ’56 Angels.”

“I managed three clubs in the big leagues that weren’t as good as the ‘56 Angels,” Mauch said, citing the 1960 and 1961 Philadelphia Phillies and the 1969 Montreal Expos.

Dave Hillman was the ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff, winning twenty-one games.  “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,” said Gale “Windy” Wade, the Angels’ hell-bent for leather centerfielder.

“We could’ve beaten Pittsburgh,” Hillman added. “We could’ve beaten Cincinnati. We could’ve beaten a few others.”

George Freese

George Freese

George Freese belted twenty-two homers and batted in 113 runs – one of four Angels with more than 100 RBI’s.  “I know what we did and the statistics we had so I don’t care what anybody says.”

Eddie Haas played briefly in the majors for the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Braves but spent most of his eleven-year career in the minors where he hit .293 with 89 homers. He was batting .275 with four home runs in late May when he was sent to the lower minors so he could play every day. “That bunch could hit. If you look back at those averages they had that year, I mean, man, I was low on the totem pole. I had to be sent out.”

Eddie continued to follow the Angels. “I kept track because, first, a lot of those guys were helpful to me. Second, I was kind of in awe of some of the seasons they were having. Bilko’s year was just phenomenal. Bolger knocked in 147 runs.  When you get into numbers like that, I was curious to see how things went after I left.”

Of the many valuable lessons Eddie learned from his Angels teammates, one in particular stuck out.

“There were no speed guns back in those days,” Eddie explained. “But I remember one phrase all those guys used if we played against a young kid that was probably throwing 95-to-98 miles an hour: ‘He’s fast but he won’t last.’ Sure enough, about the second or third time around the batting order, he would lose a little bit, and they would sit on that fastball. And, boy, they would annihilate him.”

So how good were the ’56 Angels?

The criteria used by many to measure the greatness of a minor league team are how many of its players become big league stars. This doesn’t make any more sense than measuring great college football and basketball teams based on what their players did in the pros.

Consider, for example, the 1974 Pawtucket Red Sox of the International League. Two of their players, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, became big league stars. But Pawtucket finished last in its division with a 57-87 record, hardly qualifying it as an outstanding minor league team.

The Angels’ Wade played for the 1954 Indianapolis Indians, champions of the American Association with a 95-57 record. The Indians were led by three future major league stars – pitchers Herb Score and Sam Jones, and Rocky Colavito, a slugging outfielder.

“We had some hard throwers and power hitters but it was not as good a club as the ’56 Angels,” Wade said. “We had more experienced players in L.A. Every single guy at every single position played smart baseball. That was the difference. That’s what made it a great ball club.”

Few have the knowledge to compare teams from different leagues and eras because they didn’t see them play. That leaves us with records and statistics to evaluate them. And they can be misleading.

“Everything is relative,” said John Schulian, a former sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Philadelphia Daily News and long-time contributor to Sports Illustrated. “The ’56 Angels weren’t trying to win ballgames in the National League; they were trying to win games in the Coast League against Coast League teams.”

For all their dominance, the ’56 Angels couldn’t beat their backyard nemesis, the Stars.  Rube Samuelson, a sports columnist for the Pasadena Star-News, mused:

“Why can’t the Angels chop

Down the Hollywood’s mammy?

Hush, child, a hex is on –

The ye olde double whammy.”

The Stars earned local bragging rights for the sixth straight year, winning fourteen of twenty-four games, sweeping four doubleheaders and blanking the Angels four times. “How do you explain it?” Scheffing asked.

One claim the ’56 Angels can easily make is that they were the last great minor league team. The majors began expanding in 1961, diluting the talent in the minors and changing them forever. No minor league player would ever come close to causing the kind of frenzy Bilko did in L.A. in 1956. He put on a power display best summed up by this Scheffing quote: “Bilko can hit one off his fist over the fence.”

The Angels left for Chavez Ravine in 1962, Bilko was back in the minors in 1963 and the ballpark once acclaimed as “a monument to the national game” was leveled by the wrecking ball in 1969.  Not even the office tower built as a memorial to veterans of World War I was preserved.  At least it was the last part to come tumbling down.

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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.

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