Steve Bilko, the star of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels and namesake for the book, The Bilko Athletic Club, will always be connected to Clint Hurdle, the manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, by the March 20, 1978 edition of Sports Illustrated.
Hurdle was featured on SI’s cover in a Kansas City Royals uniform, a happy, carefree 20-year-old with a promising career ahead of him. The headline emphasizes this point in bright yellow letters: THIS YEAR’S PHENOM. In the back of the magazine, there’s a matter-of-fact notice of Bilko’s death at age 49: “Bilko, a minor league player of exceptional promise who once hit 56 home runs for Los Angeles of the Pacific Coast League (PCL), found the majors a struggle and retired with a career batting average of .249 and 76 home runs.
The photo could have been of Bilko at spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950 when he was 21 and Cardinals owner Fred Saigh announced to baseball writers: “Gentlemen, you are looking at one of the future great names in baseball.” One of the names Saigh had in mind was Lou Gehrig, the legendary baseball great. “Bilko will make baseball fans forget Lou Gehrig.”
It didn’t happen any more than Hurdle becoming the next phenom. As he said after his rookie season: “If I’d done everything I was supposed to, I’d be leading the league in homers, have the highest batting average, have given $100,000 to the Cancer Fund, and be married to Marie Osmond.”
Bilko and Hurdle both spent parts of 10 seasons in the majors. In 600 games, Bilko batted .249, belted 76 home runs and drove in 276 runs. In 515 games, Hurdle hit .259 with 32 home runs and 193 runs batted in.
“I just wonder what Steve Bilko would do today?” Joe Garagiola asked around the time Hurdle appeared on the SI cover.
Tommy Lasorda, the Hall of Fame Los Angeles Dodgers manager and a teammate of Bilko’s with the ’57 Angels, answered that question in 2003 when Bilko was inducted into the PCL’s Hall of Fame: “If he were playing today, without question, you’d see a guy hitting 50, 60 home runs. Easy.”
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:
- Rowman & Littlefield
- Barnes and Noble
- Vroman’s Book Store
- Sales Spider
- Tower books
- Powell’s Books
- Rakuten.com Shopping
- BetterWorld Books
- The Book Depository
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