Bilko the Great

Elvis Presley had teenage girls swooning with his pelvic gyrations, Debbie Reynolds and Tony Curtis were the most popular movie stars in Hollywood according to a national survey and Rocky Marciano had just retired as the undefeated world heavyweight boxing champion.

Pat Boone, Shirley Jones, Steve Bilko and Gale Wade

L-R, Gale Wade, Shirley Jones, Steve Bilko and Pat Boone

But in the summer of 1956, it was Steve Bilko dominating the headlines of Los Angeles newspapers. “ROCKY JUST SMALL BOY BESIDE BILKO,” proclaimed the Los Angeles Mirror-News as it launched a four-part series in early August titled, “BILKO THE GREAT.”

Rocky had more knockouts than Bilko (43) but Stout Steve had more home runs (46) and he topped Rocky in a tale of the tape:

 

Bilko

vs.

Marciano

6-1

Height

5-11

230

Weight

187

17

Neck

16 ¾

46

Chest

39

40

Waist

32

14

Biceps

14

13

Forearm

12

9

Wrist

7 ½

26

Thigh

22

19

Calf

14 ¾

12

Ankle

10

 

 “When Steve Bilko was just a little tot – and try to picture that, if you can – he was known as the cryingest kid in all of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania,” Charlie Park wrote in the Mirror-News.

“He’d cry all night long, and about the only way his mother could quiet him down was to take him outside to the baseball field that adjoined their home on the edge of town. There she’d walk around the field with Steve in her arms, and pretty soon the little rascal would be sound asleep.

“With an environment like that, how could he miss growing up to be a ballplayer? And what a ballplayer!”

Bilko had opposing managers and pitchers crying for help in ’56. Sacramento Solons manager Tommy Heath threatened his hurlers with a fine and removal from the game for throwing a strike to Bilko.  “Regardless of the situation, we were supposed to walk him,” said Chet Johnson, a Sacramento pitcher who mixed clowning with a curveball.

In one game, Johnson was pitching to Bilko and doing his usual showboat routine.  “I threw the ball outside and then flexed my muscles.  After two balls way outside, that big donkey reached across the plate and slapped one right down the line and just over the fence for a home run.  But it wasn’t a strike and Heath couldn’t fine me.”

“Stop Bilko and you stop the Angels,” San Francisco Seals manager Joe Gordon told his pitchers. He ordered them not to give Bilko anything good to hit even if it meant walking him every time. “We can’t afford to let Bilko get those homers. Even when he isn’t swinging at full power, or gets only part of the ball on his bat he can murder you.”

Jerry Casale was a hard-throwing 22-year-old right hander for the Seals who went on to win 13 games for the Boston Red Sox in 1959.  “Steve looked like King Kong up there,” Jerry said.

Russ Kemmerer, a 12-game winner for the Seals in ’56, pitched 10 seasons in the majors.  “You respected what he could do,” Kemmerer said.  “You respected his power, his athletic ability and he, in turn, knew that you might not be winning a hundred games but at the same time you had the ability to get him out and when you got him out, he acknowledged it. Ted Williams was a lot like that. There was just respect.”

Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko

Phil Silvers and Steve Bilko swap autographs

“Bilko the Great” was pictured in L.A. newspapers with television’s Sgt. Bilko, actor Phil Silvers wearing an Angels cap, and Steve wearing a U.S. Army sergeant’s hat, signing baseballs for each other.

Silvers adopted the Bilko name for his character, Ernest G. Bilko, a conniving master sergeant, in his TV comedy show that ran from 1955 to 1959 and later was the basis of a 1996 movie, Sgt. Bilko, starring actor Steve Martin. “I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers said, referring to Gil Hodges and Stan Musial, perennial all-stars at the time. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”

What Bilko needed most the last month of the ’56 season was a telephone pole so he could reach pitches thrown in area codes of adjacent states. “I get so many bad pitches now that I feel like hitting at anything,” he lamented.

Sgt. Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) meets Steve Bilko

Sgt. Bilko (Phil Silvers) meets the real Bilko

After hitting his 51st homer on August 27, Bilko needed nine home runs in the Angels’ last 22 games to tie the Pacific Coast League record of 60. He managed only four more to finish with 55. On the last day of the season, Steve Bilko Day, he told Angels fans: “I’m sorry…that I missed setting a new home-run record. But next year’s coming.”

In 1957, Bilko blasted 56 homers, hiking his three-year total with the Angels to 148. He returned to L.A. in 1958 to play briefly for the Dodgers. The Angels brought him back in 1961 when they joined the American League as an expansion team. “When the major-league Angels came into being, the Coast League was already four years gone,” said Irv Kaze, public relations director for the ’61 Angels. “But Steve’s star transcended those four years.”

“If he stayed healthy, he would’ve hit 40 home runs in the big leagues,” said Albie Pearson, a teammate with the Angels in ’61 and ’62 when Bilko was hobbled by injuries. “But it was late in his career.”

Tommy Lasorda, former Dodgers manager, was a rival and teammate during the prime of Bilko’s career in the 1950s. “If he were playing today, without question, you’d see a guy hitting fifty, sixty home runs,” Lasorda said in 2003. To emphasize this point, he added: “Easy.”

Jim “Mudcat” Grant pitched against Bilko in the minors and majors. He served up the pitch that Steve sent skyrocketing out of Wrigley Field in L.A., the last home run hit in the ballpark best known as the location for the original “Home Run Derby” television series brought back to life by ESPN.

In 1992 when Mudcat saw the movie Babe starring actor John Goodman as Babe Ruth, he had a flashback to Bilko running around the bases.  “I thought about Steve Bilko, man. He had this Babe Ruth-like figure. And his thing was hittin’ home runs.”

“Bilko the Great” could be the title of a movie.  The script is ready. Bilko wrote it a half-century ago.

******************************

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: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan: