Before Beatlemania, there was Bilkomania.
And that will be the focus of Gaylon White’s presentation on his book, The Bilko Athletic Club, at a meeting of the Allan Roth chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) Saturday, May 3 at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California. The group will meet from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The meeting coincides with a “Presidents and Baseball” exhibit that showcases the colorful history between American presidents and baseball through rare memorabilia and one-of-a-kind artifacts.
President Nixon saw his first baseball game at Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field when he was “in the eighth grade, a kid around 12.” He was at Wrigley Field in 1961 when the Los Angeles Angels and the ballpark made their major league debut.. The Angels played in the Pacific Coast League – a minor league – from 1903-1957 and then, relocated, to Spokane, Washington, when the Dodgers arrived in L.A. in 1958.
For the Angels home opener, Bilko started in right field instead of first base, his customary position, to make room in the lineup for slugger Ted Kluszewski, also a first sacker. The Angels wore new caps featuring a halo on top. “When I came to the ballpark the day I was to play right field, I see this cap in my locker with this white thing around the top,” Bilko said. “I yelled to our clubhouse manager: ‘What’s this? A bull’s eye so I’ll get hit on the head?'”
Bilko made a running one-handed catch, prompting Angel manager Bill Rigney to say, “Bilko didn’t look too bad out there.”
Six months earlier, then Vice President Nixon narrowly lost to Sen. John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Sitting next to Nixon was Casey Stengel, the former New York Yankees manager, and his wife, Edna. Casey confided to a reporter: “Edna offered Mr. Nixon a job as president of our next bank, but he hasn’t given her an answer yet.”
In three seasons with the Coast League Angels from 1955-57, Bilko blasted 148 home runs and was easily the biggest celebrity in L.A. both in size and popularity. His name appeared in print so many times that, according to Angels’ publicist George Goodale, “there wasn’t a movie star that could touch him.”
“When the major-league Angels came into being, the Coast League was already four years gone but Steve’s star transcended those four years, ” observed Irv Kaze, public relations director for the ’61 Angels.
The apex of Bilkomania was 1956 when Stout Steve won the PCL’s Triple Crown. Angel manager Bob Scheffing declared Bilko was better known in L.A. than Marilyn Monroe. A L.A. newspaper carried a series of articles titled “Bilko the Great.” The same publication ran a story, “Rocky Just Small Boy Beside Bilko,” comparing Bilko’s physical measurements with those of Rocky Marciano, the undefeated heavyweight boxing champ at the time. The L.A. Times tracked Stout Steve’s pursuit of the Coast League’s all-time home run record with the “Bilko Homerometer” while the L.A. Examiner used the “Bilko Meter.”
“He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one,” recalled Bobby Grich, former all-star second-baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels who was seven years old in ’56. Bilko became his hero.
“He had this Babe Ruth-like figure,” added Jim “Mudcat” Grant, a pitcher who faced Bilko in both the Coast League and the majors. “And his thing was hittin’ home runs.”
- 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
- Vroman’s Book Store
- Sales Spider
- Tower books
- Powell’s Books
- Rakuten.com Shopping
- BetterWorld Books
- The Book Depository
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