Broz, Bilko and Beer

Jim Brosnan wasn’t going to take the phone call until he found out it was about Steve Bilko. They played for the 1955 Los Angeles Angels, “Broz” winning 17 games and “Stout Steve” blasting 37 home runs. “He was the greatest right-hand hitter I saw in 1955,” Broz said.Jim Brosnan_1957

“He hit the ball so far that you loved it and hoped he hit it again,” Broz said in the   2012 interview. “I miss him now because he was one of the special ones that did things that few of the others would even try to do.”

They roomed together at a downtown L.A. hotel during spring training and several times on the road, the beer-loving Bilko providing wonderful material for the stories Brosnan told later as a writer.

“The best thing he could do was the thing that he did – drink beer. He would buy beer incidentally. There are a lot of beer drinkers who don’t buy beer. But he’d buy them in order to keep people around drinking with him. I think that’s a good attribute. I had a few beers on ol’ Steve. When he ordered those six-packs up in the hotel, he ordered one for me.”

Brosnan died June 29, 2014, at the age of 84. In nine major-league seasons with the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Redlegs and Chicago White Sox, he posted a 55-47 record and a 3.54 earned run average with 67 saves. He’s best remembered, however, as the author of two books, The Long Season and Pennant Race, that took fans inside the locker room for the first time.

Illustration by Eric James Spencer

Illustration by Eric James Spencer

“Traditionally there are two kinds of baseball players – tobacco-chewing, monosyllabic hard rocks and freshly laundered heroes too young to appear in razor-blade commercials,” John Corry of the New York Times wrote, adding Brosnan was “in a third class” who “wrote a book about the other two kinds.”

Bilko isn’t featured in the books but he has a starring role in a Brosnan story, The Best Laid Plans of Baseball Fans Descend Like a Plague of Locusts, published by Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1969. Editors changed Brosnan’s suggested title: The Wistful World of the Baseball Fan…From Tinkers to Lovers to Chants.

“Baseball is an imperfect game,” Brosnan begins the article. “It can be improved. Ask any fan. Often as not he’ll have a helpful hint for your favorite player, for his chosen team, for umpires in general, and even for the Commissioner, whoever he is.”

Brosnan describes a fan – “Bilko’s self-made pen pal” – who was convinced the slugger would hit better if he stood closer to the plate. “A stream of misspelled missives inundated Steve’s locker at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.”

Illustration by Eric James Spencer

Illustration by Eric James Spencer

“Move up on the plate about a foot,” the fan urged. “I’ll watch you on TV.”

In a game against the Hollywood Stars, Bilko, using his normal stance, struck out three times but belted a game-winning homer. “Could have hit four!” the fan lamented in a telegram. “Still too far from plate!”

When Bilko was blanked the next game, he got a call on the clubhouse phone from the same fan. “You’re not paying attention. I’ll be out there Sunday. You better move up on the plate.”

“Bilko showed up for the Sunday doubleheader, dutiful and defiant,” Brosnan writes. “Batting fourth he cleaned up at the expense of the entire Hollywood pitching staff. Steve’s ardent advisor failed to appear. He was a True Fan, notable for caution as much as counsel. Like patrons of a zoo, you can talk to the animals all you want, but don’t touch. Above all, don’t let the beast get to you.”Bilko on scale

Brosnan and Gaylon White, author The Bilko Athletic Club, talked and corresponded about Bilko as far back as 1976.

“When I mention the name Steve Bilko, what’s the first thing you think of?” White asked in their first conversation.

“Beer. The man was a great beer drinker.”

“I understand he had a wooden leg.”

“He had a wooden leg besides the two he was carrying which were huge–about the size of ale cans. I’m sure he kept a special tap in one knee in case he ran out.”

“How much did he weigh?”

“Over a period of time, I think about 900 pounds. He must‘ve lost that much, at least.

Jim Brosnan signed his letters “Broz”

Jim Brosnan signed his letters “Broz”

“Was he constantly dieting?”

“In his way, he was constantly dieting.”

“What was his way?”

“He’d take a six-pack of beer into the bathroom. He’d seal off the door by putting towels against the bottom of the door, close the window and turn on the shower and the tap in the washbasin to hot.  Then he’d sit on the edge of the bathtub while all this steam would rise and he’d drink a six-pack of beer – all six bottles.  He said it helped him sweat.  Of course, sweat meant you were losing weight.  And this is how he’d do it.

Bilko’s technique for losing weight was called a “steamer.”

“He was actually doing what he thought would help out – sweating a lot.  I’m not crediting him with a helluva lot of common sense.  But at least he had a lot of sincerity.  You take a man with sincerity; put him in a major league uniform and that can pay off.  I would’ve done it myself.  But I’ve got a sense of humor and most managers don’t have one.”

Brosnan recalled the time in the Dominican Republic when Bilko turned down a sure bet for $1,000 with a young Dominican named Ramon Ibarre. Ramon was general manager of the team Brosnan and Bilko played for there and nephew of that country’s iron-fisted dictator, Rafael Trujillo. The bet was that Steve couldn’t consume two quarts of beer in an hour, drinking the beer out of a shot glass at minute intervals. He had to keep both hands on the table between drinks so he couldn’t massage his stomach for relief.

“Theoretically, you can do it but the beer plus the gas goes right to the brain and you become disoriented,” Brosnan said. “Bilko had heard of this bet many years before when a great beer drinker named John Grodzicki, a pitcher for the Cardinals in the 1940s, tried it and fell on his face. Grodzicki was humiliated. But Bilko trained himself so he could drink beer without getting up to take a pee. He knew he could do it and he’d do it for nothing right in front of Ibarre. Bilko did it without any problem.”

At 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, Brosnan was almost as wiry as the wire-framed glasses he wore. The 6-foot-1 Bilko weighed “between 200 and 300 pounds.” That’s what he told writers asking about his weight.

Bill Sweeney was the Angel manager the first month of the ’55 season before health problems forced him out.  “One of the great winos of all time,” Broz described Sweeney, who died two years later following emergency surgery for a perforated ulcer.

“We knew Sweeney was on his last leg, mostly because he could barely walk. We’re up in Oakland. Bilko and I are standing at the top of the dugout. Now there are two steps down in the dugout. We’re l0 feet away from Sweeney. Some guy comes over and asks Bill for the starting lineup. He pointed at Bilko and said, ‘He’s pitching.’ And he pointed to me and said, ‘He‘s hitting fourth.’”

Brosnan ended his last conversation with White, saying: “I’m glad we talked.  I’m going to feel better because I talked to you.”

Actually, it was talking about Bilko that made Brosnan feel better.

“Oh, he was a character,” Broz said. “He was a really good guy.”

So was Broz.

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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:

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