Barrel-shaped and strong as an ox, Steve Bilko was right out of the comic strips.
When Bilko broke in with the St. Louis Cardinals, he was tagged “Humphrey” after the mountainous blacksmith and sparring partner of boxer Joe Palooka in the popular comic strip of the 1940s and 1950s.
After slugging 37 homers his first year in Los Angeles in 1955, Bilko was being called “Stout Steve” and “Sgt. Bilko,” a nickname inspired by the conniving sergeant played by actor Phil Silvers in the hit television series “You’ll Never Get Rich.”
Bilko’s 55 round-trippers in 1956 made him a favorite subject of L.A. cartoonists Karl Hubenthal and Jack Manning.
In a Los Angeles Examiner cartoon titled “Sgt. of Swat” by Hubenthal, shows Bilko about to belt a baseball with a player hanging onto it.
“Why don’t you duck?” the player asks.
“Duck?” the ball says to the player. “I’d like to hide…at least you get a nice hot shower. All I get is a long ride and asphalt bruises.”
Manning begins a Bilko cartoon in the Los Angeles Herald-Express with “B is for Blockbluster.” A pitcher is shown ducking a mighty Bilko swing and observing, “Far better I should pitch this guy from a tank.”
That pretty much summed up the way pitchers felt about Bilko.
Sacramento’s Roger Osenbaugh pitched sidearm to Bilko so he wouldn’t crowd the plate. After doing this in one game, Osenbaugh was enjoying a beer at a restaurant bar. “I was standing up and the next thing I knew somebody had come up behind me and lifted me up in the air so that my feet were off the ground by a few inches – lifted me up in the air.”
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound Osenbaugh had no idea who it was but he knew it was someone like Humphrey Pennyworth, capable of swinging a 100-pound sledgehammer.
“Your first reaction is what in the world is going on?” Osenbaugh said.
He was able to swivel his head and see Bilko, standing next to George Freese, the Angels’ third baseman and Steve’s roommate in ’56. “The next time you sidearm me, I’m going to come right through the box with it,” Steve said, grinning.
Osenbaugh got the message. “Pitchers were certainly aware of the fact that Bilko was up there and that he could come through the box with a line drive that could do you some serious harm,” he explained.
The incident didn’t change the way Osenbaugh pitched Bilko but it reminded him to be ready to duck on the mound and stay away from bars when Bilko was around.
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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