Forever Heroes

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ernie Banks died Jan. 23, 2015 – eight days shy of his 84th birthday. In tribute to Mr. Cub, we’re posting a story that originally appeared December 9, 2013.   

“Heroes, they come and go and leave us behind as if we’re supposed to know why,” the Eagles sing in Pretty Maids All in a Row.  “Why do we give up our hearts to the past? And why must we grow up so fast?”

Ernie Banks_1954_rookieTruth is, we outgrow our heroes more than they leave us behind.  I was 12 years old when it became apparent I could turn a phrase better than I hit a curveball. At 16, I was paying more attention to girls than baseball cards. By age 21, I was a sportswriter, cynicism replacing the rosy filter of my childhood.

“I’ve broken a golden rule,” Top Gear television show co-star James May said after driving a Lamborghini Countach. “You never ever meet your childhood heroes– Roger Moore, Lamborghini Countach, Brian Kent.  Stick with the memories. They are just better.”

For every rule – even a golden one – there’s an exception.

The get-well card author Gaylon White received from Ernie Banks and his 1962 Chicago Cub teammates is now framed along with their baseball cards for that year.

The get-well card author Gaylon White received from Ernie Banks and his 1962 Chicago Cub teammates is now framed along with their baseball cards for that year.

I’ve met two of my childhood heroes – Steve Bilko and Ernie Banks, the Hall of Fame Chicago Cubs shortstop who was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both lived up to my boyhood memories.

I was barely 16 when I was in a car accident, incurring serious head injuries and damage to my right eye. Without telling anyone, my brother Don sent a get-well card special delivery to Chicago for Banks to sign and return to California. I received the card a few days later. Unfolded, the cover revealed a sad-faced dragon with a plastic thermometer sticking out of its mouth. “We’re sorry to hear you’re dragon,” the message read. “Please hurry and get your old fire back!” There was a personal note on the back: “Best always to a wonderful person…Ernie Banks, ChiCubs, 1962.”  The card also was signed by Lou Brock, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Dick Ellsworth, Don Cardwell, George Altman, Bob Buhl, Ken Hubbs, Cal Koonce, Don Elston, Dave Gerard, Elder White, Charlie Metro, Vedie Himsl, B.G. Smith, Andre Rodgers, Glen Hobbie and Tony Balsamo – almost the entire Cub team.

When I met Banks seven years later, I was a sportswriter for a Phoenix, Arizona, newspaper, covering a Cubs-Cleveland Indians exhibition game in nearby Scottsdale.  Cub pitcher Ken Holtzman was the star of the game, hurling seven shutout innings. So I headed to the Cubs’ locker room to interview him.

ChiCubs_1962Greeting me at the door was a smiling Banks. “Hi, I’m Ernie Banks!” he said while shaking my hand. “I don’t think we’ve ever met. If there’s anything I can do to help you, let me know.”

I was speechless. It’s one thing to receive a warm welcome from a Wal-Mart greeter. You don’t expect it from a superstar. Finally, I asked to meet Holtzman.

“I’ll introduce you to Kenny,” Ernie said.

Holtzman was featured in my article about the game but the real story that day was Banks, who years earlier cheered me up with a card he and his teammates signed.

Bilko was another hero who didn’t disappoint.

In 1976 – 20 years after Bilko’s amazing Triple Crown season for the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League – we spent a day together at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. I was researching a book on minor league greats who went bust in the majors, if they made it that far. Bilko was the perfect poster boy.

Nanticoke is located in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, about 25 miles southwest of Scranton.  Bilko lived in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke, so named because it sits like a bowl inside a hill.  The neighborhood was a melting pot of Irish, Poles and Slovaks who settled in Nanticoke around the turn-of-the-century and worked the coalmines in the area until they were phased out in the 1950s.

A modern brick house among wood frame houses built by the coal companies in the early 1900s, the Bilko home stood out. Standing in the driveway awaiting my arrival, Steve made it even easier to spot. He greeted me warmly, a big smile reminding me of all the times I’d seen his face on baseball cards and in newspapers.

I heard so much about Steve’s bulk that I expected to see a huge man that could hardly walk.  After all, he was called “Lard Zeppelin” and “Big Boy Balloon” during his playing days. Why wouldn’t he be much bigger 13 years into retirement?

Steve wasn’t all that big compared with today’s wide bodied sluggers. In fact, Steve looked fit enough to play again.  I said as much after we entered the house and began talking in the family room.

: Steve Bilko outside his Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, home in 1976. (Photo by author)

Steve Bilko outside his Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, home in 1976. (Photo by author)

“I’ve been going to these old-timers games and people have been telling me, ‘You look in better shape now than when you were playing,’” Steve said proudly.  “Actually, I think I’m a little lighter than when I retired.  About eight or nine pounds lighter.”

We chit-chatted into the early afternoon when Steve’s wife, Mary, brought us lunch.  Steve had a lunchmeat sandwich, a small piece of cake and a cup of coffee – not the size meal expected of a man who reportedly ate at one sitting “five lobster cocktails, a triple order of spaghetti and chicken topped off with a loaf of garlic bread, a cheese cake and a half dozen cups of coffee.”

“Is that a typical lunch?”

“That’s more than I usually eat.  I have a piece of toast and a cup of coffee in the morning.  I have another cup of coffee on my break at work.  For lunch, I have a sandwich and cake.  I don’t eat again until I get home about 5:30.”

Steve worked for Dana Perfumes Company as an inspector of raw materials.  Maker of perfumes such as Canoe for men and Ambush and Tabu for women, Dana was located in an industrial park in Mountain Top, 16 miles from Nanticoke.

We finished lunch and went on a tour of Nanticoke and Mountain Top in Steve’s 1972 Buick LeSabre.  “This was my Dad’s,” Steve said as we started.  “He gave it to me before he died…the last thing I got of his.”  Stephen J. Bilko died in 1973 at the age of 73.

In Nanticoke, we stopped at a red light on the corner of Main and Market Streets.  “This is the only light in town,” Steve said with a chuckle.

We stopped briefly at a bar named Sivick’s and then drove to another bar, Yeager’s.  A poster behind the bar made it clear that Bilko was a local celebrity.  Promoting Rochester’s annual old-timers game, the Commissioner’s Classic, the poster featured drawings of Bilko, George “Specs” Toporcer, Tom Poholsky, Joe Altobelli and Luke Easter.

Yeager’s was named after Albert Yeager, more commonly known as Pug. “If he’s there, you’ll see why,” Steve told me earlier.

Pug wasn’t around.  His wife was tending bar and she quickly served eight-ounce glasses of draft beer for 20 cents apiece.

“It was 15 cents until a couple of weeks ago,” Steve said.

Two beers later, Pug’s wife slapped a black plastic token on the bar.  “That’s good for 10 cents off on your next beer,” she explained.

A few minutes later, another token was placed in front of me.  “This is on Frank,” she said.

Joe Maday shows Steve Bilko five-pound bass he caught in a lake near Nanticoke. (Photo by author)

Joe Maday shows Steve Bilko five-pound bass he caught in a lake near Nanticoke. (Photo by author)

Frank Higgins was quietly watching a football game on television until a man dressed in Wrangler jeans, denim shirt and a faded Phillies baseball cap walked in carrying an ice chest.  “That man is a bass fisherman,” Frank declared.  “Other guys tell you how big a bass they catch.  He shows you.”

Steve introduced Joe Maday, a stocky, dark-haired man with a warm smile. “This is my legacy,” Joe said, pointing to a bass in the cooler.  “The lakes in this area aren’t fished out.  You don’t have to go to New York or Florida for instant action.  It’s here in our backyard – the mountains.  Here, a man walks into a bar with a five-pound bass, that’s proof.”

Joe launched into a testimonial about Steve. “He has been our representative in the major leagues.  We’ve grown up with this man.  We were Stan Musial fans but we were looking for Bilko’s name in the box score.  We looked every day.”

Steve continued staring at the TV.

“We’re all Steve’s friends,” Maday said.  “But we’re still in awe of him.  He can give you an insight into baseball nobody else can. He won’t tell you what he is. We’ll tell you what he is.”

Frank Higgins was listening intently.

“The sad part is he backed up so many big-name first basemen for so many years,” he added

After taking photos of Joe showing his prized bass to Steve outside Yeager’s, we left for Mountain Top.  We made small talk on the way.

“You were a celebrity in Los Angeles,” I said.  “In fact, you were as popular as Sandy Koufax ever was.”

“I didn’t want to be a big celebrity,” Steve said.  “I was satisfied with doing a good job, being with my family and stuff like that.  When I was done playing ball, I was content to go home and be with my kids.  We went to shows but they were shows like Lawrence Welk.  I used to go see Roller Derby.  But other than that, we never went anywhere.”

Steve stopped the car outside the Dana plant.

“That’s our big D,” he said, pointing out a huge script-style letter “D” for Dana outside the main entrance.  “About 150 people work here.  This is our busy season now.  We’re getting ready for Christmas.”

I asked Steve if he was going to work until he was 65 years old, Social Security retirement age at the time.

“Gee, I don’t know,” he said.  “If anybody is going to quit work, it’ll be my wife.  I can take my baseball pension when I’m 50 – a little more than two years from now.  I figure that if I take the pension, she can quit working.”

When I left the Bilko home that Saturday night in October 1976, I was already looking forward to a return visit. “You’re always welcome,” Steve said.

We talked by telephone a few times but I never saw Steve again.

In the early morning on March 7, 1978 – nearly eight months before his 50th birthday – Steve died at a Wilkes-Barre hospital from a heart attack he suffered a few hours before at home.

“No one had a bad word to say about him ever,” Gene Mauch said about his former Angel teammate. “There was none better.”

The day I spent with Bilko confirmed all the great things I believed about him as a boy. He was a childhood hero who stood the test of time – just like Ernie Banks.

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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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