It’s Bilko Time!

Long before Rambo, there was Bilko. The names sound alike. They suggest raw power and brute strength. And they conjure up images of action and heroism. Rambo, of course, was a fictional character. Bilko’s name was used in a popular ‘50s TV show and later in a movie, Sgt. Bilko, but Steve Bilko, the baseball player, was the real deal, the stuff of legends.

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Stout Steve blasted baseballs to kingdom come. He drank copious amounts of beer without showing the effects. He was pals with actor John Wayne, but preferred staying home with his wife, Mary, and their three kids to watch Lawrence Welk and Roller Derby on TV.

He once sent a ball shooting into a large tree outside the ballpark like a lightning bolt, ripping off a branch with two youngsters sitting on it. Another Bilko homer smashed into a woman’s face, sending her to the hospital. Steve was at the woman’s side the next day, offering condolences and wishing a speedy recovery.

 

Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing anywhere from 230 to 300 pounds, Bilko was barely the legal drinking age of 21 when he was being compared to baseball greats Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Johnny Mize and even Babe Ruth.

He was only 24 in 1953 when he smacked 21 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals, his first full season in the majors.   He appeared to be on his way to the greatness predicted for him when, suddenly, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs where he languished on the bench the rest of the ’54 season.

Bilko ended up in Los Angeles, playing for the Angels in the old Pacific Coast League.  In 1956 he walloped 55 homers, becoming to L.A. what Mickey Mantle was to New York City.  Both were Triple Crown winners. But Bilko had three more homers and six triples to Mick’s five.

Bilko clouted 56 homers in 1957 to give him 148 in three seasons with the Angels. He played briefly for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958 and the major-league Angels in 1961-62. He was back in the minors in 1963, his last year in pro ball.

Like many kids growing up in L.A. at the time, I was in awe of Bilko and wondered why he didn’t go on to star in the majors as well. What happened?

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Steve Bilko swats his 50th home run in this photo by Art Rogers from the Los Angeles Times archive.

I embarked on a life-long journey to find out. I spent an entire day with Bilko at his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, in 1976. I went on to interview more than 200 fans, umpires, sportswriters and players, including most of the players on the ‘56 Angels – the team nicknamed the “The Bilko Athletic Club” and the inspiration for this blog and the book by the same name.

 

The passage of time has failed to dim the memory of the Bilko legend.

Last May the Los Angeles Times featured a photo of Bilko belting his 50th homer of the ’56 season:   http://framework.latimes.com/2013/05/06/steve-bilkos-50th-home-run/

Another photo, taken in April 1962, shows a bored Bilko blowing bubbles as L.A. officials honor the ’62 Angels during ceremonies at City Hall.

Bilko blows bubbles during April 16, 1962, ceremonies at L.A. City Hall for the Angels. (Photo by John Malmin, Los Angeles Times)

Bilko blows bubbles during April 16, 1962, ceremonies at L.A. City Hall for the Angels. (Photo by John Malmin, Los Angeles Times)

Stout Steve made a habit of bursting pitcher’s bubbles.

“Steve hit bullets,” recalled Gale “Windy” Wade, the Angels’ centerfielder from 1955-57. “He didn’t hit those long, high floating fly balls. He wracked them.”

Wade can vividly remember Bilko’s routine in the clubhouse after a game. “The first thing he’d do is take off his shirt and sit there by his locker and drink at least two beers before taking a shower. Bilko could drink more beer than you could haul in a vehicle.”

That brings us back to Rambo and Bilko. Rambo time has come and gone. With the publication of The Bilko Athletic Club, it’s Bilko time!

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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:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

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