Memories of Bilko

Almost everybody in the meeting room at the Huntington Beach, California, Public Library had fond memories of Steve Bilko when he played for the Los Angeles Angels in the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).  The occasion was the 29th annual PCL Historical Society and one of the topics for discussion was The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Bilko and the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.

One fan recalled taunting Bilko from the stands with a buddy and Stout Steve stealthy flipping them the bird while using his first baseman’s glove to conceal the gesture as much as possible. Most of the fans, now in their 60s and 70s, described how Bilko was their first boyhood hero, his mammoth home run shots at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles etched forever in their minds.

Joe Duhem was an outfielder-first baseman in 1956-57 for the Hollywood Star, the Angels’ cross-town rivals. “I got a single and I was on first base,” Duhem said. “It was the first time I met Bilko. I rounded first base, came back and we talked for a few minutes. He said, ‘Are you having fun out here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, as long as I’m getting’ on base, I’m having a lot of fun.’ He was a super guy. He said, ‘Good luck to you.’ I thought it was really nice that he said something. Most guys don’t talk to you when you’re on first base. They’re mad at you because you got a base hit.”

George Genovese had a “cup of coffee” in the majors with the Washington Senators in 1950.

George Genovese had a “cup of coffee” in the majors with the Washington Senators in 1950.

George Genovese has spent 74 of his 92 years in baseball as a player and scout extraordinaire, helping the San Francisco Giants land such future stars as George Foster, Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Gary Matthews, Matt Williams, Dave Kingman, Royce Clayton, Garry Maddox and Chili Davis.

During the winter of 1947-48, Genovese and Bilko played for Colon in the Canal Zone League. The 19-year-old Bilko was leading the league with a .381 batting average in early March when he left Colon to report to the Rochester Red Wings for spring training.

“He had tremendous power,” the 5-foot-6, 160-pound Genovese said. “He hit balls outasight. Once in awhile, I’d say, ‘Let’s hit for distance.’ Bilko was a great kid; I enjoyed hanging around with him.”

Genovese described monstrous home runs hit by Bilko and Frank Howard, a 6-foot-7, 255-pound outfielder, on back-to-back pitches for the Spokane Indians in 1959. “If you put them together, they must’ve been a mile and a half in distance. I swear they’ve got to be the longest balls I’ve ever seen.”

Hy Cohen pitched for the Angels in 1955 and the early part of the ’56 season. Days after arriving in L.A., a local columnist pegged him as a look-alike for Robert Mitchum, the movie actor.  Bob Kelley, the Angels’ play-by-play radio announcer, interviewed Hy on a pregame show. “You’re young and a good-looking kid, Hy,” Kelley said. “What do you think about women?”

Author Gaylon White and Hy Cohen at PCLHS reunion.

Author Gaylon White and Hy Cohen at PCLHS reunion.

“Hey, Bob, I’m not going to get married until I’m at least 30. That’s far from my mind.”

By the end of the ’55 season, the 24-year-old Hy married Terry Davis, a local girl he met through Stu Nahan, an assistant to Kelley who went on to become a well-known sportscaster in L.A. Nahan and Chuck Connors, the former Cub and Angel who found stardom on the The Rifleman television show, attended the wedding ceremony. So did Irv Kaze, public relations director for the Hollywood Stars. Most of Hy’s teammates were there, including Bilko, Gene Mauch, Don Elston, Buzz Clarkson and Gale Wade.

“For all the celebrity that he had, Bilko was still just a simple guy,” Hy said, adding that Bilko and Mauch helped themselves to the liquor left over from the reception. “They took a whole case of something.”

Following the PCL reunion, author Gaylon White met with Joe Hannah and his, wife, Carol in Visalia, California, where they live. Joe is featured in the chapter titled, The Singing Catcher.

Carol and Joe Hannah

Carol and Joe Hannah

Over lunch, Joe recounted how he pitched to Bilko in home run exhibitions staged for fans between games of Sunday doubleheaders. “He asked me to do it,” Joe said. “I always had great accuracy. He wanted to hit some over right field. He wanted to send some over centerfield. And he wanted to hit some over left field. And, then, he’d hit ‘em over the fence.”

“Steve Bilko, with his great ability to lift the ball, is the best I’ve ever seen at this home-run contest business,” Angel manager Bob Scheffing told The Sporting News in 1963. “Once I saw him hit 10 out of 12.”

“He was amazing,” Joe said. “He’d hit it over the fence almost every time.”

You can’t help wondering how many home runs Bilko would’ve hit on the 1960 television show, Home Run Derby, filmed at L.A.’s Wrigley Field.  It’s quite possible he would’ve beaten Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Harmon Killebrew – all the other big league stars featured on the show. After all, Bilko was Wrigley Field’s “home pro.”

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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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