“You know who reminds me of Steve Bilko?”
Asking the question was Dean Chance, winner of 128 major-league games and the Cy Young Award in 1964 when he led the American League in wins (20), innings pitched (278 1/3) and earned run average (1.65), the latter still a record for the Angels franchise. Chance was 20 years old when he made his big league debut in 1961. He won 14 games for the Angels the following year, Bilko’s last in the majors.
“Paul Konerko,” Chance continued. “Same type of swing; same motion. I’ll bet he has close to 400 home runs.”
Konerko has 434 home runs in a 17-year career that’s still going. Bilko belted 76 homers in the majors but he played regularly only in 1953 for the St. Louis Cardinals when he swatted 21 round-trippers.
Like Bilko, Konerko is right handed and plays first base. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Konerko is an inch taller and 10-to-80 pounds lighter than Bilko who parried questions about his weight with a pat answer: “Somewhere between 230 and 300 pounds.” Even Steve’s wife, Mary, ducked the question. “Why I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs,” Mrs. Bilko told one prying reporter. “The papers said he ‘trimmed down to a mere 232.’ But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?”
“I’ll tell you something about Bilko,” Chance said. “He hit Hoyt Wilhelm better than anybody I’ve ever seen. You were screwed when Wilhelm come in with that knuckleball.”
Wilhelm perfected a knuckleball that over 21 major-league seasons (1952-1972) baffled hitters and earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame with 143 wins, 227 saves and a 2.51 earned run average, the lowest of any pitcher with 2,000-plus innings after 1927.
Chance and Wilhelm briefly played together for the Baltimore Orioles in 1960. “After the first day of spring training, I always stood beside him. He threw a knuckleball that damn near tore my nuts off. With Bilko’s compact swing and the knuckleball…check what he did lifetime against Wilhelm.”
Bilko batted .409 against Wilhelm (9-for-22) with two homers and six runs batted in. The knuckleballer struck out Bilko only once.
If Bilko played today, Chance was asked, would he hit as many homers as Konerko?
“F… yeah,” he said empathetically.
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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