The teammates were a study in black and white.
Steve Bilko was a burly, beer-chugging big bopper; Bob Coats was a slender, milk-drinking singles slapper. Bilko looked like a middle linebacker, the bespectacled Coats a high school principal. The differences were even reflected in their nicknames: Stout Steve and Coatsie.
According to one writer, Coats was one of baseball’s John Does – “a study in white when it comes to color. Quiet, modest and soft-spoken, he is the Lou Gehrig and George Kell type when it comes to personal mannerisms.”
The common thread is that both were nice guys from small towns – Bilko, Nanticoke, Pennsylvania; Coats, Woodlawn, Illinois. They also hit a baseball with authority – Bilko, long-distance bombs; Coats, line-drive shots often described as ropes.
They played on the ’55 and ’56 Los Angeles Angels teams, Bilko slamming 92 homers while Coats, a backup outfielder, batted .276 and .316 with a combined two homers. In 1957 Coats left L.A. for Memphis in the Southern Association where he posted a .327 average. Over nine minor-league seasons, Coats hit .312. He never made it to the big leagues.
“By today’s standards, he would probably be playing in the big leagues and leading off for some club,” said Johnny Goryl, a teammate in L.A. and Memphis. “He had a tremendous eye at the plate. He worked himself into good counts, he had a good on-base percentage and he wasn’t a bad outfielder.”
Coats grew up in Woodlawn, a town of 300 people located about 70 miles southeast of St. Louis. He was a St. Louis Cardinals fan. “Every Sunday, when the Cardinals were home, my friend and I would go to Mount Vernon and catch a Greyhound bus to St. Louis and then take a street car from the bus station to Sportsman’s Park, watch the ballgame and then come back.”
Three of Coatsie’s teammates in L.A. previously played for his beloved Cardinals – Bilko, second baseman Gene Mauch and Hal “Hoot” Rice, an outfielder on the ’55 team. “I was kind of in awe playing with these guys. I was just glad to be there.”
When Bilko broke in with the Cardinals in 1949, Coats was playing Class C ball in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He worked his way up the baseball chain the hard way – from D to C to B to A, and finally to the Angels in the Pacific Coast League, an open classification and the highest level of the minors.
Bilko already had seven chances in the majors (six with the Cardinals and one with the Chicago Cubs) before he joined the Angels in ’55.
“We were as opposite as could be,” Coats said. “And yet we were good friends.”
Bilko was a celebrity in L.A., attracting attention wherever he went; Coats was as anonymous as a mail man.
“Everybody knew him,” Coats said.
Bilko and Coats were driving home one night when their car was one of two pulled over by police for going through a railroad crossing with the bars down.
One of the policemen looked in the car and saw Bilko: “You Steve Bilko?”
“Yeah, we’re just coming home from a ballgame.”
“Let’s just shoot the breeze here a few minutes,” the policeman said. “My partner has got to give that car a ticket. Wait until they get through.”
“You want to go to a ballgame?” Steve asked.
“Yeah,” the policeman said.
“What’s your name? I’ll leave you a couple of tickets.”
The policeman got his tickets and Steve was off the hook for a traffic violation.
“You saw it all the time,” Coats said. “People knew him. Fans always wanted him to come to their house for dinner.”
On arriving at one fan’s house, Steve asked: “Do you have any beer?”
“I got a six-pack,” the fan said.
Steve immediately downed the six-pack. “Boy, he could chug-a-lug it,” Bob chuckled.
When Steve and Mary Bilko went to the Coats’ home for dinner one evening, there was no beer in the refrigerator. “Let’s go across the street,” Steve said.
They headed to a neighborhood bar with pool tables. “He’d have three or four beers and we’d shoot pool a little while and, then, go back to the house,” Coats recalled. “He was just a regular guy. And yet he was the star.”
The Angels left for Chavez Ravine in 1962, Bilko was back in the minors in 1963 and the ballpark once acclaimed as “a monument to the national game” was leveled by the wrecking ball in 1969. Not even the office tower built as a memorial to veterans of World War I was preserved. At least it was the last part to come tumbling down.
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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