There are no statues of Steve Bilko or any other members of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels but there are picture statuettes created by Jim Fanning, a backup catcher until he was sent to the lower minors six weeks into the season. “I gave away more than I sold,” Fanning said. “I didn’t make any money.”
Photographs of the players were pasted on wood and cut with a saw. About eight inches high, the statuettes were mounted on a display stand.
The players are shown in various poses. Bilko is peering down the barrel of his 32-ounce bat. Joe Hannah, dressed in catching gear, is looking up, poised to catch a foul ball. Johnny Briggs is following through on a pitch.
“We statuette the Angels,” declared an advertisement in the ’56 Angels yearbook. “Let us statuette you.”
For seventy-five cents and a coupon accompanying the ad, Fanning would make a statuette out of a fan’s favorite picture “excepting professional baseball.”
Fanning played in 88 games for the Angels in ’55, batting .226. He appeared in only 12 games in ’56, hitting .333 (9-for-27). “I went to Tulsa and caught every day. That’s really all I was concerned about. Next year (1957) I was at Chicago. And then the next year (1958) I started at Portland. Good things started to happen.”
Fanning returned to Tulsa in ’58 as a player-manager, eventually moving into the front office as a special assignment scout for the Milwaukee Braves. He went on to establish a centralized scouting bureau for baseball – the forerunner to the system that serves the majors today. The purpose of the program, he said at the time, was “to provide more information on players we do not know enough about.”
Fanning left the scouting bureau to become general manager of the Montreal Expos, an expansion team that joined the National League in 1969. He immediately picked Gene Mauch to be the Expos first manager. “I flew out to Los Angeles, met him at the airport and we made our deal.”
Jim remembered their playing days together with the Angels and how much Scheffing relied on Mauch. “I would walk to the mound and Gene would come in from second base. Bob used Gene as a sounding board.”
Fanning recalled looking at some of his teammates and thinking, “How come they aren’t in the major leagues?”
Mauch was one of those players.
“Gene knew everything. He had the greatest retentive memory of anybody I have ever been around – anybody. He never took a note. He never forgot anything. He would say to me in the early years of the Expos: ‘You remember so-and-so? He played for San Francisco.’ Heck, I couldn’t remember the name. That’s the way he was. He would remind me what happened last year in a game. I mean his memory was unbelievable.”
Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, the ’56 Angels’ lone African-American, also made a big impression on Fanning. “Piper was an all-position player. I mean all positions.”
Piper was one of the first people Fanning hired for his scouting bureau. “Piper should’ve written a book, he had so much inside of him. He’d been with the Harlem Globetrotters. He played baseball a long time. He was a clutch hitter. He was a cog, a really important player. He was a fantastic person.”
Piper appeared in 64 games for the ’56 Angels, batting .316 and playing every position except shortstop, centerfield and pitcher. He led the league in pinch-hitting with 13 hits in 29 at bats for a .448 average.
Fanning was born on the same day (September 14, 1927) as Darius “Dave” Hillman, a 21-game-winner and ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff. “He had a good fastball. He had a super changeup. He had excellent control. You could sit on the outside or inside and he’d hit it. I played with him my first year in baseball in 1950 and then I was with him off and on along the way. He and I could go out and play a game today. I would know how exactly to call a game for him.”
Fanning and Hillman started the ’55 season with the Chicago Cubs before being sent to L.A. They were driving west on Route 66 when the Cubs’ “Sad” Sam Jones became the first African-American to toss a no-hitter in the major leagues. “We got so excited listening to the game on the radio that we had to stop the car.”
In the ninth inning of the game, Jones walked three straight to load the bases before striking out the next three batters to end the game.
”If I hadn’t been sent out, I’d be catching this game,” Jim told Dave several times.
Dave finally had enough. “Yeah,” he said, “and Jones would’ve been gone in three innings.”
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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