The Great, Good and the Ugly

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Author Gaylon White displays baseball signed by the 1956 Los Angeles Angels.  (Photo by Alan Lee)

The three autographed baseballs are a throwback to the past when baseball cards were five cents a pack and sports memorabilia was treasured for its sentimental value, not financial. They belonged to Raymond “Moe” Bauer, a left-handed relief pitcher for the 1955 and 1956 Los Angeles Angels and 1957 Portland Beavers. The baseballs are signed by most of the players on the teams and, based on their on-field performance, represent the great, good and the ugly of the old Pacific Coast League (PCL).

The gem of the trio is a baseball signed by Steve Bilko and his ’56 Angel teammates, PCL champs and arguably the last great minor league team. Fittingly, the signatures of Bilko and George Freese are next to each other. They roomed together on road trips and after home games they relaxed in the Wrigley Field clubhouse whirlpool swilling bottles of beer. “Steve loved his beer,” George said. “I couldn’t keep up with him. We’d drink the beer and sweat it out. Get some more and sweat it out.”

The ’56 Angels won 107 games to run away with the PCL championship.

The ’56 Angels won 107 games to run away with the PCL championship.

The ’55 Angels tied for third-place, a solid pitching staff complementing the power hitting of Bilko and James “Buzz” Clarkson.  In addition to the two sluggers, the ’55 Angels baseball features the autographs of Jim Brosnan, Don Elston, Omar “Turk” Lown, Joe Hatten and Emory “Bubba” Church. Brosnan and Elston won 17 games apiece and Lown 12 with a miniscule 2.13 earned run average (ERA). All of them went on to star in the majors as relief pitchers. Hatten and Church were 11 game winners. Both had success in the majors prior to joining the Angels, Hatten notching 17 victories for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and Church 15 for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1951.

George Piktuzis appeared in only two games in the majors but his autograph on the ’55 ball is worth noting because of a no-hitter he tossed against the San Francisco Seals July 21, 1955. Before hurting his arm, the 23-year-old Piktuzis was the talk of the league. “The kid looks like he’s been pitching for 20 years,” said Bill Sweeney, manager of the Angels at the time.  “He’s the best mound prospect I’ve seen in the Pacific Coast League in many a season,” added Lefty O’Doul, manager of the Oakland Oaks.  After flailing futilely at Pik’s pitches, veteran Oaks slugger Joe Brovia muttered, “I’d like to have that kid’s left arm; he’s gonna make a lot of money with it.”

Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson are seated next to each other (second row, far left) in this team photo of the 1955 Angels.  (Courtesy Gale Wade)

Steve Bilko and Buzz Clarkson are seated next to each other (second row, far left) in this team photo of the 1955 Angels. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

 

Clarkson, called Buzz by the L.A. media and fans, signed as “Bus” – short for Buster, his middle name.

In early 1957 when the Dodgers announced they were relocating from Brooklyn to L.A. the next year, the Beavers replaced the Angels as the Chicago Cubs’ Coast League affiliate. Signatures for Bauer, Freese, Casey Wise and Bob Thorpe grace both the ’56 Angels and ’57 Beavers balls.

1955 Angels baseball with autographs of Jack Warner, a coach; Piper Davis; Buzz Clarkson; Joe Hatten; Bubba Church, Steve Bilko and Jim Brosnan.

1955 Angels baseball with autographs of Jack Warner, a coach; Piper Davis; Buzz Clarkson; Joe Hatten; Bubba Church, Steve Bilko and Jim Brosnan.

As great as the ’56 Angels were in winning 107 games, the ’57 Beavers were ugly, losing 108 games to finish 41 games behind first-place San Francisco.

“Oh, God, it was an awful team,” said Wise. “When they sent me out from Chicago, I really had a bad attitude. I thought, ‘I finally made it and now I’m with this bad team.’”

“It was terrible,” agreed Eddie Winceniak, a shortstop for the ’55 Angels and the ’57 Beavers. “This guy was going somewhere, the next guy somewhere else. And we were getting guys that were just, you could say, out of the sandlot. That’s how bad it got.”

 

After posting a 6-1 record and 3.16 ERA for the ’56 Angels, Bauer had a 4-4 mark and 4.15 ERA for the Beavers.

The Angels had high hopes for lefty George Piktuzis after he tossed a no-hitter in 1955. Gene Mauch and Gale Wade also starred for the ’55 Angels.

The Angels had high hopes for lefty George Piktuzis after he tossed a no-hitter in 1955. Gene Mauch and Gale Wade also starred for the ’55 Angels.

Bill Posedel, a former pitcher for the Boston Braves and chief warrant officer in the U.S. Navy, managed the Beavers most of the season. “His concept was that everybody was in the ballgame regardless of whether they played or not,” said Bauer.  “And after a loss, you need to examine yourself to find out how you contributed to that loss. We lost over 100 games. That’s a lot of time after a ballgame to sit in front of your locker with your head in your hands, trying to figure out in the next 10-to-15 minutes how you contributed to the loss when you didn’t even get in the game.  I spent a whole lot of time doing self-examination on games I didn’t even play in.”

Portland was not a place ex-Angels wanted to be in 1957.

Portland was not a place ex-Angels wanted to be in 1957.

 

The three autographed baseballs are a slice of baseball history slowly disappearing into the past. Most of all, they are a reminder of the talented players who made PCL the grandest and greatest minor league of them all.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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