The two-story apartment house is still standing, now enclosed by a tall white wrought iron fence. More wrought iron protects the front doors. The windows are unprotected except for two trees in the front yard. Good thing Steve Bilko and James “Buzz” Clarkson are no longer launching missiles from Wrigley Field across the street.
The house on 41st Place in Los Angeles was bombarded by so many home run balls that near the end of the 1956 season, Los Angeles Times columnist Ned Cronin observed, “The day is near when no tour of the city would be complete without riding past this spot and pointing to it as one of the outstanding landmarks of Los Angeles.”
Bilko and Buzz teamed to sock 50 homers in 1955. After Buzz was released in early ‘56, Bilko belted 55 on his own. He blasted 56 in 1957.
“No one would dream of sitting down for dinner without wearing a fielder’s glove,” the Times’ Cronin wrote of the house. “Never could tell when a line drive would make a 17-cushion billiard shot off the walls and smoke up the tablecloth in the process. Made it a little unhandy for delicate knife and fork work, but it was in the best interests of self-defense.”
The shot that caused the biggest stir was a Buzz bomb that ripped a hole through the front door. “Whatta wallop,” proclaimed a caption below Los Angeles Examiner photos of Buzz swinging and another with an artist’s arrow tracing the path of the ball from home plate to the house’s battered door being examined by kids. “The residents poured out all the exits looking for enemy aircraft,” the newspaper reported.
On his arrival in L.A., the L.A. Times reported: “Clarkson, drafted from Dallas, is of uncertain antiquity. He lists himself as 36 – with number 37 coming up next Sunday – but some folks insist the man is in his early 40s. Buzz apparently is the Jack Benny of baseball when it comes to counting backward.”
“He was on Social Security even then,” quipped Ed Mickelson, first baseman for the Portland Beavers in the Pacific Coast League who also played against Buzz in the Texas League.
Like many players coming out of the old Negro Leagues, Buzz shaved off a few years so he had a better shot at the majors. He was actually three years older than he admitted. Buzz made a cameo appearance in the big leagues with the Boston Braves in 1952, getting five hits in 25 at bats for a .200 average. “The only thing against him is his age, which is indeterminable,” one reporter wrote, adding, “he can hit and he can play short” and “with his tendency to show off in numerous and wonderful ways, he’s going to pull in some customers.”
Buzz spent the next two years in the Class AA Texas League, smashing 18 homers for Dallas in 1953 and a combined 42 for Beaumont and Dallas in 1954.
Dave Hillman, the ace of the ’56 Angels pitching staff, and Jim Fanning, a catcher for the Angels in ’55 and part of ’56, played with Buzz at Beaumont before the slugger was traded to Dallas.
Hillman had to stand on the pitcher’s mound sixty feet, six inches away from Buzz at home plate. “You could see sawdust coming out of that bat when he hit the ball. He’d hit ‘em and the third baseman would just quiver.”
Fanning recalled the sound of the ball hitting Buzz’ bat. “In batting practice or even a game, you’d hear all these cracks and you knew right away who was hitting. It had something to do with the way he held the bat when he made contact. It had a different kind of crack to it.”
When Buzz joined the Angels in ’55, Bill Sweeney was the manager. One day during spring training, Sweeney asked a sportswriter sitting nearby, “Have you seen that man swish a bat?”
“Everything Buzz hit was a line drive,” the writer wrote. “Rival third basemen checked their premiums when he stepped in…”
Sweeney told another reporter: “There’s no way of telling how hard Buzz busts that ball. But I’ll say this…nobody around Wrigley Field has hit it any harder for a long, long time.”
Buzz played winter ball throughout his career. He was player-manager for the Santurce Crabbers in the 1954-55 season, guiding them to Puerto Rico’s national title and the Caribbean Series championship. Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, future Hall of Famers, played on the same team but Buzz batted in the clean-up spot.
In addition to Buzz and Bilko, the Angels had John Pramesa, a 6-foot-2, 210 pound catcher who hit .294 and 11 homers for L.A. in 1954.
This inspired L.H. Gregory, a sports columnist for The Oregonian, to write: “The Los Angeles infield is one of the most awesome sights in baseball, with three of the heaviest, heftiest, strongest and hardest-hitting men in baseball manning the defensive corners like bastions in a fortress…”
“Steve Bilko is the widest man across the chest and shoulders we ever laid eyes on. He’s enormous. We had heard he was inclined to fatness; in fact, he ate himself off the St. Louis Cardinals one season. If so, he’s not fat now, but just so huge as to inspire with awe. His arms are about the size of an ordinary man’s thighs. His chest is 48, his waistline a ‘perfect 39’ but flat as a board.”
Of the 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pound Buzz, Gregory wrote: “Alongside the average ball player, he’s like a squatty railroad gondola car in the company of sleek aluminum-colored coaches but he hits a ball perhaps as hard as any living player. Big Clarkson has a pair of hands that clamp on anything he can reach, and a flip throw from a flat-footed stance that gets across the diamond surprisingly.”
“I can throw hard, and do when necessary,” Buzz explained. “But there’s no use in hurrying a throw. Just get it there in time to retire the batter. Saves wear and tear on the arm, too.”
Buzz played third base for the Angels but shortstop was his position earlier in his career. “He got to the ball, kind of flat footed, tossed it to first,” Fanning said. “Usually got the out; always a bang-bang play.”
“He was smart,” Angel centerfielder Gale Wade said of Buzz. “And he played a smart third base. He probably played better than a lot of younger, quicker guys because he shifted according to the hitters. And that’s the key.”
Buzz was batting .305 with five homers and 13 runs batted in when he slipped on Wrigley Field’s wet infield while fielding a bunt. He broke a bone in his left foot, putting him out of action for seven weeks. He returned to slam eight more homers, including the missile that ripped the hole in the door of the house on 41st Place.
“He called everybody Road because I don’t think he knew their names,” Fanning said.
That’s fitting as Buzz spent 1956, his last as a player, on the road, starting in L.A., stopping briefly at Tulsa in the Texas League and winding up at Des Moines in the Western League. Don Swanson pitched for all three teams and saw most of Buzz’ 18 home runs that year. “Buzz could hit the ball as hard as ever,” Swanson said. “He was just born too soon.”
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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