‘The Last Real American Sports Hero’

(Second of a series based on a recent visit to Nanticoke, PA, by Author Gaylon White)

Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Jim Murray called Steve Bilko “an authentic folk hero.” Ron Kalb, 12 years old in 1956 when Bilko was imitating Mickey Mantle on the West Coast, still considers him “the last real American sports hero.”

Mary and Steve Bilko with their daughter, Sharon. The three Bilko kids were five and under in 1956 when Steve had his banner year. (Courtesy Stephen R.

Mary and Steve Bilko with their daughter, Sharon. The three Bilko kids were five and under in 1956 when Steve had his banner year. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Nearly 2,700 miles separates Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, from Los Angeles. In the mid-1950s and early 1960s when there was no ESPN or 24/7 sports coverage, the distance between the two was better measured in light years. As far as Bilko’s friends and neighbors in Nanticoke are concerned, he might as well have been bashing home runs on another planet.

To fully appreciate the impact Bilko had on L.A. baseball, you had to be there to see and believe it.

Harry Turtledove, a Hugo Award winning author, was seven years old in ’56 when Bilko became his first baseball hero by winning the Pacific Coast League’s Triple Crown. “It’s funny: I remember that he did that. I know Mickey Mantle won the American League Triple Crown the same year, but I don’t remember it.”

To Bobby Grich, a seven-year-old in nearby Long Beach, California, Bilko was “Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.” Grich grew up to be an all-star second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels.

Bilko was idolized by kids in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

Bilko was idolized by kids in L.A. (Courtesy Stephen R. Bilko)

At the peak of his popularity in ’56, Bilko’s three children, Stephen, Thomas and Sharon, were five years old or under – too young to comprehend how big a hero their father was to other kids.

Even today, Stephen, now 63, is amazed by the depth and magnitude of his father’s fame on the West Coast. “He didn’t talk much about himself and he never talked about L.A. because he didn’t think people would believe the stories.”

Stephen and his wife, Mary, have a smattering of news articles, fan mail and photos of the so-called Angel Atlas with television and movie stars like Phil Silvers, Pat Boone, Shirley Jones and former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Mary was sorting through them when she came across a letter dated March 8, 1978. It was laminated, suggesting it was special. “Do you know Ron Kalb?” She handed me the letter and I started reading it:

I am shocked and heartbroken to learn that Steve has died. I have thought of him often since his retirement from baseball, and today I feel a great personal loss.

I grew up in Los Angeles in the days when Big Steve Bilko was a superstar with the PCL Los Angeles Angels. No one used the term “superstar” in those days, but Steve Bilko surely was one. I was 13 or 14 years old then, and Steve Bilko was my god. To this day, I consider him the last real American sports hero. 

Today’s sports figures are surrounded by press agents, business agents, lawyers, fast cars, and faster women. They are surly and they are vain.

Steve Bilko was modest. He was big, in every sense of the word, gentle and kind. He never spoke ill of anyone and hit home runs like clockwork. That’s a real hero. That was Steve Bilko.

He always gave us someone to look up to, someone to imitate. He gave us a small voice inside that said, “Try harder; be better; be like Big Steve.”

I stopped half-way through the letter, handing it back to Mary. I was trying to place Ron Kalb’s name among the hundreds of people who shared their memories of Bilko. “Let me see that again,” I said to Mary. I continued reading:

He also gave me the most thrilling moment of my life. It was 1958. The Dodgers had traded Don Newcombe to the Reds for Bilko. Was it possible? It was just too good to be true! Big Steve was coming home and in a Dodger uniform. But it got better when my friend’s dad said he’d take us to the Coliseum to see Bilko’s L.A. homecoming against the Milwaukee Braves.

As Ed Mickelson describes in his book, Out of the Park, Bilko was his  nemesis in Cardinal organization.

As Ed Mickelson describes in his book, Out of the Park, Bilko was his nemesis in Cardinal organization.

I was now certain Ron lived next to Ed Mickelson in Chesterfield, Missouri.

Like Bilko, Mickelson was a first baseman in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. In fact, Steve was his nemesis, the player blocking his path to the majors. In his autobiography, Out of the Park, Mickelson writes: “I was becoming aware that the Cardinals had decided that Steve Bilko was their first baseman of the future. He was touted as the next Jimmie Foxx. I tried not to let it get to me, but I felt that no matter what I did, Bilko was their man.”

 I spoke with Mickelson on the phone several times before meeting him in St. Louis. Eventually he made it to the big leagues, playing briefly for the Cardinals, St. Louis Browns and Chicago Cubs. We talked soon after my book, The Bilko Athletic Club, came out. Ron was on the line when Mickelson announced, “Ron has a bone to pick with you.”

Ron didn’t feel I did justice to a home run Bilko hit in that game at the Coliseum – his first start for the Dodgers. My account made it sound like Bilko hit the ball over the Coliseum’s “Chinese Wall” – a 40-foot-high screen in left field and a chip-shot 251 feet away from home plate.

This is the Bilko swing that Ron Kalb, then 15, remembers 56 years later. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

This is the Bilko swing that Ron Kalb, then 15, remembers 56 years later. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

I based my description of the home run on L.A. newspaper stories and Bilko telling me that one of the two runners on base, John Roseboro, fell flat on his face looking for the ball as he rounded second. “I’m glad in a way that he fell,” Bilko said. “It gave me more time to go around the bases and listen to the cheers.” One of those cheering was Ron, then 15. And he describes it better than anybody in his letter:

In the very first inning, Big Steve came to bat with two men on. Before the P.A. announcer could say his name, we, and thousands of others leaped to our feet and shouted ourselves hoarse. The count went to three-and-one, which was always Steve’s best situation at the plate. We held our collective breath. Steve got a high fastball and drilled it high and deep to straightaway center. Wes Covington, the Brave outfielder, didn’t move or even look up. He knew it. The ball sailed 40 or 50 feet over his head, far back into the seats. It was a typical, prodigious Bilko homer. We jumped up and down; we hugged each other; we hugged strangers; we almost cried. We stood and cheered for at least five minutes. God, how we loved that man!

Ron ended his letter to Mrs. Bilko this way:

Steve Bilko and the feelings he inspired in us represent all that is noble in sports. But those days are gone forever. And now so is Big Steve. Yes, his memory can fill the void left in my heart, but no one can fill the void he leaves in professional sports. I thought you’d like to know.

  I called Ron and read him the letter as the Bilkos listened. He didn’t keep a copy. “In those days, I don’t know if they even had copy machines.” Ron went on to distinguished career in public relations, marketing and public affairs spanning 35 years. “I’m so pleased and honored that they kept that letter and you were able to find it. My God, who would’ve thought?”

“I’m crying here,” Stephen said. “I’m too choked up to talk.”

Bilko receives a hero’s welcome from Carl Furillo (6) and John Roseboro (8) after his storybook three-run homer in 1958. (USC Digital Library:  http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

Bilko receives a hero’s welcome from Carl Furillo (6) and John Roseboro (8) after his storybook three-run homer in 1958. (USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/88844/rec/166 )

“He was inspirational, he was a hero and I think he was probably one of the last true American heroes in sports,” Ron told the Bilkos. Following our conversation, Ron sent this e-mail message: “I believe with great certainty that the sentiments in my letter represent thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of other fans who followed Big Steve’s career.” “

His impact on people’s lives was deeply felt, a fact that your book, Gaylon, articulates with grace and brilliance worthy of the man himself. He shined so brightly and, sadly, so shortly, but I’ll always feel blessed to have lived my life at a time when I could share the warm glow he generated.”

Vin Scully, the golden voice of the Dodgers, couldn’t have said it more beautifully.

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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 Il dlustrated and GQ. The book can now be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:

For Baseball Fans Down Under:

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