The Name is Bilko

“Steve Bilko is a great, lummocking, broad-shouldered, wide-beamed broth of a boy,” Red Smith wrote in a nationally syndicated sports column titled, The Name is Bilko, published in March 1950.

This was the renowned sports columnist’s first glimpse of Bilko. He’d heard about him two years earlier from Bob Hannegan, the president of the St. Louis Cardinals: “There’s a kid named Bilko, a great big kid who can really powder that ball.  He’s pretty crude, just a kid in Class C now, but remember the name, Bilko. You’ll hear about him.”

Joe Maday, right, called himself Steve Bilko’s No. 1 fan.

Joe Maday, right,  of Nanticoke shows Steve Bilko a bass he caught in a nearby lake.

Cardinal owner Fred Saigh had even higher hopes for Bilko. “Gentlemen,” he announced to baseball writers at spring training in 1950, “you are looking at one of the future great names in baseball.”

One of the names the former tax and corporate lawyer had in mind was New York Yankee legend, Lou Gehrig. “Bilko will make baseball fans forget Lou Gehrig.”

Bilko was 16 and about to begin his junior year in high school when Cardinals scout Benny Borgman signed him on a coal bank behind a ballpark in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. Borgman had just watched Bilko wallop three mighty homers in a game. The first one soared over the coal pile Borgman was standing on along the left-field fence. “I was convinced,” Borgman said later, “that here was a guy who would one day hit 65 home runs in a single season.”

To Bobby Grich, seven years old in 1956 when Bilko hit 55 homers for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League, the slugger was “Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle all rolled into one.” Grich grew up to become an all-star second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and California Angels.

Bilko was King Kong of the Coast League, socking 148 homers for the Angels from 1955-57.  Altogether, he belted 313 in the minors. It was a different story in the majors where he hit 76 homers in parts of 10 seasons. Only once, in 1953, was he in the lineup every day. By today’s standards, his numbers weren’t that bad: 21 homers, 84 runs batted in and a .251 batting average. “He was good enough then,” said Ralph Kiner, seven-time National League home run champion and long-time sportscaster for the New York Mets. “I thought he should’ve stayed.”

Instead, the Cardinals traded Bilko to the Chicago Cubs in 1954. The Cubs parked him on the bench before dispatching him to L.A. in 1955. “The sad part is he backed up so many big-name first basemen for so many years,” said Frank Higgins, one of many Nanticoke residents who closely followed Bilko’s baseball career.

“He has been our representative in the major leagues,” explained Joe Maday of Nanticoke. “We’ve grown up with this man.  We were Stan Musial fans but we were looking for Bilko’s name in the box score.  We looked every day.  What he’d do – oh-for-four, one-for-three, two-for-four?

In 1960 with Detroit, Bilko played behind Norm Cash, a star rookie

In 1960 with Detroit, Bilko played behind Norm Cash, a star rookie.

“I was in Tampa, Florida, two years ago,” Joe continued.  “Moose Skowron asked me to relay a message to Steve:  ‘Ask Bunky if he can remember a home run he hit off Bobby Shantz?’  He hit the ball into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium where Mantle and Maris never came near.

“We’re all Steve’s friends,” Joe added.  “But we’re still in awe of him.”

That awe is the legacy Bilko left behind when he died in 1978 at the age of 49.

“He really had everything,” Borgman, the scout, said after hearing of Bilko’s death. “Scouts dream about finding that kind of guy. No matter how it ended I know one thing. On one August afternoon in Honey Pot, he was beautiful.”

“Nanticoke natives of a certain age will never forget his long-ball exploits,” Jonathan Bombulie of the Wilkes-Barre Citizens Voice writes in a June 28 story  about The Bilko Athletic Club, a book about Bilko and the ’56 Angels.

“For a generation of baseball fans in Nanticoke and Southern California, of course, Bilko’s career was always more than decent.  He was larger than life, and the story of his days on the diamond bring back floods of warm memories.”

The Bilko Athletic Club, Bombulie concludes, “lets everyone else get a little taste of those memories, too.”

The full story can be viewed by clicking on the following link: http://m.citizensvoice.com/sports/nanticoke-s-bilko-was-king-of-the-pcl-in-the-1950s-1.1710979 ]

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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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