A picture is worth a thousand words, the saying goes. So it’s only fitting that this story about the Associated Press wire-service photo of former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower signing Steve Bilko’s first basemen’s mitt is exactly one thousand words long.
The picture was taken March 1, 1961, in Palm Springs, California, at the spring training camp of the newly-formed Los Angeles Angels, one of two expansion teams to join the American League in 1961.
Bilko was the most popular baseball player to wear a L.A. uniform up to that time, blasting 148 homers in three seasons (1955-57) for the Angels of the old Pacific Coast League. He also played for the Los Angeles Dodgers long enough in 1958 to help them win a public referendum to build a new ballpark at the desired location in Chavez Ravine. “No Bilko, no Dodger Stadium,” said Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodgers general manager.
Ike was still well-liked even after eight years in the White House. Unable to play golf because of a two-week bout with lumbago, he showed up at Palm Springs’ Polo Grounds to watch the Angels’ first intrasquad game. “I was as surprised as everyone,” said Irv Kaze, the team’s publicist. “I happened to look up and saw a man wearing a white cap sitting in the grandstand. The only two men I could think of who wear white caps were Babe Ruth and Eisenhower and I knew Ruth was dead.”
Kaze rushed to where Ike was sitting with two golfing buddies. “Mr. President,” Kaze said, “Mr. Rigney, the Angel manager, and I would like to have you on the field.”
“Fine, can I bring my friends with me?” Ike asked.
That’s how Ike wound up posing for pictures and sitting in the dugout during the game.
Three days earlier Bilko arrived from his home in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, and, according to the Los Angeles Herald-Express, “used his weight to slam five out of the park.” The newspaper published a photo of one mighty swing with “BILKO BOOMS ‘EM” scrawled in big letters across the top. A caption heading below announced, “BILKO ‘ROUNDS’ INTO FORM EARLY.”
“It bugs me the way people fret about my weight,” Bilko said afterwards. “It’s getting so bad that when I walk down the street at home (Nanticoke), people don’t say, ‘How are you, Steve?’ They say, ‘How much do you weigh?’
“It’s like I was a freak or something. I’m not going to have anyone tell me what to weigh anymore.”
Bilko recalled spring training with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1950 when he supposedly weighed 260 and was forced to wear a rubber suit so he could lose 40 pounds. “I wasn’t the same for two years after that.”
In his three years with the Coast League Angels, nobody badgered Bilko about his weight except the media. “How much does Steve weigh?” a Los Angeles Times reporter asked in a 1956 story titled NOT EVEN MRS. BILKO KNOWS HIS WEIGHT.
Mary Bilko played it coy, saying: “Why, I haven’t the faintest idea what Steve weighs. The papers said he trimmed down to a mere 232 pounds. But if that’s so, what did he trim down FROM?”
Bilko weighed 242 pounds when he joined the Angels. “My best playing weight is 240. I’m not going under that.”
In the AP wire photo, Ike is wearing an Angel cap and standing between Bilko and Ted Kluszewski, a 248-pounder prone to cut off the sleeves of his uniform to better display the biggest arms in baseball. Next to Big Klu is Rigney, looking at the camera instead of Ike autographing Bilko’s glove.
Rigney introduced Bilko and Big Klu to Ike. “These are our first basemen,” he said.
“I hope they don’t sit on it,” Ike joked, “or they’d flatten it out.”
Ike flashed his famous smile as he posed between the two mashers. “They’d make a couple of good bodyguards,” he said.
There are different accounts of what Ike said to Bilko about his weight. One has Ike needling, “They tell me you’re off about 30 pounds in weight.” Another has him saying, “They tell me you’re about 10 pounds lighter this season.”
Bilko grinned and nodded his head, knowing his teammates planted the question based on the comments he made about his weight earlier in the week.
“How old are you?” Ike asked.
“Thirty-two,” Bilko replied.
Ike wished Bilko good luck before moving to the dugout to watch the four-inning game.
He tried to cheer up pitcher Tom Morgan after he was roughed up in the first inning. “You did all right out there, son.”
“I sure did,” Morgan said. “I hit all their bats.”
Albie Pearson, the littlest Angel at 5-foot-5 and 140-pounds, played two years for the Washington Senators when President Eisenhower was in office. “Mr. President, you did me wrong when I was with the Senators. Every time you would throw out the baseballs at the opener, I used to wave hoping you would throw one to me.
“Gosh, Albie,” chuckled Ike, “you’re so small I couldn’t see you.”
Ike greeted another ex-Senator, pitcher Tex Clevenger. “I wonder if Ike knows Clevenger’s first name is Truman,” mused an Angel executive, referring to former President Harry Truman.
“In all the time I was with Washington, I never saw Ike in the Senator dugout,” said Eddie Yost, a veteran third baseman who played 14 years for the Senators.
When Bilko dived for a hot smash at first base, Ike cracked, “That will take some of the pounds off the big boy.”
“Take a look at him,” one of Ike’s friends said to a reporter. “He’s like a kid having a whale of a time at this game.”
The photo of Ike, Bilko, Big Klu and Rigney is preserved in the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection. Bilko’s oldest son, Steve, has a framed copy. He has no idea what happened to the glove Ike signed. Until now, he didn’t know the thousand-word story behind the picture.
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:
- Rowman & Littlefield
- Barnes and Noble
- Vroman’s Book Store
- Sales Spider
- Tower books
- Powell’s Books
- Rakuten.com Shopping
- BetterWorld Books
- The Book Depository
For Baseball Fans Down Under:
For Fans in the UK:
For Fans in Taiwan: