Steve Bilko wasn’t much for speeches. When he was named the Pacific Coast League’s most valuable player in 1955, he stepped to the microphone and said: ‘Wow!’
Bilko wound up winning the MVP award the next two years, belting 55 home runs for the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 and 56 in 1957 to give him 148 in three monster seasons that had L.A. fans echoing Bilko’s “Wow!”
Singer Ross Altman summed it up in a song he wrote about Bilko, “Who’s on First?”
“Sometimes he swung like Kirk Gibson, others like Casey at the Bat. But when that bat connected, it was music to our ears. Tape-measure homers just like the Babe, he put them in the stratosphere.
“What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third, according to Abbott and Costello. But who’s on first, that’s easy, L.A. Angels’ Steve Bilko, the Angelino Bambino, working-class coal miner’s son. He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams all rolled into one.”
Bilko played his last game in L.A. for the American League Angels in 1962. But the wow effect Stout Steve had on a generation of Los Angeles baseball fans was still evident last July in Pasadena, California, when he was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals.
Altman was there to sing Bilko’s praises.
Wes Parker, six-time Golden Glove-award winner for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1960s and early 1970s, showed up to pay tribute to one of his boyhood heroes.
John Schulian, a nationally syndicated sports columnist before turning his talents to writing and producing TV dramas in Hollywood, was on hand to introduce the man “who will never stop being a hero of mine.”
“Wow!” said Mary Bilko, wife of Stephen Richard Bilko, Stout Steve’s oldest son.
Steve was only five in 1956 when his father inspired the team’s nickname, “The Bilko Athletic Club,” and won the Coast League triple-crown for the highest batting average and most home runs and runs batted in. His brother, Thomas, was four. They were too young to understand the wow effect that made Stout Steve as big a celebrity in L.A. as any movie star.
That’s what made the Shrine of Eternals induction ceremony so special. The Bilko boys and their families got a glimpse of the legend Steve Bilko left behind in L.A.
Earlier in the week, the Bilkos toured Dodger Stadium, aka Chavez Ravine, where Stout Steve played first base for the Angels in 1962. They attended a nationally-televised Angels-Boston Red Sox game at Angel Stadium in Anaheim. Stephen Richard threw out the ceremonial first pitch as Big Steve’s grandson, Stephen Michael, granddaughter, Barbara Ann, and great-grandson, Stephen Robert, looked on. Previously in the Angels press room, four-year-old Stephen announced he would throw out the second pitch (click on link below to see video clip).
At the Shrine of Eternals ceremony, Stout Steve was heralded as a beloved sports hero by Schulian and Gaylon White, author of the book, The Bilko Athletic Club.
Here are White’s remarks:
It’s only fitting that two of us are introducing Stout Steve Bilko, the Slugging Seraph.
Bilko was so big that Angel manager Bob Scheffing said in 1956 that “more people in L.A. today know Bilko than Marilyn Monroe.”
Bilko was so big that actor Phil Silvers adopted the Bilko name for the master sergeant he played on his hit television show. “I could just as well have been Corporal Hodges or Private First Class Musial,” Silvers explained, referring to perennial all-stars Gil Hodges and Stan Musial. “I gave it to a guy who needed it.”
Steve Bilko was an icon…an authentic folk hero…King Kong of the Pacific Coast League…Paul Bunyan of the Bushes.
In 1976, I spent a day with Bilko in Nanticoke, trying to understand why he wasn’t the big star in the majors that he was in the Coast League.
When I first saw Bilko hit a home run at Wrigley Field in L.A. in 1955, I thought he was Babe Ruth. Of course, I was nine years old – too young to see the real Babe. But Bilko was big like Babe and in the Coast League he hit home runs like Babe.
I once mentioned this to Joe Garagiola and here’s what he said…
I found out later that Bilko could drink more beer than Babe.
Jim Brosnan was a pitcher for the Angels in 1955. They were roommates on the road. They also shared a few beers. Here’s a conversation I had with Brosnan:
When I mention the name Steve Bilko, what’s the first thing you think of?
“Beer. The man was a great beer drinker.”
I understand he had a wooden leg?
“He had a wooden leg besides the two he was carrying which were huge — about the size of ale cans. I’m sure he kept a special tap in one knee in case he ran out.”
How much did he weigh?
“Over a period of time, I think about 900 pounds. He must‘ve lost that much, at least.
Was he constantly dieting?
“In his way, he was constantly dieting.”
What was his way?
“He’d take a six-pack of beer into the bathroom, and he‘d seal off the door by putting towels against the bottom of the door, close the window, turn on the shower to hot. Then he‘d sit on the edge of the bathtub while all this steam would rise and he’d drink beer — all six bottles. He said it helped him sweat. Of course, sweat meant you were losing weight. And this is how he’d do it.”
Bilko’s three managers with the Coast League Angels didn’t care what he weighed.
It was different in St. Louis where the Cardinals tried to make him a Mr. America in tights.
Listen to what Garagiola had to say about this…
One of the few Hollywood celebrities Steve mixed with in L.A. was John Wayne because he was a big baseball fan and reminded Bilko of the folks who lived near him in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke.
In Honey Pot, Bilko was called Bunky. Nobody knows why except if you lived in Honey Pot, you had a nickname. John became Yeaker.
There was Zughead, Booney, Dupps and Scooby.
I went back to Nanticoke last November and was given a Honey Pot nickname: Whiteski.
The front of the shirt has a pink carnation. One of Steve’s favorite songs was A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation by Marty Robbins.
Bilko liked country music, especially Hank Snow and Hank Williams.
He drank beer and smoked unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes while watching Lawrence Welk or Roller Derby on TV.
If you bought him a beer, he returned the favor because that’s what folks do in Honey Pot.
Bilko attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and sang in the all-men’s choir. They were so good that people from other parishes came to hear them sing. After choir practice, the guys went to the Eagles Club to have a couple of beers.
If you lived in Honey Pot, you belonged to a club – the Eagles Club; the Honey Pot Club; the Ali Baba Club; the Athletic Club of Nanticoke; the Fireman’s Club, a combination club and fire station in Honey Pot.
Bilko was one of its regulars. Bilko is buried directly behind the 400 Club at St. Joseph’s Cemetery. He was 49 when he died suddenly from a heart attack in 1978.
Bilko was a hero to an entire generation of kids in L.A. One of them was Wes Parker, six-time Golden Glove Award winner with the Dodgers. Wes is here today to pay tribute to his boyhood hero who he shares the same birth date with – November 13.
Another boy who idolized Bilko was Ron Kalb. He was 12 years old in 1956 – a presidential election year – when Ned Cronin of the Los Angeles Times proposed Mickey Mantle and Bilko as running mates. “A vote against Mantle and Bilko is a vote against home, mother and bottled beer,” he wrote.
On hearing of Steve’s death, Ron wrote his wife, Mary, a letter that expressed the feelings of thousands of young boys: “No one used the term “superstar” in those days, but Steve Bilko surely was one…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.”
Ron went on to describe a home run hit for the Dodgers against the Milwaukee Braves at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1958:
“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…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!”
In 1961 Bilko was playing for the Angels – their first season in the American League and only one at Wrigley Field where he was known as “the home pro.”
Thomas Bilko, Steve’s youngest son, carries in his wallet a news clipping and box score describing a game against the Yankees at Wrigley Field. The clipping reads: “The Yanks tied the score at 3-3 in the fifth on three singles and a walk. But Ford gave those right back when he walked Pearson and Steve Bilko hit a little white house beyond the left-field fence.”
With two outs in the ninth inning of the last game ever played at Wrigley Field, Bilko belted a pinch-hit homer off of Cleveland’s Mudcat Grant.
Here’s Steve telling what happened…
Ron Kalb ended his letter to Mary 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.”
The induction of Stephen Thomas Bilko into the Shrine of the Eternals on his daughter Sharon’s birthday ensures that his impact on L.A. baseball lives on just as his name, Stephen, was handed down from his oldest son, Stephen Richard, to his grandson, Stephen Michael, to a great grandson, Stephen Robert.
As Ron Kalb put it: “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.”
Steve’s death in 1978 inspired this banner headline in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: BIG STEVE BILKO; THE FANS LOVED HIM.
They loved him because he was humble, loyal and in a place called Tinseltown, he was real!
He didn’t say much. When he did speak, you listened.
“Come on, Boy,” Steve shouted to pitcher Stan Williams when they played for the Dodgers in 1958. “Get the ball over. The beer in the ice box is cold now.”
If you listen carefully, you can hear Stout Steve now. He’s saying: “Get this thing over. The beer in the ice box is cold now.”
White’s comments were reinforced by a Pasadena Central Library exhibit titled, “Bingo, Bango, Bilko.” It showcased memorabilia covering Stout Steve’s long career.
The Bilkos departed L.A. knowing the legend of Steve Bilko was real and lasting. Stout Steve said it best: “Wow!”
The following links will take you to Nanticoke Times Leader news coverage of Steve Bilko’s induction into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals:
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 be ordered by clicking on any of the website links below:
- Rowman & Littlefield
- Sales Spider
- Tower books
- Powell’s Books
- Rakuten.com Shopping
- BetterWorld Books
- The Book Depository
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