They Could Play Football, Too!

The stylish waffle-weave uniforms worn by the Los Angeles Angels in 1956 were inspired by the football jerseys of the 1955 UCLA Bruins.  This was fitting because the slugging Seraphs were once mashers on the gridiron with more speed and firepower than a lot of football teams.

This picture statuette of Bob Speake showcases the waffle-weave uniform worn by the ’56 Angels

This picture statuette of Bob Speake showcases the waffle-weave uniform worn by the ’56 Angels

 

One of the spring training stars was Sam “First Down” Brown, an all-America tailback fresh from leading UCLA to a 9-2 record, No. 4 national ranking and the 1956 Rose Bowl. “To the public, Brown is a great football star, but to the talent hunters of professional baseball, he is a better baseball player than a footballer,”the Angels proclaimed in their ’56 yearbook.

Brown was gone by opening day but the Angels were still deep at the running back position with right-fielder Jim Bolger, a star halfback at Cincinnati Purcell High School who attracted college football scholarship offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin and many others.

 

Playing alongside Bolger in center field was Gale “Windy” Wade, a star halfback for the Bremerton, Washington, high school team in 1946. In the same backfield was Don Heinrich, later a quarterback for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys in the National Football League. “After all these years,” Heinrich said well into his pro career, “I still have to say I never saw anybody start faster on a quick-opening handoff than Wade. If he had decided to go into professional football, he would have made somebody take notice.”

The ’56 Angels uniform was patterned after the football jerseys worn by Sam Brown, foreground, and his UCLA teammates in 1955.  (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/84864/rec/1 )

The ’56 Angels uniform was patterned after the football jerseys worn by Sam Brown, foreground, and his UCLA teammates in 1955. (Courtesy USC Digital Library: http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p15799coll44/id/84864/rec/1 )

Wade accepted a football scholarship from Texas Christian University, but changed his mind when a Brooklyn Dodgers scout offered him $5,000 to play baseball.

“Football was really my sport,” Wade said. “Baseball was a very difficult game for me.  I chose the wrong direction when I went into professional baseball.  I should’ve stuck with football.  The very nature of a football player is different.  And my feeling was when I went on the field was to always go all out.”

Mounted on the basement wall of Wade’s home in Dysartsville, North Carolina, is a photo showing him flying through the air and body slamming the chest of the second baseman. “He wound up in left-centerfield,” Wade said proudly.

 

For Gene Mauch, the Angels’ second-baseman, Wade’s daring style of play reminded him of “these guys on TV riding those bucking broncos and those steers… he was one of those guys.”

Rolling, cross-body crashes into an infielder to break up a double play made Gale Wade a fearful sight at second base. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

Rolling, cross-body crashes into an infielder to break up a double play made Gale Wade a fearful sight at second base. (Courtesy Gale Wade)

So was Bolger. “I never saw a guy with such intensity,” said Jack Hannah, younger brother of Joe, one of the Angel catchers. “He kind of worried me; he had that look in his eyes.”

Joe Hannah was an all-America fullback in high school at Visalia, California. “He was an awesome football player,” Jack said. “He had scholarship offers from USC, UCLA, all of the Pac Eight schools at the time. If he’d gone on and played for USC, he would’ve never played baseball. He would’ve been a pro football player.”

Left-fielder Bob Speake was a tailback on the Southwest Missouri State football team in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri. In fact, the back of Speake’s 1956 Topps baseball card reads: “In high school he was a fine athlete and played football at college.”

Third-baseman George Freese was the starting quarterback for the University of Pittsburgh when he was eighteen years old.  He also played at the University of West Virginia, receiving All-America honorable mention in 1946. Freese turned down an offer from the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The mightiest Angel of them all, Steve Bilko, was a guard and fullback in high school, winning all-star honors the two years he played before signing a contract to play pro baseball.

When the Angels unveiled their new waffle-weave uniforms for the ’56 season, John Holland, the team’s president, declared they were “a revolution in baseball,” noting: “It’s the first time a wide, football-type shoulder band of knitted-weave nylon has been introduced on the shoulder line.”

Bob Speake’s football talents were featured on the back of his 1956 Topps baseball card

Bob Speake’s football talents were featured on the back of his 1956 Topps baseball card

 

A wide blue-and-red waffle-weave stripe encircled the shoulders and ran down the sides of the pants. “The thought that went through my mind when I got to L.A. and saw the uniform in my locker was softball,” Speake says. “This can’t be true.”

 

 

The purpose of the waffle-weave stripes, Holland explained, was “to give the Angels more throwing freedom, and to make them more eye-catching.”

“Inserting the waffle-weave stripes was my idea,” said Max West, a former Angel star who went on to operate a sporting goods store. “The players liked them because they gave them freedom. They were much cooler than the regular uniforms.”

“It wore well,” Speake said, adding it was a “winner’s uniform – you had to be a winner to wear it to keep people from laughing at you.”Bob Speake_1956_back of card

“They’ll make a hit with the hemlines,” Jeane Hoffman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “even if they stumble all over the baselines!”

“Bilko loved the uniforms,” West said.

“Nobody can laugh at the ball club for what we accomplished,” Speake said.

He’s right about that. The ’56 Angels rolled like a football juggernaut to the Pacific Coast League pennant.

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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:

For Baseball Fans Down Under: 

For Fans in the UK:

For Fans in Taiwan:

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