When Numbers Lie

When Steve Bilko was asked what he weighed during the 1955-57 seasons he was blasting home runs a la Babe Ruth for the Los Angeles Angels in the Pacific Coast League (PCL), he politely answered, “Somewhere between 200 and 300 pounds.”

Wilson, the sporting goods company, had mercy on Bilko, tagging his ’57 jersey size 48 when it actually measures size 54.

Wilson, the sporting goods company, had mercy on Bilko, tagging his ’57 jersey size 48 when it actually measures size 54.

It will always be a mystery how much Bilko weighed in 1957 when he socked the last 56 of his 148 homers for the Angels. But the home jersey he wore that season suggests he was carrying around a lot more than the 235 pounds listed in the team’s yearbook.

The jersey is tagged size 48 but it measures roughly 27 inches side to side, making it a size 54. “We call it mercy tagging so they weren’t kidded in the locker room,” explained a sports memorabilia collector who asked not to be identified. “If they had a 54 tag on it, Bilko wouldn’t be able to live it down. Everybody would be calling him a ‘Fat Ass’ or whatever else. So they tagged them this way.”

In the 1950s, uniform manufacturers rarely used a size larger than 48 for the tagging. “Most of the players wore a size 42 or 44 and they are true to size,” the collector said. “You measure them out, they are absolutely perfect.”

Steve Bilko holds autographed ball he clouted for his 56th homer in 1957 as Gene Lillard, right, holds the bat he used to tie the team record set by Lillard in 1935.

Steve Bilko holds autographed ball he clouted for his 56th homer in 1957 as Gene Lillard, right, holds the bat he used to tie the team record set by Lillard in 1935.

Another beneficiary of “mercy tagging” was Francis “Lefty” O’Doul, who managed five Coast League teams from 1935 through 1957, a 23-year period in which he put on a lot of weight near the end.  “That was a period he was called Hefty Lefty.”

The jersey O’Doul wore in 1955 as manager of the Oakland Oaks is tagged size 48 but it’s actually a size 54. “I have about 30 PCL jerseys. These are the only two that have that type of anomaly.”

The front of Bilko’s jersey worn at home games during the 1957 season.

The front of Bilko’s jersey worn at home games during the 1957 season.

Bilko’s jersey “turned up about two years ago outside of the hobby and survived just by chance.”

The only one known to exist, the Bilko jersey was given to a player who used it in semipro baseball around 1960. “It has Bilko’s number 30 on the back. Everything is original.”

Bilko wore number 42 his first season with the Angels in 1955 and the number 30 in 1956-57.

“Bilko wasn’t fat,” the collector added. “He was stocky.”

Over the years Bilko became very sensitive about his weight, rarely getting on the scales and never revealing the results.

“There’s one thing he does not like and that’s being kidded about his weight by strangers,” said George Freese, Bilko’s roommate on the road in ’56. “If someone comes up to him and makes some crack about him being heavy, he’ll tell them to mind their own business.”

After making his major league debut with the St. Louis Cardinals late in the 1949 season, Bilko had an operation for varicose veins over the winter. He wasn’t able to do much so he ballooned to around 260 pounds.

: Bilko wore number 30 in 1956-57 after wearing the number 42 in 1955 – the now retired number worn by Jackie Robinson.

Bilko wore number 30 in 1956-57 after wearing the number 42 in 1955 – the now retired number worn by Jackie Robinson.

At the Cardinals’ spring training camp in 1950 Bilko said “one coach decided I would have to lose 40 pounds and another decided I would have to become a pull hitter. Between the two of them I went crazy. I starved 40 pounds off myself in six weeks and felt terrible.”

Bill Sweeney was the Angels manager in 1955 when a beleaguered Bilko arrived in L.A.

“Do I have to worry about my weight?” Steve asked.

“I don’t care what you weigh,” Sweeney said.  “Just play between the lines.”

That’s just what Bilko did, winning the PCL’s home run title and Most Valuable Player award three straight years and prompting Bob Scheffing, the Angels manager in ’56, to say: “More people in L.A. today know Bilko than Marilyn Monroe.”

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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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