(First of a series based on author Gaylon White’s recent visit to Nanticoke, PA)
Stephen Thomas Bilko was a self-described “simple guy from Nanticoke, Pennsylvania.” He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to because his bat spoke volumes – 148 home runs in three seasons (1955-57) with the Los Angeles Angels of the old Pacific Coast League.
At 6-foot-1 and 240-something pounds, Bilko looked more like a lumberjack, plumber or one of the coal miners he grew up around in the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke. After his first season in L.A., Bilko was bigger than any Hollywood celebrity, his name adopted by actor-comedian Phil Silvers for the scheming Sgt. Bilko he made famous initially on the television show, You’ll Never Get Rich.
By the middle of the 1956 season, Bilko was being called the “greatest thing to happen to the Angels since wings” and “to Los Angeles since Shirley Temple and Rin Tin Tin.”
In the mid-Fifties, L.A. was a far simpler place, made up mostly of transplants from other states – Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Iowa, and Michigan, to name a few. They could relate to Bilko because he was like many of them. 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 back home in Nanticoke. He liked country music, especially Hank Snow and Hank Williams. One of his favorite songs was A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation by Marty Robbins.
Near the end of the ’55 season, the Angels swept a doubleheader from their cross-town rivals, the Hollywood Stars. According to the Los Angeles Times, there were “15,217 screaming customers” at Wrigley Field. Between games, Bilko was presented a trophy as the Angels’ most valuable player and an envelope with a check representing “a token of Angel management’s appreciation” for his league-leading 37 home runs, .328 batting average and 124 runs batted in.
“Bilko was called upon to say something befitting the occasion,” wrote Ned Cronin, a Times sports columnist. “There have been many speeches made by and for outstanding athletes.
“Steve made a bum of every athletic orator in history. This Patrick Henry of the diamond cleared his throat, stepped up to the microphone and said: ‘Wow!’”
That simple speech was repeated over and over again last weekend in Nanticoke.
From a book signing event for The Bilko Athletic Club at the Nanticoke Historical Society to a get-together of Bilko family and friends at the home of Steve’s eldest son, Stephen Richard, the word of the weekend was: Wow!
On retiring from pro baseball in 1964, Bilko returned to Nanticoke and worked for awhile as a milkman for a local dairy.
“We’d ask Mr. Bilko to autograph our bill,” said Debbie Ropers Reddy.
Debbie recalled Bilko taking time to “chat a little bit” around the kitchen table. “How are you Mrs. Ropers?” he asked. “How’s the family?”
“We always admired him,” she said.
To Joe Kowalchin and others in Nanticoke, Bilko was “Bunky.” Nobody knows why.
The nickname is mentioned once in The Bilko Athletic Club when Joe Maday, Steve’s self-proclaimed No. 1 fan, relayed a message to Steve from Bill “Moose” Skowron, a former New York Yankee: “Ask Bunky if he can remember a home run he hit off Bobby Shantz?”
Playing for the Detroit Tigers in 1960, Bunky hit a mighty blast into the upper deck at old Yankee Stadium. Ryne Duren was a pitcher for the Yankees at the time.
“Bobby Shantz threw him a hanging curveball,” Duren told me in a 2001 interview. “Did you ever see a guy swing as hard as he could and miss? Well, this time Bilko swung as hard he could and hit the ball. It went way up in the top deck and right up the exit hole. He just stood there and watched it, and gave the bat a flip. I can still see it like it was yesterday.”
Only three others hit a ball into the same area. “They told me it must have gone 600 feet,” Bilko said. “Shantz threw his glove in the air. I told him I was paying him back for all the times he struck me out.
“If he was playing ball now, he’d be making millions,” Jerry Olejar said at the book signing.
“I’d be over at the house because we lived right next door to each other and he’d say, ‘I come 10 years too early,’” Kowalchin said.
Bob Scheffing, Bilko’s manager his first two seasons in L.A., said as much in 1978 when Bilko died at the age of 49.
“I’ve always said that if Steve had come along in the ‘60s, he would have been a hell of a major league player. I think those two years he had in the American League proved it.”
Back in L.A. in 1961 with the fledging big-league Angels, Bilko slugged 20 homers despite playing part-time. He was hitting .287 with eight round-trippers in 1962 when a leg infection ended his season and major-league career.
The nickname Bunky was still the topic of conversation Saturday night at the Bilko home in Honey Pot.
Stephen Richard and his wife, Mary, live in the same house as did Steve’s father and grandfather, Stephen Joseph. Bilko’s grandson, Stephen Michael, was there with his 3 ½-year-old son, Stephen Robert.
Long-time neighbors Paul and Ken Huber camped around the dining room table covered with Polish favorites like kielbasa and pierogi. “The Hotel Bilko is like the Hotel California,” Paul said. “You can check in any time you want but you can never leave.”
“Everybody had nicknames,” explained Paul. “They called me Hubie. This guy Val, another nickname, he starts calling me Scooby. I like Scooby better.”
If you lived in Honey Pot, you had a nickname. John became Yeaker. There was Zughead, Booney and Dupps. “Nobody went by their right name,” Paul said.
He looked at me and announced, “Your new Honey Pot nickname is Whiteski.”
All I could say was: “Wow!”
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 Il dlustrated 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
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