Book Reviews

Publishers Weekly-logo-transBefore the Brooklyn Dodgers departed the fabled Ebbets Field in New York City in 1958 for the City of Angels, one of the key reasons leading to the exodus was the public frenzy for an much admired minor league player, Steve Bilko, and his red-hot Los Angeles Angels two years earlier. Former Denver Post sportswriter White relives that miracle season when the beer-guzzling, hefty Bilko, with his mighty bat, ignited the lowly minor league team in the Pacific Coast League during a historic year. Written in a subdued voice without any sensational prose, Bilko, known as the Sergeant of Swat and Mr. Biceps, is a stirring tribute of a superstar shining on a small stage, guiding “baseball’s last great minor league team,” slugging 313 homers in the minors, but the highly hyped athlete’s luck fizzled in the majors with only 76 round-trippers. However, Bilko dazzled the sports world for the incredible 1956 season, at a time when Yankee star Mickey Mantle pursued Babe Ruth’s home run record nationally and baseball fans held their breath. Weaving in anecdotes from Bilko’s teammates and rivals both in the minors and the pros, White’s precise, powerful account of a remarkable, unlikely athlete who peaked too early without achieving too much when his dream finally came true. (Mar.)



Mike Gabor, New York, NY
This is more than a story about a certain team and a certain season.  This is a love letter to baseball when it was played in a simpler time.

Who ever heard of players signing away their right to be drafted by the major leagues.  Well, you’ll hear about it in this book.  Also, never knew that baseball was being played at night in the early 1930’s in Los Angeles.  The main focus of this book is Steve Bilko but all of his teammates on the 1956 Angels are included.  One of those teammates was Gene Mauch and he plays a big part in this book.  Bilko is presented as a superstar on this team and in this league and I must admit he was that.  He never really had too much success in the majors but I wonder if they left him be as they did in Los Angeles it might had been a different story.  In a way his story is somewhat like that of Hack Wilson’s and some of the problems he had with managers.   The PCL was a one of a kind league that we will never see again.  My only regret is that I never got to see it first hand but with wonderful books like this at least I can imagine it.


Ron SheltonMy family would drive 200 miles to watch Steve Bilko homer or strike out. He did both with such flair that the trip was always worth it. The Bilko Athletic Club lovingly re-captures an era where the Pacific Coast League was the big leagues in L.A. – Ron Shelton, award-winning director and screenwriter of Bull Durham, Tin Cup and White Men Can’t Jump   As a kid growing up in Long Beach in the 1950s, Steve Bilko was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one for Southern California baseball fans.  My dad took me to Wrigley Field, Los Angeles, in 1956 (at the age of seven), to see my first professional baseball game.  I have never forgotten that afternoon thanks to Steve Bilko and it made a lasting effect on me throughout my professional baseball career.

Bobby Grich
Bobby Grich

After the game, in which Bilko homered, I rushed down behind the dugout as the Angels were coming off the field at the end of the game.  I looked around and found a stubbly pencil on the ground and tore up a popcorn box to use to get Bilko’s autograph.  There was a crowd of kids screaming, with outstretched arms pleading with Bilko to sign.  I must have been the most determined because I stretched out as far as I could to make sure my popcorn shred was the farthest out.  He saw my excitement and graciously took the stubbly pencil and signed on the grey inside piece of my popcorn box.  You could hardly see the grey pencil on the grey sided box, but to me it stood out like a neon sign! I squeezed out from the crowd and looked up and screamed to my dad at the top of the stairs, “I got Steve Bilko’s autograph!” I ran for all my life all the way up to him and held out my prize for him to see. When we got home, I got out my scrapbook, taped it in and waited for the box score the next day to tape in next to the autograph.  I still have that in my storage space and The Bilko Athletic Club got me thinking it’s about time to pull that out and reminisce on what a great experience and memorable day that was for me. The lasting effect of that day was the result of me NEVER turning away an autograph throughout my 20 year professional career if at all possible.  I always remembered the thrill it was to me and tried to pass on that respect and remembrance of Steve Bilko to the kids that ever asked me for the same thing. – Bobby Grich, former second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels, winner of four straight Gold Glove awards and selected six times to the American League All-Star team Albie Pearson_1958   Steve Bilko was a massive man. One of his legs was as big as my two put together. In the old Coast League, he was King Kong. And L.A. fans adored him. The Bilko Athletic Club captures all this and more. It’s a grand slam! – Albie Pearson, former major league outfielder, 1958 American League Rookie of the Year and 1963 All-Star selection   Jim Fanning_1985   Of all the clubs I played on and managed, the 1955 and 1956 Los Angeles Angels will always be my favorite.  The ’56 team had truly big league players led by Steve Bilko. All knew how to play. A book could be written about so many of the Angels, particularly Buzz Clarkson and Piper Davis. They were super players, great friends and teammates.  The Bilko Athletic Club follows these Angels long after their exploits on the field.  And now to read their quotes and dialogue with Gaylon White, we know the rest of the story.

 – Jim Fanning, former major league player, manager and front office executive

  Harry Turtledove   This is a wonderful book. Sadly, the time it talks about is gone forever, but it’s not yet forgotten. The Bilko Athletic Club knocks over the head the silly notion that Los Angeles baseball sprang full-grown from Walter O’Malley’s forehead in 1958. And I’m forever jealous that Gaylon White got to interview Steve Bilko. – Harry Turtledove, author of The Guns of the South and Hugo-award winner     Bill SwankThe 1956 Los Angeles Angels were the 1927 Yankees of the Pacific Coast League and Steve Bilko was their Babe Ruth. Like the Bambino, Bilko became part of our popular culture. You’ll Never Get Rich is remembered as one of TV’s funniest comedy series from the 1950s. Phil Silvers played Army Sgt. Ernie Bilko. The show’s creator named the main character after his hero, Steve Bilko. Gaylon White spent years reassembling the 1956 Angels, LA’s big league team before the Dodgers moved to town. He tracked down fascinating old ballplayers including Gene Mauch, Piper Davis, Marino Pieretti who were much more interesting and accessible than today’s stars. The exploits of the ’56 Angels were followed closely by small boys, grown men and at least one TV producer. White’s book is a West Coast version of The Boys of Summer – Bill Swank, baseball historian and author of Echoes from Lane Field Mudcat Grant_1958Steve Bilko was this big Santa Claus-type guy that everybody liked. Even though he was a dangerous hitter, nobody tried to knock him down. You wanted to pitch to him to see what you could do against the great Steve Bilko. The Bilko Athletic Club gives a detailed account of the homer Steve hit off me for the last one ever hit at L.A.’s Wrigley Field. I didn’t get mad. In fact, I was kind of tickled by how far he hit the ball. –       Jim “Mudcat” Grant, former major league pitcher, 1963 and 1964 All-Star selection       DeanChanceThe Bilko Athletic Club touches all the bases – from my long-time friend Bob Case stuffing himself with donuts so he could be big like his boyhood idol, Steve Bilko, to Bilko hitting the last home run at L.A.’s Wrigley Field. There were two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and Bilko hits a ball over his head into outer space. Believe me, it was unreal. So is this book. – Dean Chance, winner of  1964 Cy Young Award given annually to the best pitcher in the majors and two-time All-Star selection     art-spander-lA wonderful look back at a man and a time when Steve Bilko was the sporting star in a city delighted both to have its own brand of baseball and its own special hero. In The Bilko Athletic Club, Gaylon White knocked one out of the park – Wrigley Field at 42nd and Avalon, of course – as surely as did Stout Steve over the left-field bricks. The “real” L.A. Angels are back. Play ball. – Art Spander, award-winning American sportswriter and long-time columnist for the Oakland Tribune.