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Wilkes Barre, PA
Thursday, July 24, 2014

Nanticoke Native Remembered as Baseball Superstar –

Steve Bilko’s teammates recall how the Nanticoke native blasted his way to the top of the Pacific Coast League –

To read the blog post that highlights these articles, click here.

The Legend of Steve Bilko

The legend of Steve Bilko was the topic of the KTLA-TV Morning News program interview with Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club.

KTLA Interview

In 1956, Bilko was King Kong of the Pacific Coast League, Paul Bunyan of the Bushes, the Sergeant of Swat. Stout Steve was his name, smashing monster-sized home runs his game. He belted 148 of them in three seasons with the Los Angeles Angels of the Coast League, the closest thing to the majors in L.A. until the Dodgers moved into town from Brooklyn in 1958. At the peak of Bilko’s popularity in ’56, he was better known in L.A. than Marilyn Monroe. Bilko was even a bigger household name than Mickey Mantle because of Sgt. Bilko, the TV character played by actor-comedian Phil Silvers. A Los Angeles Times columnist even suggested that Mantle and Bilko throw their hats into the 1956 U.S. presidential race: “A vote against Mantle and Bilko is a vote against home, mother and bottled beer.” Watch the KTLA interview:

White to Speak at Coast League Reunion

The 29th annual Pacific Coast League Historical Society (PCLHS) reunion will feature a presentation on The Bilko Athletic Club by author Gaylon H. White. About 100 people are expected to attend the event scheduled for 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. Saturday, May 17 at the Huntington Beach, California, Public Library.

:  Nineteen-year-old Hy Cohen won 12 games for the Grand Rapids Jets in 1950. (Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)
Nineteen-year-old Hy Cohen won 12 games for the Grand Rapids Jets in 1950. (Courtesy Grand Rapids Public Library Archives)

One of the attendees will be Hy Cohen, the right-handed pitcher with a perfect 5-0 won-loss record that was demoted by the Los Angeles Angels five weeks into the ’56 season. “That perfect record belied Cohen’s true ability,” manager Bob Scheffing explained.  “He had a tough time getting past the fifth inning and his ERA was the highest on the club. I thought I had better pitchers, so I let him go.”

Hy’s ERA of 5.70 actually was the second highest on the team to Marino Pieretti’s 6.09.

“To this day, no one understands it,” said George Freese, the Angels’ third baseman. “His earned run average was high. But nobody could believe it.”

“I felt sorry for him,” said rookie outfielder Eddie Haas. “I thought, ‘My Lord, he’s five-and-oh, and he’s being sent down.’”

“I remember everybody remarking, ‘My God, they’re sending Hy out,’” said shortstop Casey Wise. “The scuttlebutt was that in spite of the fact that he won all the time, we were averaging eight runs a game.”

“We had more reliable guys,” added second-baseman Gene Mauch. “He won games but it wasn’t because of his pitching. It was because of the offense.”

“He might’ve won 25,” said veteran pitcher Dwight “Red” Adams. “It’s hard for me to imagine that they would ship a young guy out like that who is five-and-oh when they had a couple of old dudes like me and Pieretti hanging around. No one promised us that it would always be fair.”

: In this photo taken in 2000, Hy Cohen displays the statuette of him in a ’56 Angels uniform.
In this photo taken in 2000, Hy Cohen displays the statuette of him in a ’56 Angels uniform.

At a PCLHS reunion in 2001, Roger Osenbaugh, a pitcher for the Sacramento Solons, said, “When I heard that, I thought, ‘what the hell, five-and-oh. What more could a man do?’” Turning to Cohen standing nearby, Osenbaugh added, “You scared every pitcher in the league that year when you were sent out five-and-oh.”

“With that five-and-oh record and ERA that I had, I’d be making $3 million now,” Hy joked.

In a luncheon conversation in 2000 Angel pitcher Dave Hillman asked White: “Whatever happened to Hy Cohen?”

For 44 years, Hillman felt responsible for Hy being sent to the lower minors.

A month into the 1956 season, Dave was nursing a sore right throwing arm. He had pitched to only one batter prior to facing the Seattle Rainiers in Seattle.

“They gave me the ball to pitch,” Dave recalled. “They wanted to find out if I could make it. And if I couldn’t, I would’ve been gone. Hy was 5-0 at that point. Of course, I made it. I beat Seattle. I was on my way.

“And then Hy was shipped out. That always bothered me. I’ve thought about it many times. Why was Hy shipped out? I don’t know what happened to him. All I know is that he was gone.”

Baseball is a game of revolving doors. Players come and go quickly, sometimes never to be seen nor heard of again. Dave’s question made White curious to find out more about Cohen and why a pitcher with the best in the league at the time was sent to the lower minors. White wound up interviewing 26 members of the ’56 Angels, including Cohen. He’s the subject of a chapter titled “Perfect Wasn’t Good Enough.”


Houston Sports Talk Features Bilko & Boys

Steve Bilko and his 1956 Los Angeles Angels teammates are featured in a Houston Sports Talk podcast with Robert Land and R.G. Seals interviewing Gaylon White, author of The Bilko Athletic Club, a new Rowman and Littlefield book that’s receiving national media attention.

Bilko was Babe Ruth to White, nine years old in 1955 when the stout slugger arrived in L.A. and over the next three seasons, slammed 148 homers. “He was a cult hero,” White said of Bilko’s popularity.

Lorenzo “Piper” Davis
Lorenzo “Piper” Davis

Of the ’56 Angels, White said, ���It was a great team and, in my opinion, not given enough credit for its greatness.” He added: “To give you an idea of just how good this team was, Jim Bolger, the right fielder, drove in 147 runs and batted seventh in the lineup.”

Only four of the team’s players failed to make it to the major leagues. One of those players was Lorenzo “Piper” Davis, the only black on the team. Piper appeared in 64 games, batting .316. As a pinch-hitter, his 13 hits in 29 at bats for a .448 average led the Pacific Coast League. He played every position in the field except shortstop, centerfield and pitcher.

As an example of Piper’s versatility, White tells the story of Mel Ott, Piper’s manager with the Oakland Oaks in 1952, proposing to play him at all nine positions in a nine-inning game. “Someone suggested, ‘Well, if it goes 10 innings, Piper can sell beer.’”

The following link will take you to the Houston Sports Talk website:

This link connects directly to The Bilko Athletic Club podcast:

White to Speak at Northwest SABR Meeting

Steve Bilko+Spider Jorgenson_1959
Steve Bilko played for the Spokane Indians in 1959. In this photo, he poses with John “Spider” Jorgenson of the Vancouver Mounties. (Photo courtesy of Barry McMahon)

Gaylon White will discuss his new book, The Bilko Athletic Club, at a meeting of the Northwest chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) Saturday, April 26 at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. The group will meet from noon to 5 p.m. in a seminar room at the school’s main library.

Steve Bilko was called “The Largest Angel” by Lenny Anderson, a columnist for the Seattle Times. “Steve Bilko has to be seen to be believed and, even then, there’s room for doubt,” Anderson wrote in 1955 after seeing Bilko in an Angel uniform for the first time.

He went on to describe how residents in a two-story house adjacent to Wrigley Field’s left-field brick cleared the balconies they once used to watch games. “When Bilko hauled his bulk into the batter’s box, there was a hasty scrambling on the verandas across the street and a slamming of doors and then the rocking chairs were sitting there, still rocking ever so little: just a-rockin’  And empty.”

In another column, Anderson observed: ���In movement and appearance, he’s about as spectacular as a medium-sized walrus taking a sun-bath.   His performance is something else.”

Bilko tormented the Seattle Rainiers over four seasons – from 1955-57 when he socked 148 home runs for the Angels and in 1959 when he belted 26 for the Spokane Indians.

In late 1957 after the Cincinnati Redlegs acquired Bilko from the Angels, the Rainiers’ general manager, Dewey Soriano, said, “If Seattle has a team next year and Cincinnati can’t use Bilko, we���ll have him.”

The two teams had a working agreement with each other.

Seattle was still hoping to land Bilko the spring of 1958. “Yes, Bilko would be acceptable here,” Anderson wrote. “And if you come here, Stephen, please stay.”

Gale “Windy” Wade, centerfielder for the ’56 Angels, was a high school football star in Bremerton, Washington. He started the 1958 season in Spokane before moving to Seattle. Over the next two years he won the hearts of Rainier fans with his daredevil style of play.

When Bilko won the Pacific Coast League’s Triple Crown in 1956, Seattle sportswriters chronicled everything he did on the field.

“At 8:07 o’clock Friday night, Steve Bilko lumbered to the plate,” Georg N. Meyers, sports editor of the Seattle Times, began one story. “He clasped his bat close to his chest, pointing nearly straight up, the barrel a foot away from his right cheek. The crowd, after an enthusiastic round of boos, hushed.”

Meyers described a housewife’s reaction to Bilko after she peered at him through binoculars. “Why, he’s just a kid,” she exclaimed. “I thought he must be a mean old man!” Meyers concluded, “Madame, unless you are on the side of the Angels, you were right the first time.”


Out of Stout Steve’s Shadow

Jim Bolger played the 1956 season in the shadow of Stout Steve Bilko.

Bolger hit .326 while Bilko led the Pacific Coast League with a .360 average. Jim slammed 28 homers; Bilko belted 55. Bolger batted in 147 runs only to be outdone by Bilko’s 164 RBI’s. Stout Steve even topped the speedy Bolger in triples – six to four.

Author Gaylon H. White and Jim Bolger, hard-hitting right-fielder for the ’56 Angels.
Author Gaylon H. White and Jim Bolger, hard-hitting right-fielder for the ’56 Angels.

Bolger recalled all this at his home in Cincinnati, Ohio, as he became the first ’56 Angels player to receive a signed copy of The Bilko Athletic Club from author Gaylon White.

“Jim was the most underrated player on the team,” White says.  “He hit Ryne Duren, the most feared pitcher in baseball at the time, like he owned him.”

“Yeah, I hit him pretty good,” Bolger admitted.

“Jim would rather hit against Ryne Duren than eat,” adds Dave Hillman, a 21-game winner for the ’56 Angels. “When Ryne started pitching, his bat started jumping.”

Another Bolger claim to fame is pinch-hitting for Hall of Famer Ernie Banks, also known as Mr. Cub, and ripping a home run.  Nobody else – not even Bilko – can boast about that.


Kingsport Book Signing to Feature Ex-Cub Dave Hillman

The idea for The Bilko Athletic Club came from a luncheon conversation at Jack’s restaurant in Kingsport, Tennessee, so it makes sense that the first book signing event takes place nearby at the gift shop in the Eastman Chemical Company employee center Tuesday, April 1, 2014.

Author Gaylon White and Dave Hillman, a 21-game winner for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels, will autograph copies of the 326-page hardcover book published by Rowman and Littlefield from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Dave Hillman won 21 games for the ’56 Angels, earning the nickname “Mr. Automatic” (George Brace photo)
Dave Hillman won 21 games for the ’56 Angels, earning the nickname “Mr. Automatic.” (George Brace photo)

Hillman, now 86, has lived in Kingsport since 1950. White held a variety of communications and marketing positions for Eastman from 1992-2012, establishing the award-winning Eastman Innovation Lab website – – that uses storytelling to bridge the communications gap between the materials and design worlds.

In June 2000, White and Hillman were talking baseball over lunch at the now defunct Jack’s. Hillman was browsing through the ’56 Angels yearbook when he came to a photo of Hy Cohen, another Angel pitcher. “Whatever happened to Hy Cohen?” Dave asked.

A month into the ‘56 season, Dave had pitched to only one batter because of a sore right throwing arm. “They gave me the ball to pitch,” he recalled. “They wanted to find out if I could make it. And if I couldn’t, I would’ve been gone. Hy was 5-0 at that point.”

Hillman won the game and went on to lead Angel pitchers with a 21-7 won-loss record, innings pitched (210), complete games (15) and shutouts (three). Cohen was sent to the lower minors. “I always felt in my heart that I was the reason he was sent out. He was a fine, good-looking boy. Whatever happened to him, I don’t know.”

Hillman was clearly bothered despite the passing of 44 years.

With the determination of Jerry Salinger and Ray Kinsella searching for Moonlight Graham in the movie, Field of Dreams, White set out to find Cohen and learn why a pitcher with a perfect record, the best in the league at the time, was shipped out.

White ended up interviewing Cohen and most of the other ’56 Angels and writing a book that one reviewer calls a West Coast version of The Boys of Summer, a baseball classic.

The Bilko Athletic Club lovingly re-captures an era where the Pacific Coast League was the big leagues in L.A.,” says Ron Shelton, award-winning director and screenwriter of Bull Durham, Tin Cup and White Men Can’t Jump.

The star of the ’56 Angels and the inspiration for the book’s title, Steve Bilko, was a bulky, beer-loving basher of home runs that, according to Angel manager Bob Scheffing, was better known in L.A. in 1956 than Marilyn Monroe.

The Los Angeles-born White was nine years old in 1955 when Bilko arrived in L.A. carrying the baggage of six failed big league trials. At the time, L.A. was a minor-league city with major-league dreams. Over the next three years, Bilko belted 148 home runs for the Angels to become known as “Stout Steve, the Slugging Seraph” and inspire “The Bilko Athletic Club” nickname for the mighty ‘56 Angels, baseball’s last great minor league team.

Hillman went on to pitch in the majors for the Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets.

4 thoughts on “News & Events

    1. Thanks for your comment. No question that the players on the ’70 Spokane team were talented and had better, longer major league careers than any of the ’56 Angels. The big question is the difference between the Coast League in ’56 & ’70. The majors had expanded twice during that period so the talent in both the majors & minors was diluted. As good as some of the players Spokane had that year – Bill Buckner, Davey Lopes, Steve Garvey & Bill Russell – the Indians’ won-loss record was not as good as the Hawaii Islanders. There’s a tendency to judge the greatness of a minor league on what the players did in the majors. If that’s your criteria, then, I agree the Indians may well be the last great minor league team. But that’s a flawed criteria. We don’t judge great college basketball or football teams on the basis of what the players do in the pros. We judge them on what they did against college competition. There’s no doubt in my mind the PCL in ’56 was a much better league than it was after the majors expanded in ’61.

        1. We can agree to disagree, Eric. If Baseball America’s criteria was based on what the Spokane players did in the majors, it’s flawed. In 2001, Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright, two highly-respected baseball researchers and historians, compiled a list of the 100 best minor league teams: The 1981 Albuquerque Dukes were rated 11th to make them the last great minor-league team, according to Weiss & Wright. The 1980 Denver Bears were ranked 37th; the 1970 Hawaii Islanders 38th; the 1961 Reno Silver Sox 55th; the 1975 Waterloo Royals 60th; the 1983 Reading Phillies 62nd; 1980 Nashville Sounds 69th; the 1978 Visalia Oaks 70th. Unless I missed something, the 1970 Indians and the 1956 Angels are not on the Top 100 list. While we may not agree on which team was better, we can agree that both teams should be ranked in the Top 100. And, certainly, I’ll agree with you that the ’70 Islanders shouldn’t be 38th on the list considering the Indians swept them four straight in the playoffs. The biggest problem I have ranking post-expansion teams ahead of the ’56 Angels is the dilution of talent in the majors because of expansion. There were 24 teams in 1970; 16 in 1956. So there were at least 200 players in the majors in 1970 that would’ve been in the minors in 1956. By 1970, football and basketball were siphoning off a lot of talent that previously went to baseball. If others join this debate, they’ll probably disagree with both of us. So be it. I’ll stand by the ’56 Angels as baseball’s last great minor league team.

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