Minor League Baseball players don’t usually become famous – at least not when they’re still in the minor leagues. Between 1949 and 1962, Steve Bilko played for six Major League Baseball teams. But it was his accomplishments with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League that garnered the national attention. Bilko was so good in 1956 that that the Angels’ nickname became “The Bilko Athletic Club.” And that’s also the title of Gaylon White’s book about the season. The author joined Bill Littlefield.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with Gaylon White
GW: Well the closest thing we had to Major League Baseball up until 1958 was the Pacific Coast League. Mudcat Grant, the former pitcher both in the big leagues and the coast league refers to it as a minor major league. I was born in Los Angeles, so the only baseball I knew growing up was the Los Angeles Angels and the Hollywood Stars. And they were crosstown rivals, much like the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees are today.
BL: Let’s talk a little bit about Steve Bilko, the star of your book and also those Angels. No wonder he was popular as an Angel. He hit 55 home runs in 1956 and then he hit 56 in 1957. How were those achievements recognized and celebrated in LA?
GW: He was the most popular athlete in Los Angeles. In fact, he may have been the most well-known celebrity. Bob Scheffing, his manager in 1956 said, more people know about Bilko than Marilyn Monroe. Later on, what struck me was that Bilko was prominently mentioned in a Hallmark greeting card booklet featuring the Peanuts cartoon characters.
BL: The only thing Steve Bilko ever led a major league in was strikeouts. I wonder, did that make him even more lovable?
GW: Ron Shelton, the producer of Bull Durham, wrote me a note saying his family used to drive 200 miles just to see Bilko at bat. Now you never knew whether he was going to hit a home run or whether he was going to strike out. Either way there was a lot of excitement around a Bilko at bat.
Bill’s Thoughts On The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles AngelsSome baseball players astonish their fans with the wonders they can perform. Willie Mays was one of them. So were Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, and Barry Bonds.
Other players endear themselves to those who watch them as much for their personalities as for what they do on the field. Steve Bilko was one of the latter. He hit over 50 homeruns in two consecutive seasons for the minor league Los Angeles Angels, but that only partly explains why the team became known as The Bilko Athletic Club. Bilko was an enormous, grinning, beer-drinking bear of a fellow who inspired young fans to eat more so they could get to be as big he was.
For some reason, Bilko never distinguished himself in the Major Leagues, though he was employed by half a dozen teams, on and off, for more than a decade. But he was the pride of Los Angeles before the Dodgers arrived, and according to his manager, in the City of Stars, he was bigger than Marilyn Monroe.
Gaylon White’s book about Steve Bilko is a pleasant look back at what a man and his excellent ball club could mean to a California community in the days when the Major League Baseball map extended only to St. Louis.