Steve Bilko: The Legend of Stout Steve

 

EVEN AS A KID growing up in 1940’s Nanticoke, Pennsylvania, Steve Bilko was “big boned.” Looking every inch like the Polish peasant stock he descended from, Bilko had a warm, open grin and sandy blond hair atop a massive physique. As a teenager, he played both football and baseball, and by his junior year his tremendous power earned him a contract with the Cardinals organization. As he worked his way up through the minors, the Cards envisioned Bilko as their first baseman of the future. There was only one problem: his weight.

At 6’-2” and 230 lbs, Bilko was considered a huge man. Back in the 1940’s and 50’s, a ballplayer was expected to be trim and lean like a cowboy. Sure, baseball had a few big Palooka’s like Babe Ruth, Johnny Mize and Ted Kluszewski, but they were the exception rather than the rule. And unlike a Pablo Sandoval, who ate himself out of the majors, Steve Bilko was just big boned, being raised on the hearty homemade Polish fare his mom cooked. A sportswriter once said he was “built like a packing crate for farm machinery.” Another wrote, “Bilko is built like a tank, he’s as solid as a tank and he packs the firepower of a tank.”

In line with contemporary thinking, the Cardinals’ big wigs thought Bilko’s bulk was nothing a rubber sweat suit and some dieting wouldn’t fix.

For his part, Steve went along with the yearly crash diets and running regimen. Yet, no matter how many laps he clocked or salads he ate, Bilko was just a big guy. When he did lose a tremendous amount of weight at the Cards spring training camp in 1950, Bilko’s own mother failed to recognize him. Plus, the starvation routine sapped Bilko’s prodigious strength. His teammate Joe Garagiola remembered that the team would make him run around in a rubber suit before a game and then expect him to play nine innings. Needless to say, it didn’t work, and after several frustrating seasons he was traded to the Cubs in 1954.

In what would be a repeating pattern in his career, the Cubs gave Bilko only a few games to produce before benching him when he didn’t prove to be an instant success. For 1955, Chicago sent him to their top farm club, the Los Angeles Angels.

THE ANGELS played in the Pacific Coast League, one of the three leagues that made up the highest level of minor league baseball. At this time, there was no Major League Baseball team west of St. Louis, and to baseball fans out west, the Pacific Coast League was the Major League. In the years immediately following World War II, baseball enjoyed a huge surge in popularity. Nowhere was this more evident than on the West Coast where team owners and fans pushed to have the PCL recognized as the third Major League. To test the waters, in 1952 Major League Baseball declared the Pacific Coast League an “open classification” league. This meant it was a half step below the majors and a step above the AAA level.

The club that Bilko joined in 1955 was one of the PCL’s most successful franchises. While most of the teams in the league were independent or switched MLB affiliations often, the Angels enjoyed a solid relationship with the Chicago Cubs that stretched back to the 1920’s. With a die-hard fan base, the Angels were as much a part of LA as the Dodgers were to Brooklyn.

When Bilko arrived at spring training, the first thing he wanted to know was if the team was more concerned with him being Mr. America or a ballplayer. Management wisely chose the later, and for the first time Bilko was left alone to do what he did best: hit the ball.

Finally given the chance to play everyday and with no one hassling him about his waistline, Bilko began knocking the cover off the ball. The Coast League had produced many tremendous hitters in its history – Ted Williams, Tony Lazzeri, Joe DiMaggio – but no one hit home runs with as much power as Steve Bilko. Detractors claimed his numbers were inflated by the intimate dimensions of the Angels’ home ballpark, Wrigley Field, but that accounted for a little more than half his homers – truth was, Bilko hit ‘em out of every ballpark. In May, he hit a ball out of Oakland’s Oak Park that traveled 552 feet. Another time he hit a line drive that just barely missed a ducking pitcher’s head, then continued to climb until it had cleared the outfield wall.

He ended the season with a league-leading 37 homers, finished second in hits, doubles and RBI and a fourth-best .328 batting average. To top it off, the Cardinals cast-off was named the PCL’s Most Valuable Player.

While his statistics no doubt helped, it was Bilko’s down-to-earth, “every man” quality that made him the most popular non-movie celebrity in the City of Angels. While other young ballplayers made the most of their celebrity-status, Bilko shunned the spotlight. At 26, the slugger had a wife and young family who stayed back in Pennsylvania as he toiled on the coast. He lived in a modest efficiency apartment with three teammates, where his biggest source of entertainment was cooking for his roommates. The only concession his roomies made to him as the star of the team was that the bottom shelf of the apartment’s refrigerator was reserved for Steve’s bottled beer.

Second only to being known for hitting home runs, Steve Bilko was renowned for his beer consumption. Bilko enjoyed his suds, and his preference for the drink of the working man over the cocktails sipped by celebrities only endeared him more to the fans. As Gaylon White relates in his excellent book, The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Angels, a bartender back home in Nanticoke sent the slugger a never-ending supply of lager during the season, and it became his post-game ritual to soak in the clubhouse hot tub and polish off a sixer before heading back to the apartment.

Americans love a comeback, and in 1955 Steve Bilko was the very definition of the word. As a nod to his popularity and “regular guy” status, comedian Phil Silvers chose to name the main character of his new television comedy “Sergeant Bilko” after the slugger. When asked why he chose Bilko instead of a big league star, Silvers replied “I could have been ‘Corporal Hodges’ or ‘Private First Class Musial,’ but I gave it to the guy who needed it.”

So, while 1955 was a comeback season for Bilko, 1956 would be something else entirely.

THE ANGELS had finished 1955 tied for third place. Illness had forced manager Bill Sweeney to quit during the season, and longtime Cubs company man Bob Scheffing had taken over. The new skipper had continued the hands off policy regarding Bilko’s weight, and the agreement stayed in place for 1956.

What didn’t stay was the roster. Scheffing spent the Cubs spring training scouting out a few key players he felt would make his Angels a pennant winner in ‘56. Culling through the Cubs castoffs, he selected pitchers Dave Hillman, Harry Perkowski, and Bob Thorpe and outfielders Gale Wade, Bob Speake, and Jim Bolger. With Gene Mauch acting as on-field manager, and having a career year at the plate, the ‘56 Angels were unstoppable right out of the gate. Even the usually slow-starting Bilko began the season hot.

As his home runs piled up, LA newspapers ran a daily “Bilko Meter” or “Homerometer” with an eye for the PCL record of 60 set by Tony Lazzeri in 1925. After eight weeks, Bilko had 23, and 37 by the first week in July. He was also far outpacing anyone in the Coast League with a .391 average and 97 RBI.

Halfway through the season, Bilko made a decision that seemed smart at the time, but later played out to his detriment. The Angels, no doubt pleased with his performance, gave the slugger a hefty raise in exchange for signing a waiver exempting him from being drafted at the end of the season by a big league team. By doing so, Bilko took the chance that if a major league team wanted his services, they would have to pay big money for it – the figure of $200,000 was thrown around – instead of just picking him up cheap in the post-season draft. Bilko chose this option, figuring that a club paying a hefty sum would more likely need his presence, therefore ensuring him a starting position instead of stagnating on the bench. Throughout his career, Bilko attributed his lack of success in the majors to not playing regularly, and this was his way to counter that now that he was having the year all ballplayers dreamed of.

Another factor in Bilko’s signing the waiver was that he was pretty happy on the coast. Out in LA he was the toast of the town. Kids all over Southern California idolized him, and his popularity opened up a whole new revenue stream for him in endorsements and TV appearances. After signing the waiver and receiving his raise, Bilko was now the third highest paid first baseman in baseball – only Stan Musial and Ted Kluszewski earned more.

Bilko began August with 45 homers and 127 RBI and continued hitting. At the same time back east, Mickey Mantle was in the midst of his Triple Crown season, but not many on the west coast noticed – this was Steve Bilko country. The Angels won 107 games to win the pennant and a spot on the list of greatest minor leagues teams of all-time.

In the end, Steve Bilko fell five short of Lazzeri’s record of 60. In fairness, the PCL of Lazzeri’s time played a 200 game season and a mere 168 when Bilko played. When the stats were tallied up, Bilko not only led the league with 55 homers but batting average with .360 and RBI with 164– giving him the coveted Triple Crown. That year’s MVP voting was just a formality as Bilko won his second consecutive award.

The off-season promised to be a bonanza for Bilko. His big year had made the sports pages coast-to-coast, and fans from Boston to Chicago prayed their team won the bidding war for Steve Bilko. But not one offer came in. The $200,000 price tag was one barrier, but there were other things that made teams leery of the West Coast strongman.

The first is that he was given numerous chances to stick in the majors but failed. Second, Bilko was 28, pretty much the wrong side of middle age for a big leaguer back then. Third was Bilko’s Puerto Rican Winter League season. The island winter league was the premier showcase for young talent hoping to catch the eye of big league teams. Unfortunately for Bilko, after an initial hot streak, his bat lost its power and he was released from his club when they cut costs mid-season. Big league scouts couldn’t fail to notice his poor showing. Reason number four was that old nemesis, his weight. Big league teams lived in fear of the ballplayers who came to spring training overweight, and Bilko was a proven scale buster. So when spring training began in 1957, Steve Bilko was back with the Angels.

WHILE THE TEAM was still called the Angels, still played in Wrigley Field and still had Bilko at first base, the franchise had radically changed. The Brooklyn Dodgers had begun maneuvering to make Los Angeles their home for 1958, and the first step was buying the Angels. As a concession to the fans, Bilko’s contract was shifted from the Cubs to the Dodgers, but most of the ‘56 team went to Portland.

The 1957 Angels were the worst team in the history of the proud franchise. Stocked with Brooklyn cast-offs, the Angels won 27 fewer games than they did the year before. Bilko began the season with a nasty case of the flu, only to be later sidelined with an infected spike wound. Trying desperately to get his swing back, the big slugger pulled a rib muscle. Finally, back in the lineup, he hit 11 homers in 13 games before a wrenched shoulder and pulled groin muscle sat him back down. With a lack luster team behind him, pitchers began to issue the slugger free passes, thus neutralizing his dangerous 33 oz. bat.

Yet, through all those setbacks, Bilko demonstrated that “every man” quality that made him a hero in LA. Finally healthy in July, Bilko went on a two-month tear that had him finishing the season one home run better than his 1956 tally and with 140 RBI – both leading the league. He batted 60 points lower than ‘56, but was still in the PCL’s top 20.

Now closing in on 30, time for Steve Bilko was running out. He hadn’t waived his right to be drafted as he did in 1956, but even at a reduced price, no offers came in until Cincinnati pulled the trigger. The rub was that Bilko not only had to share first base with perennial All-Star Ted Kluszewski, but also with proven veteran George Crowe. Still, it was the majors, and Bilko hit .264 in 31 games before being traded to the Dodgers.

With Gil Hodges at first, Bilko was ineffective off the bench and was dealt to Detroit where he did no better.

Just when it looked like the end of the line, the Los Angeles Angels came to his rescue – not the old PCL Angels, but the new expansion American League Angels. Playing once again in Wrigley Field, Bilko hit a combined .282 with 28 homers in 1961 and 1962 before calling it a career. As a nice goodbye to his old fans, Bilko hit the last home run out of Wrigley Field on the last day of the ‘61 season.

Stout Steve Bilko returned to his family in Nanticoke, living in the same working class neighborhood he grew up in. He held the same job for twenty years as an inspector in a perfume factory and raised a successful, happy family. To reiterate his simply being a big boned man, Bilko remained the same size he was as an Angel up until the day he passed away from a heart attack in 1978, just shy of his fiftieth birthday.

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STOUT STEVE & HIS BREWSKIES

Because beer was such a large part of “Stout Steve’s” persona, I naturally wanted to know what his favorite brew was.

The first place I looked for an answer was in Gaylon White’s excellent book on the 1956 Angels, The Bilko Athletic Club. The book was full of Bilko beer stories, but only mentioned one by name: Kulmbacher. I had never heard of that brand before so went to the internet to see what it was.
To my surprise, I could not find a domestic beer by that name, only a German brewery. I figured that this German brand could not have been the one Stout Steve enjoyed because imported beers did not become readily available in the States until the early 1960s. My interest piqued, I put in a call to Gaylon White.

Gaylon had interviewed Steve Bilko many times and spent hours with him at his favorite bar in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. Gaylon had saved a coaster from one of his meetings with Steve which had the name of the beer the old ballplayer was drinking: Gibbons. Gaylon also put in a call to Steve’s son to see if he could elaborate on his father’s favorite brewskies. Steve Jr. reported back that his dad loved the aforementioned Gibbons as well as another local lager: Stegmaier – Cold and Gold from the Poconos.
That cleared up what local Pennsylvania brews Bilko drank, but the question remained: what was Kulmbacher?

To help answer the question, Gaylon shared a story Bilko’s pal Eddie Erautt told him when he was writing his book on the ‘56 Angels. When the two were teammates in St. Louis, Erautt introduced Steve to a beer he discovered when he was playing for Cincinnati: Kulmbacher. Steve loved the beer so much that he would buy cases of the brew when in Cincinnati to play the Reds.

Now that was a great lead. Cincinnati had a booming brewing industry with many local brands inspired by the city’s large German population. However, my search for one called Kulmbacher came up empty. At this point, I called up my friend Shawn, a beer connoisseur with a deep knowledge on beers of the world. While he could not answer my question about Kulmbacher, he put me in touch with several local beer historians who might be able to.

This began a weeks-long correspondence with the owners of several local breweries, a Reddit community of beer aficionados called r/cincinnatibeer, an author of multiple books on brewing history, and a bonafide beer historian. Although everyone was more than helpful, no one could find a local beer called Kulmbacher.

At this point, I started thinking outside the box (or stein, if you will). I knew that Cincinnati used to have many beer gardens that had their own proprietary brews – did one of these have a beer named Kulmbacher? I went to the Cincinnati Enquirer database to see. And while I didn’t find a beer garden that offered their own Kulmbacher, I found the answer to my original question.

What I discovered was several 1956 ads for Bilker’s Fabulous Foods, a high end gourmet food store on Reading Road in Cincinnati. The ads touted their “World’s Famous Beers” and lists Lowenbrau, Heineken’s, Wurzburger, Dortmund, KULMBACHER, Carlsberg, Asahi, Guinness Stout, Base Ale, Labatt’s Ale, Champale, and Prior. So imported beer WAS available, at least in Cincinnati, as early as the 1950s. Apparently Stout Steve was ahead of his time in being an imported beer enthusiast!

The things you learn while researching Our National Pastime!

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In the summer of 2015, the Baseball Reliquary named me the recipient of the Tony Salin Memorial Award. Recognizing contributions to the preservation of baseball history, the “Salin” is the highest honor a baseball historian/author/artist can receive, and I consider this the greatest achievement of my career thus far. The Reliquary has their own “Shrine of the Eternals,” to which three ballplayers are selected each year. In 2015, one of the new Eternals was a ballplayer whose name I was only vaguely familiar. However, through author Gaylon White’s impassioned, humorous and poignant induction speech, I was introduced to one of baseball’s most interesting characters and one who has now become one of my favorite ballplayers: Steve Bilko.

Gaylon White is the author of The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels. Hands down, this is one of the best books ever written about a single team over the course of a season. It doesn’t hurt that the ‘56 Angels won the Pacific Coast League Championship and is regarded as one of the greatest minor league teams of all-time. Author Gaylon White does a supurb job capturing the excitement of the ‘56 season and weaves into it character sketches of the team’s starting players. Of course, the star of the book is Steve Bilko, the hulking home run champ who was as big a hero to West Coast kids in 1956 as Mickey Mantle was to East coast boys. And while Bilko’s exploits take center stage, the reader can’t help but appreciate the behind the scenes contributions of Gene Mauch. The future big league manager was the Angels second baseman back in 1956, and White reveals how he held a sort of unofficial “co-manager” position, directing the on-field action during games for skipper Bob Scheffing. White relates how Scheffing carefully assembled the ‘56 team from Cubs cast-offs, fine tuning it until he had the perfect blend of youngsters and experienced veterans. White interviewed many of the former players, and hearing the story of the ‘56 Angels and their memories of Steve Bilko in their own words makes this book a joy to read.

I am a big fan of White’s other books and am very happy to say he shared his vast knowledge of Steve Bilko with me when I was writing this piece. Thanks Gaylon, I owe you a Kulmbacher!

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This week’s story is Number 48 in a series of collectible booklets.

 

Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 4 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 042 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-41 can be purchased as a group, too.

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