Twice an Angel, ‘Stout’ Steve Bilko

Bobby Grich recalled his days as a young fan of the Pacific Coast League Angels and said that Bilko “was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.”

Angels Over the Pond founder, Editor and features writer, Matt Thomas, writes on the illustrious heritage of our Angels.

A native of Nanticoke, Pennsylvania ‘Stout’ Steve Bilko was a hard drinking, big hitting first baseman who carved out notoriety for his home run hitting, during his time in the Pacific Coast League. At the tender age of just 16 the ‘big boned’ Bilko escaped his job in Pennsylvania’s coal mines, to sign for the St. Louis Cardinals, eventually making his Major League debut in September 1949. By spring training of 1950 Bilko was topping a burly 260 pounds but despite his obvious power at bat it took until 1953 for a then 25 year old Bilko to finally cement a full season in the big leagues, finishing with 21 home runs and 84 runs batted in, but a tendency to strike out that was somewhat embarrassing.

At this point Bilko could have been forgiven for believing he had locked down his place amongst the Cards roster but fate intervened, when brewing magnate Gussie Busch bought the Cardinals from their disgraced owner, Fred Saigh. Bilko was subsequently sold to the Chicago Cubs, who sent him down to their Los Angeles based Pacific Coast League farm team, at the original Wrigley Field. The compact ball park was almost custom made for Bilko’s range and his home runs became a thing of local legend, with his local star status elevated further when local Los Angeles televising broadcasting beamed his exploits to families across the region, so much so that in 1955 his name was adopted by Phil Silvers for his Sgt. Bilko character.

The compact ball park was almost custom made for Bilko’s range and his home runs became a thing of local legend…

The Angels ball club steadily built a team with immense talent around their star man, known as the Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division. The Bilko Athletic Club, as they became lovingly known, were notorious for their hitting, with Bilko hitting a heroic 148 home runs in just three years, and being most valuable player in three consecutive seasons. Then in 1957 the Cubs sold the Angels franchise and Wrigley field to the Brooklyn Dodgers, with Bilko eventually being sold to the Cincinnati Reds. The stay in Cincinnati was short lived and he was traded to the Dodgers, by now settled in their new home of Los Angeles, and Bilko was given the reception of a returning hero by the Los Angeles locals. Sadly the move appeared, in hindsight, to be little more than a public relations stunt by the Dodgers, to ingratiate themselves with the locals.

By the time that the expansion draft occurred for the 1961 season Bilko had been demoted back to the minors by the Dodgers and had a brief but unsuccessful Major League return with the Detroit Tigers. At 32 years of age the Angels of the American League gave Bilko one last shot at the majors and a dream return home to his beloved Wrigley Field. When named in the opening day line up Bilko became the first player to play for both Angels teams. In the inaugural 1961 season Bilko appeared in 114 games and hit 20 home runs, 11 of them at Wrigley Field, including a homer that cleared the left field wall on the very last game played at the stadium. Perhaps most fittingly of all Bobby Grich recalled his days as a young fan of the Pacific Coast League Angels and said that Bilko “was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.” Bilko passed away in March 1978 at just 49.

If you would like to share your own memories of how you became an Angels fan, about Britain’s own baseball heritage or your view on anything Angels related for Views Over the Pond please get in touch.

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