DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY
In which I open the encyclopedia to a random page and riff on what I find. Today: Steve Bilko edition.
This profile came out a lot longer than I intended. My intention for DPOTD was to do mostly quick profiles, but I was having so much fun that I wrote a longer story without really trying. Between that and my having just been poured off the train back from Baltimore and our talk with Andy MacPhail, we'll suspend the additional notes today. I'll have some comments in response to some comments by the man rebuilding the Orioles in tomorrow's installment.
Steve Bilko 1B 1949-1954, 1958, 1960-1962 (1928-1978)
Steve Bilko had finally figured it out. A power hitter of great promise, he had made the majors at just 20 years old, but was overmatched. Gamely, he took stock and tried again. Given a small audition over two seasons, he hit spectacularly well, batting .282/.388/.528 with 25 doubles, 25 home runs, and 83 walks in 552 plate appearances. Unfortunately, he was 33 years old and his career in the bigs had run its course.
“The Paul Bunyan of the Bushes” and “The Sultan of Swat in the Grocery League,” Bilko was officially 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, but was actually much heavier, with a bit of a double-chin. After he retired, he claimed his top playing weight was 270, but he played his best at 254. He was a big guy, and people noticed. Time wrote that “of his speed afoot, it has been hazarded that if a race were to be run between him and an oak tree, the smart money would ride on the oak.” Even Former President Dwight Eisenhower once took the opportunity to drop in on Bilko during spring training and mock his weight, estimating him to be about “30 pounds” over and suggesting that George Halas could use him for the Chicago Bears and praying that Bilko never sat on the first base bag. Bilko was moderately famous for taking steam baths to lose weight—in his hotel room. He would stuff towels under the door, get a hot shower going in the bathroom, and… Bilko was very sensitive about his weight, answering questions about his size by saying he was over 200 pounds but under 300. “That’s the first thing everyone says to me,” he complained.
The Cardinals signed Bilko at 16, and he had a brief professional debut that season, going 1-for-1 for Allentown of the Interstate League. The next year he played a full season, primarily in the Eastern Shore League, and hit .274 with 28 doubles and 12 homers in 442 at-bats, something that surely would have excited prospect mavens today. Moving up to the Carolina League at 18, he hit .338 and slugged .610. At 19, he hit .333 and slugged .562 with 20 homers in the Piedmont League. Finally, at Rochester of the International League as a 20-year-old in 1949, he hit .310 and slugged .596 with 34 home runs. This was a monstrous prospect, and not just because of his size.
The Cards gave Bilko a cup of coffee in September, 1949, but oddly were in no hurry to give him an extended trial. At this time, they were playing some of the worst first basemen you can imagine. Although they had Stan Musial, the Man was spending most of his time in the outfield, leaving the gateway in the possession of Nippy Jones (.270/.309/.388 from 1948-1951), Rocky Nelson (.234/.292/.336, 1949-1950), and Dick Sisler (the best of the lot at .261/.312/.411 in 1952). From 1950-1952, Bilko spent most of his time in Rochester.
The Cardinals and manager Eddie Stanky finally saw fit to start the now 24-year-old Bilko in 1953. It did not go well. Bilko hit .251/.334/.412, was colder than that in the second half, and struck out a league-leading 125 times, too close for comfort to the major-league record, which at that time was 134 by Vince DiMaggio. It seemed like he just couldn’t hit a major-league curve. The Cards cut bait, selling Bilko to the Cubs in April, 1954. Bilko spent the year on the bench, sitting behind another miserable first baseman, Dee Fondy. Then it was back to the minors.
This trip, though, would be Bilko’s big break. The Cubs sent him to their Pacific Coast League farm team at Los Angeles, the Angels. The park, “Little” Wrigley Field, was a bandbox, perfect for his talents. He hit .328/.396/.572 with 37 home runs his first season there, and the town fell in love with the big man. He saved his best for his second year, helping the 1956 Angels become the last minor league pennant-winner for Los Angeles before annexation by the major-league Dodgers forced the PCL to abandon the city. Bilko played in 162 games and hit .360/.453/.687 with 55 home runs. He scored 163 runs and drove in 164. According to a SABR journal article by Jay Berman, in the last week of May, he hit 10 home runs in 10 games. In 709 PAs, he took 104 walks and struck out 105 times. He was unanimously voted the league MVP. Major league teams inquiring as to his price were told that the bidding started at $200,000. Sports Illustrated calculated that at $833 a pound given a weight of 240. “This is a new Steve,” the magazine reported, “more relaxed, more obese, and completely resigned to the fickleness of fate. ‘When I hit ‘em I hit ‘em,’ he grunts, ‘and when I miss ‘em I miss ‘em.’”
Either no one bit on the high price or Bilko didn’t want to go—he was making more with the Angels than he would have made in the majors—and he had another huge year in 1957, hitting .300/.413/.659 with 56 home runs (and 150 strikeouts). Finally, the Reds bit. Bilko first was platooned with the journeyman George Crowe, then was replaced altogether by Walt Dropo, who was acquired in late June. Old teammate Dee Fondy was around to steal some at-bats as well. Perhaps Bilko saw the writing on the wall on June 8, when manager Birdie Tebbets pinch-hit Smoky Burgess for him when Bilko already had two strikes on him, claiming that the first baseman was duffering from “take-itis.” Later that month, he was traded to the Dodgers as part of a package for Don Newcombe. The Dodgers, newly arrived in Los Angeles, were bringing the local favorite home. He did a little light platooning, but Gil Hodges had a firm hold on first base. Back to the minors.
In 1959, Bilko, 30, hit .305/.393/.523 for the Dodgers’ PCL team at Spokane. The Tigers picked him up for the draft price of $25,000. “This is my best chance ever,” Bilko said. “If I don’t make it this time, I have no one to blame but myself.” He didn’t make it. Just before the season opened, the Tigers had traded for Norm Cash, but they hadn’t quite figured out that he was Norm Cash. Bilko got off to a slow start, batting about .145 through May (after hitting two home runs in the first four games, there was an epochal 5-for-55 cold snap). Cash got into the lineup, and the first base position was settled for about 15 years. Bilko, spending most of the second half of the bench, hit .207/.292/.396. “Up here you see a good pitcher every day,” Bilko told Time. “Down there, maybe only five in seven days. And down there are a lot of young guys who don’t know what they’re doing yet.”
This time, though, Bilko would not go back to the minor leagues. Baseball conducted its first expansion draft that winter, and the Los Angeles Angels figured they should take a shot at a Los Angeles PCL hero, and used the second-to-last of their 30 selections to take Bilko from the Tigers. The Angels played their first season in Wrigley Field, and Bilko, platooning with Ted Kluszewski and Lee Thomas, had his best season in the majors, one of two mentioned at the outset of this profile, hitting .279/.395/.544 in 354 PAs and performing well both at home and on the road. Pinch-hitting in the ninth inning on October 1, Bilko hit the last home run in the history of the ballpark.
In 1962, the Angels moved into Dodger Stadium. Bilko continued to hit well, at least away from the pitcher’s park, slugging .721 on the road. In August, though, he broke his toe and that was that. He headed back to the minors for one more season, then returned to his home on Honey Pot Street in Nanticoke, PA, becoming “an inspector of all incoming materials for the Dana Perfume Company.” He died in Wilkes-Barre in 1978, at the age of 49.