NANTICOKE — Life seemed normal for Steve and Tom Bilko when they would travel each summer from their Nanticoke home to southern California to visit their dad in the 1950s.
As normal as those visits seemed, there was nothing normal about their dad, Steve Bilko, who played for many baseball teams, most notably the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.
Bilko, who died in 1978 at the age of 49, was, according to the author of a new book, the Babe Ruth of the West Coast. Gaylon White has chronicled the amazing 1956 season of the L.A. Angels, and Bilko is the focal point of much of the book.
Titled “The Bilko Athletic Club,” a picture of the Nanticoke native adorns the cover of the book and one look at it tells you that this was one imposing slugger.
White grew up in Los Angeles and often attended games in Wrigley Field — not the one in Chicago, the one in Los Angeles, which was patterned after the home of the Cubs.
He and thousands of others were Angels’ fans. The minor league team was their major league team. There was no major league baseball west of St. Louis at the time. The Dodgers and Giants didn’t move to the West Coast until 1958.
“When Bilko arrived, we all became instant fans,” White said. “He was Babe Ruth to me.”
White said he remembers Bilko hitting tape-measure shots out of the park on a daily basis, it seemed. He said Bilko was “considerably bigger” than other players — not fat, but solid and big-boned.
In 1956, Bilko won the PCL Triple Crown — highest batting average, most home runs and most runs batted in — the same year Mickey Mantle of the Yankees accomplished the feat in the major leagues.
“Bilko was our boyhood hero,” White said.
White said no baseball player from the Sandy Koufax era through the Nolan Ryan era was ever as popular as Bilko.
“The Bilko name was magic,” he said. “There was Bilko-mania long before Beatlemania. More people in L.A. knew who Bilko was than Marilyn Monroe.”
White said Phil Silvers named his television character, Sgt. Bilko, after the slugger.
White said the Pacific Coast League Historical Society meets once a year. At a recent meeting in northern California, he asked how many in the room had seen a Bilko home run.
“Almost everybody raised there hands,” White said.
But there was something about Bilko, White said, that drew everyone to him.
Bilko’s last home run came off of Jim “Mudcat” Grant, who had faced him in the PCL and in the big leagues.
“Mudcat referred to Bilko as a Santa Claus type of guy,” White said. “He told me guys didn’t mind giving up home runs to Bilko because he hit them so far. He said it was a badge of honor to have Bilko hit one a country mile off of you.”
White said George Genovese, a 90-year-old baseball scout who signed Dave Kingman, Bobby Bonds and Gary Matthews, said he once saw Bilko and Frank Howard, a 6-foot-7 slugger who played in the major leagues for years, hit back to back homers.
“Genovese swears those two home runs were the furthest he had ever seen,” White said. “He said they traveled about a mile and a half.”
White said Bilko was the kind of guy everybody could relate to.
“He was introverted and shy, but he would stay at the park until he signed every autograph,” White said. “Gene Mauch (former Phillies manager) once told me you will never find anyone to say anything bad about Bilko. And he was absolutely right.”
While Bilko enjoyed celebrity status on the west coast, his family and friend back east, in Honey Pot and Wyoming Valley, were somewhat oblivious to his success.
“We called him Bilko the Great,” White said. “His name and picture were in the paper every day. He was idolized, and people were in awe of him.”
White said players who played with him and against him still talk with great reverence of Bilko. He said if Bilko were playing today, he would be one of if not the best power hitter in baseball.
“And he wouldn’t need steroids,” White said.
White said Bilko made $15,000 in 1956, his best year ever, and another $15,000 in endorsements. Mantle made $35,000 that year for the Yankees.
White came to the Honey Pot section of Nanticoke to interview Bilko in 1976, two years before his death. He said Bilko told him there was one guy he did enjoy hanging around with — legendary actor John “Duke” Wayne.
“Bilko told me he and John Wayne got along because Wayne was most like the folks in Nanticoke,” White said. “Bilko was a regular guy who preferred watching Lawrence Welk to the Hollywood fast living. He was just a very likeable guy.”
Steve, 63, and Tom, 62, Bilko remember their father as the man White described and how everybody, apparently, felt about him.
“We would go out to California every summer and we would meet all the players,” Steve said. “When we came back, we wouldn’t tell anybody much about who we met because they wouldn’t have believed us anyway. My dad was the same way. He kept most of California out of Nanticoke.”
Steve said he remembers a story his dad told him about a wealthy man he met in a bar in L.A. He said the man bought Bilko a drink and Bilko bought him one back.
“This rich guy came over and asked my dad what he was doing,” Steve said. “My dad told him that where he comes from, if a man buys you a drink, you buy him one back.”
Steve said the man gave Bilko a Cadillac to use when he was in California.
Steve said years after his dad retired, Gene Autry, owner of the Angels, invited Bilko to an old-timers’ game after the team became a Major League Baseball team.
“Mr. Autry told my dad that he could bring his whole family and he did,” Steve said.
Steve said the Bilko clan was treated like royalty by the Angels and the fans. He said when his dad was introduced at the game, there was thunderous applause.
“I think that was the moment we all realized how popular my dad was out there,” Steve said.
When Bilko retired he returned to Honey Pot and worked briefly for Woodlawn Dairy and later at Dana Perfume in Mountain Top. Bilko’s widow, Mary, lives in Honey Pot and currently is staying in Allentown with her daughter, Sharon.
Steve said the book makes him appreciate his father even more. Prior to Steve Bilko’s death he had one grandson, Steve’s son, Stephen, who Bilko idolized. And now Bilko’s grandson has a son, Stephen, who is 3 years old.
“He’s my dad,” Steve said of his grandson. “He looks like him, he’s built like him and even at 3, he has athletic ability.”
Tom Bilko is an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago, and he said he will never forget the memories of his father playing in California.
“We really didn’t realize what a big deal it was,” Tom said. “It was so routine to go out to the ballpark, into the locker room. We took it for granted, but always felt it was a privilege for us.”
Escaped the mines
Tom said his grandfather worked in the coal mines and his father was very appreciative that he never had to do that.
“My father appreciated the fact that he could make a living playing baseball rather than working in the mines or some other job,” Tom said.
Tom said he remembers seeing pictures of his dad with President Dwight Eisenhower and visiting at actor Chuck Connors’ house for cookouts.
“Dad never forgot his home,” Tom said. “He would tell us how when he visited different cities across the country, he would always try to make a connection with somebody from back home. He liked it when somebody with a Wyoming Valley connection was at one of his games.”