As much as Gaylon H. White’s new book, The Bilko Athletic Club, revels in a historical and wondrous time in Los Angeles through the story of the 1956 Angels, his book also circuitously captures a history of my father and grandfather. As he relayed it to me, his father and my grandfather, both ministers in the LA area, often enjoyed days with their boys at Little Wrigley Field for a mere 50 cents per ticket, and proceeded to razz each other throughout all nine innings of every game. You see, my grandfather and father were Hollywood Stars fans and Gaylon and his father, Rev. Hooper W. White, were fans of the Angels. As he told me stories of their outings, I could imagine my grandfather smiling, joking and laughing his high-pitched chuckle, shoulders reaching towards his ears in short rhythmic spurts, as he poked and received fun, thoroughly enjoying the company of friends that felt like family. In talking about how the Pacific Coast Minor League rivalry between the Angels and the Stars extended from radio announcers to relatives, Gaylon writes, “The rivalry divided ministers and long-time friends, like my father and Rev. Eugene Robinson (that’s my grandfather). En route to a Stars-Angels game in Hollywood, Dad asked Gene, a diehard Stars fan, “How can you be a Christian and pull against the Angels?” (chapter 7, page 93, The Bilko Athletic Club).
But what excited a union between nearly all the folks of Los Angeles was the incredibly talented and beloved ballplayer, Steven Bilko. His grand size, his unyielding power at bat, and his humble, kind disposition captured the hearts and minds of just about everyone here, including young Gaylon White and Ronn Robinson along with their dads. According to Gaylon’s book, Bilko was recruited by Bill Sweeney to leave the Chicago Cubs and join the Angels at age twenty-six. It wasn’t long before, as 1956 Angels’ manager Bob Scheffling mused, Steven Bilko became more famous than the likes of even Marilyn Monroe. The CBS television show “You’ll Never Get Rich” starred Phil Silvers who bared the name none other than Sgt. Bilko. Hallmark even mentioned Bilko in a greeting card booklet featuring the Peanuts cartoon characters. He was the man of the times, and yet different from what might be expected of someone holding such celebrity status in LaLaLand. He was grounded, humble, even a home-body. White relays the reminiscing of Bilko’s former teammate, Joe Garagiola, in chapter one, “He had this young face and yet he was a hulk of a man. Even though he was big enough to move buildings, he wouldn’t crack an eggshell. He was a nice, gentle man. A big, lovable guy” (page 3). Perhaps it was the fact that he actually wasn’t glitzy, that Bilko caught the undivided attention of so many baseball fans, young and old.
At many junctions it has seemed as though I have spent periods of the last 20 years or so tracing the footsteps of my father throughout the LA area. And as I sat in The Fair Oaks Pharmacy & Soda Fountain in Pasadena with Gaylon and his lovely wife, Mary, (not far from one of the places my dad grew up) scooping out sinfully decadent ice cream sundaes straight out of the 50’s and chatting about Gaylon’s journey as a journalist, writer, son of an esteemed minister, and life-long baseball fan, I felt like I was entering into the era of my father’s youth. It was a magical moment for me.
Gaylon’s book The Bilko Athletic Club brings to life an exciting and interesting time in LA, well in our country, really. Imagine this: My teenage father drove an even younger Gaylon White to a Spring Training game in his little MG, complete with a Playboy Bunny symbol on the grill, all the way from LA to Palm Springs, so that Gaylon could interview Dean Chance for his El Monte Herald column entitled Athlete’s Feat. You can actually read Dean’s recent reflections in The Bilko Athletic Club. Anyways, who shows up to see the Angels, but former President Dwight Eisenhower. They snapped a picture of him with an Instamatic camera as he stood by the dugout, and then my father (always thinking quick on his feet) bounds straight down the stands and chats with Ike for a few minutes, emerging with Eisenhower’s signature on his Coast Guard calling card. Those were the days, right?
I find it amazing that Gaylon began his writing career as such a young journalist, writing for a newspaper no less. It’s no wonder that he was able to write such an incredibly rich historical story in The Bilko Athletic Club. Years of diligent, detailed journalistic research enabled the creation of his recent project, evidenced upon every page. Throughout his process of questioning, researching, interviewing and contemplating, it is the human condition that has been highlighted for Gaylon, and in turn, also for his readers. He states in his introduction, “The Bilko Athletic Club is a story of success and failure -what the ’56 Angels accomplished together as well as what happened to them later in their careers. And the best people to tell this story were the players themselves” (page xxi). When I asked how the project and process has changed him, Gaylon responded reflectively, “I think it’s still changing me.”
Throughout Gaylon’s book readers learn about the tremendous career and character of Steven Bilko, hear the voices of his teammates, managers, news reporters and other American baseball players, and are exposed to the great history of baseball in Los Angeles prior to the height of the 1956 Minor-league Angels to their final days and takeover by the Majors with the Dodgers. White seamlessly weaves in statistic after statistic and his dense catalogue of knowledge within each paragraph. And yet, the characters and the time period burst to life through the array of voices portrayed in his literary work. Shortly before Bilko’s untimely death at the age of 49, Gaylon interviewed him in his home, compelled by the question of why Bilko never made it in the Majors. Perhaps it was his sensitive and humble character. Maybe he simply didn’t have the bounding ego it takes to make it, as he and others have concluded. But, man could he hit that ball and steal the hearts of LA, including his teammates known as The Bilko Athletic Club. His own insatiable curiosity and motivating words of a dear friend prompted Gaylon to pick up his quest a few years back, leading him through a journalistic journey. He spent tireless hours at libraries, reading through archives and interviewing members of the ’56 Bilko Athletic Club, one by one. Late in their lives, the players opened up to Gaylon, perhaps in a way they might not of if he pursued this project years before. And perhaps, as he mused in the Pasadena soda shop, he might not have been able to listen the same if it all happened years before this time. It’s through those interviews that White was able to capture the voices of baseball in Los Angeles, stories of successful and failed attempts, insightful perspectives, heightened and deflated emotions and the fighting spirit it takes to pursue and achieve great dreams.
Troubled by reporters’ relentless prodding and questioning about his weight, Bilko finally made an attempt to fend them off by stating that he was anywhere between 200 and 300 pounds. Strangely, his physical build was not far from the typical physic of today’s ball players, but indeed different from the players of his time – except for maybe the likes of Babe Ruth, whom he was often compared to for multiple reasons. What I love about Bilko’s LA experience is that when he arrived from the Majors to the LA Minor-league Angels, he asked the ’55 Angels’ manager, Bill Sweeney, if he should concentrate on his weight or hitting the ball. Without hesitation, Sweeney completely embraced Bilko and allowed him to cast off the worry of his weight. And in turn, Bilko shined – powerfully. Gaylon writes about Bilko’s reflection regarding his time in LA, “It turned out going to Los Angeles was the greatest thing to happen to me…From that point on everybody knew, and I knew, that I could hit. I just hadn’t got the chance. In Los Angeles, I was just left alone” (chapter 1, page 2). The support that Sweeney gave Bilko really helped, him, Gaylon adds, “I figured, gee, this guy has faith in me that I’m going to hit. The season started and the first two games, I had two hits or something. Then I started to hit. Everything was coming along. I didn’t have to worry about weight anymore” (chapter 1, page 3). It’s amazing what one can accomplish with genuine support, belief and the freedom to fly.
Catch Gaylon on his book tour and pick up a copy for yourself or a baseball fan in your life. It’s not just a book about baseball or Los Angeles in the ’50’s, or the ’56 Angels, it’s a book about what it means to live.
“What would life be if it weren’t for the remembrances? We have the future of which we know nothing, we have the present, which is so close and moving so swiftly by that we can’t make much of it, but the past is as clear as our memories will allow. It’s the memories of the past that convince me how important what I am doing is in the present.” -Jack Hannah, brother of Joe Hannah, a catcher for the 1956 Los Angeles Angels (Dedication at the beginning of Gaylon H. White’s The Bilko Athletic Club)