Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: The Bilko Athletic Club

Many American men of a certain age — I'm talking about early Baby Boomers — received as much or more of their early education from reading comic books, record album liner notes, and the backs of baseball cards as they did from any textbook or classroom.

Superheroes, musicians and baseball players will always be more interesting than historical figures, no matter their contribution to society. Who wants to read about Christopher Columbus, Patrick Henry, Thomas Edison or Clara Barton when you can read about Spiderman, Bob Dylan or Ernie Banks instead?

Baseball cards were a storehouse of all kinds of useful information, especially when the card manufacturers put the players' complete major and minor league statistics on the back of the card. Minor league stats were especially revelatory. We all knew, for instance, that Babe Ruth held the major league record of 60 home runs in a single season, set in 1927 and broken by Roger Maris in 1961. The Maris-and-Mantle home run chase played out in the national media. Everyone knew about that.

What we didn’t know, but learned from the back of baseball cards, was that someone named Joe Bauman hit 72 homers for Roswell in the Longhorn League (the Longhorn League?) in 1954. And that Dick Stuart, the infamous Dr. Strangeglove of the 1962 Mets, hit 66 homers for the Lincoln Chiefs of the Western League in 1956.

Until expansion in 1961, there were only 16 major league teams and 400 major league players, and we knew them all. And in part because we collected their baseball cards, we knew a fair amount about each player. We knew, for instance, that Steve Bilko, a slugging first baseman who never quite stuck in the big leagues despite stops with the Cubs, Reds, Dodgers, Cardinals, Tigers and Angels, tore up the Pacific Coast League, batting .330 with 75 doubles, 148 home runs and 428 RBIs in 488 games in three years with the Los Angeles Angels from 1955-57. Those stats, included on several of his baseball cards, jumped out at us.

Baseball cards were not perfect, however. Limited to about 12 or 13 square inches, they could tell us Bilko's stats, but virtually nothing of the Pacific Coast League. Those of us living along the Eastern Seaboard, for instance, had no idea that for fans on the West Coast, with the nearest MLB team 2,000 miles away, the Coast League WAS baseball. We had no idea that the PCL was different from other minor leagues, that beginning in 1952 the league was given an "open" classification by the National Association. That meant the league officially was better than Triple-A but not quite major-league caliber.

Many really good players enjoyed outstanding careers in the Coast League, and PCL players often requested and were granted clauses in their contracts making them ineligible from being drafted by Major League Baseball. The money in the PCL was good, the cities were first-rate (five of them now have major league teams), and the living was easy. Why sit on a major league bench in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Detroit when you could be a starter and make better money in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle? Why, indeed, and many PCL players asked themselves that very question. Many got promotions to the big leagues but often welcomed the return trip to the PCL as anything but a demotion.

Gaylon White's new book — The Bilko Athletic Club, The Story Of The 1956 Los Angeles Angels — goes a long way towards filling in many of the remaining blanks we may have had about the Angels and the old PCL. Based loosely on the same format as Roger Kahn's classic The Boys Of Summer, The Bilko Athletic Club focuses on the 1956 Angels, known in LA at the time as The Bilko Athletic Club because of Bilko's on-field exploits, but also gives excellent anecdotal background on the rest of the Angels roster and the Coast League of the mid-1950s.

Numerous stars and Hall of Famers passed through the PCL on the way to the big leagues, including Joe and Dominic DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Ferris Fain, Frank Crosetti, and Mudcat Grant. Many others were journeymen, like Bilko, who enjoyed tremendous success and stardom on the coast but just couldn’t quite make it work in the majors. For a brief time, Bilko was the PCL's Mickey Mantle. In 1956, he won league MVP honors after leading the league with a .360 average, 163 runs scored, 215 hits, 55 home runs and 164 RBIs. The ’56 Angels cruised to the PCL pennant with a 107-61 record, 16 games ahead of second-place Seattle.

White, who grew up in LA in the 1950s rooting for the Angels, contends early on that the '56 Angels were one of the greatest minor league teams ever, and were the last great PCL club. His first assertion is subject to debate. He presents a pretty convincing case for his belief, while also devoting considerable copy to dissenting opinions. As for his second point, he's no doubt correct. With the major leagues already making overtures to West Coast cities, the Pacific Coast League was in a period of noticeable decline by 1956. Two years later, the Dodgers and Giants arrived from New York, forcing the PCL out of LA and San Francisco, its two largest markets. Three years after that, an American League expansion team moved into LA and even took the name Los Angeles Angels, giving LA two MLB teams and the West Coast three. As for the PCL, well, its time as the only show on the coast was over. The league morphed into just another minor league after that. Until the big leagues invaded, however, the PCL was special, a colorful circuit with a fascinating history and a captive audience thousands of miles from the nearest MLB market. The 1956 Angels were the PCL's last mighty roar.

The Bilko Athletic Club at times reads like an oral history. Relying heavily on a multitude of interviews conducted with dozens of former players over several decades, White weaves a narrative brimming with great baseball stories, many of them built around the kind of hyperbole and exaggeration you tend to get when old ballplayers get together to relive their glory days. White focuses on Bilko, for obvious reasons, but he devotes lengthy passages and chapters to many of the players and coaches who populated the Angels' mid-1950s rosters. Of particular interest is the number of future major league managers, coaches and front-office execs who played for the '56 Angels, including Gene Mauch, Jim Fanning, Eddie Haas, Johnny Goryl and Red Adams. Not all of them get their own chapter, but White still brings them all to life.

The Bilko Athletic Club makes excellent reading. The narrative kind of jumps around at times, but this is never a problem since wherever White takes the reader, entertainment is certain to follow. The storytelling may be non-linear at times, but just enjoy the ride. This book should be must-reading for any fan of minor league baseball and its history.

You can purchase copies of The Bilko Athletic Club at White's website,

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