Day 9: 30 baseball books in April, 2014 — The Bilko Fence Busters of ’56 get their due

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  • The book: “The Bilko Athletic Club”
  • The author: Gaylon White
  • Vital stats: Rowman & Littlefield, 326 pages, $38
  • Find it: At Rowman.com, at Powells, at Vromans, at Amazon.com.
  • The pitch: San Diego baseball historian Bill Swank has referred to this as the “West Coast version of ‘The Boys of Summer’,” and we’ll happily endorse that endorsement.
    White, a Society for American Baseball Research member and one-time sportswriter at the Denver Post, gathers all he can about the ’56 Angels, a lot of it inspired by research done in the past by author John Schulian and former PCL Historical Society president Dick Beverage.
    White writes from personal knowledge of having grown up in Ontario and El Monte in the 1950s, with Bilko’s Angels as the only real big-league club in L.A. until the Dodgers arrived a couple of years later. First-baseman Bilko hit 148 homers in three seasons with the Angels, inspiring the nickname for the team (as per the book title). He hit 313 homers in 1,553 games in the minor leagues from 1949-62. And he hit just 76 in 600 major-league games, seven with the with the Dodgers in 1958 and 28 with the Angels in 1961-62 before he was done at age 33.
    bilko1“Steve Bilko is a baseball legend for many reasons,” White writes in the intro. “He was as big as King Kong. He could belt a baseball over the Empire State Building. He could consume massive quantities of beer. He also epitomized players who went from mashers in the minors to marshmallows in the majors.”
    Then again, Bilko was so popular in L.A. that “his return in a Dodgers uniform in 1958 helped overcome stiff voter opposition to build Dodger Stadium at the desired location in Chavez Ravine when it became a model for future ballparks,” White adds. He also quotes Long Beach native Bobby Grich: “He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.”
    White thoroughly chronicles in detail the exploits of those ’56 Angels — Bilko’s 55 homers, 164 RBIs and .360 average, Gene Mauch’s .348 average, the exploits of hitters such as Casey Wise, Jim Bolger, Bob Speake, George Freese and Piper Davis, and pitchers like 21-game winner Dave Hillman, 19-game winner Gene Fodge and PCL strike-out leader Dick Drott. He interviewed Bilko before his 1978 passing, as well as 25 others from that team.
    White then circles back to Wrigley Field in L.A. and runs into Mike Garcia, president of the Wrigley Little League in South Central — who we met in 2009 when revisiting the place 40 years after it was demolished.
    It bright to mind the time in 1956 when Bilko hit a tape-measure home run “but didn’t hang around after the game for the measurement ceremony that determined the ball traveled 451 feet,” White writes. “Steve rushed home to babysit his three kids so Mrs.Bilko could have a night out.”
  • More to know:
    = More photos at BilkoAthleticClub.com
    = The book’s impact on bringing fame again to Dave Hillman, from the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times News
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