Many of us derive pleasure from collecting the cards of our favorite player. Often, the player was childhood hero and/or a superstar like Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski or Willie Mays. However, this doesn’t explain my decision to collect Steve Bilko cards.
My fascination with Steve began after attending a Bilko presentation by author Gaylon White at a NWSABR chapter meeting. Subsequently, I purchased White’s biography, The Bilko Athletic Club, which chronicles Bilko’s struggles to establish himself as a productive Major League player, his PCL “halcyon days” and his many legendary drinking feats.
“Big” Steve developed an almost cult-like following in Los Angeles during the mid-50s, when he was racking up 50+ home run years for the PCL Angels at LA’s Wrigley Field. The bandbox ballpark featured absurdly friendly dimensions in left field, thus helping the “Slugging Seraph” cement his status as a long ball legend. Since the Angels’ games were telecast throughout Southern California, Steve’s power exploits made him as famous as a movie or TV star with the local populace.
Speaking of TV stars, most of you are familiar with the fact that Phil Silvers’ character in the mid-50s sitcom, “Sergeant Bilko,” derived his name from portly power hitter. The writers wanted to honor the man who had captivated Los Angeles.
The Cardinals originally signed Bilko in ’45–at the tender age of 16–and he made his major league debut in ’49. Steve’s first card appeared in the ’51 Bowman set. The colorized photo provides a good looked at his powerful physique. Also, Bowman includes Steve in the beautiful ’53 color photography set and in the toned down ‘54s.
Bilko’s gets his first Topps card in ’52 and continuing uninterrupted through ’55. In addition, he is paired with Bob Milliken on the strange Double Header set issued by Topps in ’55.
The Cardinals’ “brain trust” was concerned with Bilko’s ever-growing waistline and his penchant for striking out, resulting in his trade to Cubs in ’54. The classic “color tv” design of Bowman’s ’55 set seems to barely accommodate Steve’s girth. Unfortunately, Steve’s poor performance got him shipped to the AAA Los Angeles Angels, a Cubs’ affiliate
During Bilko’s three-year (’55-’57) stint as “the Babe Ruth of the Palm Tree Division,” no regional cards were issued for the PCL Angels. According to PCL historian Mark McCrae, a memorabilia collector and dealer, a ’57 team issued card set exists. I was unable to find an example.
After walloping 148 home runs in three years with the PCL “Seraphs”, the Reds decided to give Steve another shot at the majors. With George Crowe and Ted Kluszewski ahead of him, Steve was once again unable to break in as a regular. Topps brought Bilko back-after a two year absence-and produced a classic, airbrushed uniform photo on his ’58 card.
Midway in the ’58 season, the newly transplanted LA Dodgers acquire Steve-primarily to drum up fan interest for their fading ball club. Steve provides a thrill for his devoted fans by smashing a three-run homer in his first at bat in the Coliseum. He then settles into a part-time role with limited success. The ’59 Topps card shows a corpulent specimen swinging the bat at the Coliseum.
The Dodgers optioned Steve to AAA Spokane after the ’59 season, but he was picked up by the Tigers in the minor league draft. Bilko spends most of ’60 in Detroit, platooning with a young Norm Cash. This results in ’60 Topps card with a headshot taken at the LA Coliseum and an “action” photo on the Reds. Also, Steve shows up in the ’60 black and white Leaf Portrait set, which was recently examined in a post by Jeff Katz.
The American League’s expansion Los Angeles Angels couldn’t pass up an opportunity to bring Steve back to Wrigley Field (LA) in hopes of rekindling his PCL magic. He hit 11 home runs at Wrigley with a total of 20 for the season. The ’61 card is a typical expansion team one, with a bare-headed Bilko wearing a Tigers uniform.
In ’62, Steve moved with the Angels to Dodger Stadium (Chavez Ravine) where he managed to hit only two dingers. However, his card was a “grand slam.” Taken during training, Steve sports the classic Angels jersey and cap. His image is that of a man who could hit the ball a “country mile.”
Also, during his time with the MLB Angels, Post Cereal produced cards for Steve in ’62 and ’63. The ‘63 was a career “capper,” since he didn’t play in the majors after ‘62. Additionally, a Bilko card could be found on JELL-O boxes in ’62 and ‘63.
Bilko is included in various oddball issues throughout his career. An Exhibit card exists from the early ’50s, picturing Steve on the Cardinals. He is in the regional Hunter Wieners sets in ’53 and ’54. Jay Publishing issues several Bilko photos in the early 60’s as did the Angeles concessionaire, Sports Services. Manny’s Baseball Land even issues a photo in ’61. Finally, in ’62, Steve can be found on Salada and Shirriff coins and in Topps’ stamp set.
Steve is the definition of the “cult” ballplayer. His notoriety and fan loyalty far outstripped his ability. It goes without saying that a man who can drink a case of beer without showing any signs of intoxication deserves a place in the cult section of baseball lore.
I highly encourage you to check out Warren Corbett’s BioProject piece on Bilko.