- The Bilko Athletic Club: The Story of the 1956 Los Angeles Angels by Gaylon H. White
Old-school baseball fans reminisce about the bygone years when St. Louis marked the Major Leagues’ western and southern terminus. But one subset of that breed might object, citing the presence of a semi-independent “third” major, the Pacific Coast League (PCL), whose teams populated the Far West between the 1920s and 1950s. Major League Baseball recognized the PCL as an “open” league in 1952, distinguishing it from the Class D to AAA ladder and granting its players the right to opt out of its annual draft.
Gaylon White, a former sportswriter turned freelance researcher, is a lifelong fan of the PCL and, more specifically, the Los Angeles Angels. Not those Angels—the ones who are but aren’t from Anaheim—but rather their original, PCL incarnation. White attended games with his father as a child then spent years interviewing players from the 1956 team, which he identifies not only as one of the greatest-ever minor league teams but also as the [End Page 153] center of a vibrant subculture of baseball fandom. Their heart, and the heart of White’s book, was Steve Bilko, a slugging first baseman who dominated the PCL yet barely made a dent in “The Show.”
White embraces a breezy, informal style that makes The Bilko Athletic Club feel like a gathering of old men swapping stories around a table. Like everyone’s childhood heroes, the 1956 Angels grow in the retelling, none more so than Bilko, who emerges as a Bunyanesque figure who swapped his axe for a thirty-two-ounce bat. Bilko’s home runs traveled five, no six hundred feet. Opposing pitchers quailed in his presence. He downed six-packs of beer while resting in the whirlpool after games. He was the Babe Ruth of the Bush Leagues, a man whose appetites were almost as great as his abilities.
White surrounds his hero with a colorful cast of supporting actors. The greats—Joe DiMaggio, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays—all briefly appear, but White is more interested in such obscure players as Hy Cohen, Windy Gale, and Dave Hillman, solid if unspectacular athletes who spent their careers pursuing a decent shot at the majors. For most modern fans, the only recognizable Angel is Gene Mauch, a hard-nosed second baseman who later enjoyed a long managerial career.
The Bilko Athletic Club works best as a loosely organized collection of anecdotes, but it does at least superficially address larger issues of interest to sport historians. Los Angelenos could watch their team play on that recent invention, television. Racial prejudice may have kept Angels utility man Piper Davis from making the big leagues; he spent his prime years playing for the Negro Leagues’ Birmingham Black Barons. The Angels, playing in the pre-Curt Flood era, had little leverage in determining where they played or how much they made. And, as White shows, Major League Baseball’s inevitable leap to the West Coast destroyed the old PCL, severing its unique connection with the region and scattering its players across an array of minor league franchises. The days of the minor league super-team had passed.
White provides an entertaining perspective on minor league life in the Eisenhower era. His decades’ worth of interviews produced some quality stories and character sketches. He does, however, tend to glamorize the past, insisting that his childhood heroes really played the game the “right” way. Implicitly, and at times explicitly, he contrasts the gritty, regular-guy stars of the 1956 Angels with the spoiled, aloof modern player. Besides being a caricature, such comparisons too often sound like grumpy nostalgia. White’s rather circular organization presents additional problems. Because most chapters revolve around an individual player, it is often difficult to grasp the 1956 season’s overall flow or to see how the Angels functioned as a whole. Instead, the narrative bounces back and forth in time, and some...