My lifetime love affair with baseball was often unrequited. A chubby kid in high school, I made the baseball team, but never cracked the starting lineup. I had a large collection of Mickey Mantle cards, but my first wife threw them out after our separation. I played softball well into my sixties, but by then I ran so slow, my baserunning was a huge team liability. (In a footrace, bet on the glacier.)
As an author, however, my love of baseball yielded a treasure trove. Five decades of reading, watching, and playing left me with material for a dozen novels. How to narrow my scope to a single book? While planning The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song, I went back to the essentials of my own failed infatuation—fat kid falls short.
And I remembered Steve Bilko.
Steve Bilko was a minor league slugging star who had two nice seasons in the majors—a pair of intriguing bookends to his largely unknown career. Bilko played most of the year for the Cardinals in 1953, hitting 21 home runs. But the Cardinals were never comfortable with Bilko’s weight. Manager Eddie Dyer put Bilko in a rubber suit to sweat the pounds off. Dehydrated, he could still knock a ball 400 feet. But when the Cards sent Bilko to the Cubs, he was demoted to the minor leagues, where he spent most of the next seven years.
During that time, Bilko hit more than fifty home runs in a season twice (55 in 1956 and 56 in 1957). Playing for the Los Angeles Angels, a team in the Pacific Coast League, Bilko was a fan favorite—so popular that the team was dubbed the Bilko Athletic Club. Phil Silvers named his CBS-TV con artist character “Sergeant Ernie Bilko” after big Steve.
Bilko had some interesting off-the-field skills. After a game, he would seal the motel bathroom door with towels and turn on steamy hot water so he could drink extraordinary amounts of beer without getting intoxicated.
Teammates and fans adored him. By all accounts, he was the nicest guy on the team—a regular guy from a coal mining town who happened to have a great swing.
Near the end of his career, Bilko was drafted by the expansion Los Angeles Angels. With just 294 official at-bats, Bilko had another 20-homer season. The following year, a leg infection landed him in the hospital, and soon, he was out of baseball.
Future all-star Bobby Grich said, “He was our Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams all rolled into one.” Bilko was elected to the Pacific Coast League’s Hall of Fame in 2003. So why was his major league career so short? Officially listed at 230 pounds, Bilko’s weight was certainly more. (According to Bilko, he was “between 200 and 300 pounds”). Teams didn’t believe in him because of his weight.
I wrote The Fat Lady’s Low, Sad Song thinking, in part, of Steve Bilko. I still have his 1962 Topps baseball card. He’s one of three men to whom I dedicated my novel. My protagonist, Parker Westfall, is a chunky, beer-loving first baseman who has a fabulous season for an Indy league team. Part minor league legend, part high school fat kid who never got off the bench, the fictional Westfall is the greatest hitter who never was.
Steve Bilko died in 1978, but in a happy twist of fate, his fictional counterpart is still unashamedly overweight, still hitting the long ball.
Thanks to the following sources:
The Bilko Athletic Club Blog, http://www.bilkoathleticclub.com/
Warren Corbet, Society for American Baseball Research