Today, many teams have a player just like him in their lineup, prone to the “three true outcomes,” – the strikeout, the walk, or the home run.
The bestselling book and Oscar-nominated movie Moneyball made heroes of his type. But in the 1950s and 1960s, Steve Bilko was seen as a one-dimensional oddity, and the Detroit Tigers never gave him an extended look.
He was one of the greatest minor league sluggers of all time. But by the time Bilko was picked up by the Tigers on November 30, 1959 in the rule 5 draft, he was a 30-year-old retread who had yet to prove he could hit big-league pitching with any consistency.
The Tigers were his fifth major-league club. Previously, the St. Louis Cardinals, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, and Los Angeles Dodgers had all given up on Bilko and his frequent strikeouts. His best year in the majors was 1953 with the Cardinals, when he’d hit .251 with 21 homers and 84 RBIs, to go with a league-leading 125 whiffs. In 344 games over seven big-league campaigns, Bilko had struck out 248 times, hit 39 homers, and batted .243.
Bilko was a prototypical slow-footed first baseman. To say that he was a below-average fielder would be charitable. Part of the problem was his weight. The 6”1’ Bilko was officially listed at 230, but that was a mere fiction. One spring training with St. Louis, “Stout Steve” showed up at 265.
But oh, those numbers he put up in the minors. Bilko had shown plenty of power as a young Cardinal farmhand. But it was as a member of the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League from 1957 to 1959 that he really raised eyebrows. Playing in the bandbox that was L.A.’s Wrigley Field, he had seasons of 37, 55 and 56 home runs, and averaged 143 RBIs. His OPS in 1956 was a Ruthian 1.140. The Angels became known as “The Bilko Athletic Club,” in tribute to their No. 1 clouter. Through it all, however, he still struck out too much, and because he was slow afoot and banged the ball so hard, he hit into far too many double plays.
The Tigers didn’t have much to lose by drafting “Sgt. Bilko,” as he was affectionately nicknamed. He was quickly slated to take over at first base. “It’s a gamble,” manager Jimmie Dykes conceded. “He’s only a fair fielder, but he should be able to reach our fences. He could help us.” Bilko showed up in Lakeland tipping the scales at 249, but Tiger GM Rick Ferrell seemed satisfied. “(It) is normal weight for him. To use his own words, it’s not ‘flabby fat.’”
On the first pitch he saw in his first batting practice of the spring, Bilko rocketed a ball far over the fence. Through the initial 10 games of Grapefruit League competition, he hit two home runs, four doubles, and one triple. Bilko, playing every day, had the best spring of his career. He led the team in hits, runs, RBIs, and, of all things, stolen bases, officially earning himself a bus ride north with the rest of the Tigers.
Bilko had a solid start to the 1960 season, hitting two long home runs and driving in four in the first week, as the Tigers won their first five games. Things quickly went downhill from there, for both the Tigers and Bilko. The team lost its next nine. Bilko had two hits in 29 at-bats during the losing streak, with no homers and only one RBI. As Frank Sinatra once sang, “You’re riding high in April, shot down in May.” That certainly applied to Bilko. In early May, Dykes decided to platoon the PCL star in favor of the club’s offseason acquisition, 25-year-old Norm Cash. “We’re not giving up on Bilko,” Dykes insisted.
But the truth was, Dykes was very high on Cash, and as the summer wore on he gradually turned over full-time duty to the Texan. By August, the Tigers insisted that Bilko shed some excess weight, which he did, reportedly losing 15 pounds. Bilko’s 1960 season turned out to be not quite what the Tigers had hoped for. Appearing in 78 games, he hit only nine home runs and drove in 25 to go along with his .207 batting mark. The highlight of his summer was on July 19: he earned $100 by winning a home-run hitting contest against the Senators’ Bob Allison at Briggs Stadium.
All told, four different men played first base for the Bengals in 1960: Bilko, Cash, and bit players Neil Chrisley and Dick Gernert. But it was Cash who made the most of his opportunity, to the tune of 18 home runs and 63 RBI’s. The next season, the slugging Cash would win an American League batting title in his breakout year.
At season’s end, the Tigers shipped Bilko to their Triple-A team in Denver. But there was still another big league organization willing to give Bilko a shot. In December, the American League’s newly-formed Los Angeles Angels, likely looking for a gate draw, made Bilko the second pick in the expansion draft. Before a more permanent home could be built, the expansion Angels played in Wrigley Field, Bilko’s old stomping grounds. He slugged 20 homers in 1961, but would play only one more season in the majors. Bilko finished his career in the Orioles’ chain.
Bilko, who had earned the moniker, “The Sultan of Swat in the Grocery League” died in 1978. His granddaughter, Barbara Bilko, played ice hockey for Ohio State University from 2008 to 2011.
A book about Bilko’s fabulous 1956 season in the Pacific Coast League, entitled The Bilko Athletic Club, was written by Gaylon H. White, and released in March, 2014.