Thursday, April 27, 2006

Steve Bilko

Once hailed as “the next big name in baseball,” Stephen Thomas Bilko posted Ruthian-type numbers in the minor leagues but failed to live up to expectations in the majors.

Originally signed by the St. Louis Cardinals at the age of 16 in 1946, Bilko made his big league debut three years later, after belting 34 home runs and driving in a league best 125 runs for the Rochester Red Wings of the International League.

However, Bilko did not crack the Cardinals’ regular lineup until 1953. That season he belted 21 home runs and knocked in 84 runs, while striking out 125 times, only nine shy of Vince DiMaggio’s major league mark at the time. In 1954, Bilko reported to spring training overweight, lost his starting first base job, and was sold to the Chicago Cubs shortly thereafter for $12,500. He rarely played that year and was released at season’s end.

Undaunted, the hulking slugger traveled west and joined the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. For the next three years, Bilko terrorized PCL hurlers. In 1955, he batted .328, drove in 124 runs and belted a league-leading 37 home runs. For the pennant-winning Angels in 1956, he won the Triple Crown, batting .360 with 55 home runs and 164 RBI. In 1957, he clouted a league-leading 57 homers and 140 RBI, and batted .300. He was awarded the league’s Most Valuable Player award after each season.

“Stout Steve” decided to give the big leagues one more shot in 1958 and signed with the Cincinnati Reds for ____. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 15th along with pitcher Johnny Klippstein for pitcher Don Newcombe.

A fan favorite in Los Angeles, Bilko batted a meager .208 but did show some pop as he slammed seven home runs in 101 at bats. But he was back in the PCL the following year, where he led the league with 92 RBI while playing for the Spokane Indians, the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate. He spent the 1960 season as a bench-warmer for the Detroit Tigers, and was selected in the 1960 expansion draft by the American League’s Los Angeles Angels. In 1961, Bilko clubbed 20 home runs in just 294 at bats, while playing half of his games in the friendly confines of Los Angeles' Wrigley Field, the ballpark where he had his greatest success. [He / Bilko] played one more season with the Angels, before wrapping up his professional baseball career with the _________ ___________ of the _________ League in 1963.


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