Monday, March 17, 2014


We have made it into the second display case in the Baseball Reliquary's landmark display of their symbiotic simpatico with Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi, where roughly one-fourth of the "orange crate art" canvases in the Unauthorized History of Baseball series are on display (Arcadia Public Library, from March 4 through April 29).

Here, with "Sgt. Bilko Brand", Ben finds more traction with two simultaneous popular culture references that literally landed on top of one another. Comedian Phil Silvers began a television comedy in the fall of 1955 about a lovable military con man; when hunting around for a name, it didn't take him (and show creator Nat Hiken) long to realize that hulking strongman Steve Bilko was the man with the magic moniker.

The entendre was unavoidable: Bilko was a local sensation for the Los Angeles Angels, one of two L.A.-based teams in the Pacific Coast League, hitting 37 HRs to lead the league.

Silvers' TV show became a national hit, and his baseball namesake upped the ante over the 1956-57 seasons by slugging 111 HRs over that time span. In '56, Bilko made a virtually complete sweep of the PCL's batting categories, leading in HRs (55), RBI (164), BA (.360), OBP (.453), SLG (.687), runs scored (163), hits (215) and total bases (410). The Angels won 107 games, finishing 16 games ahead of the second-place Seattle Rainiers.

Silvers met his namesake during that season, when Mickey Mantle was on a similar quest for the Triple Crown in the big leagues. A waggish Los Angeles writer suggested that a Mantle-Bilko presidential ticket was at least as patriotic as a vote for either of the actual candidates. (Mantle and Bilko, of course, were not eligible to run--they were too young, despite their prodigious ability to hit the long ball.)

After three stellar seasons in L.A., Bilko found himself purchased by the Cincinnati Reds (still calling themselves the "Redlegs" despite the demise of Joe McCarthy). Steve just wasn't the same hitter in the big leagues, but he did get back to L.A. that summer, when the Dodgers traded for him, eyeing Steve's potential for reaching the Memorial Coliseum's short porch. Bilko hit just .208, while Phil Silvers fretted about his declining TV ratings.

Bilko would finally return to the scene of his success, L.A.'s version of Wrigley Field, built to emulate the Chicago landmark when the PCL franchise was owned by the Cubs. He had a fine half-season for the AL expansion Angels in '61, hitting 20 HRs, including the last one hit in the quaint little park he'd starred in so spectacularly just a few years before.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Bilko had been off the air for more than two years.