Saturday, December 2, 2017

Bingo to Bango to Bilko

Blogging about baseball cards for the past four years has been a wonderful and enriching experience.  Along the way, it's provided a needed outlet for me to discuss, critique, complain, show-off, and brag about my favorite hobby - trust me, my wife, siblings, and cats were not as receptive of an audience.  Most importantly, it's built a network of connections and relationships with fantastic and generous collectors, with whom I would have never made acquaintance, otherwise.  And it hasn't just been collectors, for that matter; additionally, I've been lucky enough to hold conversations with actual card manufacturers, as well.  Before setting up Wrigley Roster Jenga, that's something that would have seemed completely out of the realm of possibility to pre-blog me.

I've had exchanges with Topps on Twitter, been pimped on Ars Longa Art Cards, received generous donations from Gypsy Oak and so on and so forth.  I don't mean to sound braggadocious; rather, I just want to emphasize how much I am flabbergasted by and appreciate all of these previously impossible experiences.  On that note, just a few weeks ago, I made another connection with a name many loyal readers of Bob Lemke's Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards:  Carl Aldana.

 Right: 1970 Orioles.  Left:  1971 Yesterday Heroes.  Both scans borrowed from the internet.

Aldana made his name in the 1970's as the brains, talent, producer, and artist behind a handful of oddball collector's issues.  For example, his 1970 Orioles and 1971 Yesterday Heroes sets both appear in the go-to hobby bible.  There's also a checklist of players from 1950-55 San Francisco Seals that was produced by his hand in 1972.  Thus, as a devoted lover of all things oddball, his name definitely stuck out to me when I noticed it was attached to a few new sets floating around on Ebay a couple of months ago.

That's right, Carl Aldana was back after a 40+ year absence from the baseball card-making game with a new set of ideas.  Like his Seals-centric set from '72, these new cards also focus on the players from the glory days of the original Pacific Coast League; but, this time, there are checklists for multiple teams.  They also pay homage to the old Mothers Cookies sets that were contemporary to the time, with rounded corners and vividly colored backgrounds.  When I saw that needed Cubs All-Time Roster Collection target, Jim Adair, appeared in a collation of Seals, I pounced.

Prior to Aldana's return, the short-term Cub never had a proper baseball card to his name - thus, I couldn't let this opportunity to fill an otherwise impossible gap in my collection slip by.  As I mentioned in my original post about the Adair single, I certainly didn't regret my impulse, "if I didn't know better, you could easily convince me that these were whipped up by Topps or Panini as some sort of retro insert set - they are simply that well done."

As thrilled as I was with the find, I didn't think too much more about the experience.  So, imagine my surprise when, a few weeks later, THE Carl Aldana was commenting on my humble little blog!  It wasn't long before we were emailing, back and forth, discussing his work and our mutual favorite game.  In the course of our conversation, he even shared with me some samples of his non-baseball work, included some wonderful, water color impressions that he painted during his time spent in Chicago.  Speaking as someone who worked near most of the locations he visited, these are exceptionally well done:

My mind was further blown when Mr. Aldana, unprompted, generously informed me that he would like to send me another one of his cards, free of charge.  There's no way that I was going to turn that offer down - I mean, it would have been impolite not to accept it, right?

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon and a PWE showed up in my tiny, rectangular mailbox in the foyer of my apartment complex.  Within it was contained the wonderful card that tops this post... I'll show it again, down here, in order to refresh your memory:

As you can see, the subject featured in this go-round is the Los Angeles Angels' Steve Bilko.  The Angels were the Cubs longtime Pacific Coast League affiliate and Bilko was the recipient of a brief trial with the Cubs in 1954; however, he saw much greater success and stardom in the PCL, a league whose popularity nearly rivaled that of the Majors, before westward expansion (more on that later).  Similar to the rest of his PCL cards, this set also apes the design and look of the Mother's Cookies cards of the 1950's.  The only difference between the OG cookie cards and the above is that Bilko is standard-sized, which is a welcome change to this OCD card collector!

Additionally, this single is part of a larger checklist which pays tribute to the stars of the original Los Angeles Angels, which were owned by the Wrigley family and played in their own replica of Wrigley Field:

That checklist is conveniently located on the backside and, as of yet, is incomplete.  I'm extremely curious to find out what other names Aldana will use to fill out the final nine spots on this list.

Along with the checklist, the oddball mastermind has also included some nostalgic artwork drawn up by the immortal Otis Shepard, who handled the art which graced the covers of the programs for the Cubs and Angels for decades.  It makes for a nice touch to an already exceptionally fun piece.  Furthermore, like the rest of his PCL cards, Bilko is printed on thin, but sturdy card stock - just as God and Mother's Cookies always intended. I don't have one of those fancy, schmancy BCW card thickness point gauges, but they sure do seem like a match to my eyes and hands. Furthermore, they are also clearly printed by professionals - these aren't coming off of some lousy, ink jet printer, that's for certain.

 For reference, here's a pair of Mother's Cookies cards from my collection.

Bilko was already repped in my CATRC binder; but, since the Angels were a Cubs affiliate and my previous slot-holder does not feature him in a uniform that is anyway connected to the Cubbies, Aldana's gift will take it's rightful place in my nine-pocket pages.  It's truly an honor to have had the man behind the card himself gift me with a piece of his own work for my collection.

However, it should be noted that the man shown on the card is every bit as interesting as the card itself.  In fact, Angel's manager and former Cub, Bob Scheffing, once said that Bilko was a bigger name in Los Angeles than Marilyn Monroe - those words shouldn't be taken lightly.  So, with that in mind, let's take a deeper look into the career of this Pacific Coast League superstar.

Bilko during his brief trial with the Cubs in '54.
Image courtesy of The Bilko Athletic Club.

Steve Bilko was a towering first baseman, earning the nickname "Stout Steve" as an homage to his girth (6'1" 230 lbs).  The St. Louis Cardinals farmhand possessed light tower power and dazzled audiences in the Pacific Coast League throughout the 1950's.  Unfortunately for Mr. Stout, his "bang or bust" style never translated to Major League success.  In his first year as a regular at the game's highest level, Bilko managed to swat 21 homers with a .251 batting average and 84 RBI.  However, on the other hand, the first-sacker also lead the circuit in strikeouts with 125 (Aaron Judge scoffs, somewhere in the distance).    It was this tendency to K which kept Steve in that awkward purgatory between the Majors and the minors for the majority of his professional career.

My CCC reprint of Steve's '51 Bowman single.

After the Cubs purchased his rights at the beginning of the 1954 season, he saw 47 games of action on the North Side.  With Ernie Banks at short, Gene Baker at second, and Bilko at first, Cubs announcer, Bert Wilson, anointed the trio as the "Bingo to Bango to Bilko" double play combination - not quite as poetic as Tinker to Evers to Chance, but it sure is fun to say!  Despite the catchy phrase, the trio wasn't to last long.  After producing only 4 round-trippers with a weak .239 average, Bilko was demoted to the PCL at the end of the campaign.  That wasn't necessarily a bad thing though, as it was there that he would truly make his mark on our nation's pastime.

Assigned to the Los Angeles Angels, Bilko quickly adapted to his new surroundings.  All he did in 1955 was smash 37 home runs with a .328/.396/.572 slash line as he made mince meat of PCL pitching staffs.  The next year, he truly outdid himself by mashing an astounding 55 big flies for the original Angels, to go along with a Triple Crown and a positively video game-like slash line:  .360/.453/.687.  Fans filled L.A.'s Wrigley Field to get a glimpse of this prodigious slugger - it was truly must watch baseball.  As a swan song to his time with LA, "Stout Steve" again outdid himself by crushing 56 home runs, coming ever so close to breaking the PCL record of 60 (held by eventual Cub, Tony Lazzeri)

Bilko was a beast of a man.  Image courtesy of the Daily Herald.

For those three consecutive seasons “the Babe Ruth of the palm-tree division” was voted as the Pacific Coast League’s Most Valuable Player.  Despite this unprecedented show of power, Bilko was never again called up by the Cubs and was instead sold to Cincinnati in time for 1958.  The "Lovable Losers" instead preferred to stick with Dee Fondy as their first baseman.  Then again, the mid-century Cubs were not known for their excellent decision making...

Bilko spent another few seasons as a regular on the bench with the Reds, Dodgers and Tigers, sadly,  his PCL power never made the ascent with him.  Appropriately enough, Steve would have one last hurrah in Major League Baseball and it would come again in Los Angeles, this time with the American League version of the Angels, when he was selected in the 1960 expansion draft.  He was the first man to play for both the PCL and AL iteration of the Angels.

It was this '62 Topps card which previously held down Bilko's slot in my CATRC.

Back in the "friendly confines" of L.A.'s Wrigley Field, which served as a temporary home to the expansion club, the first baseman was given a regular assignment.  He rewarded him adoptive hometown with 20 homers, a .554 slugging percentage, and a decrease in strikeouts (only 81 K's) in 114 games.  At 33 years of age, it looked like Bilko might have finally adapted to MLB pitching.

Alas, it wasn't to be.  Though his bat stayed productive in 1962, his body began to betray him, with an infected leg cutting his season short and requiring a hospital stay.  Bilko was dropped back to the AAA farm club after training camp in '63 and retired shortly thereafter, bringing an end to the career of one of the game's most unjustly forgotten, yet momentous thumpers.  Eventually, Steve got some of the recognition he deserved by being inducted into the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame in 2003.

Before we go our separate ways, here's a few more fun, non-baseball related facts about the Los Angeles legend.  In September of 1955, Bilko's name was borrowed, in tribute, for a CBS-TV comedy starring Phil Silvers as Sergeant Ernie Bilko, a con artist in an army uniform; that TV show would later be adapted into a major motion picture, starring Steve Martin in the titular role. Furthermore, his granddaughter, Barbara Bilko, was a goalie for the Ohio State Buckeyes hockey team from 2008-11 - no word on if she was as hulking of a presence in the net as her granddad was at the plate.

Athletics obviously run in the Bilkos' genes.  Image courtesy of Citizens Voice.

And to think, we learned all of this just because of a random, thoughtful gift from a notable baseball card creator.  I thoroughly enjoying the process of spotlighting obscure baseball players!

Again, the most gracious of thank yous goes out to Carl Aldana, for seeking me out, the kind words about my little corner of the internet, for taking the time to converse with me, and (of course) for the fascinating free cardboard!  I highly recommend you check out some of Aldana's new work for yourself (and his old work, if you can track it down).  These PCL cards are available through an Ebay vendor by the name of thebaseballhobbyist, who has an exclusive deal to distribute Aldana's current sets.  Seriously, if you love oddballs, minor league history, or Mother's Cookies cards, there's no reason you shouldn't seek out a single or two for your own collection.

Here's hoping that this is the start of another wonderful relationship facilitated by my decision to blabber on and on online about baseball cards.  I still can't believe what this little project has blossomed into!


  1. A thoroughly enjoyable post! So much to say, but I'll keep it short:

    1) Those Carl Aldana cards look fantastic
    2) I love seeing old PCL uniforms. The Angels uniform on the Bilko card is particularly interesting
    3) I thought the subject line was a Gilligan's Island reference... In one episode a long-haired band called The Mosquitos came to the island to escape their fans, and the members of the band were Bingo, Bango, Bongo and Irving. I always figured it was sort of a riff on Ringo Starr, but it seems like it may have been a Steve Bilko reference... or both "Bingo-Bango's" were each a reference to something else.

  2. Very cool. As someone who dabbles in his own customs, I'm curious as to whether in your discussions with Carl if he's talked to you at all about the printing/manufacturing process for these.