By Scott A. Rowan
Don’t be surprised if you don’t remember former Cubs first baseman Steve Bilko. After all, he played only 47 of his 600 major league games for Chicago in 1954. Even so, his name may very well sound familiar, as he was the inspiration for the character known as Sgt. Ernest G. Bilko on the half-hour television comedy The Phil Silvers Show, which aired on CBS from 1955 to 1959.
Silvers played the main character, Sgt. Bilko, a con man in the army’s motor pool and a hustler who was constantly trying to make a little extra money on the side. The show was a critical success and lasted 142 episodes. What many may not realize is that the comedy material mined by Sgt. Bilko led to one of the most successful television comedies of all time, M.A.S.H.
In his autobiography, The Laugh Is On Me, Silvers explained why he and his partner, Nat Hiken, picked Steve Bilko as their inspiration for Sgt. Bilko:
“Since [Nat and I] were both sports fans, especially baseball, we used familiar names. Nat came up with Bilko, after a minor league player, Steve Bilko. It also had the welcome connotation of a man ‘bilking’ you.”
The writers based other characters on the show on real sports figures as well, including Private Paparelli (based on umpire Joe Paparella) and Corporal Barbella (based on Rocky Graziano’s real name, Thomas Barbella).
In 1954, the Cubs bought Bilko’s rights from the St. Louis Cardinals for $12,500. Bilko hit just .239 with 22 hits in 103 at bats and had a mere four home runs scattered over his 47 with Chicago. At the end of the season, the team sent him back down to the minors, where he spent the bulk of his 13-year career.
Other television characters have mythical connections to baseball players, but they came long after Bilko’s documented inspiration of Sgt. Bilko. Former Yankees catcher Yogi Berra claimed to be the inspiration for the cartoon character Yogi Bear, and nearly every Red Sox pitcher from the 1970s would like to think that he was the inspiration for handsome chick magnet Sam “Mayday” Malone on the popular show Cheers.
Phil Silvers and Robert Saffron, The Laugh Is on Me (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 204.
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