|(Image from "When it was a Game")|
Had I been born ten years earlier, I most surely would have become interested in the Cincinnati ballplayer named Ted Kluszewski. Yes, the last name is rather a challenge to spell. He deserves to be remembered better than he is. Maybe the confounding spelling of his last name was an impediment. We learn that he was the first player to appear in a game with his name misspelled! He had a backwards "z" and an "x" instead of the second "k". Some mischief, maybe.
I was marginally aware of this slugger named Kluszewski until doing some research. I had been aware of him because of one trait. That trait was based on his appearance. I remember seeing photos of the guy with bare arms. Considering his specialty as a long-ball guy, he must have had appreciable muscles. Oh yes he did. So he came off in those photos as rather like a professional wrestler.
What was behind that? Turns out the motivation was not cosmetic. Soon after he joined the Reds in 1947, he cut off the sleeves of his uniform, an act not exactly approved by the front office. He did this because he felt the tight sleeves constricted his large biceps and shoulders and interfered with his swing. "Klu's" reputation as rather a "he-man" grew.
Leo Durocher was asked to name five of the strongest players in baseball. He complied but neglected to cite "Big Klu." When informed of this, Leo said "Kluszewski? I'm talking about human beings."
An N.L. standout in the '50s
Mention of Big Klu prompts nostalgia about the 1950s. He became quite the symbol. He was named to the National League All-Star roster from 1953 through 1956. He was a career .298 batter with 279 home runs and 1,028 RBIs in 1,718 games. The mid-1950s saw Kluszewski produce home run totals of 40, 49, 47 and 35. Most Killebrew-like. His RBI harvest was a tremendous 141 in 1954.
He is distinguished from our Killebrew by his ability to hit for an impressive average. He hit over .300 seven times while wearing the red of Cincinnati. He was in the top ten in average in each of those mid-'50s years. Fielding? Big Klu led N.L. first basemen in fielding percentage five straight years: 1951-55.
So why isn't he in the Hall of fame? The bugaboo of injuries started taking a toll. Longevity is an important factor in Hall consideration, maybe too big a factor IMHO. I'm smarting over Tony Oliva not being in the Hall. Oiiva could have redeemed himself by doing better in post-season games.
Kluszewski had his uniform number 18 retired by the Reds in 1998. He bounced around a little after leaving the Reds. He went to Pittsburgh. Then came a more significant chapter with the American League's Chicago White Sox when the Sox were impressing. The White Sox in fact won a rare pennant for them, in 1959. They faced the Los Angeles Dodgers who were in their still-new surroundings of L.A. (from Brooklyn). Game 1 of the Series saw Kluszewski hit two home runs and drive in five in an 11-0 win over the Dodgers. But the Dodgers won the Series. Kluszewski hit .391 with three home runs and ten RBIs in the Series.
Automobile mogul Jim Moran offered a free car to any White Sox player who hit a home run in that Series. Kluszewski got three original 1960 Ford Falcons!
Getting Angels going with a bang
The slugger wasn't yet through having impact. I was not aware until researching that he was no small part of the 1961 Los Angels Angels story - the first year of that A.L. franchise. I thought I was quite well-versed on that team - I have even written a song about it, inspired by player Albie Pearson: "Albie Pearson Got It Done." But I didn't know until recently that Kluszewski had a role worth noting. While his season-long productivity was not impactful, Big Klu was sensational in the season opener on April 11. The Angels were playing on the road at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. He socked two home runs off Milt Pappas as the Angels won 7-2. He would finish the season with 15 home runs and 39 RBIs in 107 games.
He finally retired, having left a mark on the game that really seemed Hall of Fame-worthy. He went into coaching where his work was well-received. Heart problems caught up to him. He underwent emergency bypass surgery in 1986 and survived for two more years. He left us too soon at age 63. His famous 15-inch biceps survive on baseball card images, endearing him to us all. He is often cited as one of the most underappreciated players of the post-World War II era. You might say he was the original "Big Red Machine," the name that would be coined in the '70s: the Pete Rose/Joe Morgan era.
"Klu" is locked within the Eisenhower era in our memories. He was part of the great wave of post-WWII players, celebrating normalcy in world affairs. The boys were back! The war was a factor in Kluszewski choosing baseball over football. The Reds did their springtime training in Indiana because big league teams were forbidden to train in the South. Klu was in the neighborhood and he was invited to take some swings at batting practice. Remember the scene where "Roy Hobbs" got his first chance to impress in the movie "The Natural?" Remember how the fictional Hobbs launched rockets into the deep outfield seats? This is exactly what happened when Kuszewski got his chance. Observers were wide-eyed just like Wilford Brimley. Balls sailed over an embankment nearly 400 feet away. Klu was offered a $15,000 contract, a lot of money then, and he accepted.
Bring on the bare arms
Once getting established in Cincinnati, Klu opted for his "fashion statement" that would become famous, with the cut-off sleeves. This is the image that got my attention and prompted some song lyrics I recently penned about the big guy. Will I have the song recorded? I'm not sure. I have written much poetry and lyrics in a topical vein. We'll see.
My song is called "Ted Kluszewski Arms." The song structure is AABAABA with "B" standing for bridge, for you neophytes. I'm pleased to share the lyrics here:
He could hit the baseball