Just as a reminder of how popular the late 1950s slugging first baseman Ted Kluszewski was in Cincinnati, when he starred for the Reds, his widow Eleanor is scheduled to appear at the team’s Hall of Fame to greet fans on July 7.
“Klu,” as he was nicknamed, was famous for his towering home runs, his surprisingly fancy footwork around the bag, and for chopping off the sleeves of his uniform jersey to better display his large biceps. Oh, and he is a member of the team’s Hall of Fame, if not the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Kluszewski, who died in 1988, was wildly popular throughout different areas of the Midwest, but for different reasons. He grew up in the Chicago area. He was an All-Big Ten football player at Indiana University (he is also in the Hoosiers’ Athletic Hall of Fame), and he helped upgrade mediocre Reds teams to good ones, then as a hitting coach helped make the very good teams of the 1970s into great ones as the Big Red Machine.
Klu had a head start on winning the hearts of Chicago sports fans, being from the area, but in 1959 he was the Chicago White Sox’s hitting star in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers when the Sox won their first American League pennant in 40 years. Chicago did not win the championship that year, but Kluszewski was not to blame.
To know Kluszewski was to like him and to watch him when he was with your team was to love him–until he incurred a back injury that first limited his power production and ultimately cut short his Major League stay (1947-61).
A large man, especially for the times, Klu measured 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds (he was over 240 playing football and sometimes in off-season). Sometimes when he smashed a pitched ball it traveled so far that it had to be tracked by telescope. Given his focus on college football, it was an upset that Kluszewski became a big leaguer at all, but his natural skill at the plate impressed scouts. He had a great eye at the plate, not just a power swing. Considered raw, he started out in Class A in 1946 and promptly batted .352. The next season he hit .377 at AA Memphis and before the end of that 1947 season he was wearing a Reds outfit for the first time.
Klu spent the next 10 years with the Reds, three times mashing more than 40 homers in a season with a high of 49 in 1954 when he also drove in 141 runs and batted .326. He was a four-time All-Star. When Cincinnati Reds fans suggest that current first sacker Joey Votto is the team’s best-ever at the position, they are basically comparing him to Klu.
“He’s a great gate attraction,” said Cincinnati general manager Gabe Paul of why other teams were always trying to trade for Kluszewski. “But more important than that, he is a winning ball player. He wants to beat you.”
Given what occurred later during baseball’s steroids era with the explosion of home runs, it seems almost quaint that sports writers viewed Kluszewski as a threat to Babe Ruth‘s then-record of 60 in a year when he cracked 49. He was frequently asked if he wanted to break the mark.
“Do they expect me to say no? Kluszewski said. “Sure I’d like to break Ruth’s record. Who wouldn’t? But I certainly will never deliberately set out after it. Heck, it’s tough enough when you’re not thinking about it, let alone constantly having it on your mind.”
In that ’59 Series Kluszewski batted .391 in six games, with nine hits, three of them homers, and 10 RBIs. No wonder he is also fondly remembered on the South Side of Chicago.
Except in communities where he made his mark, Kluszewski is a somewhat forgotten player, terrific during his era, but with the passage of time somewhat overlooked. Author William A. Cook hopes to remedy that with the recent publication of his book, “Big Klu: The Baseball Life of Ted Kluszewski.”
There are numerous superb ball players who aren’t as well-remembered because they were just shy of Hall of Fame-caliber and Kluszewski is one of them. The book can only help aid the reputation of a fine player in the cities that didn’t see him up close during his heyday.