IT WAS LATE one evening in the spring of 1951, and all was not well at Ted and Eleanor Kluszewski’s home in Cincinnati. Ted, or “Klu” as the Reds big first baseman was affectionately known, was mired in a batting slump that threatened to derail his once promising career.
Big Klu had steadily improved every aspect of his game since becoming a regular with the Reds in 1948. When his fielding at first base was criticized (one sportswriter quipped, “he couldn’t catch a bear in a telephone booth”) Klu spent hours working with Hall of Fame first basemen Bill Terry and George Kelly to hone his craft. By 1951, he led all the league’s first sackers with a .997 fielding percentage. When he failed to crack the .300 mark his first two seasons, Klu worked on his swing and hadn’t batted below .300 since. And, when the Reds thought his broad shoulders and 15-inch biceps should deliver more home runs, Klu brought the power and went from 8 home runs in 1949 to 25 the next season.
Then came the slump of ‘51. All spring, Klu’s average was in freefall. Always a laid-back kind of fellow, Klu took it in stride, confident that he would eventually snap out of it. He even shook off the Reds strong suggestion he take more batting practice; Klu felt it would just make things worse. The Reds felt differently, and there was talk that the big first baseman was lazy or just didn’t care. And all the while the slump continued.
So, that spring evening in 1951 found Klu and his wife, Eleanor, talking about his slump. Eleanor was no slouch when it came to her husband’s chosen career – she had been a star softball pitcher and understood the game inside and out. Suddenly, Eleanor came up with an idea that would save both her husband’s and countless other ballplayers’ careers.
Back in 1947, the couple received a 16mm movie camera for Christmas. And, just like anyone else who received a movie camera, Eleanor began taking home movies. Mixed in with the family vacation shots and backyard barbeque vignettes, there was footage of her husband at bat long before the slump came along. Elenore dug out the reels of film, and the couple spent hours evaluating his pre-slump swing and taking notes. Klu originally thought his problem was over striding, but after reviewing the footage, the pair discovered that the issue was that he was falling away with his shoulders. Armed with this knowledge, Klu made the adjustment and hit .320 the next season. His career was saved, but the funny thing was, if it hadn’t been for an odd twist of fate, Big Klu wouldn’t have even had a baseball career to begin with.
ALTHOUGH HE GREW UP in Argo, Illinois, a town just a few miles south of Chicago’s Comiskey Park, it was football that dominated Ted Kluszewski’s early life. His parents were poor Polish immigrants who would both pass away before he was out of his teens. Klu knew a football scholarship was his key to a life away from the factories his father toiled in. When no scholarship offers materialized after high school, Klu worked in a corn refinery and played semi-pro football on the weekends. Finally, after two years of tough sandlot ball, Indiana University rescued him with the scholarship he craved.
As a freshman in 1944, Klu quickly established himself as one of the best ends in college football. It looked as if his future lie with the NFL, but an odd series of events would push Klu into a baseball career instead.
Because trains were needed to transport troops and supplies during the World War II years, major league baseball teams held their spring training close to the cities they called home. Thus, in 1945, the Cincinnati Reds held their spring workouts on the grounds of Indiana University. Before the team arrived, Reds groundskeeper Len Schwab was dispatched to get the playing field in shape. The university lent Schwab a few students to help, one of which was their star footballer, Ted Kluszewski. During breaks, Klu spent his time hitting baseballs. Schwab couldn’t believe his eyes as he watched the big kid launch ball after ball 400 feet or better.
When the Reds team arrived, manager Bill McKechnie saw for himself the awesome power of Ted Kluszewski’s swing. Though the Reds were sorely in need of new talent, McKechnie agreed with Indiana’s football coach Bo McMillin that they should let Klu stay in college. McMillin told his young star that however much the Reds tried to throw at him now, he would be worth twice as much in a year. The Reds were informed that if and when Kluszewski decided to pursue baseball, they would get the first call.
As a sophomore in 1945, Klu led the Hoosiers to the university’s only undefeated season and on to their first Big Ten football championship. Klu received first-team All-Big Ten honors from both the AP and UP, and pro football scouts circled around Indiana’s star end like buzzards.
But Klu had other ideas. Pro football was in its infancy, and salaries were not much better than a good union job. Baseball, on the other hand, was America’s game, and the salaries paid were much more attractive. On top of that, Klu wanted nothing more than to marry Eleanor Guckel, his high school sweetheart. A call to the Reds elicited an offer of $15,000 to sign and $6,000 for his first year. Klu signed on the dotted line, and a week later he and Eleanor were married.
THE NEXT TWO SEASONS were spent in the Reds farm system. His first stop was Columbia, South Carolina where he led the South Atlantic League with a .352 batting average. In between two short stints with the Reds at the beginning and end of the ’47 season, Klu hit .377 for the Memphis Chicks and won another batting championship. While his hitting was exactly what the Reds were looking for, his fielding was not. Growing up, Klu had always played outfield, but in pro ball that was out of the question due to his huge football build. It was decided that first base was his best option. Unfortunately, Klu found the adjustment challenging. It was during the ’47 season that a Memphis sportswriter scribbled the infamous line, “he couldn’t catch a bear in a telephone booth.”
Klu’s big bat made him a starter on the team in 1948, and his imposing physique quickly made him a curiosity throughout the National League. At 6-foot-2 and 230 lbs., Klu would fit right in with today’s ballplayers. But back in the 1940s and 50s, most ballplayers were athletic but lean, like a cowboy. By contrast, Klu looked every inch like the football player he was, and his strength became the stuff of legend throughout the National League. There is one story that sums up the way the Reds strong man was perceived by his contemporaries.
One afternoon, a sportswriter was interviewing Giants manager Leo Durocher before a game. The writer asked Durocher who he thought was the strongest man in baseball. Durocher thought it over and said, “I guess that Gil Hodges in Brooklyn is about as strong as they come.” “What about Kluszewski?” the writer asked. “Kluszewski!” Durocher exclaimed. “Hell, I thought we were talking about human beings!”
It was his immense size that necessitated the fashion statement that Ted Kluszewski would forever be identified with. When his 15” biceps strained against the confines of his flannel uniform sleeves and hindered his swing, Klu simply hacked off the sleeves and played in a makeshift vest. The Reds management wasn’t happy with the custom garment, but they couldn’t argue with the results.
ONCE HE AND ELEANOR straightened out his batting mechanics and put the slump of ’51 to rest, Ted Kluszewski blossomed into a super star. By now, all the work he put into his fielding paid off, and he would lead all NL first baseman in fielding percentage for five consecutive years – a major league record that still stands. His batting average rose along with his power numbers.
Klu’s home run production really exploded once the Reds adjusted their home park’s right field distance in 1953. However, that’s not to say he was hitting cheap homers. Until 1953, to hit a home run in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, a left-handed batter like Klu had to hit the ball 366 feet down the line and over a 15 foot tall wall. In 1953, the wall was brought in to 342 feet. One might think that those 24 feet were a massive advantage, but in reality, it still took a mighty slugger to clear the fence at Crosley Field. To put things in perspective, here’s a chart showing the distance down the right field line in each of the 1953 National League ballparks:
As you can see, even with the 1953 adjustment, Crosley Field still had the second deepest right field porch in the league. Those distances take on even more significance when you consider the Reds modern ballpark has a ridiculously shallow 325’ right field line.
As can be expected, Klu’s offensive production surged. His stats from 1953 to 1955 ranks among the greatest seasons ever assembled in the history of the game. During that stretch, Klu hit 40 or more home runs and drove in 100 or more runs a year. In 1954, he led the league with 49 homers and 141 RBI and just missed out on the MVP Award. In those three years, he averaged .319 and made the All-Star team every season. Remember, he also led the league in fielding from 1951 to 1955 as well.
Sure, there have been other ballplayers who have put together great three-year stretches. But what sets Kluszewski apart is his strikeout numbers. While most big league sluggers are known for a high number of strikeouts, Klu set a precedent for whiffing fewer times than both his home run and bases on balls totals. In fact, Klu is the only player in MLB history to hit 35 or more home runs in four seasons (1953-1956) while having fewer strikeouts than homers.
I know, throwing stats at you can get kind of overwhelming. Let’s look at it this way. Compare Ted Kluszewski’s best season, 1954, against the best single seasons from five household names:
Of those five career year stats, only Barry Bonds comes close to matching Kluszewski’s home run to strikeout ration. And even then, Bonds did so wearing an armored arm contraption that robbed pitchers from throwing high and tight or intimidating him with a brushback.
Anyway, enough with the numbers.
AS THE 1956 SEASON played out, it looked like Ted Kluszewski’s mug would grace a plaque in Cooperstown one day. There were even serious discussions among the sportswriters that Klu might be the man to give Babe Ruth’s hallowed 60 home run mark a run for the money. And it wasn’t just the writers – in a 1956 Sport Magazine article, Stan Musial, Hank Greenberg, and Duke Snider all voted Klu the only man who had a chance at the big six-o.
Then came the injury.
Klu’s huge physique, while imposing and rock solid, sometimes stood in the way of his success on the diamond. In his first few seasons, his broad “football shoulders” hindered his swing. And it took him years to learn how to best maneuver his bulky 6-foot-2 frame into making difficult plays at first base. Klu tackled those obstacles when they arose, but there was no stopping old Father Time. By 1956, the 31 year-old’s body began to feel the burden of supporting his Paul Bunyanesque frame. At first there was a hip issue. Then it was his back. Some said it was a slipped disk. Others opined that it was a ruptured vertebra. In the days before all-seeing MRIs, it was anyone’s guess.
The mystery surrounding the cause of his injury even spawned a tantalizing bit of baseball gossip. Early in the ’56 season, a rumor spread that Klu’s back had been injured in a clubhouse fight. Anyone who had met the big man knew that despite his size, brawling was the last thing he would be involved in; the phrase “giant Teddy Bear” was used most often to describe Klu’s temperament. Still, the story spread that the injury was inflicted when another player hit Klu across the back with a bat. The tale took on a more sinister racial cast when the player was reported to be Chuck Harmon, the first African American to play for the Reds.
According to William A. Cook’s biography Big Klu: The Baseball Life of Ted Kluszewski, the story probably originated with some playful banter between Klu and Harmon. In Cook’s book, Harmon recalled that he would sometimes use one of Klu’s heavy bats. One day after Harmon got 2 or 3 hits in a game, Klu jokingly snatched his stick from him, saying, “Give me my bat. You’re taking all the hits out of my bat.”
A little while later, when the players were walking out on the field, Roy McMillan teased Harmon that he shouldn’t let Big Klu get away with taking his bat away from him. Harmon said something like, “Hey, I wouldn’t go after Klu even if I had a bat in my hand.” It is thought that one of the fans lining the railings may have overheard this and misinterpreted what Harmon and McMillan were jiving about. Later in the year, when Klu’s back injury became widely known, the eavesdropper may have put 2 and 2 together and came up with a Harmon-Kluszewski fight scenario. Everyone from the Reds players and management to Ted Kluszewski and Chuck Harmon vehemently denied any fight had taken place. Still, the story wouldn’t die, and was even given some gas when Harmon was traded away later in the 1956 season.
The reality is that there was no single incident that caused Klu’s back problem. In a 2013 interview with WVXU, Eleanor Kluszewski simply states that no one knew how her husband hurt his back. But whatever it was, it effectively ended Kluszewski’s career at its peak.
As 1956 rolled on, Klu missed more and more games. Though he batted a solid .302 with 35 homers, this would be his last year as a starter. He played only 69 games in 1957 and was dealt to Pittsburgh where he filled in at first base and pinch hit.
KLU’S FINAL SWAN SONG came when he was traded to the Chicago White Sox at the end of August 1959. The Sox were fighting for their first pennant since 1919 and needed help at first base. Klu stepped in and immediately became a leader in the clubhouse as well as hitting close to .300 as the Sox won the pennant. In the World Series against the Dodgers, Klu was outstanding, hitting a robust .391 with three home runs and 10 runs batted in. Though the Sox lost to LA in six games, South Siders never forgot the hometown boy who swooped back into town to give their White Sox the pennant.
Kluszewski finished up his career with the expansion Los Angeles Angels, where he’s credited with hitting the first home run for the franchise. After he put his bats away, Klu returned to Cincinnati where he opened a chain of popular steak houses called Jack and Klu’s. In 1970, the Cincinnati Reds coaxed him back into baseball by naming him the team’s hitting coach.
THIS IS WHERE Eleanor’s inspiration back during the slump of ’51 comes full circle. While using film to evaluate a player’s swing was not new – White Sox manager Lew Fonseca experimented with the idea back in the early 1930’s – Klu was probably the first to make it a regular part of his job as hitting instructor. The Reds gave him a dedicated room in Riverfront Stadium where he was able to review footage on editing machines. As he told the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1975, “I can tell a player what he might be doing wrong, but you can be much more convincing if you tell him and then show him a film clip.”
Klu’s state of the art method is credited with helping Johnny Bench cut down on his strikeouts, helping Pete Rose get his batting average back above .300, showing César Gerónimo how to take the loop out of his swing, and convincing Ken Griffey that the cause of his slump was that he was pulling away at the plate. In the decade Klu was batting coach, the Reds fielded the most dominant offense in the game, winning six division titles, four pennants and two World Championships.
At the end of the decade, he transitioned to Cincinnati’s minor league hitting instructor, where he and his films helped mentor another generation of Reds stars. Unfortunately, Klu would not get to see his protégés sweep the World Series in 1990. In 1986, he suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery. The big man never fully recovered, and a massive coronary took his life shortly before the 1988 season.
* * *
I can’t say Ted Kluszewski is my favorite player, but I will say that I am drawn to him more than most.
For one, we’re both transplants who happily made their home in the Cincinnati area. He owned a steakhouse, and there’s nothing I love more than a nice T-bone. Then there’s the fact that no one outside of Chicago, North Jersey or Cleveland can spell or pronounce our Polish last names; just as Ted was universally known as “Klu,” most people know me as “Gary C.”
But, perhaps the main reason I’m drawn to Klu goes back to just after my wife and I were married in 2013. One evening, we went to a Reds game. Great American Ballpark is just a couple miles from our home, close enough that we can hear the cheering from our porch. While we were milling around the courtyard admiring the statues of the Reds greats – Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Ernie Lombardi – we stopped in front of the sleeveless, massive but smiling ballplayer holding a pair of bats: Ted Kluszewski. I told my wife that if anything ever happens and we are separated and can’t find one another, this is where we should meet. I just felt that, like my love for my wife, Big Klu would always be there.
NOTES: I refer to the Cincinnati National League team as the “Reds” throughout my story. In actuality, the team’s name was changed to the “Redlegs” in 1953 in the paranoid reasoning that “Reds” could be confused with communists, also called “reds.” Though it was never popular with fans, the team kept their anti-bolshevik nickname through 1959 when it was thankfully changed back. Because even the team’s hometown newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, referred to the team as the “Reds” during this period, I decided to keep the original nickname throughout.
Sharp-eyed viewers may also have noted the curious billboard design behind Kluszewski in his portrait – that is the logo for his restaurant chain, “Jack and Klu’s.”
This week’s story is Number 54 in a series of collectible booklets.
Each of the hand-numbered and signed 4 ¼” x 5 1/2″ booklets feature an 8 to 24 page story along with a colored art card attached to the inside back cover. These mini-books can be bought individually, thematically or collected as a never-ending set. In addition to the individual booklets, I envision there being themed sets, such as the series I did on Minor League Home Run Champions. You can order a Subscription to Season 5 as well. A year subscription includes a guaranteed regular 12 issues at a discounted price, plus at least one extra Subscriber Special Issue. Each subscription will begin with Booklet Number 054 and will be active through December of 2022. Booklets 1-53 can be purchased as a group, too.
3 thoughts on “Ted Kluszewski: Film holds the “Klu””
I was fortunate to become acquainted with Klu. In 1971 I attended his baseball camp after my junior year in high school, then was on the staff the following summer. I had private batting cage tutoring with him, and he even let me use his bat. When I was in grad school in Indianapolis several years later, Klu came to town to work with the Reds’ AAA team. After he finished on the field he dressed and watched the games from the stands. I sat with him on a number of occasions, and we talked about baseball and other things. He even left passes for me at Riverfront Stadium. He was a happy, friendly person and I treasure the memories of the times I spent with him. I wrote two articles about my days with Klu that were published on the Seamheads website.
I have an original painting of Klu in his 1972 baseball card (psychedelic) design surrounding his sleeveless vest holding a bat, with Red Square in the background. It says REDLEGS at the bottom.
Thanks so much for this wonderful article! Klu was my favorite player growing up. If he could have stayed healthy I strongly believe he would have been a Hall of Famer. Glad to learn that he did not injure his back in a clubhouse fight. I had heard the rumor but agree that it would have been so out of character. I very vividly remember Game 1 of the ’59 World Series where Klu hit 2 home runs and drove in 5 in the 11-0 White Sox victory. Unfortunately the Sox went on to lose the Series but Ted’s 10 RBI is still the record for the most RBI in a 6 game series. There is a charming video of Klu on What’s My Line on You Tube. (Search What’s My Line? Cincinnati Reds) Ted comes across as a very nice guy.