Big Klu Muscled Up for the Reds

Big Klu led the National League with 49 home runs in 1954.

Ted Kluszewski led the National League with 49 home runs in 1954.

By Glen Sparks

Ted Kluszewski’s muscles needed room. The Cincinnati Reds first baseman packed plenty of meat onto those 15-inch biceps.

He asked, undoubtedly nicely because he was quite the gentleman, if the Reds could please just shorten the sleeves on his uniform. The longer sleeves, owing to his considerable forearms, made the uniform feel too tight and restricted his swing. The Reds said, “no.”

So, Big Klu grabbed a pair of scissors and cut off the jersey sleeves in quick fashion. (Later, he slashed his t-shirt sleeves as well. You can google “Ted Kluszewski sleeveless” and see plenty of pictures. The uniform top looked more like a vest, or a button-up basketball jersey.)

Stepping into the batter’s box, the new-look Klu probably scared pitchers more than ever. He had those arms on full display. Just how hard can this guy swing a bat?

As it turned out, Kluszewski hit far fewer home runs over his career (279) than guys like Mickey Mantle (536) and Jimmie Foxx (534). He did, however, enjoy a solid, if short, run as one of the game’s top sluggers.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 225-pound former tight end at the University of Indiana, broke in with the Reds late in the 1947 season, a bit shy of his 23rd birthday. He enjoyed his first big year in 1950, ripping 25 homers and driving in 111 runs while batting .307.

Klu’s home run total in 1951 dropped to 13; he hit just 16 the following season. Then, the left-handed hitter started to get it going. He crushed 40 home runs in 1953, drove in 108 and batted .316.

Klu led the N.L. in home runs in 1954 (49) and also in RBI (141). He finished third in slugging percentage (.642) and third in OPS (1.049). Kluszewski bashed 47 round-trippers in 1955 (second in the league) and 35 more in ’56 (seventh). That year, he finished just behind Willie Mays in the MVP race. Klu averaged nearly 43 homers a season from 1953-36 and knocked home more than 100 runs each year.

Unfortunately, the Cincy slugger suffered a slipped disk during the summer of ’56. He was never the same. Klu hit just 34 home runs over the final five seasons of his 15-year career. That included 15 in 1961 during his farewell tour with the Los Angeles Angels.

Kluszewski retired with a .298 batting average. He topped the .300 mark eight times and hit a career-high .326 during that great ’54 campaign.

The big guy rarely struck out. Klu fanned just 365 times in his career; his high mark was 40. He is the answer to this trivia question: Can you name the last three players to hit at least 40 home runs in a season and strike out 40 or fewer times? The answer–Ted Kluszewski (1953), Ted Kluszewski (1954) and Ted Kluszewski (1955).

More than anything, though, baseball people knew Klu for his rippling biceps. Brooklyn Dodgers manager Leo Durocher once contended that his first baseman, Gil Hodges, was the strongest man in baseball. “What about Kluszewski?” a sportswriter asked.

Durocher didn’t miss a beat. “Kluszewski isn’t human.”

(Big Klu later served as a popular hitting instructor during the hard-hitting era of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine. Kluszewski, born Sept, 10, 1924, in Summit, Ill., died March 29, 1988, in Cincinnati, at the age of 63.)

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