'Big Klu': The Reds' Slugger Whose Bulging Biceps Scared Opposing Pitchers

Aug 30, 2019

Ted Kluszewski was a Cincinnati Red from 1947 to 1957 – the first 10 years of his major league career – and so there are now generations of Reds fans who never saw him.

There is one thing you need to know about 'Big Klu' and it is apparent when you look at the bronze statue of him sitting on Great American Ball Park's Crosley Terrace, alongside other Reds greats of the Crosley era – Frank Robinson, Ernie Lombardi, Joe Nuxhall.

Write this down; it is the eternal truth about Kluszewski: He is the strongest human being ever to put on a Cincinnati Reds uniform.

You might argue about that, but you would lose.

Consider this: In the 1950s, he had to cut off the sleeves of his uniform.

There were two reasons for this.

One was that his 15-inch biceps were so huge, the uniform sleeves constricted his swing at the plate.

The second reason was pure psychology. When Klu strode to plate, displaying those massive muscles on a six-foot, two-inch, 225-pound frame, opposing pitchers could not help but be a little intimidated.

Some of them a lot intimidated.

His size and strength may have been pre-ordained at birth.

After all, he weighed 14 pounds when he was born on Sept. 10, 1924 to Josephine and John Kluszewski, Polish immigrants who raised six children in the blue collar town of Argo, Illinois, only eight miles from the Chicago White Sox' Comiskey Park.

There are many Reds fans who look at the numbers Kluszewski amassed during his career as a Red and wonder how it is that he is not a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

Working against him on that score is the fact that the Reds never played in a World Series during his 10 seasons here and Kluszewski did not have a National League Most Valuable Player award.

It was an era of intense competition in Major League Baseball and an era when the three New York teams dominated the conversation – the Yankees, the Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Klu was toiling in relative obscurity in Cincinnati while New York players like Willie Mays of the Giants, Mickey Mantle of the Yankees and Duke Snider of the Dodgers were getting the national attention.

Kluszewski understood what he was up against – in those days, it was hard to beat the bright lights of the Big Apple.

"I'm not sure what the hell charisma is, but I get the feeling it's Willie Mays,'' Klu once told the Reds' beat writers.

But even without a plaque in Cooperstown, there was no one who followed baseball in the 1950s who could ignore Ted Kluszewski.

He was one of the premiere power hitters of the game.

From 1953 through 1956, when he was at the top of his game, Klu hit more home runs than anyone in baseball – 171. During those four seasons, he averaged 179 hits, 43 home runs and 116 RBI, astounding numbers for any era of baseball.

If he were playing in this day and age, he would likely be making hundreds of millions of dollars in multi-year contracts, but, of course, he played before the age of free agency. All we know from the record about what Klu was paid was that he made $40,000 in 1957, according to baseball-reference.com.

Injuries caught up with him in the 1957 season, and the Reds traded him to the Pirates. By 1959, he had been traded to the Chicago White Sox, which gave him his only opportunity to play in the World Series for the "Go-Go Sox."

Klu made the most of it, hitting .391 in the six-game series, with three home runs and 10 RBI. Still, the White Sox lost the series to the Dodgers.

Two years later, Kluszewski found himself released by the Los Angeles Angels, and that ended his playing career.

As a young man, Kluszewski might have ended up as a professional football player had it not been for Matty Schwab, the legendary groundskeeper who tended to the Reds' ball parks from 1903 to 1963.

Klu's parents died very close to each other – his mother in 1943; his father the following year. Ted and his five siblings were left to fend for themselves at a very young age.

Kluszewski had football. He had been a standout at Argo High School and Indiana University recruited him as a football player; he also played baseball for the Hoosiers. In fact, his 1945 batting average of .443 was a school record that stood for 50 years and his skill as an end and a kicker led Indiana its only outright Big Ten championship.

During World War II, there were limits placed on travel, and baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told the clubs to find new spring training facilities as close to home as possible for the duration of the war.

Schwab was assigned the job of finding a new, temporary spring training home for the Reds, and he landed on the University of Indiana campus in Bloomington.

There, club officials invited Kluszewski to take a few cuts at Reds batting practice. When he began hitting one moon shot after another, they offered him a $15,000 contract.

With his new contract in hand, Klu was able to marry his longtime sweetheart, Eleanor Guckel, who was a very good softball player and helped work with her husband on his swing.

Mrs. Kluszewski is still living in the Cincinnati area at the age of 95.

After his playing career was over, Kluszewski returned to the game in 1970 when the Reds' new manager, Sparky Anderson, brought him on as the new hitting coach, working with the Big Red Machine, one of the greatest offensive lineups in the history of the game.

He stayed with the big league club until Anderson was fired after the 1978 season, but later became a hitting instructor in the Reds minor league system.

In 1986, he suffered a heart attack and underwent emergency bypass surgery. Then, on March 29, 1988, a massive heart attack took his life at the age of 63. The Reds wore black armbands during the 1988 season.

In July 1998, the Reds retired his uniform number – 18. It will never be worn again.

And there will never be another Klu either.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

 Read more "Cincinnati Reds At 150" here.