Monday, February 21, 2011

Kluszewski gets a football card

If he hadn't gone on to a near Hall of Fame caliber career in baseball, Ted Kluszewski might have become a star tight end in the NFL. According to knowledgeable contemporaries, he had surprising agility for a man of his musculature, and had great hands.

Cincinnati Reds scouts discovered Klu in 1944 when travel restrictions during World War II forced the team to conduct spring training on the campus of Indiana University at Bloomington. Legend has it that after the major leaguers had vacated the practice facilities for the day, and the college team had taken the field, the Reds equipment manager, who had stayed behind to clean up, noticed Kluszewski blasting moon shots.

He brought the big guy to the attention of team officials who were so impressed they tried to sign him on the spot. Klu declined, preferring to maintain his college eligibility. Playing centerfield for the Hoosiers in the 1945 season, he set a school record with a .443 batting average . . . a mark that stood for half a century.

In the 1945 football season, Kluszewski played tight end on offense and defensive end for the team that won the Big 10 Championship with a 9-0-1 record, the Hoosiers' only undefeated season. They held their opponents to just eight points in the last five games of the season and finished #4 in the polls. For the '45 Hoosiers, Klu caught 10 passes for 112 yards and three touchdowns. He also did a bit of punting, placekicking and kick returning.

After he graduated in 1946, the Reds signed Kluszewski for a reported $15,000 bonus. He played two years of minor league ball, leading his league each season. In 1946 with Columbia of the Class A South Atlantic League, he hit .352. His 11 home runs were tied for third in the circuit, though he had played in only 90 games, as opposed to the 124-130 games that that those above hit had played.

In 1947, after a week with the Reds, Kluszewski was sent down to Memphis of the AA Southern Association, where he batted .377 with seven home runs.

The following season he was back with the Reds to stay. Klu spent 11 seasons with Cincinnati, hitting a cumulative .302. He led the National League in 1954 with 49 home runs and 141 RBIs. Each year from 1951-55 he led N.L. first basemen in fielding. He was the league's All-Star first baseman each year 1953-56.

In his final year with the Reds, he appeared on one of the most iconic Topps baseball cards of the 1950s. His 1957 card pictures him putting on a gun show in a power swing follow-through. To accommodate his huge arms and shoulders, Kluszewski modified his uniform by cutting the sleeves off his undershirt.

After the 1957 season, he was traded to the Pirates. At the end of August, 1959, the White Sox picked him up for their pennant run.  Though the White Sox fell to the Dodgers 4-2 in the World Series, Klu tied for the lead among all participants with double-digit at-bats, hitting .391. He led both teams with three home runs and 10 RBIs.

Klu was the 51st choice in the 1961 American League expansion draft, being picked by the Los Angeles Angels, for whom he hit the franchise's first home run, one of 15 in his final major league season. He retired as a player at the age of 36, with a lifetime .298 average and 279 career home runs.

Kluszewski returned to the Cincinnati Reds as hitting coach during the Big Red Machine years of the mid-1970s, finally earning a World Series ring that eluded him as a player. In 1979 he became the Reds' minor league batting instructor, serving in that capacity until he suffered a heart attack in 1986. He died two years later.

In 1998, the Reds retired Kluszewski's uniform #18. Today the team honors Big Klu with a bronze statue in the plaza at Great American Ball Park.

While he never made the Hall of Fame, Kluszewski has always enjoyed significant status in the card hobby as a regional favorite; some of his cards in greater demand than those of some contemporary Hall of Famers.

Creating a 1955 Topps All-American style football card of Kluszewski was on my to-do list for a long time. I finally obtained an Indiana yearbook photo from collector Jay Sokol and was able to complete the card shown here.

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