When discussing baseballs most prodigious and feared home run hitters of the 1950s, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, and Duke Snider immediately come to mind. But the player whose 171 round-trippers between 1953 and 1956 were the most in the major league has been largely forgotten: Ted Kluszewski. Known for his imposing, muscular stature and biceps so humongous that he cut off the sleeves of his jersey, “Big Klu” might have been one of the game’s best had it not been for a back injury suffered in spring training with the Cincinnati Reds in 1956. Robbed of his home-run stroke, he clouted only thirty-three four-baggers in his last five seasons and was out of baseball after the 1961 season. William A. Cook’s excellent biography of this gentle giant sheds light on Kluszewski’s life as a standout football player at Indiana University in the mid 1940s and his slow rise to, and precipitous fall from, stardom and notoriety in baseball.
Thoroughly researched and extremely well written, Big Klu: The Baseball Life of Ted Kluszewski presents the slugger as a reluctant star whose sheer size was often the source of unreasonable expectations. Cook begins the narrative with an insightful chapter about Kluszewski’s unexpected career as a professional athlete. Two years after graduating high school in Argo, Illinois, outside of Chicago, Kluszewski was spotted playing sandlot football and offered a scholarship to play football at Indiana University in 1944. Despite limited experience, he decided to try out for the baseball team in the spring of 1945. As fate would have it, the Cincinnati Reds conducted their spring training on Indiana’s campus due to war-time travel restrictions. The Reds groundskeeper spotted “Big Klu” swatting balls out of the park and informed manager Bill McKechnie. Named all-conference end and leading Indiana to an undefeated season in 1945, Kluszewski gave up his promising football career and signed with the Reds.
Additional chapters in the biography concentrate on Kluszewski’s two years in the minor leagues, his entire major league career (1947–1961), and then conclude with his time as coach with the Reds. Relying on an array of newspapers, archival materials, and other previously published research, Cook traces Kluszewski’s year-to-year experiences while providing an overarching, detailed context of Major League Baseball of the era. Revealing an impressive knowledge of baseball history of the 1950s, Cook touches upon Kluszewski’s relationship with teammates, recounts his big games and overall performance in each [End Page 337] season, as well as providing an image of the complexities of baseball in a small market where poor attendance, an old stadium, and economic realities were de rigueur.
More than just a compendium of statistics and highlights, Big Klu portrays Kluszewski as an often misunderstood and sometimes maligned player. Former big-league star and Reds’ instructor, Bill Terry, thought Kluszewski’s fielding was so atrocious at first base that he would need to hit .400 to make the team. Yet, despite dismal fielding at the beginning of his career, Kluszewski developed into one of the National League’s best. Throughout his career with the Reds, management questioned his desire, his weight (which typically was around 240 pounds), his commitment to baseball, and the seriousness of his injuries. Rogers Hornsby, who failed to last a full season as manager with the Reds in 1953, wanted Kluszewski to mirror his own aggressive, hard-nosed personality but was left upset with Kluszewski’s seeming lack of drive to be the best player in the game. Cook shows that at the same time Hornsby castigated Kluszewski—“You outta trade the big lazy Pollack,” he once said (pp. 40–41)—he helped transform Big Klu from a line drive hitter into a formidable slugger. The biography also underscores how Eleanor, Kluszewski’s wife, served as a personal de facto coach. Long before film was used to help players, Eleanor regularly filmed her husband at batting practice and...