8 Nights of Brendanukkah: Kluszewski! Bless You.



It's the fourth night of Brendanukkah. Halfway through! I learned a lot reading Joe Posnanski's The Machine about the 1975 Reds team (and if you haven't read it yet, it's highly recommended). For instance, I had no idea that former Reds great and quintessential slugger Ted Kluszewski was the hitting coach. Makes some sense that one of the best offensive teams ever would have one of the best offensive players in franchise history instructing them how to swing the lumber.

So what else didn't I know about Big Klu, besides how to spell his last name? Turns out there's some interesting stories, although the thing that stood out most to me is how much Kluszewski was what most Reds fans wanted Adam Dunn to be. The Reds discovered Klu in one of those glorious accidents that make baseball so compelling. Due to wartime restrictions, the Reds trained at Indiana University instead of Tampa from 1943 to 1945. One season while they were there, their groundskeeper noticed a young Hoosier belting baseballs over an embankment that no one on the big league team could reach. He notified the scouts, and they - being no dummies - liked what they saw. They offered to sign young Ted Kluszewski on the spot, but Klu was a tight end for the football team at Indiana and didn't want to ruin his collegiate eligibility. (Lest we forget, a certain left fielder was also a college football player, a quarterback at Texas.)

Instead, the Reds signed Kluszewski in 1946 after his graduation. He quickly mashed his way through the minors and was the starting first baseman by 1948. The Reds teams that Klu coached for in the 70s were known for their strict dress code, but Kluszewski the player tailored his uniform with the signature look of cutting off his sleeves. The Reds had a tight t-shirt under a vest, but the shirt was too constricting for Klu's massive shoulders and biceps, and hampered his swing.

And Klu's swing was not something to be hampered. In ten full seasons with the Reds, he batted over .300 seven times. He made excellent contact, very rarely striking out. The most he ever struck out was 40 times, and he only struck out 292 times in his entire career in Cincinnati. Adam Dunn surpassed that total about a third of the way through his third season. Kluszewski peaked as a player between 1953 and 1956. He made the All-Star team four years in a row, and mashed 171 home runs, an average of 43 a year. In 1954, he hit a league high 49 and drove in a league high 141 runs. He finished second to Willie Mays in the MVP voting in the year of The Catch. Those single season totals of home runs and RBI are good for second and third best respectively in Reds history, and Klu's OPS of 1.049 that season is second only to Kevin Mitchell's 1.110 in 1994. Joey Votto had an OPS of 1.024 this season, and he won an MVP. In each of those seasons, from '53 to '56, Klu's home run totals were higher than his strikeouts. No one since has hit 40 or more homers and struck out fewer times (though Barry Bonds came within one strikeout of matching that in 2004).

Not only was Kluszewski's strength and slugging ability prodigious, but he was incredibly adept with the glove as well. Klu only played first base throughout his career, but he led the league in fielding percentage for five straight years. He finished in the top five in range factor at first base five years in a row, including 1951 when he was best in the league. Adam Dunn was savaged for his terrible defense in left field, and many suggested he should have been a first baseman all along.

Ultimately, Kluszewski and Dunn had remarkably similar careers in Cincinnati. Dunn was a more consistent offensive force, but Klu had the higher peak. Dunn played ten seasons in Cinci and Klu played eleven. Dunn never had an OPS+ lower than 114 and his high was 146, the year he hit 46 home runs. Klu had some bad seasons, but had a high of 167 the year he hit 49 home runs. For their Reds careers, Dunn had an OPS+ of 130 and Klu had one of 127. They rank fourth and fifth on the career home run list with Dunn holding a 19 dinger advantage. However, his "meaningless solo shots" mean that Klu has a sizable 886 to 646 RBI advantage. Klu hit for average, he played great defense, and he drove in runs, seemingly everything that Dunn was ripped for not doing. However, they both were nearly identical in offensive value when all was said and done, with Dunn holding a slight edge. Tellingly, neither player was able to lift the team. The highest the Reds finished under both Dunn and Klu was third (twice for Dunn, once for Klu). Kluszewski has a statue in front of Great American Ball Park, is a member of the Reds Hall of Fame, and his number has been retired. Will any of these things be true for Adam Dunn? Perception is a powerful thing.

I always think of Ted Kluszewski as a Red, and justifiably so. But he did have a career after Cincinnati. He was traded to the Pirates in 1957 for Dee Fondy, a first baseman who played one terrible season with the Reds and then quit baseball. Klu was then traded to the White Sox to bolster their 1959 pennant run. The Sox made it to the World Series, and Klu was a monster. He hit three home runs, drove in 10 RBI, and OPS'd 1.266 for the Series. However, the rest of the Sox folded and the Dodgers were champions in six games. The White Sox owner was Bill Veeck, and he introduced jerseys with the players' names on the back. It logically followed that Kluszewski got the distinction of being the first ballplayer to have his name misspelled on his jersey (a backwards "z" and an "x" were somehow involved), another striking similarity to Adam Dunn.

The next year, Kluszewski was selected by the Los Angeles Angels in the expansion draft, and went on to hit the first home run in Angels history. He actually hit two home runs on Opening Day off of Milt Pappas, the man who would later be traded for Frank Robinson.

Despite never reaching the postseason as a Red, Klu did win two World Series rings as the hitting coach of the Big Red Machine. He later was a minor league hitting instructor for Cincinnati until he had a heart attack in 1986. He died in 1988 at the age of 63.

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