November 29, 2014

A Picture Worth Almost Two Thousand Words: Ted Kluszewski and Me

September 2, 2013 by · 3 Comments 

Ted Kluszewski and Greg Howell in 1971It was a moment that now seems almost as if I imagined it.  It was the summer of 1972, I was seventeen years old, freshly graduated from high school, away from home, somewhere in Ohio, and Iron Mike was hurling baseballs at me in a batting cage.  Having spent considerable time in this same situation over the prior couple of weeks I had my timing down.  I hit every pitch that cranked toward me.

This particular day was different, however, for facing me and watching closely from the other side of the netting, analyzing, evaluating, and suggesting was Ted Kluszewski.  Big Klu wore his Cincinnati Reds uniform, his last name and a big number “18” boldly emblazoned on his back.  In his thick hands he held a baseball bat.

My uniform featured a “Ted Kluszewski Baseball School” logo.  I was a counselor and assistant coach at the camp that summer, and after the man himself had observed the batting stances, styles, and skills of thirty or forty kids, somehow he and I were alone at the batting cages.

This former major league power hitter, whose two home runs in the first game of the 1959 World Series between his Chicago White Sox and the ultimately-victorious Los Angeles Dodgers stood as his top thrill in baseball, actually took the time to tutor me in the art he had mastered.  It was not lost on me that in a few hours he would take a similar posture at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, wear the same uniform, and oversee the pregame batting cage preparations of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, and others.  The stakes were higher for them, as a National League pennant was within reach.

Klu gave me some pointers on foot position, emphasized the importance of hitting the baseball out in front of home plate, and completely surprised me by handing me his personal bat.  “Try this, and see how you like it.”

I really did not know what to say.  As I looked at the bat, I saw his stamped signature on the barrel, beneath which was printed “1971 Cincinnati Reds Old Timers Game.”  The bat was his preferred U1 model which had no knob on the handle.  I took a few cuts at the balls coming toward me, worried I would break the bat.  “Isn’t it nice?”  Klu asked.  Of course, I replied in the affirmative, although I was not sure how to judge the quality or utility of this item that nowadays would fetch top dollar from collectors and online auction hounds.

I continued to swing Klu’s bat in the cage and he plunged more deeply into a discussion of hitting.  At one point, as he zeroed in on what I was doing and what I could do differently, I glanced over at him between pitches and saw such intensity in his greyish blue eyes that I could not look away from him.  Baseballs kept coming, whizzing between us, but those eyes were boring into me to the point I was not aware of anything else around me.  Mr. Kluszewski (I never, ever, called him Ted, or Klu, or Big Klu) was giving me his undivided attention, and although he was pleasant and helpful, I must admit I found it a little unnerving.

The magnitude of the moment was profound for me, for even though his career ended the season before I started paying attention to baseball, and I never saw him play in person or even on television, I was keenly aware of his accomplishments and reputation.  My goal at that point of my life was to follow his footsteps into the rarified air of professional baseball.  I felt this was a critical moment in my education and preparation, a golden opportunity enjoyed only by a few.  How could I be so fortunate?

Klu, of course, was famous for cutting the sleeves off his jersey, allowing his over-sized biceps more freedom of movement.  No doubt part of the idea was to show pitchers what they were up against when he stepped into the batter’s box.   The intimidation factor worked to his advantage, I am sure.

I heard and read about that, knew he was a top National League slugger in the 1950’s, and was aware of his current role as hitting instructor of The Big Red Machine.  The summer before,1971, I made the trip from my Virginia home to the Ohio countryside to spend a week as one of the horde of learners at Klu’s baseball camp.  I took my turn in the cage in front of him then, but remember nothing of the experience.  Invited to join the staff the following summer, I endeavored to do my best to make the most of Klu’s weekly visits to the camp.

The first time I ever laid eyes on Ted Kluszewski in person actually occurred a month or so prior to my initial stay at the camp.  My parents took my brother and me to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia for a weekend series between the Phillies and Reds.  Since I knew I soon would be attending his baseball school, I kept an eye out for Klu prior to the first game.

I stood along the fence near the Reds’ dugout, watching the various players come onto the field.  I remember Bernie Carbo walking out, someone near me shouting, “Hey, Carbo!” and Bernie half-turning and replying, “Hey, what?” as he kept heading toward the field.  I actually got Johnny Bench’s autograph a few moments later as he walked over to a group of fans screaming his name.  “Do you people think I’m deaf?” he plaintively inquired.  I was the only one who said “Thank you” when he signed my program, and he pointedly said, “You’re welcome.”

The day’s starting pitcher for the Reds began to warm up in front of the dugout.  I am sorry to say I do not remember who it was, but as I watched him, suddenly Big Klu emerged from the dugout, walked over and stood in an imaginary batter’s box, giving the pitcher a target.  Interestingly enough, my recollection is that when Klu took a batting pose he held in his hands a first-baseman’s glove rather than a bat.

I was surprised by Klu’s appearance.  Having only seen him in photos and baseball cards from his playing days, he looked old to me (he was 46 at the time!).  He also looked heavier than I imagined.

Of course, when I saw him up close a few weeks later, standing in line waiting for my turn to pose with him for the official camp photo included in the tuition for the week, I was completely in awe.  His forearms were at least twice as big as mine.  His wrists were thick, his hands huge and padded.  The guys in my group looked him over as we stood there, giggling and otherwise acting like teenagers.  But we all were amazed by what we saw.

I noticed that Klu put his hand on the shoulders of the boys as they joined him for the picture, and when it was my turn I moved in close, anticipating the weight of that contact.  Instead, Klu kept his hands on his hips, perhaps because I was actually an inch taller than he.  In the photo, he was not smiling and I looked unsure of myself, also with a serious expression.

Things were different the next year.

I recall the day of his visit to the camp one week during that summer of ’72.  Timing was such that I walked out of the camp dorm just as Klu drove up in his blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, scattering a few pebbles in the dirt parking area.  His license plate read “T 8 K.”  I greeted Klu, he grabbed his equipment bag from the trunk, and together we walked up the steps to the dining hall.  The boys attending camp for the week were finished with breakfast and in their dorms getting ready for the day’s activities.

Klu disappeared into a back room where he changed into his grey road Reds uniform.  The team had played an exhibition game against their top farm club in Indianapolis the prior evening, yet there was Klu at the camp, right on schedule for his 10:00 a.m. appearance.  “Bench really creamed one,” he reported in talking about the game.

We staff members orbited around Klu as he sat at a table drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette.  We all wanted to be close, but kept a respectful distance.  Someone asked, “Who’s pitching tonight, Coach?”  With a funny sarcastic tone, Klu replied, “BILLingham.”  We all looked at each other, not sure how to react.  (It turned out that Jack Billingham pitched a two-hitter that evening, handcuffing Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and the rest of the Lumber Company in a precursor to their inevitable battle in the National League play-offs in a couple of months.)

Ted Kluszewski and Greg Howell in 1972.Shortly thereafter a man showed up, and identified himself as a reporter for the local newspaper.  As Klu sat there wearing a jersey that said, “KLUSZEWSKI” across his shoulders, the reporter asked him, “Are you Mr. Kluszewski?  Oh, yes. I see you are.”  Klu just looked at him.  The rest of us stifled laughter.  I think Klu was tired from the late return from Indianapolis and the early visit to the camp, because generally I found him to be a happy person, friendly and of good humor.

The newspaper man trailed around behind Klu as he went through his weekly routine, giving a lecture on hitting to the gathered young baseball hopefuls, watching them each take a half-dozen or so hacks in the batting cage, offering encouragement and sage advice, and posing for pictures with each boy.

Those of us on the staff were amused observers, for the reporter practically tripped over himself throughout the day, made inane remarks, asked obvious questions, and fiddled with his camera.  Klu took it in stride, and after a while, showed traces of a smile as the rest of us laughed.

I decided this would be the day for my camp photo with Klu.  When I stepped into place and the contracted camp photographer got ready for the shot, the reporter began snapping photos, as well.  Believe it or not, after a few moments he actually discovered that the cap still covered his camera’s lens.  This got the biggest laugh of the day.

When my official portrait with Klu was completed, the reporter asked he and I to pose for several other pictures – the clichéd look at the master instructor teaching his rapt pupil.  I took my batting stance and Klu pretended to make adjustments.  I held my bat out in a half-swing and Klu pointed to the barrel, indicating the best place on which to make contact with the pitch, and so forth.  I admit I enjoyed it, but the others laughed and scoffed and mocked as we went through this little exercise.  My only regret is I never actually saw the article the man planned to write or the photos he took. He asked for my name and hometown so he could identify me in the photos.

Klu was cooperative throughout this intrusion on his time and attention, and did not engage in or encourage the commentary offered by camp staff members, some of which probably was unkind.  But, as the day wore on, his smile became more frequent.

My 1972 camp photo with Ted Kluszewski hangs on the wall of my study at home.   He autographed the picture for me eight years later when the opportunity came along to become better acquainted, a time about which I soon will write.  The photo, although it is in black and white, is a happy reminder of a day when the air seemed fresh and invigorating, and colors were bright.  It was a day from my youth that I never will forget.

Comments

3 Responses to “A Picture Worth Almost Two Thousand Words: Ted Kluszewski and Me”
  1. Arne says:

    One surprising thing about Klu is that he hit the Angels’ first two homers, in 1961, during their first game. When he died, Pete Rose said: “He was a nice man, a gentle giant.”

  2. Todd says:

    The Reds where my favorite team in grade school playing little league. Man these guys where good. Real stars and stand up guys not like some the guys you have in the
    pro’s now. As a kid meeting Johnny Bench would have stunned me. Your so lucky to
    have been able to ball with those guys. Great job on the article,

  3. larry says:

    As a 12 yr old kid in 1977 attended big klus baseball school in bainbridge ohio i have large pictures of klu and. Myself autographed with the counselors and allof the original sighn up paperwork ive cherished it for years best time of my life havent heard anything about the school until the age of internet came into play is there anyone out there that has more info or picts of this school from the past?
    Larry Brown big klus bb school 1977

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