July 22, 2017

More About Ted Kluszewski and Me

September 9, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Ted Kluszewski“Earl’s not gonna like that mustache.”  Earl was Earl Smith, head baseball coach at East Carolina University.  The mustache was mine.  Tim Bayless was a starting pitcher for the ECU Pirates and he knew I soon was headed to the school with the intention of becoming a Pirate.  On this particular day, however, Tim picked me up at the airport in Columbus, Ohio welcoming me to my summer as a staff member at the Ted Kluszewski Baseball School.

Tim was a regular at the camp and part of the informal pipeline between Klu’s camp and East Carolina.  Earl Smith served as a coach at the baseball camp for a number of years, and when I was a camper in 1971 I impressed him enough that he wanted me to consider joining him in Greenville when the time came.  He did not, however, come to the camp in 1972.  Tim and others played for Earl at both places.

I was used to conforming to archaic baseball hair rules as my high school coaches expressed old-fashioned attitudes about such matters, as well.  So, after my summer of hanging onto every moment with Big Klu when he made weekly appearances at his baseball school, I entered the World of Earl.

Earl Smith coached ECU baseball teams for many years, sending a few players to the major leagues.  He also scouted for the San Francisco Giants, signing such notables as Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry, Jim Ray Hart, and Randy Hundley.  Earl seemed upset with nearby-native Catfish Hunter, apparently for not wearing the ECU purple and gold, choosing instead to skip college and the minor leagues and head straight into the clutches of Charles O. Finley and the then-Kansas City Athletics.  “That Catfish, he’s dumb,” Earl told us one day as ECU Pirates and Pirates-wannabes stood around the infield, and he disparaged the hirsute styling of Hunter and his soon-to-be World Champion teammates.  Some things were just that important.

Clean-shaven and wearing sideburns within acceptable limits of length (the ECU coaches actually checked), I remember one day ending up in the trainer’s room after I fielded in a scrimmage a ground ball that tore my right index fingernail.  Sitting on another table was ECU ace pitcher Tommy Toms.  Tommy was months away from signing a contract with the San Francisco Giants for whom he eventually lost three games over a span of the same number of seasons.  The St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers each also briefly contracted for Tommy’s services, but he did not appear in the major leagues for either.

In the trainer’s room that day in the fall of 1972, Tommy Toms, who flouted Earl’s hair-length rules, did his Earl Smith impersonation for me:  “You know, that Tommy Toms may be a hippie-freak, but when he gets on that mound he’s a pretty good boy.”

When the Fall exertions of the ECU Pirates came to an end, I chose to bring to a close my pursuit of big league dreams, and Earl Smith stepped down from the position he held for so long.  I do not believe these two developments were related.

The next summer I did play in a league back home, but it was more a time for laughs and swinging for the fences one last time than an effort to learn and hone skills.  I turned down two opportunities to play on teams in more advanced leagues and in tournaments.  My hair and sideburns exceeded Earl-proscribed lengths, and my mustache was bushy.  None of it seemed to get in my way.

Meanwhile, I paid close attention to the Cincinnati Reds, and whenever I saw them play on television I tried to catch glimpses of Ted Kluszewski in his role as the team’s hitting instructor.  The Reds, of course, went down in defeat to Catfish Hunter’s shaggy Oakland A’s in the 1972 World Series, but they won back-to-back championships in 1975 and 1976.

In 1977 I began graduate school in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Serendipitously, this put me in place to renew my personal connection to Big Klu.  Indianapolis was the home of the Reds’ AAA farm team, and Klu’s role with the big club began to change.  Somewhere along the way, Klu’s attentions became divided between helping Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, et al., and nurturing the talents of the next wave of Reds.  So, when Pete, Joe, and Johnny were playing at Riverfront Stadium, Klu was there.  When they took to the road, so did Klu – except instead of New York, Chicago, and L.A., he traveled to Indianapolis and the other minor league affiliate cities.

The only way I came to know about this was coincidental.  One evening as I watched the local television news broadcast there was a mention of the Indianapolis Indians which included a few seconds of showing Big Klu himself sitting in the stands at the game.  The explanation was made regarding the reason for his visit.

During spring training of the 1980 season I decided I would try to reconnect with Klu, so I wrote him a letter detailing my time at his camp and letting him know I was in school in Indianapolis.   Since I had no address for the Reds training camp, I sent the letter to Riverfront Stadium hoping it would be forwarded to Klu in Tampa.  It was.

So, on a chilly April evening, knowing that the Reds left for a road trip, I took a chance that Klu was in town and drove down to old Bush Stadium to attend the Indians’ game.  It took only a moment to spot him once I entered the ballpark.  If anyone in the gathering crowd was not aware of his presence, they simply were not paying attention.  Klu stood in the walkway of the stands behind home plate, surrounded by a group of stadium ushers, all of whom were old enough to have appreciated Klu’s playing career.  Klu was wearing a brown cowboy hat, a heavy overcoat with a wide fleece collar, and thick gloves.  All of this served to magnify his size.  He looked like a tree with a clump of saplings sprouting at the base of its trunk.

The most striking thing to me, though, was his deep tan, acquired from spending six weeks or so in the Florida sun.  As I approached Klu, the ushers scattered in every direction.  “Coach, I’m Greg Howell.  I wrote you a letter.  I don’t know whether you got it.  I worked at your camp several years ago…”

Shaking my hand and gazing at me again with his steel blue eyes, stunningly contrasted against his bronzed face, Klu smiled and replied, ” Yeah, I was gonna drop you a line, but I figured I’d see you.”  He began to move and nodded for me to come along.  We climbed a few stairs and chose seats on the third base side of home plate.

Klu was in a very jovial mood, and even though he had no memory of me from camp days, he seemed happy to spend time with me.  His routine when visiting Indianapolis was to work with the Indians players on the field prior to the game, then dress and watch the game from the stands.

As the temperature dropped and the game wore on, Klu chain-smoked cigarettes and we talked baseball.  I could not believe the moment was real.  I asked him if he were supposed to take notes on the players during the game and he said, “Nah, I don’t need to do that.”  But I noticed on subsequent visits to Bush Stadium he did that very thing.

At one point, when Klu had his gloves off, I asked, “Is that a World Series ring?”  Without hesitation he pulled the ring off his thick finger and handed it to me.  I turned the ring in my hand as I looked it over.  It commemorated the Reds 1975 victory over the Boston Red Sox in one of the greatest World Series ever played.  The ring was huge and very heavy, and at one point I slid it over my thumb.  There was no contact between the ring and my thumb.  “What size is this thing?” I blurted.  “Fifteen.”  I wear a size 10 ring.

Klu regaled me with stories from his playing days, including that he and Reds teammate and pitcher Joe Nuxhall often spent off-seasons on barnstorming teams playing local squads in Ohio and Indiana.  Nuxhall pitched the first few innings for the town teams against the major leaguers.   One night Nuxhall finished his stint on the mound, then headed out to play centerfield.  Klu was the first batter up that inning, and he claimed that Joe climbed a flag pole deep in the outfield, Klu crushed a pitch in his direction, and a stretching and reaching Nuxhall barely missed catching the ball.  I believed most of what Klu told me that night.

He spoke with fondness of Stan Musial and their long-standing friendship through the years.  At one point I said, “You know, I was always a fan of Moose Skowron.”  Klu chuckled as he took a drag from his cigarette.  “What?”  I asked.  Still smiling and looking out at the field, Klu softly remarked, “He’s a nice man.”

We talked about the Reds, and noting that former Reds second baseman Joe Morgan recently had joined Pete Rose on the Philadelphia Phillies, I asked Klu, “Is Morgan done?”  “He might be,” came the response.  Morgan was not done, however, as subsequent events made clear.

As our conversation took us to Klu’s work with the Reds minor leaguers, I asked him if the young players welcomed his advice and instruction. “Some more than others,” he said.  I came back with, “Well, if they don’t, you can always tear the sleeves off your uniform and let them see who they’re dealing with.”  Klu laughed heartily at this suggestion.

We talked about the other places he visited on his rounds, and he said that at one ballpark the prior season – I think it may have been Nashville or Memphis – he actually had the lucky number on his program, entitling him to a free pizza.  We both found that amusing.

Klu left his seat for a few minutes and when he came back he brought a cup of ice cream.  “Ice cream on a cold night?”  I inquired.  With just a hint of defensiveness, Klu explained, “It creates energy to keep you warm.”  Oh. My wife Mary and I have referred to this theory numerous times over the years.

Klu told me that when he came to town he stayed at a hotel in the town of Speedway, next to the famous race track for the Indianapolis 500.  It turned out Klu’s wife Eleanor usually accompanied him to Indianapolis, but she did not attend the games.  Maybe she was baseballed-out after so many years.

When the night was coming to a close, we walked out of the stadium together.  I do not recall anyone bothering Klu or even asking for an autograph that night.  We lingered in the parking lot for a while and he offered me a ride, but, of course, I had my car there.  Klu genuinely seemed to enjoy our visit, as did I.  I mentioned I needed to go, but that I would try to catch up with him another time when he was there.  “OK, see you then.”

There were a few other occasions when I met up with Big Klu at Bush Stadium.  The memories mostly blend together.  For instance, I recall one evening as we sat in the same general location as the other times there was a fellow in the walkway separating the sections of the grandstand.  This man spotted Klu and when I made eye contact with him he began – hilariously – striking muscle man poses and pointing at Klu between each pose.  If Klu saw him, he did not let on, but as I laughed I motioned toward him and told Klu, “There’s a guy trying to get your attention.”  Klu looked up, gave him a little wave, and the man moved on.

Another time my wife Mary accompanied me so she could meet Big Klu, and he was very gracious and friendly.  Mary noticed Klu’s blue eyes and still mentions them when we share with others the memory of that night.  Former Reds infielder Woody Woodward was present that evening, as well.  Woody was working in the Reds’ front office at the time, and I assume he was at the game to evaluate the Indianapolis players.  He later served as Assistant General Manager with the Reds and Yankees, and was the General Manager of the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Seattle Mariners.  Prior to all of that, he was the baseball coach at Florida State University, sending Terry Kennedy, and maybe others, to the big leagues.

Once again, however, Klu was the Big Man on Campus, and a number of people in the stands recognized him and asked for his autograph.  I took a snapshot of Klu before the game started. I was very pleased when the film was developed and I saw his smiling countenance.  It was on that visit that Klu inscribed my camp photo from 1972.  Woodward made a teasing comment on Klu’s size in the picture and Klu said, “Yeah, I weighed about 280 then.  Now, I’m back to 245.”  Klu spoke of playing tennis to stay in shape, and of how, “with my bad back, instead of running and reaching for every ball I just say, ‘Nice shot.'”

In addition to my camp picture, I brought a few of Klu’s baseball cards.  He thumbed through the cards even though he must have seen them thousands of times in the past. I pointed out the statistics on the back of his 1957 card — my favorite, as I told him – and noted that in 1952 Klu hit eleven triples.  Woody Woodward was impressed, and Klu told him, “That was back when I could run.”   He also batted .320 that season.  Klu played many seasons in which he had fewer strikeouts than home runs, a remarkable feat for a power hitter.

Later during the 1980 baseball season, Mary and I were Big Klu’s guests at a double-header in Cincinnati as the Reds played the San Diego Padres.  The tickets he left at the Will Call window placed us in seats with a terrific view of the playing field at Riverfront Stadium.  It was a gloriously sunny and clear day and we were in the second level directly behind home plate.  Tom Seaver and Johnny Bench, both future Hall of Famers, made up the battery in the first game.

Time moved forward, I finished graduate school and left Indianapolis. Klu’s role with the Reds diminished and we mostly lost contact.  We had a telephone conversation once when we both happened to be in Atlanta.  I sent him a get-well card when I heard of a heart attack and open-heart surgery, and when he died from a subsequent heart attack in 1988 – too young at age 63 – I felt a sense of loss, and conveyed my appreciation for him in a letter to Eleanor.

The Reds moved out of Riverfront Stadium several seasons ago, and in front of their current home, The Great American Ballpark, there stands today a life-sized statue of Ted Kluszewski, one of the most revered players and coaches in the history of the storied franchise.

To me, he was a kind, gentle, happy person, without pretension – just a regular guy who happened to be big, strong, and highly talented as an athlete, whose life and mine intersected briefly, providing me with a connection to something of which I grew up thinking I wanted to be a part.

September 10, 2013 would have been Ted Kluszewski’s 89th birthday.

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