by Harold Friend
The big first baseman weighed in at 240 lbs. He was, with the possible exception of another first baseman, Gil Hodges, the strongest man in baseball. He averaged 43 home runs and 116 RBIs from 1953-1956 and was as feared a hitter as Ted Williams or Stan Musial, but then back problems struck Ted Kluszewski.
In 1954, Ted Kluszewski hit 49 home runs, had 141 RBIs, and batted .326 for the Cincinnati Reds. He followed that up with 47 home runs, 113 RBIs, and a .314 average in 1955, but his back started to bother him late in 1956. He finished with 35 home runs, but missed a lot of games. In 1957, the back was a major problem, limiting Kluszewski to 127 at bats and 6 home runs.
Ted Kluszewski's back problems began in the spring of 1956. He thought it was a pulled muscle, but it hampered him all season. It became a major problem on opening day of 1957.
"...on opening day ... I made a sudden, quick movement to field a ball and the pain was unbearable. Finally, it was decided that I had a slipped disc. Some doctors recommended an operation and some didn't. But none would assure me that I would still have as much mobility and I decided against going under the knife."
Gabe Paul Traded Kluszewski
Reds' general manager Gabe Paul traded Kluszewski to the Pirates in late December, 1957 for Dee Fondy. The trade was considered a gamble for both teams, since Fondy, who was fast, was a powerless first baseman, but if Kluszewski's back improved, the Reds would have given up one of the game's premier sluggers.
The Pirates Needed Kluszewski
Players stopped what they doing when Kluszewski took batting practice. When he joined the Pirates, almost every Pittsburgh player watched with anxiety and admiration the first time Ted stepped into the batting cage. Shortstop Dick Groat spoke for the entire team. "Now you can see what the big fellow means to our ball club."
Ted Williams hit with finesse. Ted Kluszewski did it with force. "I do it with brute strength what they do with finesse. I can hit a ball on the handle and give it a ride. Williams always gets the solid part of his bat on the ball. When a ball is pitched to me, I start my arm action early. That's why I look so bad when I'm fooled. Those wrist hitters can stop their action and resume. But once I start to swing, I'm dead."
The Power Never Returned
Ted Kluszewski never regained his power. He hit .292 with the Pirates in 1958, but hit only 4 home runs. In August, 1959, the Pirates sent Ted to the White Sox, who lost the World Series to Los Angeles, but Ted managed to hit 3 home runs, bat in 10 runs, and hit .391 in the Series. He finished his career with the expansion Angels in 1961 and hit 15 home runs in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field.
When Ted Kluszewski "lost" his power, the explanation was that it was caused by a bad back. Ted also injured a finger, and some believe that he changed his swing, which resulted in a power loss.
In 2009, another powerful first baseman has apparently lost his power. Kluszewski had his last good power season when he was 31 years old. David Ortiz hit 23 home runs when he was 32, and this season, he has one home run in 217 at bats. It is much more difficult to pinpoint the reason David Ortiz has lost his power.
If one wants to be unfair, one can claim that Kluszewski would have continued to hit home runs if he had a healthy back and that Ortiz does not have back problems. But David Ortiz has had a bad wrist, a torn meniscus in his right knee, and injuries to his shoulder and quadriceps. Injuries took away Ted Kluszewski's power. Injuries have robbed David Ortiz of his power. End of story.
By ARTHUR DALEY. (1958, January 6). Sports of The Times :Muscles Aren't Everything . New York Times (1857-Current file),31. Retrieved June 5, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005) database. (Document ID: 83647055).
By ARTHUR DALEY. (1958, March 19). Sports of The Times :A Mighty Big Question. New York Times (1857-Current file),p. 37. Retrieved June 5, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 - 2005) database. (Document ID: 83403374).