The number 18 hangs from a deck at Great American Ball Park and is symbolic of the best all-around first baseman the Cincinnati Reds have had in their 144 year history.
Nicknamed “Big Klu,” partially due to his massive biceps, and partially due to the fact that his name was nothing ordinary to pronounce, Ted Kluszewski is without question, the best to wear the #18 in Reds history.
The man with Polish blood manned first base for the Reds for 10 seasons as the backbone of a struggling Cincinnati club. He may have not made the finest impression on the front office when he cut the sleeves off of his jerseys, in order to make room for his biceps and shoulders that nearly tore through the uniform. Although that may have stirred up controversy initially, his critics were silenced when they finally saw what Kluszewski could do when his arms were no longer restricted.
Up until 1953, Kluszewski had been a fine hitting first baseman, no question. When factoring in his defense efforts, he was already becoming one of the game’s elite. Although, he begun in 1953, seasons to come that would make people of the modern-day steroid era perk up their ears. In four consecutive seasons, “Big Klu” smashed 40, 49, 47 and 35 homeruns, prior to which, his career high was 25.
On the surface, his denial of winning the 1954 National League MVP award seems downright criminal. His slashline produced worthy numbers: .326/.407/.642, and he also led the league with 49 long balls and an astounding 141 RBI’s. Unfortunately, Willie Mays was busy having one of his best seasons of all-time as well, beating out Kluszewski for what was his best shot at a MVP trophy.
Of all of Kluszewski’s impressive statistics, the best has to be the homerun-to-strikeout ratio. Greatly overlooked in today’s culture of an “out is an out” and “strikeouts don’t matter,” the big man was of a different era. Some fans may think without looking at his stats that all of his insane power numbers, and bulging muscles, also equaled gigantic strikeout numbers. That information could not be farther from the truth.
During Kluszewski’s monstrous four-year stretch, (1953-1956) he clubbed more home runs than he struck out.
1953: 40 homeruns-34 strikeouts
1954: 49 homeruns-35 strikeouts
1955: 47 homeruns-40 strikeouts
1956: 35 homeruns-31 strikeouts
It is with no coincidence, that in all four of these years when Kluszewski was virtually never striking out, he drove in over 100 runs.
What may be even more impressive than the homerun-to-strikeout ratio, is his walk-to-strikeout ratio. In seasons where he had at least 500 plate appearances (nearly a full season), he only once struck out more than he walked, and that was his third year in the bigs. For his Reds career, he walked 406 times, opposed to striking out only 292 times over the course of 11 seasons with the Reds/Redlegs.
Kluszewski attempted to hang on at the backend of his career by joining the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, but his body was ravished by injury and his keen eye was all but zapped.
He was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 1962, right after his playing days had ended. In 1998, the club made the decision that no one would ever wear the #18 again, in Big Klu’s honor.
This number was no doubt going to be Kluszewski’s, as even though he was pummeled by injuries for the majority of his career, he was the best all-around first baseman the Reds have ever had. Although, a certain #19 may be waiting in the wings to take that honor eventually. Eppa Rixey, the great starting pitcher through the Great Depression Era for the Reds, also wore the #18 at the latter part of his career, but was already a shell of himself. Had Big Klu stayed healthy, his ballot to Cooperstown just may have garnered a few more votes.
Although winning a Championship was certainly never in the cards for the muscle-bound Kluszewski, he still made a tremendous impact on Reds fans for generations to come. For as long as there will be Cincinnati Reds baseball, no one again will be able to don the #18 as it belongs to the freakishly powerful big first baseman of Polish decent, Ted Kluszewski.