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Cool First Basemen in the 1950s

By Daniel Wyatt, June 21, 2016
Cincinnati Reds first baseman Ted Kluszewski in 1954.

First basemen are usually tall, well-built, and may even throw and/or bat left. Following World War II, four excellent ballplayers not in today’s Hall of Fame stood out at that position: Ted Kluszewski, Gil Hodges, Bill Skowron, and Joe Collins.

The hulking, ruggedly handsome Ted “Big Klu” Kluszewski was a fan favorite in Cincinnati. Using a short, compact swing from the left side of the plate, with not much wrist action and very little follow-through, Klu’s booming home runs soared high and long. A formidable figure of solid muscle at 6 feet, 2 inches and 225 pounds, he made women swoon and men envious every time he strolled to the on-deck circle swinging his handful of bats. An innovator, he cut the sleeves off his uniform so his arms would be less restrictive, thus exposing his massive 15-inch biceps, a fashion he maintained to the end of his playing career.

Kluszewski starred at Indiana University—in football as an end and baseball as an outfielder. After a tryout at Crosley Field in August 1945, where he smashed five batting practice balls (out of 30 thrown to him) deep into the right-field bleachers, he signed with the Reds in January 1946 for $7,000 a year and a $15,000 bonus. Two years later, he was a Major Leaguer for good with the Reds at age 23, after learning the finer points of playing first base in 205 minor league games.

Klu led all National League first basemen in fielding five straight years from 1951 to 1955. For every season from 1953 to 1956, he hit at least 100 RBIs, a .300 average, and 35 homers. His best season was 1954, finishing second in MVP voting to Willie Mays while hitting a league-leading 49 homers and 141 RBIs. Unlike most power hitters, Kluszewski seldom struck out. His most was 40 in 1955, the season when he crushed 47 homers and hit .314.

Near the end of the 1956 season, Klu suffered a slipped disk injury and was never the same. After, he could still hit for a decent average, but his home run production fell off. He played with three more teams before calling it quits in the fall of 1961. His last hurrah was the 1959 World Series (for the losing White Sox): he led all hitters with three homers, 10 RBIs (a record for a six-game series) and a .391 average. In the first game, he hit two homers in an 11–0 drubbing of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Big Klu continued in baseball as a popular hitting instructor with the Reds from 1970 to 1985. A lifetime .298 hitter with 279 homers, he could be nestled in Cooperstown if not for the disk injury, which curtailed his effectiveness hitting the long ball, along with his footwork around first.

Dodgers first baseman Gil Hodges settles under a pop fly in a game against the Chicago Cubs at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field in 1956.

Brooklyn Dodgers’ Gil Hodges was a nice guy, much liked by his teammates, the press, the opposition, and even the umps. A catcher early in his pro career, the 6-foot, 1-inch Hodges was asked to try first base in 1948 to make room for the talented Negro Leaguer Roy Campanella behind the plate. As a result, for the next decade, Hodges was one of the best-fielding first basemen in the Majors, with Kluszewski his only National League equal. Hodges was one of the strongest players in the era, with the biggest hands in baseball. An eight-time All Star, he won three Gold Gloves. In a game in 1949, he hit for the cycle. The following year, he hit four home runs in a nine-inning game, the first time that had occurred since Lou Gehrig in 1932.

Six times Hodges connected for over 30 homers in a season, and was the first Dodger to reach 40, which he did twice. For seven straight years, he produced 100 RBIs. He was probably the only Dodger who the hometown fans never booed. In fact, while in the midst of a bad hitting slump that had begun in September 1952 and continued into the World Series (0-for-21 against the New York Yankees), a Brooklyn priest asked his parishioners to please say a prayer for dear brother Gil.

In seven different Fall Classics, Hodges still managed a respectable .267 batting average with seven homers against some excellent pitching, six times against the Yankees, and once against Kluszewski’s Chicago White Sox. Following his late-1952 slump, Hodges rebounded by hitting .364, .292, .304, and .391 in the 1953, 1955, 1956, and 1959 Fall Classics, respectively. Upon retirement, he held the National League record for 14 grand slam homers and the most homers by a National League right-handed batter at 370.

Helping the Dodgers win two World Series on two different coasts, Hodges turned to managing, where he guided the 1969 New York Mets to an upset World Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles. Unfortunately, since 1984, Hodges has been condemned to the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee, who continually reject him for some reason. It’s beyond me (and others as well) why he isn’t enshrined at Cooperstown.

Joe Collins played first for 10 years for the Yankees.

For more than a decade, since Lou Gehrig’s retirement in the spring of 1939, the New York Yankees looked for a fixture at first base, slogging their way through a half-dozen different individuals in the process. Then along came the calm, cool, collected Joe Collins, born Joseph Edward Kollonige in 1922.

Collins signed with the Yankees as a 16-year-old free agent in 1939. After knocking around in the minors for the next several years, working his way up to Triple-A in Kansas City and Newark, he had two brief call-ups in 1948 and 1949 before Manager Casey Stengel handed him the first base job in 1950, more so for his defensive talents. Collins didn’t let Casey down, making only seven errors that season, the fewest of the regular American League first basemen.

Collins’s best year at the plate was 1952: 18 homers and a .280 average in 122 games. A lifetime .256 hitter, and underrated throughout his career, he was probably the best .256 hitter around, with October clutch-hitting his forte. In 1951, his Game 2 World Series homer scored the winning run in a 3–1 victory that evened the series with the New York Giants. Two years later, his seventh-inning homer in Game 1 broke a 5–5 tie with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a game that New York eventually won 9–5. The Yankees took the two subway series, both in six games. Collins came through again in 1955 against Brooklyn by hitting two home runs in Game 1, his second a two-run blast in the sixth inning that put his team ahead 6–3. Too bad the Yankees won the battle 6–5, but lost the war in seven games.

By 1954, Stengel began to platoon Collins (a lefty) with the right-hand-hitting rookie Bill “Moose” Skowron, the stronger hitter of the two. Collins still remained a key role player: playing some outfield, pinch-hitting, and filling in at first in late innings when he wasn’t starting against a righty. Deep into spring training in 1958, Collins was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies for cash, but decided to retire, nullifying the deal. As a lifetime Yankee and one of Stengel’s favorites, Collins played in seven World Series, five of those won by the Yankees.

New York Yankees first baseman Moose Skowron hit a grand slam during the 7th inning of the final game of the 1956 World Series.

Moose Skowron had power and average, combined with low strikeouts. Hitting behind such stars as Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and later Roger Maris, Skowron added stability to the bottom half of the order. He went with the pitches, spraying vicious line drives in all fields. “You didn’t want to give him too much around the plate,” Mantle said.

In his first seven seasons, Skowron hit at least .300 five times, plus .298 in 1959. Twice, he reached 20-plus homers. And by the time he had the first base job locked up, his defense improved considerably. His specialty was digging grounders and low throws out of the dirt. He was a six-time All-Star in the 14 MLB seasons he played, including 1957–1961 inclusive. He was on five World Series winners, four with the Yankees. Skowron’s best year at the plate came in 1960, when he hit 34 doubles, 26 homers, 91 RBIs, and .309, then he continued in the World Series with two homers, six RBIs, and .375.

Overall, Skowron shone in the postseason play. He was the best example of the phrase: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” His lifetime batting average stood at .293 in eight World Series, along with eight homers and 29 RBIs in 39 games. He was the hero of the 1958 World Series that saw the Yankees come from behind three games to one to beat the Milwaukee Braves in seven games. In Game 6, Skowron knocked in the winning run with a single in the tenth; then in Game 7, he smashed a three-run homer in the eighth to bury the Braves 6–2.

Big Klu, Gil, Moose, and an ordinary Joe: all four must’ve been something to watch live.

Brooklyn’s Carl Furillo sails back toward first as Yankees first baseman Joe Collins awaits the ball in a pick-off attempt during Game 4 of the 1953 World Series.




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