Saturday, February 23, 2008

By Victor Varadi - Columnist

#37 - April 11, 1961: Big Klu leads Angels to first victory

It was a great story. Gene Autry had purchased an expansion baseball franchise, naming it the Los Angeles Angels. Then the reality set in.

The Angels would have to field a team and then go out and compete. Without free agency, the odds were against any team in that era being able to start from scratch and compete. This is not the part of the story where the young scrappy team goes on to win itself a championship in its inaugural season — again, a great story, but not part of the reality.

Not only were the Angels expected to compete in the tough American League, where the mighty Yankees and the M and M boys, Maris and Mantle, were perennial favorites for the Word Series crown, but their first game would be against the Baltimore Orioles, a team that would contend every year until finally winning it all in 1966.

The Angels were led by big Teddy Kluszewski, a .298 career hitter and 4-time All-Star who once cut off the sleeves of his uniform to alleviate the restrictions on his large biceps as he took rips with the bat. But Kluszewski, who had 3 times hit more than 40 homers and 8 times batted at least .300, was at the end of his career and had been so plagued by injuries that he was left unprotected in the expansion draft. The Angels made Big Klu their first baseman.

Kluszewski was true to form in the curtain lifter of what would turn out to be is final season. In the first inning of the Angels inaugural game at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, Kluszewski came to the plate with two outs and a young Albie Pearson on first. The big lefthander hit a homer down the right field line, quickly giving the Angels their first ever lead. But Klu wasn’t done. In the second inning, he came to the plate again, this time with two men on, and hit a blast to deep right field that put the Angels up 6-0. Bob Cerv would later add a solo homer and the Angels went on to an easy 7-2 victory.

Kluszewski finished the game 2-for-4 with two home runs and 5 RBI. He would finish the season batting .243 with 15 homeruns. The 1961 Angels won 70 games, the most ever by an expansion team in its first year.
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