Alumni Profile: Chuck Klein

A few years back, the Phillies faced a dilemna. They wanted to honor one of their greatest players of all-time by retiring his number. It seemed easy enough until they realized that he never had a "number". In the days of Chuck Klein, players didn't wear numbers and their uniforms were often made of flannel that became a wet, heavy sponge on those hot summer days. Because he played in a long ago era, few fans realize just how great the man represented simply by an old Phillies logo really was.

When Chuck Klein came to the Phillies, he didn't look like the prototypical hitter. To put it politely, he looked gawky. To be honest, he looked clumsy and lost. The Phillies weren't about to be picky though because they had spent the last two seasons finishing last and had little to speak of in terms of an offensive threat. For them, Klein was a God-send.

Klein's Phillies career wasn't one long stretch. It was broken into three separate tours of duty with the Phils and in each stay, Klein broke records and earned honors along the way. To his honor was a batting title and four homerun titles, which were part of a triple crown honor. He was named the MVP once by the Baseball Writers Association and twice by The Sporting News.

Klein's career wasn't one of those long, storied careers. He seemingly blew into the majors, did his share of damage and left. He played 17 seasons, but only 12 of them were as an everyday player. By today's standards, that would be an accomplishment, but in Klein's era, it wasn't remarkable. By the time his career was over, Klein had hit an even 300 homeruns, was over the 2,000 hit mark and finished with a .320 batting average.

In 1933, Klein was a member of the National League All-Star Team as the starting right fielder. It was memorable because that year's game was the first ever. On the Phillies list of greats, Klein ranks fourth in runs scored (963), fourth in RBI (983), fourth in doubles (336), third in homeruns (243), fourth in total bases (2,898), fifth in career average (.326) and fourth in on base percentage (.383). Among the franchises left-handed hitters, Klein's numbers in hits, RBI, doubles, homeruns, total bases and extra base hits rank number one.

Behind the numbers were a man who simply loved the game of baseball. For Chuck Klein, it may have been a game, but it was a game that required a lot of work, which Klein never grew weary of doing. He was the precursor to Pete Rose. The work showed results, especially when it came to defense. As a young outfielder, Klein was weak to say the least. His gawky nature showed. Before long though, it was the hard work that showed as Klein improved into a strong outfielder. His natural speed helped and he combined that with a good arm to become as good of a defensive outfielder as you could find in the majors.

With his achievements, why did it take until 1980 for Klein to enter the Hall of Fame? One of the reasons, ironically, was his perceived lack of power. Many pointed out that playing at old Baker Bowl provided Klein with an unfair advantage. As a lefty, Klein routinely took advantage of a right-field fence that was just 280 feet from home plate. Klein peppered Broad Street beyond the fence with majestic homeruns. Phillies owner William Baker may have been a little richer if not for Klein's habit of breaking windshields on passing automobiles, which Baker routinely insisted on paying to have replaced. Of course, some of Klein's homeruns didn't endanger any cars, because they carried well across Broad Street and onto the Reading Railroad tracks. That fact was missed by those who sited the short fence as an advantage to Klein. Those critics also forget that in 1930, well before Klein's playing days were over, Baker added a 15 foot high screen to the top of the fence in right field. Baker's reasoning was that "homeruns had become too cheap in Philadelphia." Some argued that Baker was simply tired of the added cost of windshields. Still others, said that Baker feared that Klein may put himself in the homerun – and therefore, the salary class – of the great Babe Ruth.

Klein was originally signed by the Cardinals, but a year and a half after entering the minor leagues, the Phillies purchased Klein from the Fort Wayne team for $5,000. The Yankees had worked out a previous deal that gave them the right of first refusal to match any offer to Klein, but for some reason, didn't exercise it and cleared the way for Klein to come to Philadelphia. Klein came to the Phillies in mid-July and hit his first homerun in just his second game as a Phillie. He finished 1928 with 11 homeruns and a .360 average.

Along with Lefty O'Doul and Don Hurst, Klein gave the 1929 Phillies a hitting tandem that was possibly only equaled by the vaunted New York Yankees. The three men combined for 106 homeruns. All three Phillies outfielders – Klein, O'Doul and Denny Sothern hit .300 or better in 1929, which was duplicated again in 1932 with Klein, Kiddo Davis and Hal Lee.

While O'Doul and Klein put fear into opposing pitchers, Klein's career was largely overshadowed by O'Doul, especially in 1929. That year, O'Doul hit a mighty .398, while Klein was left behind at .356. Behind the averages though, Klein was the more impressive hitter, collecting 43 homeruns (which was then a National League record) and driving in 145 runs while scoring 126. Klein's 43 homeruns stood as a Phillies record until Mike Schmidt hit 48 in 1980 and stood as the Phillies mark as a left-handed hitter until Jim Thome hit 47 in 2003. The 1929 season saw Klein hit a homerun in every park and a total of 14 homeruns in August, to go with his 40 RBI.

Klein's homerun record did come with a little controversy. He and Mel Ott went into the final day of the season with 42 homeruns. Ott's New York Giants were playing the Phillies in a double-header and Klein hit his 43rd in the opening game. In the nightcap, the Phillies walked Ott five times, including once with the bases loaded, to preserve Klein's lead and give him the title and NL record.

As good as Klein was in 1929, his 1930 season was one for the ages. The Phillies were dismal, again finishing in last, 40 games out of first place, even though they hit .315 as a team. Klein hit .386 with 170 RBI, 40 homeruns and 250 hits. Ironically, none of those figures led the league. Bill Terry won the batting title with a .401 average and led the league with 254 hits, while the Cubs Hack Wilson clubbed 56 homeruns and 190 RBI. Klein settled for leading the league in runs, doubles and total bases. He also led in outfield assists with a stunning 44, a modern National League record. Klein's season also consisted of twin 26 game hitting streaks where he hit .481 (53-110) and .433 (49-113).

When the 1931 season rolled around, Klein was looking to top his achievements. Two homeruns on opening day gave the Phillies a 9-5 win over the Giants. It looked like Klein was on a mission, but his season slowed and he finished with a .337 average, 31 homeruns and 121 RBI. In 1932, Klein hit a total of three grand slam homeruns and had 24 homeruns by the end of June. Klein and Ott tied for the league lead in homeruns that season with 38, but Klein led the league with 226 hits, 152 runs, 20 stolen bases, 420 total bases and a .646 slugging average. He added 26 outfield assists to his career totals and swept the two post-season MVP awards.

Ironically, 1930 may have been Klein's best season, but it's 1933 that most remember. It was then that Klein truly stepped to the top of the class. He led the National League in eight offensive categories and became just the sixth player to win the NL Triple Crown with 28 homeruns, 120 RBI and a .368 average. 1933 also brought Klein's first five seasons in the majors to a close with an impressive 180 homeruns, 693 RBI and a batting average of .359.

While the Phillies and their fans were in love with Klein, other teams were as well. Cubs president Bill Veeck, Sr. set his mind on bringing the hard hitting Klein to Chicago. Veeck passed away before the deal was actually completed, but the Cubs talked the Phillies into sending Klein to Chicago for shortstop Mark Koenig, pitcher Ted Kleinhans, outfielder Harvey Henrick and $65,000. The deal was driven by financial problems that plagued the Phillies at the time. Of course, in his first game against the Phillies, Klein slugged two homeruns, but his season total dropped to just 20, while his average dipped to .301 for the 1934 season. Klein's stay in Chicago was unspectacular and his numbers continued to dip. He did get to play in the 1935 World Series as a member of the Cubs and hit .333 in the series.

Early in 1936, Klein's stay in Chicago ended when they shipped him back to Philadelphia along with pitcher Fabian Kowalik and $50,000 for outfielder Ethan Allen and pitcher Curt Davis. Klein wasn't quite the player that he was a few years earlier, but he was still productive and a fan favorite. Klein seemed to make one last stab at glory in 1937, but it was truly his last shot as his numbers fell off significantly in 1938 when he hit just 8 homeruns and hit .247. To his credit, Klein was hampered by injuries, which he insisted on playing through.

In the early part of the 1939 season, Klein and the Phillies parted ways when the Phillies simply released their former hero. The Pirates signed Klein for the rest of the season and he finished the year hitting .284, but the Pirates decided not to keep him and let him go at the end of the season. That release set up one final victory lap for Klein in Philadelphia.

A somewhat worn out Chuck Klein reclaimed the starting right field job for the Phillies in 1940. The Phillies were now in Shibe Park and Klein managed just 7 homeruns and a .218 batting average. Clearly, at age 35, Klein was nearing the end of his career. The Phillies were able to keep Klein around because of the fact that the team was simply so bad that it didn't really matter. Plus, World War II sent many younger players off to fight for their country, so Klein was able to hang on through the 1944 season, but over his last four seasons with the Phillies, Klein got just 106 at bats and 73 of those were in 1941 when Klein hit his last career homerun.

Klein finished his career as a weak pinch-hitter and as a coach for the Phillies. After he retired as an active player, he bought a bar in northeast Philadelphia. It was an ill-advised decision for a man who had battled problems with alcohol through a large part of his life. Before too long though financial problems forced Klein to sell the bar. Klein's life off the field had never been perfect and without baseball to keep him out of trouble, his personal life suffered. The financial problems mounted as did domestic issues. Klein's 20 year marriage dissolved and his health failed. Paralyzed by a stroke, a lonely, broke and ailing, Klein moved back to his native Indianapolis and passed away in March of 1958 from cancer. Klein was just 53 years old.

In his prime, Klein was the king of Philadelphia baseball. He was the shining star on a series of bad Phillies teams. Outside of Philadelphia, he was never as popular as he was in the City of Brotherly Love. That fact helped to slow Klein's entrance to the Hall of Fame, which finally came in 1980. Had Klein been able to avoid pitfalls in his personal life, there's no telling what he may have accomplished on the field. Only 12 seasons as an everyday player produced some pretty impressive numbers. Klein was immortalized by the Phillies when they added his name to the likes of Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn, who had all had their numbers retired by the team.


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