Monday, August 24, 2009

Chuck Klein and the Cubs

One of the more interesting stories in baseball was that of Chuck Klein. We reviewed his career as part of the research we are doing for a new books on the Cubs.

In the off-season in early 1934, the Cubs traded for Philadelphia Phillies outfielder, Chuck Klein. They were looking for a superstar hitter. Klein had played remarkably well for the Phillies in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He was a strong player who excelled in hitting and fielding with good speed on the bases. Klein was the only player to collect 200 or more hits in each of his first five seasons. In 1930, Klein had a record-breaking 44 outfield assists. He had several great seasons as a National League star. He hit 43 round trippers in 1929, 40 in 1930 and 31 in 1931. As National League MVP in 1932, he had 38 home runs, 137 RBIs and batted .348. In 1933 he had a .368 average with 28 home runs and 120 runs batted in.

However, Cub management overestimated Klein’s immpact at Wrigley. He had mastered playing in the quirky Phillies Park nicknamed the “Baker Bowl.” The Baker Bowl featured a short right field with a tall wall of composite materials that was covered in a metallic shell that displayed a Lifebuoy soap advertisement. Klein routinely lofted balls over the Lifebuoy sign for home runs and he bounced balls off it for hits. He had also mastered playing balls that careened off the oddly constructed barrier. In 1929, when Klein looked like he was going to give Babe Ruth's home run record a run for the money, the Phillies owner put a fence on top of the existing right field barrier increasing the overall height to 60 feet.

Klein's Cub Career

With Klein in the 1934 lineup, the Cubs opened the season against the Reds in Cincinnati’s Crosley Field on April 17. Cub pitcher Lon Warneke had a no hitter going into the ninth when Adam Comorosky blooped a single to center with one out. The Cubs won Warneke’s one-hitter by a score of 6-0. Klein lofted one over the right field wall that was 360 feet from home plate—80 feet further than the Baker Bowl’s 60 foot tall wall. Klein could hit anywhere.

Klein was 24 when his Major League career began in 1928 for the Phillies. He was 30 when he began his run with the Cubs. For the Cubs, Klein hit 20 home runs in 1934 and 21 in 1935. Looking back at his time with the Cubs, he said that he felt the pressure at Wrigley. Who knows what kind of production the Cubs expected, but they traded him back to the Phillies in 1936 and he hit a total of 25 home runs that year. His career trailed off after that.

Historians are not sure what to make of Klein's career because he played in the Baker Bowl and some of his best seasons took place when the ball was very lively in the National League.

Klein like other sluggers of his time took advantage of a lively ball in the National League, but it does not appear to have influenced his career as much as others. Some believe the ball was at its liveliest in 1930 and was deadened thereafter. This is one reason some give for Hack Wilson's drop in home run production from 56 in 1930 to 13 in 1931 and 23 in 1932. Wilson suggested that Cubs Manager Rogers Hornsby had something to do with his hitting problems in 1931 when Hornsby had him take a lot of 3-0 pitches that McCarthy, the prior Cubs manager would have allowed Hack to swing at.

Klein's numbers did not fall off as drastically as Wilson's in 1931 and 1932. Despite the deadening of the ball, Klein hit 38 home runs in 1932. His drop in power as a Cub in 1934 and the following years may have had more to do with his aging and the pressure he felt as the "next great slugger" for the Cubs. Klein had thrived in the friendly low-pressure atmosphere of Philadelphia playing for the lowly Phillies.

Still, Klein was a solid performer for the Cubs, but he did not live up to the high expectations that Chicago had for him. We'll never know exactly why. The one thing we know for sure about Chuck Klein is that he livened things up for Philadelphia fans in lean times at an odd ball park that is part of baseball's quirky past. It must have been fun to see him battle the Lifebuoy sign even though the Phillies by all accounts, well...stunk.

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