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Today in Angels history: Ted Kluszewski homers twice in the first game

Home runs in his first two at-bats in the Angels’ first-ever game, in 1961.

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The Angels played their very first game on this date in 1961, and the expansion team got as good a debut they could have hoped for thanks to Ted Kluszewski.

The longtime Reds slugger, known for his broad shoulders and huge forearms wearing those sleeveless Cincinnati jerseys, was one of the game’s best power hitters in the mid-1950s, averaging 43 home runs during his four All-Star years (1953-56). A back injury sapped his power, hitting just 19 total home runs from 1957-60 in part-time duty with the Reds, Pirates, and White Sox.

Now 36, Kluszewski was selected by the Angels in the December 1960 expansion draft, and found himself batting cleanup in their first game as a franchise, on April 11, 1961 against the Orioles in Baltimore.

Angels manager Bill Rigney planned to platoon at several positions, including first base with the left-handed Kluszewski sharing time with the right-handed Steve Bilko. With right-handed pitcher Milt Pappas on the mound in the opener for Baltimore, it was Kluszewski at first base for the Halos.

The night before the first game, Kluszewski spoke to reporters over the phone, and was asked his expectations for opening day. Per ‘The Sporting News,’ Kluszewski said, “If that Pappas is pitching, I’ll do alright. I’ve always been able to hit him.”

Pappas was just 22 at the time, but was starting his fifth major league season. But he only faced Kluszewski in two previous at-bats, both in 1960. On July 15, Kluszewski ended the game with a fly out to right field, and on Aug. 28 he flew out to what the play log described as “deep center field.” Despite the 0-for-2, Kluszewski was on to something.

With two outs in the first inning, Kluszewski — “On this chilly day, he has that heavy sweatshirt on, no muscles bare here this afternoon,” noted Angels announcer Don Wells on the radio broadcast — slammed a ball over the right field wall at Memorial Stadium for the first two runs in Angels history.

Four walks by Pappas and an RBI single by Albie Pearson in the second inning ended Pappas’ day after just 13 batters, but it brought Kluszewski to the plate with two runners on and a 4-0 lead, this time against reliever John Papa.

The result was the same, with Kluszewski homering again to right field. The Angels led 7-0, and after two at-bats, he had two home runs and five RBI.

It was a windy day in Baltimore, but as John Steadman noted in the Baltimore Sun, “Klu hit one 450 feet. In August, with not a breath of air stirring, the ball would have traveled only 449 feet.”

White Sox manager Al Lopez, who managed Kluszewski the previous season and a half in Chicago, was in Washington D.C. to play the Senators, but watched the Angels opener in Baltimore on his off day. “Maybe I learned something — how not to pitch to Ted Kluszewski,” he joked to reporters, per ‘The Sporting News.’

Kluszewski further proved prophetic the next time he faced Pappas, taking him deep in the first inning for another two-run home run on May 4 in Los Angeles.

The Angels won that opener, 7-2, and had the best record in the history of baseball, for a good four days. Rain wreaked havoc with their early schedule, forcing five postponements in the first two weeks. They didn’t get another game in against the Orioles, and didn’t play again until April 15 against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

So they got to live off that opening victory for a few days, and Ted Kluszewski was the hero.