Tuesday, May 2, 2017

228. Jack Kloza: Home Runs, Mosquitos, Hats and the Rockford Peaches


Like so many of the players I write about, I found Jack Kloza while searching for something else. And, like so many of the outsiders I write about, what at first just seemed like a marginal career highlighted by a brief cup of coffee in the majors, turned out to be a very interesting tale on so many levels. I was drawn to this fella because the grainy 1936 newspaper article I found showed a guy who looked remarkably like a young Charles Bronson. A glance at the name "Kloza" and I could tell it was some kind of "Americanized" Polish name. A little more digging and I found out that Jack Kloza was indeed not only of Polish ethnicity, but was one of only four major leaguers to have been born in Poland. That alone was enough to add his name and clipping to my "to do" files. And then, as the years passed by, the "Kloza File" grew and grew, each new piece of his career making an already interesting character more appealing. Finally, with the Kloza File just under an inch thick, I spread it all out in my studio and began typing...

Note: Although every record book and internet database has him listed by a nickname of "Nap Kloza", every single piece of research I have accumulated refers to him as "Jack Kloza" - the name "Nap" never appears in any contemporary newspaper story in my file. Because of this, I refer to him by the name of "Jack".

Jack Kloza was born Jan Klojzy on September 7, 1903 in Siedliska, Poland. Siedliska is located in the south-eastern part of modern day Poland. This region was called Galicia, and had changed hands several times since Poland was divided between Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary at the end of the 18th century. When Jan Klojzy was born in 1903, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Jan was the second child of Wawrzyniec and Franciszka, his sister Marta being born two years earlier. Shortly after his son's birth, Wawrzyniec emigrated to the United States. After landing at Ellis Island, he proceeded west to Milwaukee where there was a large community of Galician Poles. He took odd jobs as a general laborer, and after five years had saved enough to secure passage to America for his wife and two children. Franciszka, Marta, and Jan sailed to America in the spring of 1908 and joined Wawrzyniec in Milwaukee. The family first lived on Dousman Street and then Bolton Street, both in the city's predominantly Polish 13th Ward.

The 13th Ward had a particularly vibrant baseball scene dating back to the turn of the century when the first wave of Polish immigrants arrived. Like immigrants before and after them, Milwaukee's Poles embraced the game of baseball as a way of blending into the fabric that is America. The "Patron Saint" of Polish baseball in Milwaukee was Louis Fons. Born in Milwaukee in 1878, Fons was the son of Polish immigrants and had been a pretty good semi-pro ballplayer before becoming a real estate investor. A pillar of the Polish-American community, in 1909 Fons assumed the reigns of the Kosciuszko Monument Cigars team that played in the City League. Besides being the team's financial backer, Fons played second base and captained the club. After finishing in second place that first year, Fons hung up his spikes and concentrated on making his team a powerhouse. He outfitted the team in uniforms of bright red - Poland's national color - and dubbed the club the Kosciusko Reds. Note the dropping of the "z" from Kosciuszko to "Americanize" the moniker and allowing it to fit better on the new uniforms. Dubbed the "Koskys" in the newspapers, the Kosciusko Reds ruled Milwaukee's semi-pro scene for the next decade. 
 
In this vibrant baseball culture, young Jan Klojzy learned to play ball. Sometime during his teen years, Jan Klojzy became Jack Kloza, and he began making a name for himself on the Milwaukee sandlots as a hard-hitting catcher. Kloza caught for a succession of amateur clubs, first the Gordon's, then moving over to the Straub's, followed by the Jay-Kays and finally St. Casimir's. 

By 1924, Kloza's bat was powerful enough that he was invited to join the semi-pro Bonita Kandy Kids. Like many large companies in the decades before World War II, the Bonita Candy Company of Fond du La, Wisconsin fielded a highly competitive baseball team. Besides guaranteeing their ballplayers an easy day job in exchange for playing ball on the weekends, companies like Bonita Candy paid their players an extra salary on a per-game basis. As the Kandy Kids backstop, Jack Kloza earned the princely sum of $5 a game, about what the average factory worker made in an 8 hour day. The following year Kloza was dropped from the Kandy Kids when the league instituted a no-ringers clause.  

Fortunately, Kloza's renown in the Wisconsin sandlot scene attracted the interest of  George "Stormy" Kromer. "Stormy Kromer" may sound familiar to natives of the upper Midwest as it is the name of a style of hat popular in that region. Although you might not know it by that name, a Stormy Kromer cap looks like a thick wool ball cap with ear flaps. Holden Caulfield wore one throughout the book "A Catcher in the Rye" and bomber crewman wore a leather and fur version during World War II. Available at any outdoor and camping outfitters, you still see hunters and fishermen donning these caps today. In fact, the Stormy Kromer hat was invented by George "Stormy" Kromer. Kromer was a Milwaukee semi-pro baseball player around the turn of the century who became a railroad engineer after his playing days ended. When he lost one too many hats at work to the wind, Kromer had his wife modify one of his old baseball caps with ear flaps, and the "Stormy Kromer" was born. The hat proved so popular that Kromer's wife was swamped with orders, and in 1903 the Kromer Cap Company was founded. Now a wealthy haberdasher, Stormy Kromer returned to his first love, baseball.

In 1925 Kromer bought the Blytheville, Arkansas Tigers of the Class D Tri-State League. Already known for creating a new headgear in his image, Kromer installed himself as the Tigers' general manager and skipper, and set about modifying bush league baseball. 

Up until this point, the minor leagues were used as a stepping stone to the major leagues. Even the most low level minor league team was expected to field a competitive team, and as such, their rosters were a mixture of veterans sprinkled with a few youngsters trying to make good. If a young player was lucky - and talented enough - he gained experience by watching the older players on his team. Dedicated coaching staffs were still decades in the future and a young player was basically left to sink or swim as he made his way up the ladder of organized ball. Stormy Kromer looked to change that. Once assuming the helm, Kromer invited over 211 aspiring ballplayers to try out for the Tigers. Many of these kids were from Kromer's native Wisconsin, including a sizable contingent from Milwaukee. 

Stormy piloted the Tigers to a 31-77 record, and a dismal 35 game losing streak set a new organized baseball record. Stormy maintained all along that he was concentrating more on developing young players than winning a pennant, but that didn't soothe the embarrassed Blytheville rooters. Although today's low-level minor leagues are used entirely to develop young players, back in 1925 this was a new idea. Kromer's revolutionary concept was lost on the Blytheville fans who expected their local nine to at least field a competitive lineup, and the community sued the forward-thinking owner/manager for $2,500 for breach of contract. Needless to say, Kromer was the most unpopular man in the state of Arkansas, but 11 of his kids were indeed sold to higher level minor league teams, including a 21 year-old catcher named Jack Kloza.

Kloza's gaudy .373 average had shone like a diamond amidst the muck of Blytheville's season, and was tops in the Tri-State League. Birmingham of the Southern Association purchased his contract and Kloza was sent to their farm team in Alexandria for 1926. The manager took Kloza out from behind the plate and stationed him at third base. He adjusted well to his new surroundings, and after less than a dozen games was promoted to the Montgomery Lions. Kloza's .379 was second-highest in the Southeastern League (the league leader hit .392 in just 73 at bats as opposed to Kloza's 114). The third baseman did, however, lead the loop with 19 triples and came in second with 29 doubles. 

For 1927, Kloza's contract was shifted to the Albany Nuts of the same league. Right from the start Kloza tore apart the league's out-classed pitchers. He hit well over .400 throughout the summer as local sportswriters called him the "Babe Ruth of the Southeast" and scouts frothed at the mouth trying to obtain his services. On July 24th it was reported that the Brooklyn Dodgers had shelled out $65,000 for his contract ($20,000 now, $45,000 later in trade and incentives), a record amount for a Class B player. It was also stated that Connie Mack, in the midst of assembling what will be called the greatest dynasty in Major League history, had bid $25,000 for Kloza, but came up short. Somewhere along the way the Dodgers deal fell through and Kloza remained under contract with Birmingham. In 122 games he was hitting .404 with 28 home runs when the parent club called him up in September. The Barons were locked in a tight pennant race with New Orleans, and it was hoped that the addition of the Southeastern League's "Babe Ruth" would be enough to put them over the top. Kloza got into 19 games and hit a modest .255 with a pair of homers before the Barons finished in second place. All told, Kloza was the Southeastern League's batting champ and runner up in home runs. Though the Brooklyn deal collapsed, the Washington Senators stepped in and purchased the slugging third baseman for spring, 1928 delivery. 

In March 1928, Jack Kloza prepared travel to Tampa, Florida for his first big league spring training camp. Then, his mother Franciszka took sick and postponed his departure. Although I haven't found any hard evidence, Franciszka Kloza doesn't show up in any public record after 1927, so it is probable she passed away at this time. Meanwhile, Kloza's impending arrival was much anticipated in the Tampa camp. When he did make his appearance, Jack Kloza did not disappoint. Scribes described him as "a powerfully built chap" with "hands of really enormous proportions". His first at bat produced a drive which one writer delusionally touted as "250 yards". Kloza continued to knock the ball all over the training field, leading the Senators veteran manager Bucky Harris to exclaim to owner Clark Griffith "If you think we have some sluggers on this ball club wait until you have looked at this fellow Kloza".

By the second week of camp the beat writers were reporting that Kloza was a lock to make the club. Management moved the big slugger to the outfield where his sped and cannon arm could do the most damage to opposing teams. On March 23 Harris put Kloza in to replace Sam Rice in the outfield in a game against the Reading of the International League. In his pair of at bats he hit a triple and a home run. A week later, after ten spring training games, Kloza was leading all Washington batters with a .750 average. Granted, this is spring training, but you have to think that at the time the Senators lineup featured Hall of Famers Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Joe Cronin and George Sisler.

The week of March 28, 1928 would be the high point of Jack Kloza's career.

In the first week of April it began to be reported that Kloza's prodigious strength at the plate began to slip. On the surface it would be easy to speculate that the rookie just cooled off after a fast start, however, the truth was quite different. Kloza had contracted the disease that haunted all ballplayers in the pre-World War II south - malaria. This mosquito-born disease which we now only associate with tropical third-world countries was once common in the southern United States. Not only did malaria hit you when first infected, but the disease could reappear at random points throughout a person's life. The fear of contracting malaria was once so prevalent that many northern-born baseball players refused to be assigned to southern ball clubs, even if it meant giving up a promotion. Although by the late 1920's the chances of contracting the disease was less than it was at the turn of the century, Jack Kloza was one of the unlucky ones who did. His once strong body wracked with fever and vomiting, Kloza lost 40 pounds before he was able to leave the hospital. With his strength sapped, Kloza could not hit nor field like he did in March. The Senators broke camp and headed north to start the 1928 season, leaving Jack Kloza behind. 

The Senators optioned Kloza to the Louisville Colonels, but still ravaged by malaria, he couldn't produce. After an 0 for 22 slump and batting just .100, Kloza was released to Chattanooga of the Southern Association where he floundered. Most ball players would have given up at this point, but not Jack Kloza. The Montgomery Lions took a chance and signed their old batting champ for 1929. Kloza managed to assemble a decent season trying to play himself back to health. On September 7 he married his hometown sweetheart, Rose Ronowski, in a ceremony held in Montgomery. Kloza finished off the season by hitting .299 with scouting reports good enough to earn a promotion to the Texas League for 1930.

Playing for the Witchita Falls Spudders, Kloza murdered the ball at a .347 clip. He also finished in the top five in hits, total bases, and home runs. On August 7, the Kloza's welcomed their first child, a daughter they named Rosann. The only downside to his fine season was that his work in the outfield was sub-par, leading the Texas League in errors with 24 misplays. It was a miraculous come-back and one which earned him trip back home - not in defeat, but as a member of the Milwaukee Brewers.  

The Brewers were members of the American Association, which back then was one of three minor leagues that were ranked just one level below the Major Leagues. A good season in the American Association could earn Kloza a second chance at the big leagues. Going into August, Kloza was batting .308. On August 14th, the Brewers and Toledo Mud Hens were locked in a 0-0 pitcher's duel when Kloza hits a 7th inning home run to put the Brewers on top. Three days later Jack Kloza was playing right field for the St. Louis Browns in the American League.

The Browns obtained Kloza in exchange for outfielder Tom Jenkins. He made his big league debut in the August 16th double header against Washington. In the first game Kloza went hitless in two at bats with a strike out. In the night cap he went 1 for 3 with a walk and strike out. Four days later Kloza struck out in his only two at bats against the Yankees. Then, before he could get into another game, baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis voided the Kloza-Jenkins trade and returned both players to their original teams. Newspaper reports were kind of vague in regards to Landis' ruling, but it had something to do with Jenkins being out of minor league options which made him ineligiable for a trade with Milwaukee. Whatever the reason, Kloza was back with the Brewers. A few weeks later the Browns tried to do the same maneuver, but again, Landis blocked the trade. The Browns were obviously very keen to get Kloza back in St. Louis because the notoriously cash-poor franchise eventually coughed up cash to buy the outfielder out-right. The deal stipulated that Kloza was to report to the Browns for spring training the following year. 

At spring training, Kloza was one of the more highly touted prospects. The Browns were in the midst of a couple decades of baseball ineptitude, and a promising slugger like Jack Kloza stood out. With the dearth of talent available, plus regular right fielder Red Kress holding out for more money, Kloza had a great shot at making the club as a starter. Then, just as it did in 1928, tragedy grabbed hold of Jack Kloza. On March 16, Kloza was batting against Browns ace George Blaeholder in an inter-squad game. Blaeholder was the first major leaguer to throw the slider on a regular basis, and it might have been one of those unfamiliar pitches that slammed into Kloza's wrist that afternoon. The injury was serious enough that he was removed from the game and sent to the hospital. X-rays showed no broken bones, but Kloza remained sidelined for the next few weeks. Even with his mangled hand, the Browns had Kloza penciled in alongside Goose Goslin and Fred Schulte as one of the three starting outfielders for when the season began. Then, just before opening day, Red Kress ended his hold out and signed his contract. Though now relegated to reserve outfielder, Kloza still made the Browns opening day roster.

Right from the start, Jack Kloza failed to meet the expectations placed on him. It's unknown whether his hand was still damaged from the drilling it took in spring training or his inability to hit big league pitching. Whatever the reason, his batting average hovered below .200. With veterans Kress, Goslin and Schulte, Kloza's playing time was reduced to mostly pinch hitting, a specialized skill that even the best players seldom master. Still, every once in a while, Kloza showed a bit of what the Browns expected from him: on May 24 he came off the bench to hit an RBI triple that sparked a 7-run rally to beat Detroit. Kloza got into ten more games, again, mostly as a pinch hitter, before sending him back to the minors in exchange for Art Scharein. Now with the Longview Cannibals, Kloza tried his best to slug his way back to the Browns. On August 13th, Kloza batted in 8 runs with two doubles and a home run against the Tyler Sports. The Browns recalled him in mid-September, but he never made it into a game.

Kloza was back with Milwaukee for 1933, and over the next couple of seasons he became one of the best sluggers in the American Association. Kloza hit a healthy .326 with 26 homers in 1934, sparking rumors of another trip to The Show. But, just as it always seemed to do, bad luck stepped in. A collision with a telephone pole that made up part of the outfield wall in Milwaukee's Borchert Field damaged Kloza's right elbow. The injury robbed Kloza of both his strong throwing arm and the power needed to drive the ball out of the park. He limped through the summer of 1935 with a .305 average paired with a lousy 8 homers before the Brewers shut him down in mid-August. In a gutsy move for the time period, the team sent their prized player to a surgeon who removed a growth in hopes it would restore the elbow back to full strength. In spring training the following year, Kloza gamely tried to work his elbow back into shape, but after a few days admitted he couldn't do anything with it. He returned to Milwaukee where doctors were unable to help him. Kloza appeared in 19 games as a pinch hitter and managed just two hits, one of them a homer, before he quit the team. The Brewers kept him on as a scout and he underwent a second surgery in anticipation of another comeback. His signing with Milwaukee for 1937 made headlines in the Midwest, but the old power just wasn't there and Kloza was released just before the season began.

Jack Kloza was 33 years old with a career as a baseball player now behind him. He and Rose now had two more children in addition to Rosann: Jacqueline born in 1931 and Jack Jr. born in 1935. Jack needed to look for a new career. Since he'd had his last gasp of glory playing for Milwaukee, he was still extremely popular in his hometown. Kloza leveraged his celebrity into a succession of jobs teaching baseball to the city's kids. The newly-retired ballplayer teamed up with fellow Milwaukee big leaguer Anthony "Bunny" Brief to create two baseball leagues. Brief, whose given name was the tongue-twisting Anthony Grzeszkowski, had played with the Browns, White Sox and Pirates from 1912 to 1917. He took the league representing the neighborhoods from Milwaukee's Southside and Kloza took the Northsiders. By 1944 the "Stars of Yesteryear" league had 85 teams with 6,500 kids. Many local kids learned the fundamentals of the game from these two former big leaguers, and the city of Milwaukee was able to boast that it had one of the most talented sandlot baseball scenes in the nation. This level of talent was represented in the city being represented by winning teams in most of the national tournaments held throughout the 1940's and 50's.

Besides coaching Milwaukee's kids, in 1944 another opportunity opened up for Jack Kloza. Two full years of war had fully depleted the major and minor leagues. With no end in sight, and an increasingly poor product passed off as big league baseball, the All-American Professional Girls Baseball League was formed in 1943. When the league was expanded from four to six teams the following year, Jack Kloza joined former major leaguers Max Carey, Marty McManus, Bubber Jonnard and Bert Niehoff plus Chicago Blackhawks hockey star Johnny Gottselig as managers. Kloza was assigned to the Rockford Peaches, the team made famous in the movie "A League of Our Own". Despite having the best player the AAGPBL produced, Dottie Kamenshek, at first base, the Peaches found themselves in last place in the mid-July. With his record standing at 24-32, Rockford gave Kloza the boot. Then again, contradictory newspaper articles contend that Rockford's skipper resigned over some kind of disagreement with the league office in Chicago. For his part, Jack Kloza refused to say why he left.

Kloza went back to Milwaukee and poured his energy back into the Stars of Yesteryear League. Through he and Bunny Brief's tireless efforts, the league expanded to include over 10,000 boys. While he must have been proud whenever one of his boy's made good, 1952 must have been extra special. That year, his son, Jack, Jr., was selected as the catcher for the team representing Milwaukee in the annual Hearst Sandlot Classic tournament in New York. Jack Jr. later went on to study at St. Mary’s University and became a high school coach.

The big slugger passed away on June 11, 1962, aged 58. Besides leaving behind his wife Rose and four children, Jack Kloza left a legion of thankful Milwaukee kids who learned to play baseball from the friendly former major leaguer. Although he played just 22 games in the majors, Jack Kloza batted .329 with 129 home runs over 12 minor league seasons. And while he might not have a plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame, he did make it to Cooperstown, as part of the exhibit on the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

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