SABR

Billy Klaus

This article was written by Charlie Bevis.

A two-month stretch during the summer of 1955 elevated Billy Klaus from a cup-of-coffee nobody to a Boston civic hero before he settled into a journeyman role. He played four seasons with the Red Sox and five more with three other teams before retiring as a major-league player in 1963. At 5-feet-9 and 165 pounds, Klaus was a small-stature, dirt-dog ballplayer who scrapped and clawed through every inning.

After watching two other players try to win the shortstop position earlier in the 1955 season, and being in a two-platoon system for a few weeks playing only against right-handed pitchers, Klaus was anointed the club’s “regular” shortstop by Red Sox manager Mike Higgins on June 5. This was the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work by Klaus, then a 26-year-old rookie and a veteran of nine minor-league seasons.

Klaus seized the opportunity and collected four hits in five at-bats in his first game as the regular shortstop and became the sparkplug of an unanticipated pennant drive in 1955, the last serious midsummer pennant chase by the Red Sox before the 1967 Impossible Dream season. During a two-month stretch, Klaus hit safely in 51 of 61 games. The Sox played at a .721 winning percentage (44-17) to move from a 20-29 record on the morning of June 5, 14½ games out of first place, to a 64-46 record on the morning of August 10, just 1½ games out, in a tight four-club race for the American League pennant. The club played under .500 the rest of the season to slide to a fourth-place finish, 12 games behind the first-place Yankees. Klaus dipped to a .283 average, still good for top 20 in the league, and finished second in the Rookie of the Year balloting behind Cleveland pitcher Herb Score.

William Joseph Klaus was born on December 9, 1928, in Spring Grove, Illinois, a town 50 miles northwest of Chicago and three miles south of the Wisconsin border. He was the oldest son of Norbert and Eleanor Klaus. Along with several sisters and brothers (including Bobby, who also went on to play major-league baseball), Klaus grew up in Spring Grove on the dairy farm of his grandfather, Joseph Klaus, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1880s.

Immediately after graduating from Grant High School in neighboring Fox Lake, the 17-year-old Klaus began his baseball career in 1946 as a third basemen for the Appleton Papermakers in the Class D Wisconsin State League, the very bottom of the 11-club farm system of the Cleveland Indians. When it was determined that Cleveland had illegally signed him while he was still in high school, Klaus became a free agent after the season. The Chicago Cubs signed Klaus and sent him to Centralia, Illinois, in the Class D Illinois State League for the 1947 season. At Centralia, Klaus led the league in hitting with a .341 average. Those exploits earned him a promotion to Clinton, Iowa, in the Class C Central Association for the 1948 season, where Klaus batted .316 with 35 doubles to help Clinton finish in first place in the regular season and also win the league playoffs. After marrying Jean Ochse in October, his next stop was Springfield, Massachusetts, in the Class B New England League for the 1949 season, where Klaus hit .327 to finish fourth among league hitters. Klaus played in the league’s final game ever on September 18, 1949, when the Cubs lost to the Portland (Maine) Pilots, in the final round of the league playoffs.

In December 1949, Klaus was selected in the minor-league draft by the unaffiliated Dallas club of the Double-A Texas League. Dallas was managed by Charlie Grimm, the former manager of the Cubs. Perhaps more fortuitously for Klaus, who batted .297 for the fifth-place Eagles in 1950, Grimm had a falling-out with the Dallas owner and they parted ways a few weeks after the season ended. Two weeks later, Grimm signed to manage the Milwaukee farm club in the Boston Braves system in the Triple-A American Association. Soon thereafter, Boston purchased Klaus’ contract from Dallas and assigned him to Milwaukee. Within a 15-month time span, Klaus rose from Class B to the Triple-A level, the highest in the minor leagues.

With Klaus anchoring third base, Grimm piloted the Milwaukee Brewers to first place in the American Association in 1951. The ballclub went on to win the league playoffs and the Little World Series, defeating Montreal of the International League. Klaus, who batted .285 for Milwaukee in 1951, was ostensibly a prime candidate for the Boston Braves’ third base position in 1952 to replace aging Bob Elliott. However, future Hall-of-Famer Eddie Mathews took the job and held it for the next 15 seasons.

At the 1952 Braves camp in Bradenton, Florida, Klaus needed to display all the spunk he could to make the Braves team. When manager Tommy Holmes looked to Mathews for third, Klaus shifted to shortstop to compete with Jack Cusick and Johnny Logan. While Klaus made the major-league roster for the start of the season, he played in only five games, going 0-for-4, before returning to Milwaukee in late April. In September, after Milwaukee lost to Kansas City in the American Association playoffs, Klaus was recalled by the Braves and got into two games. Klaus returned to Milwaukee for the winter, working for the ballclub to sell season tickets for the newly constructed County Stadium, where the club planned to move from aging Borchert Field. Little did Klaus know he was actually selling tickets for major-league baseball, not minor-league baseball, as the Braves relocated from Boston to Milwaukee for the 1953 season.

Grimm had been promoted to manage the Boston Braves in mid-1952, and kept Klaus on the Milwaukee Braves roster in 1953 as a reserve infielder. However, there was little chance for Klaus to stick. Logan and Mathews were now locked into their positions on the left side of the Braves infield. After Klaus pinch-hit in two games that April, the Braves sent him down to Toledo in the American Association (where the Milwaukee minor-league franchise had relocated) so he could play shortstop full time.

Before spring training began in 1954, the Braves sent Klaus to the New York Giants as a toss-in in a blockbuster trade. The Braves traded Johnny Antonelli, Don Liddle, and Ebba St. Clair along with Klaus to the Giants in exchange for Bobby Thomson and Sam Calderone. While Antonelli and Liddle helped lead the Giants to the National League pennant in 1954, Klaus hit .280 with 21 homers and 33 doubles at the Triple-A level with Minneapolis of the American Association. With little hope of succeeding Al Dark as shortstop on the Giants, Klaus continued to play hard-nose baseball and was voted the shortstop on the American Association all-star team at the end of the season.

In December 1954, the Giants traded him to the Red Sox in exchange for backup catcher Del Wilber. The trade hardly made a ripple in the Boston press. “Wilber to Giants, Red Sox Get Klaus,” the Boston Herald headlined in a very brief item about the trade. The Herald speculated that Klaus was destined to remain in the minor leagues, reporting, “[I]n view of the club’s plans for Don Buddin, young shortstop who played last year at Louisville, Billy would be likely to go to the Colonels.”

Red Sox rookie manager Mike Higgins is often credited with arranging for the trade, based on his observations during his four years as manager of the Sox’ Louisville farm club. “Every time Billy’s team beat us, that little buzzard had something to do with it,” Higgins said in 1956. “And he always hit best against the best pitchers. The tougher things were, the tougher he became. He was a money player.” But Higgins deflected credit for the find, saying early in the 1955 season, “Don’t forget, [general manager] Joe Cronin had [scout] Clayton Sheedy out watching Klaus last season.”

“I always thought I could make good if I was given the opportunity,” Klaus told Hy Hurwitz in a July 1955 profile in The Sporting News. “I knew [the Red Sox] had an infield problem. There were no stars to beat out of a job as was the case [when I was] on the Braves and Giants. I was pretty sure that this was my year.”

Klaus still had to wait in line for an opportunity with the Red Sox. Higgins initially tabbed Milt Bolling as the top candidate for shortstop, and slated Klaus for a tryout at third base. After Bolling fractured his elbow in a spring-training game in March and was out for two months, Higgins tried both Owen Friend and Eddie Joost at shortstop. Higgins then platooned Klaus with both players for several stints (sitting Klaus against left-handed pitchers) and tried Klaus at third base. Nearly nine weeks into the 1955 season, in June 5, Higgins announced Klaus would be the regular shortstop.

Klaus had already demonstrated his scrappy play earlier in the season. On May 4, he rapped his first major-league hit, a seventh inning, two-out, game-tying RBI single off Detroit’s Frank Lary that helped propel the Red Sox to victory in extra innings and stop a six-game losing streak. A week later, on May 11, Klaus smashed a two-run homer to help defeat the White Sox and end a five-game slide. At the May 15 roster cut-down date, Klaus survived the cut for the first time in his career. And on June 5, Klaus helped the Sox catch fire as noted, surging from 14 ½ behind to 1 ½ on August 9.

A Klaus error on August 10 in the 13th inning led to a Sox loss that began the club’s exit from the 1955 pennant race.

Although Ted Williams and Norm Zauchin received most of the credit for the Red Sox’ success, Klaus gathered his share. He made Williams and Zauchin better hitters by consistently getting on base, making it more difficult for pitchers to pitch around the sluggers. Joe Reichler, in a piece for the Associated Press, wrote: “The real sparkplug of the Red Sox is an unheralded, unwanted, and undismayed Billy Klaus. The spirited little rookie shortstop actually has been more important to the Sox cause than even Mr. Slugger Himself, Ted Williams.” Klaus was first tabbed with the “sparkplug” label two months earlier by Boston American writer Mike Gillooly, who wrote a number of articles about Klaus before the other Boston newspapers picked up on the Klaus story. On June 9, Gillooly wrote: “Sparkplug Billy Klaus has hit .417 on this trip and he was responsible for pushing across the winning run” in the 5-4 Sox victory over the Indians. Gillooly brought out Klaus’s personality and optimism in his articles, often referring to Klaus “grinning” as he spoke. “You’ve got to believe the club you’re on is the best club in the league,” Klaus said in a July 5 story in the American. “You’ve gotta believe it until they prove otherwise. They haven’t proved it to me.”

Besides bringing an engaging personality and happy-go-lucky attitude to the Red Sox in 1955, Klaus didn’t feel he did anything differently on the ball field to spark the team’s pennant drive. “I’m hitting the same way. Fielding the same,” he told Mark Morgan in an October 1955 article in Baseball Digest. “Maybe better playing conditions here help a little—better lights, more comfortable travel, better fields, things like that. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m doing the same job as I always did.”

For Klaus, the trade from the Giants to the Red Sox was fortuitous for another reason—he found a home base for his family in Sarasota, Florida, the spring training camp of the Red Sox. After reportedly moving his family 32 times before landing with the Red Sox, Klaus maintained a home in Sarasota for the next five decades. He and his wife, Jean, raised four children there, twins Dale and Donna and their siblings Nancy and Joseph.

On February 2, 1956, Klaus was awarded the first annual Harry Agganis Memorial Award by the Boston baseball writers as the Red Sox Rookie of the Year. The award was named after the Red Sox first baseman who had unexpectedly died in June 1955. “I didn’t know Harry very long, but I grew to admire him,” Klaus said after accepting the award. “We’ll be in the pennant race right up to our neck [in 1956], maybe just for Harry Agganis.” Ted Williams sent a telegram from his home in Florida, congratulating Klaus and articulating his value to the team as only Ted could put it: “Billy Klaus was one of the greatest little competitors I ever played with.”

Despite his stellar performance in 1955, Klaus was bumped as regular shortstop in the 1956 season in favor of rookie phenom Don Buddin. Klaus returned to third base and briefly platooned with rookie Frank Malzone. When the Sox shipped Malzone back to the minors, Klaus was the regular third baseman for the 1956 season. He hit a respectable .271 in 135 games, with 29 doubles and 91 runs scored, mainly batting second in the batting order.

With Buddin in the military for the 1957 season, Klaus moved back to shortstop, beating out Billy Consolo, as Malzone took over at third base. Also making the club were Gene Mauch, who initially landed the second-baseman job, and Mickey Vernon, a first baseman. Friendships with the latter two players would pay dividends for Klaus later in his career. The Red Sox were in third place for much of the summer, after winning 14 of 19 games prior to the All-Star break, but never seriously contended for the pennant. Klaus injured his back making a throw to first base in a game in Chicago on July 12, played another week but then didn’t return as the regular shortstop until August 17. He finished the season with a .252 batting average.

Although Klaus had earned a reputation as a scrappy ballplayer after three seasons with the Red Sox, his defensive struggles were his undoing. Klaus committed 25 or more errors in each of his three seasons as a starting infielder for the Red Sox. Ultimately, the observation that “he is not a sensational fielder (though he manages to stop the tough ones) and he throws with remarkable lack of grace (yet he manages to get the ball across the infield on time)” overshadowed Klaus’s intangible qualities that helped win games.

Carl Hubbell, who saw Klaus play in 1954 as head of the Giants farm system, characterized him as a “snake pit” ballplayer in Tom Meany’s 1956 book on the Red Sox: “You know, the kind who will get down on the ground and wrestle you or anybody else if it means something to his club.” Klaus was so used to fighting for a job on the baseball field that he was shy about accepting compliments. As Meany described Klaus, “Tell him he hasn’t got a chance to make the team and he’ll quickly tell you that he has—and why he has. And then go out on the field and prove it. Praise him and he gets flustered.”

Tough-nosed on the baseball diamond, Klaus was very sociable off it. As Arthur Daley put it in a 1956 article about Klaus, “He’s a soft-spoken, gentle, considerate person off the field. On it he’s a hellion.” Said his daughter Nancy: “He liked everybody and everybody liked him. He trusted everybody. He was very simple and knew that was the way life should be.” Added son Dale: “To know Dad was to love him. He never met a stranger and had a tremendous sense of humor.”

Despite his take-no-prisoners approach to playing baseball, Klaus in 1958 was the odd man out in the Red Sox infield, as the returning Buddin and the incumbent Malzone had locks on the shortstop and third-base positions, respectively. Klaus was used primarily as a pinch-hitter, where he was ineffective, garnering just six hits in 39 pinch-hit at-bats; overall, he batted just .159 in 88 at-bats. As Klaus once said, to appreciate what he brings to a team, he has to play every day; in 1958 he did not.

In December 1958, the Red Sox traded Klaus to Baltimore in exchange for outfielder Jim Busby. Klaus was sanguine about his change in uniforms. “In a way I hate to leave the Red Sox. They gave me my chance in the big leagues,” Klaus said. “Still, it’s a lot better to play than sit on the bench, and I think I’ll have a chance to play more with Baltimore.”

Early in the 1959 season at Baltimore, Klaus beat out Brooks Robinson for the third-base job, forcing the Orioles to send Robinson back to the minor leagues in mid-May. With Klaus hitting just .237, the Orioles recalled Robinson in early July, looking to platoon the two players. However, after Robinson began consistently hitting, Klaus was moved to shortstop for the remainder of the season. “I tell everybody I can’t understand how they’d take him over me,” Klaus joked in a Baltimore Sun article in 1995.

In 1960, with Robinson at third base and rookie Ron Hansen installed at shortstop, Klaus converted to second base to keep a reserve spot on the Baltimore bench. He was sparingly used during the 1960 season. However, one game early that year as a late-game substitute for second baseman Marv Breeding helped Klaus gain a small degree of lasting fame in baseball annals. He entered the record book on April 24, 1960, after he pinch-hit for Breeding in the fifth inning of a Baltimore-New York game at Yankee Stadium and took his place at second base. Later in the game, Klaus and Albie Pearson both hit grand slams to tie the major-league record for most grand slams in a game. “I hit it off reliever Johnny James in the ninth inning after Albie hit his off Jim Coates in the eighth,” Klaus recalled in 1995 with perfect memory. “I was lucky to hit a home run of any kind, much less a grand slam,” he often joked.

In December 1960, Baltimore left Klaus exposed to the American League expansion draft, and he was selected by the new Washington Senators, managed by Mickey Vernon, his old Red Sox teammate. Klaus played in1961 with the Senators, mostly at third base, splitting time there with Danny O’Connell. Just before the start of the 1962 season, the Senators sold Klaus to the Philadelphia Phillies, who were managed by Gene Mauch, another former Red Sox teammate. Mauch used Klaus in 102 games. “I can count on Klaus to do the job at third or second or even shortstop, although he can’t play every day any more,” Mauch said in late 1962. “I know his average isn’t much, but look at the number of times he has gotten key hits that helped us win games.” Philadelphia released Klaus after the 1962 season, but re-signed him in April 1963, when he played another 11 games before being released again on May 24.

Klaus spent the remainder of the 1963 baseball season playing in Japan for the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Central League, the same team that had recruited American ballplayers Don Newcombe and Larry Doby to play in 1962. Klaus was one of the first American players to follow these trailblazers. However, he hated the experience. “They didn’t want to pay me $5,000 I had coming at the end of the season,” he recalled in a 1997 interview. “But I smashed a glass as I talked to the general manager and I guess he knew I was serious. I could have severed my hand but I didn’t even get a scratch. I got the money. They were trying to hold it back to make me return the next year, but I wanted out of there.”

In the first year of his post-baseball-playing life in 1964, Klaus converted his winter painting job in Sarasota into a year-round endeavor, holding an interest in a paint store.. Klaus also had an opportunity to watch his little brother Bobby, nine years younger, try to make the grade as a second baseman with the Cincinnati Reds during that club’s spring training games in nearby Tampa. Bobby made the major-league club and played half a season with the Reds in 1964 before they sold him to the New York Mets, where he played one more major-league season, in 1965.

Itching to get back into baseball after an entire year away from the game, Billy Klaus secured a job in December 1964 with the Senators organization as a minor-league manager for York (Pennsylvania) in the Double-A Eastern League. The White Roses finished third in 1965, but last in both 1966 and 1967. The 1967 York club finished with a 43-95 record, was shut out 29 times, and no-hit four times. Klaus wasn’t around for the finish of York’s 1967 season, as he was fired in late June when the club had a 17-44 record. Klaus remained as a scout for Washington during the summer, and in the fall managed the club’s team in the Florida Instructional League.

The Senators gave Klaus another shot at managing a minor-league team in 1968, running its Salisbury, North Carolina, farm club in the Class A Western Carolinas League. While Klaus experienced no more managerial success at Salisbury than he had at York—Salisbury also finished in last place in the league standings—Klaus acquired his first taste of a lifelong love for western North Carolina on the team’s many bus rides on the twisting highways through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

After piloting Oakland’s Class A farm club in Lodi, California, in 1969 for half a season, Klaus tried minor-league managing one more season, 1970, with Pittsburgh’s farm club in Salem, Virginia, in the Class A Carolina League. As he piloted the team to a seventh-place finish in the eight-team circuit, Klaus solidified his desire to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Salem was located just outside of Roanoke in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

After the 1970 season, Klaus permanently left behind his days with the bat and ball and picked up a paintbrush full time, becoming a painting contractor by operating the Klaus Painting Company. A few years after his last managerial stint in the Carolina League, Klaus and his wife became part-time residents of North Carolina. They eventually settled in the small town of Valle Crucis, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains near the town of Boone.

“Mom and Dad started visiting friends in North Carolina in the mid-1970s and fell in love with the Valle Crucis area,” remembered son Dale. “They rented a condo around Banner Elk and became snowbirds,” living in Sarasota during the winter months and spending the rest of the year in the North Carolina mountains. “In the early 1980s, they built the Valle Peddler [building] and lived upstairs.” For two decades, Klaus and his wife operated the Valle Peddler store, selling antiques and gifts to tourists traveling through the Blue Ridge Mountains. Klaus also continued his painting business there. “They really enjoyed that business,” son Dale said. “I think they enjoyed [most] socializing with their customers.”

In 1998, Klaus and his wife celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. She passed away in January 2003 and Klaus died on December 3, 2006.

The lead paragraph of Klaus’s obituary in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune mentioned his role with the Red Sox: “When the Boston Red Sox were within reach of the American League pennant in 1955, baseball legend Ted Williams gave credit to one of his newest teammates, Billy Klaus.” His hard work after many years of minor-league apprenticeship earned him a job with the Red Sox that year and led to the defining moment of his baseball career. But Klaus also demonstrated that being a humble, hard-working person with a sense of humor can lead to success; that was the defining quality of his life.

 

Sources

Boston Herald, 1955-1958.

Doug Brown, “Klaus Still Painting Walls Long After Slam Cleared One,” Baltimore Sun, July 20, 1995.

Arthur Daley, “Tough Guy,” New York Times, March 29, 1956.

Mike Gillooly, “Klaus Leads Pennant Cheers,” Boston American, July 5, 1955.

Hy Hurwitz, “Dream Now Has Come True, Says Pepper-Pot Hub Shortstop,” The Sporting News, July 27, 1955.

Dale Klaus, email correspondence, October 27, 2008.

Tom Meany, “You Gotta Have Heart (Billy Klaus),” The Boston Red Sox, Barnes, 1956.

Mark Morgan, “Klaus and Effect,” Baseball Digest, October 1955.

Joe Reichler, “Veteran Observers Give Klaus Credit for Sparking Red Sox,” Lowell Sun, August 4, 1955.

John Steadman, “Ex-Oriole Klaus Still Climbing Mountains, Laughing All the Way,” Baltimore Sun, July 13, 1997.

John Steadman, “Portrait of the Average Player: Journeymen Like Billy Klaus Are Backbone of Game,” Baseball Digest, December 1960.

U.S. Census Bureau, Records of Lake County, Illinois, 1920, 1930.

Watauga (N.C.) Democrat, “William Joseph Klaus,” June 4, 2007.

Mark Zaloudek, “Sarasota Retiree Was Boston Red Sox Backbone in 1955,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, December 6, 2006.

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