- OF, 1B, LF
- October 27, 1922
- 6' 2"
- 195 lbs
- Major League Debut:
- 4-16-1946 with PIT
- Hall of Fame:
A powerful right-handed hitter, Ralph Kiner won seven straight home run titles before he turned 30 years old. Unfortunately, a back condition forced him to retire at the age of 33, but his amazing home run pace (second only to Babe Ruth), helped Kiner earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. After his playing career, Kiner enjoyed a long and successful career as a broadcaster for the New York Mets.
For much of its existence, Forbes Field was heralded as “the palace of ballparks.” Its vast dimensions, designed during baseball’s deadball era reached out towards ivy covered reddish-brown brick and beyond these confines were acres of trees and flora making up Schenley Park. Forbes was in the center of Pittsburgh’s cultural district, offering many choices of enjoyment for before or after a game. It was a beautiful place to play…unless one was a homerun hitter.
Barney Dreyfuss hated and fought against cheap homeruns and even during baseball’s hitting bonanza of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, refused to alter the dimensions at Forbes to make it friendlier for the long ball. Through World War II, the Pirates all-time homerun leader was Paul Waner with 109, collected over 15 seasons in Pittsburgh. Johnny Rizzo’s 23 in 1938 was the team’s single season record and only Vince DiMaggio, in 1941, had joined him in hitting 20 homers for the Pirates in a season. This was changed during the era of Ralph Kiner.
Kiner, born in New Mexico, but raised in California, was determined as a boy to become a professional ballplayer. He was pursued by professional scouts after a productive high school and semi-pro career with the Yankee Juniors, a team sponsored by the big league club in the Bronx. “It was run by a guy named Dan Crowley,” Kiner remembered. “His superior was Bill Essick, who had signed (Joe) DiMaggio and was the Yankees’ number one scout on the West Coast. I graduated from high school and the Yankees made me an offer to join their organization or to go to USC and they would work out the tuition. A scout named Hollis Thurston from the Pirates said ‘if you sign with the Yankees you’re going to be in the minors for seven years. If you sign with the Pirates, we’ll give you an A Ball contract,’ which was the fourth highest league you could play in. So he convinced me, along with a promise of $5,000 if I made the majors and $3,000 in cash so I signed with Pittsburgh.” Also important to Kiner was the Pirates’ promise they would bring him to spring training the following year.
As promised, Kiner was invited to spring training in 1941, but it wasn’t what he had expected as young players got few chances. “You couldn’t even take batting practice. In one instance, Bob Elliott, who was the star of the Pirates at the time said, ‘you go in front of me’ and that’s how I got to take batting practice. That’s how it was in baseball in the ‘40’s.” Kiner did get into some games that spring and made an immediate impact. In his first professional game, he homered off White Sox pitchers Bill Dietrich and Thornton Lee, two established major leaguers, but his camp was shorter than he would have liked. Reprimanded by Manager Frankie Frisch for not running in the outfield, Kiner defended himself, “Mr. Frisch, I only have one pair of baseball shoes and if I wear them out running, I won’t have any for the games.” Frisch retorted Kiner would be wearing them out in the minors and dispatched him to Albany where he hit .279 with 11 homeruns.
Obviously talented, Kiner got little advice on refining his game in the minors. “There was no help at all,” He remembered. “The only person who would help you in the minors was your manager. There were no pitching coaches, no hitting coaches.” Still, Kiner led the Eastern League with 14 homers in 1942. At only 165 pounds despite his 6’2” frame, Kiner played centerfield and topped the EL in putouts with 338. He started 1943 at Toronto, but went into the service after 43 games.
“I thought (his service duty) was a great experience,” Kiner said. “In fact, I didn’t play baseball in the service. Where I was stationed, I played a total of four, five or maybe six games. I got bigger and I certainly learned a lot. I went into flying training and ended up being a pilot and I went to school and got a very good education and, of course, I became an officer.” Although he missed 2 ½ years of playing ball, Kiner didn’t think it hurt him. “It possibly could have helped because I didn’t get burned out and I was young enough that I was able to come right back and pick up where I left off.”
In 1946, the Pirates planned to have Kiner play for Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League, but his spring performance made demotion impossible. “I had something like 13 homeruns in spring training and I made the team and started opened the season in centerfield for the Pirates in 1946.” The Pirates started the season in St. Louis and Kiner recalled; “I got my first hit on opening day off Johnny Beazley and hit my first homerun in the third game off Howie Pollet.”
Kiner also remembered his first reaction to Pittsburgh and Forbes Field. “We arrived in Pittsburgh around midnight. They were burning soft coal at the time and they it ‘The Smoky City.’ I had never seen anything like that coming from California and never being back east. Then we went out to the ballpark for a workout the next day. I had never seen Forbes Field and I walked out to there and the outfield fence down the leftfield line was 365. It was 406 in left center and 457 in center. I thought to myself ‘My God, what am I going to do here. This is no place for me. I couldn’t believe the park was so big.”
The park didn’t baffle him too much. Now weighing 195 pounds, Kiner led the National League in homeruns with 23, tying the team record. His hitting needed some polishing, however, as his average was just .247. He would benefit immensely from the tutelage of former American League star Hank Greenberg who had been purchased from the Pirates in the off-season. Greenberg had led the AL in homers with 44, the fifth time he had topped the league while playing for the Detroit Tigers. Greenberg quickly took the young slugger under his wing.
Kiner remembered, “The best way I can put it is he came to spring training…. I had never met him. The first day of spring training, all the players had left the field and he said to me ‘Hey, kid, do you want to stay over and take some extra batting practice,’ and, of course, I was impressed with his background and record and I said, yes, and the first thing he said to me was ‘You’ll never hit a lot of homeruns the way you’re hitting.’ I thought he was putting me on, but he was serious.” Kiner had the sense to listen to what the living legend had to say and Greenberg helped him change his approach to hitting, by advancing his thinking to a new level and adjusting Kiner’s position in the batter’s box. He left Ralph’s powerful swing alone, “I always had the ability to hit homeruns, but it was a matter of getting the right pitches and he helped me with that.”
In order to help coax Greenberg to Pittsburgh, the Pirates constructed bullpens in the outfield, which shortened the distances in left and left center by 30 feet. These were called Greenberg Gardens, but Forbes was still hardly an easy park to hit homeruns in. Kiner had a break out season in ’47, the one he was most proud of. “(Johnny) Mize and I tied for the lead in homeruns. We were the second people to hit over 50 homeruns in the National League, and that was really a tremendous accomplishment. At that time, only six people had hit 50 or more. On top of that, I only had three at the end of May. I hit 48 from June 1 through the end of the season. I really exploded with the help of Greenberg.” Hammerin’ Hank proved not only mentor but advocate as well. With Kiner off to his poor start, Manager Billy Herman wanted to send him to the minors, but Greenberg interceded, assuring club president Frank McKinney Kiner’s hitting would come around. “I had struck out four times on May 31 against Hank Borowy and the next game I had two homeruns and went on a tear the rest of the year.” Ralph led the National League in slugging as well and hit over .300 for the first time.
With Greenberg retiring in 1948, the outfield bullpen came to be referred to as Kiner’s Korner, most appropriate as Ralph was not only bombarding relievers and backup catchers with homeruns, but playing leftfield as well. That season, the Pirates were in the pennant race through the end of the season, the only time in his Pirate career Kiner got to play with a contender, albeit a Cinderella one. He carried the overachieving club well beyond expectations, leading the league with 40 homers while knocking in the third most runs in the NL.
Although the team fell back in 1949, Kiner topped 50 homeruns for a second time and led the league in RBI’s. While he trailed Jackie Robinson’s league leading .342 by 32 points in batting, Kiner’s .310 mark ranked fifth and his .658 slugging percentage not only led the league, but remains the all-time Pirate record. Even though the Pirates finished last for the first time since 1917, Kiner was selected The Sporting News’ National League Player of the Year. Teams by this time had started to over shift on the homerun champ which took some points off his average, possibly costing Kiner a .300 career batting average. Kiner recognized his value to the team was as a power hitter and when someone offered that he could improve his average by choking up on the bat, the perennial homerun champ uttered his classic line, “Cadillac’s are down at the end of the bat.” Kiner’s style of hitting was not only profitable to him, but to his employers. After Kiner emerged as baseball’s premiere power hitter in 1947, the Pirates drew over 1 million fans four years in a row, despite the team’s losing ways. The best a Pirate club had ever drawn before Kiner was 869,720 fans during the pennant-winning season of 1927. One of the most famous tales in Pittsburgh history is how fans flocked to see their homerun king and would stay even when the team was losing horribly for a chance to watch Kiner hit. Once fans figured he had batted for the last time, they exited the ballpark in masses.
Branch Rickey took over as General Manager in the fall of 1950. Rickey proclaimed Kiner was going nowhere and that the drawing card was “as much a part of the Pirates” as he. Kiner had his usual huge year in 1951, leading the league in homeruns, walks, OBP, slugging and runs. As the ball club was getting progressively worse, however, Kiner was getting fewer and fewer pitches to hit, particularly after Rickey traded Wally Westlake, the man who hit behind Kiner in the order. At the time, while undoubtedly having inquiries about Kiner, Rickey denied he had any plans to trade him, saying that he was “the ideal team player.” While not making the transaction line that season, Kiner did make the society page when he and indoor tennis champion Nancy Chaffee announced their engagement. At the end of 1951, Kiner had tied Pie Traynor’s team record of five strait 100 rbi seasons and he could look with pride on the fact that he had made The Sporting News’ All-Star Team five years in a row. During this time, his outfield competition included DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Larry Doby, Enos Slaughter, Duke Snider and the young Mickey Mantle. Kiner’s five-year selection certainly shows the appreciation of his abilities that other players around the majors had for him. However, the Pirates’ attendance fell to 980,00 in 1951 as the team finished seventh.
The Pirates didn’t just finish last in 1952; it was as though the cellar floor had given way to a bottomless pit. The team lost a modern record 112 games and while Kiner led the NL in homeruns for a seventh time, he continued to get less good pitches to hit. His average fell under .250 and Pirate attendance dropped almost by almost 300,000. The writing was on the wall. Rickey attempted to cut Kiner’s salary and when the slugger expressed his dismay, Rickey responded, “We could have finished last without you.”
Kiner talked about those difficult times. “When Rickey came over, I knew I’d be gone. Rickey’s modus operandi was ‘its better to trade a good player a year too early than a year too late’ and I knew I was done. In ’52, he put the worst team he could on the field.” Noting several players who were just out of high school, Kiner added, “It was the ‘Ricky Dink’ team.”
Off to a decent, though not overwhelming start in 1953, Kiner was traded to the Cubs in early June. “I knew I was going to go,” He said, “In fact, I was surprised I stayed as long as I did.” The trade involved nine other players with the Pirates receiving six of them as well as $100,000. None of the players the Pirates received ever became even minor stars. Kiner remembered Rickey had been high on Preston Ward, a left-handed hitting first baseman, outfielder with whom he had been familiar from his days in Brooklyn and third base prospect George Freese, but neither ever met expectations.
Kiner played for Chicago through 1954, adding 50 homeruns to his career total in just over 1 ½ years. His friend, Greenberg, who had served as Kiner’s best man, obtained him for the Indians in 1955, but chronic back problems had greatly reduced his effectiveness and he retired after the season.
Again following in Greenberg’s footsteps, Kiner went to work as a front office man and became general manager of the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League. Encouraged by Bob Prince, with whom Ralph had ventured into businesses while with the Pirates, Kiner went into broadcasting. He was one of the original broadcasters of the New York Mets, and has worked with the club every year of its existence although in recent years he has cut back the number of games he announces. Kiner also took “Kiner’s Korner” with him from Forbes Field, using the name of the place where so many of his homeruns landed as the title of his post game show. While he has sometimes been kidded about the way he has described the action, Kiner remains informative and entertaining.
Kiner was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975. His homerun dominance of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s remains remarkable. No one else ever led his league in homeruns seven strait years, let alone the first seven of a career and only Babe Ruth and Mike Schmidt have won more homerun crowns. Kiner’s homeruns per at bat is third behind Mark McGwire and Ruth and if not for back problems, who knows how many more homeruns Kiner would have hit. As a fielder, Kiner was not a gold glove outfielder, but he was certainly better than many other power hitters and may have gotten a bad rap on his fielding because his hitting was so dominating and later because his trade from the Pirates had to be justified. Kiner also put up his great numbers with some terrible teams and one wonders what his statistics would have been if he had played with the Pirates in Three Rivers Stadium during the 1970’s or early 1990’s.
Twelve years after his Hall of Fame induction, Kiner’s #4 was retired by the Pirates in a prename ceremony and he is still one of the city’s most well liked sports figures, always popular and patient with fans when he comes to town with the Mets or to appear at baseball card shows.
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