Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A Tribute to Ralph Kiner

On February 6, 2014, the world of baseball lost a crown jewel when legendary slugger and broadcaster Ralph Kiner died at the age of 91. Among my favorite sports personalities of all time, I was saddened to learn of his passing. I would like to share a few details about this remarkable man's life.

Born in New Mexico, Kiner grew up in Alhambra, California. By the time he reached his teens, he had set his sights on becoming a  professional ballplayer. In high school, he attracted the attention of Pirate and Yankee scouts. The Pirates offered to start Kiner at the Class-A level and the aspiring slugger felt that a trip through New York's lower ranks might take too long. He wisely inked a deal with Pittsburgh. 

In his first spring training game during the '41 slate, Kiner blasted a pair of homers. He later clashed with manager Frankie Frisch and ended up getting sent back down for "loafing." He led the Eastern League in putouts and homers during the '42 slate before enlisting in the Navy. Kiner served until December of '45 and joined the Pirates for good the following year.

Though Kiner has been criticized by some for being a one-dimensional player, he did occasionally hit for average, topping the .300 mark in three of his ten seasons. Defensively, he was little more than adequate, leading NL left fielders in double plays twice, assists once and fielding percentage on another occasion. At the same time, he finished among the top five in errors for nine straight seasons. To his credit, he posted the highest range factor twice in that span (though the statistic didn't exist at the time).

Looking to acquire aging slugger Hank Greenberg before the '47 campaign, the Pirates offered to shorten the left field fence by 35 feet, creating a home run paradise known as "Greenberg Gardens." Greenberg accepted the proposal, but enjoyed it for just one season. Kiner, on the other hand, ended up making a living off of it. In his first seven seasons, the young slugger set a record that no power hitter in history has equaled (not even Ruth and Aaron) when he led the league in long balls every year. During that stretch, he topped the circuit in walks and slugging percentage three times apiece. He was named to six straight All-Star teams and, though he never won an MVP award, he became the highest paid player in baseball. "Greenberg Gardens" became known as "Kiner's Korner." Aware of his market value, Kiner once commented that: "Cadillacs are down at the end of the bat."

A major celebrity in his prime, Kiner dated Hollywood starlets Liz Taylor and Esther Williams. He also endeared himself to teammates with his sense of humor. In his classic book Baseball is a Funny Game, former player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola wrote that Kiner belonged "in the practical joker's nine." In one of his more elaborate stunts, Kiner took all of the bottles out of the trainer's med kit and replaced them with lunch meat. When a Pirates' player got spiked one afternoon, the trainer ran out onto the field, reached for a bottle of antiseptic and ended up with a liverwurst sandwich instead.

 Pittsburgh General Manager Branch Rickey was not a fan of Kiner, commenting that the slugger had "so many other weaknesses that if you had eight Ralph Kiners on an American Association team, it would finish last." When Kiner's home run production dipped dramatically in June of '53, he was traded to the Cubs. He finished the season with 35 circuit blasts--fifth in the league.

Kiner suffered from chronic back problems and, by '54, he was no longer the slugger of old. He wrapped up his career with Cleveland in '55. He later served as GM of the minor league San Diego Padres and began a broadcasting career calling White Sox games with Bob Elson. He is better known for his days as a Mets broadcaster. His post game show was known as "Kiner's Korner." Kiner had extensive knowledge of the game's history and inside strategy, though he became more famous for his mispronunciations and malapropisms, which were commonly referred to as "Kinerisms." A handful are included here:

"Solo homers usually come with no one on base."
"The Mets have gotten their lead-off batter on only once this inning." 
"If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."
"All of his saves have come in relief appearances."

In '75, Kiner made it into the Hall of Fame in his last year of eligibility. In '87, the Pirates retired his number 4. His passing was mourned by many--even those who never personally knew him. Fortunately, Kiner left two books behind for posterity: Kiner's Korner: At-Bat and on the Air-My 40 Years in Baseball (released in 1987) and Baseball Forever: Reflections on 60 Years in the Game (released in 2004).

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