|by Warren Corbett|
Ralph Kiner was baseball's leading home run hitter for a few years after World War II. As a broadcaster for the New York Mets, he became famous for his verbal strikeouts.|
Ralph McPherran Kiner was born in Santa Rita, New Mexico, on October 27, 1922. His mother, Beatrice Grayson, came from Oregon and had served as a nurse in France during World War I. His father, Ralph Macklin Kiner, was a baker. He died when young Ralph was four. The widowed Mrs. Kiner took a job in Alhambra, California, near Los Angeles.
Ralph said he developed his baseball skills by playing year-round in the sunny climate and was encouraged by a neighbor who befriended the fatherless boy. He played shortstop for a youth team sponsored by the Yankees, but Pittsburgh scout Hollis Thurston convinced Kiner that the Pirates offered him a better opportunity than the talent-rich Yanks. He signed with Pittsburgh as soon as he graduated from Alhambra High.
Kiner began his professional career in 1941 as an outfielder with Albany in the Class A Eastern League, two steps below the majors. In two seasons there he batted .288 and .268. In 1942 his 14 homers led the pitcher-friendly league.
He joined Toronto in 1943, but within a few weeks he was inducted into the Navy Air Corps. He spent World War II as a Navy pilot flying antisubmarine missions in the Pacific, and said he "barely touched a bat."
When he joined the Pirates for spring training in 1946, he had added 20 pounds; at age 23, he had grown from a boy to a man, six-foot-two and 195 pounds. He was a springtime sensation. Pittsburgh sportswriter Charles J. Doyle gushed, "Kiner can run like a deer, he can throw like a DiMaggio and when his bat clicks nothing but the fences will stop his line drives." This was spring-phenom hyperbole; according to most later accounts, Kiner had a weak arm and was a slow runner, although he played center field for the Pirates in his rookie year.
Manager Frankie Frisch, who was notoriously hard on young players, declared, "Kiner looks like he's going to be the best [outfielder] we've ever had."
He lived up to the hype to some extent. He batted just .247 in his rookie year and struck out 109 times (the only time he exceeded 100), but he led the National League in homers with 23. He admitted this was a fluke; the Giants' Johnny Mize, who finished just one behind him, missed several weeks with a broken wrist.
The 23 homers tied the Pirates' club record, set by Johnny Rizzo in 1938. Pittsburgh's Forbes Field was a mammoth ballpark that produced more triples than any other park, but permitted few home runs. The righthanded-batting Kiner hit only eight at home.
Baseball gave no official rookie of the year award in 1946, but The Sporting News named Philadelphia outfielder Del Ennis its National League rookie of the year. The "Bible of Baseball" reported that Ennis had led all N.L. rookies in home runs (wrong - he hit 17) and RBI (wrong - he had 73 to Kiner's 81). The bizarre travesty of journalism carried the byline of editor J.G. Taylor Spink, but was probably written by one of his ghosts.
In fact, Ennis was the more productive hitter; he outdid Kiner .849-.775 in on-base plus slugging percentage, a statistic that was then unknown but is now regarded as an accurate shorthand expression of a hitter's value. Ennis's .313 batting average was likely the deciding factor, because most baseball authorities then considered that stat to be the measure of a batter's worth. They were not likely to honor a .247 hitter.
In 1947 the Pirates acquired 36-year-old Hank Greenberg from Detroit. Greenberg had once hit 58 home runs and had led the American League in 1946 with 44. In spring training Kiner met the man he would call "the single biggest influence of my adult life." On the first day, Greenberg suggested they take extra batting practice. That was Kiner's first lesson: hard work is the way to succeed. The young slugger and the old one became friends and roommates on road trips. Kiner said Greenberg made him a pull hitter and built up his confidence. Greenberg also gave him a wardrobe makeover after he spotted Kiner wearing brown shoes with a tuxedo.
Greenberg's arrival made a more tangible contribution to Kiner's development as a home-run hitter: To make Forbes Field friendlier for the veteran, the club built a bullpen in left field, cutting the 365-foot foul line to 335. The left-center power alley shrank from a formidable 406 feet to 376. The new bullpen - actually about average home-run distance for a big-league park - was dubbed "Greenberg Gardens."
When Kiner started slowly in 1947, manager Billy Herman wanted to send him back to the minors. Greenberg persuaded owner Frank McKinney to veto that idea.
By the All-Star break in July, Kiner had 20 homers. He got hot in August, belting homers in four consecutive at-bats over two games and ringing up seven in four games. On August 16 he became the first Pirate to homer three times in a game. But The Sporting News harrumphed that, if he broke Babe Ruth's record of 60, it would be tainted because of Greenberg Gardens.
Kiner hit four homers in a doubleheader in August and eight in four games - a record. On September 18 he became the fifth player to hit 50 home runs in a season. The Giants' Mize joined the club two days later. They finished tied for the league lead with 51.
By then season sportswriters had renamed Greenberg Gardens "Kiner's Korner." (Greenberg, in his last season, hit 25 homers.) Kiner hit 28 of his home runs in Forbes Field, 23 on the road. The lefthanded-batting Mize, playing his home games in the Polo Grounds with its short right field fence, hit 29 at home, 22 on the road.
The Pirates' home attendance spiked by 71 percent over 1946. Kiner was the main attraction on a club that finished tied for last place. The owners tripled his salary to $30,000 for 1948. His teammate, pitcher Fritz Ostermueller, commented, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs. Singles hitters drive Fords." (There are several versions of this quote, but they all agree on the essential elements.) Kiner did buy a Cadillac; Ostermueller's choice of transportation is not recorded.
Kiner fell off to 40 home runs in 1948, again tying Mize for the league lead. (Stan Musial of St. Louis also hit 40, but one of them was erased in a rainout, preventing Musial from winning the Triple Crown as the leader in homers, RBI and batting average.) The Pirates rose to fourth place, posting their only winning record during Kiner's years in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh attendance grew 18 percent to another record, 1.5 million. The 1948 season was the peak of the postwar baseball boom; major league teams drew nearly 21 million fans, the most until 1962, when both leagues had expanded to 10 teams.
Kiner was convinced that the absence of Greenberg or a similar feared hitter behind him in the lineup enabled pitchers to pitch around him. He drew 117 walks, 19 more than in '47, and was walked at least 100 times in each of his next six seasons.
The club bumped Kiner's 1949 salary to $40,000. He started strong and had 23 home runs at the season's mid-point, but was six games behind Ruth's 1927 pace. On September 11 and 13 he hit homers in four consecutive at-bats, becoming the first man to do that twice. The next day he stroked number 49. He had hit 12 homers in 14 games, but, with only 16 left to play, he had given up on catching Ruth.
He put his byline on a ghostwritten article in The Saturday Evening Post magazine titled "The Home Run I Would Hate To Hit." He said he didn't want to break the Babe's sacred record. More than 50 years later, he wrote, "That was a big fat lie."
Kiner did have a shot at Hack Wilson's National League mark of 56 homers. He hit his 54th on the next-to-last day of the season. (He had lost one in a rainout.) Forty thousand fans came to Forbes Field for a season-ending doubleheader, but Kiner fell short of Hack Wilson. He was the first National Leaguer to hit 50 homers twice; only Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx had done it in the American League. No one would equal that accomplishment until the schedule expanded to 162 games.
Kiner also led the league with 127 RBI. He placed fourth in the Most Valuable Player voting by baseball writers, his highest finish ever; Jackie Robinson, the batting champion for pennant-winning Brooklyn, won the award.
The Pirates signed him to a two-year contract, highly unusual at the time, at $65,000 a season. He was the highest-paid player in the National League; American Leaguers Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Bob Feller made more. Kiner said club owner John Galbreath also cut him in on some real estate investments.
But that was far less than he was worth, as big-league players would find out when free agency arrived a quarter-century later. A Pittsburgh theatrical booking agent remarked, "If Kiner were as big a figure in show business as he is in baseball, he would draw down a stipend of $30,000 a week."
At that time Kiner was still living with his mother in Alhambra. The singer Bing Crosby, a minority owner of the Pirates, drew the young, single star into his Hollywood circle, even arranging for Kiner to escort 17-year-old actress Elizabeth Taylor to a movie premiere. He built a house in Palm Springs, California, then just emerging as a golf and tennis resort for the Hollywood set; Kiner was now an avid golfer. Friends and neighbors included Frank Sinatra and Lucille Ball and her husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz.
He dated other Hollywood starlets, but on October 13, 1951, he married 22-year-old tennis star Nancy Chaffee, the sixth-ranked American player. Greenberg served as best man at the wedding. Kiner proudly recounted that, after two years of lessons, he was able to beat Nancy at tennis - two weeks before she gave birth to their first child.
In 1950 Branch Rickey, the baseball legend who had built dynasties with the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers, became the Pirates' general manager, but the club fell to last place.
Kiner clubbed 47 home runs in 1950 (The Sporting News named him Player of the Year), then 42, then 37 in 1952. He led the league each year. His seven consecutive home run titles are a record; not even Ruth did that.
The Pirates' owners signed him to a $90,000 contract for 1951. This outraged Branch Rickey, of whom Kiner would say later, "He was cheap." Many others shared that opinion. Baseball historian Bill James wrote, "Rickey, in one of the oddest moves of his career, [was provoked] to begin systematically destroying Kiner's reputation as a player, so that he could trade him; it's nuts, but that's what he was doing."
In Rickey's papers at the Library of Congress, his biographer, Murray Polner, found a "confidential" letter to owner John Galbreath. Kiner, Rickey wrote, "would not throw or run and could not field and was a self-appraised star and could have no part ever in a pennant-winning club." He complained that Kiner was given special privileges by the manager, demanded "highly expensive" air conditioning in the clubhouse and insisted that his contract include a clause guaranteeing that the shorter fences in Kiner's Korner would stay. Kiner denied all this in his 2004 memoir. Polner concluded, "Kiner became the scapegoat for [Rickey's] failure to improve the club." The parallels to Alex Rodriguez's stay in Texas are obvious.
The 1952 Pirates lost 112 games, the worst record of any major league team since 1935. Home attendance dropped by about one-third, and Kiner's batting average fell to .244. Despite his league-leading home-run performance, Rickey cut his salary to $65,000. When Kiner objected, Rickey told him, "We can finish last without you."
Kiner's fellow players had elected him the National League player representative. He and Yankee pitcher Allie Reynolds, representing the American League, renegotiated the pension plan during the off-season. Piling on, Rickey told owner Galbreath that Kiner's leadership role was "bad" for the team
In June 1953 Rickey traded Kiner and four others, including future broadcaster Joe Garagiola, to the Chicago Cubs for six players and a cash payment reported to be as much as $150,000. Pittsburgh fans hanged Rickey in effigy, and some prominent citizens proposed a boycott of Forbes Field until Rickey was fired. But Rickey was right about one thing: the Pirates did finish last without Kiner in 1953 and for the next two years.
Rickey was right in another way: Kiner was only 30 years old, but he was suffering from back problems. Other home run kings - Ruth, Aaron and Bonds - were still clearing the fences as they approached or passed their fortieth birthdays, but Kiner was just about done.
In Chicago he joined Hank Sauer, who had tied him for the 1952 home run championship and had won the MVP award. Both were considered slow outfielders with poor throwing arms. Manager Phil Cavaretta moved Sauer to right field so Kiner could play left. Sauer protested that his arm was not strong enough to play right. Cavaretta replied, "But it's still better than Kiner's."
The two leadfoots in the outfield corners were the butt of jokes. Whenever a fly ball was hit, it was said, Kiner and Sauer shouted to center fielder Frank Baumholtz, "Plenty of room, Frankie." Years later Sauer denied that the center fielder ever ran into foul territory to catch a fly.
Kiner had another strong season in 1953, racking up 35 homers and 116 RBI with Pittsburgh and Chicago combined. But the following year he fell off to 22 home runs, playing 147 games despite continuing back pain.
The Cubs sold him to the Cleveland Indians after the season for a sum variously reported as $60,000 to $150,000. The deal involved several other players. The acquisition of Kiner was front-page news in Cleveland, even in the midst of the notorious Sheppard murder case. His friend Greenberg was the Indians' general manager; the field manager, Al Lopez, had been another of his mentors during his rookie year in Pittsburgh.
Cleveland had won the 1954 A.L. pennant with a league-record 111 victories, ending the Yankees' five-year championship run, but the New York Giants swept them in a four-game World Series. Greenberg said Kiner would add the power the club needed.
Kiner was able to play only 113 games in 1955, with 18 home runs and a .243 average. He said doctors gave 50-50 odds that surgery would fix his back. Instead he retired at age 32 to become general manager of the Pacific Coast League San Diego Padres, a Cleveland farm club.
In San Diego he got his first taste of play-by-play broadcasting because, he said, he couldn't afford to hire an announcer. When his old Pittsburgh club played in the 1960 World Series, he did a post-game show on local radio. He was hired to broadcast Chicago White Sox games in 1961 when Greenberg was the team's general manager.
In 1962 he joined the broadcast team of the expansion New York Mets. He said, "The Mets hired me because they looked at my background with the Pirates and saw that I had losing experience." The Mets lost 120 games in their first season, even more than the 1952 Pirates.
His TV post-game show was called "Kiner's Korner." In an early broadcast, he interviewed the Mets' catcher, Choo Choo Coleman, who was not a talkative man.
Kiner asked, "What's your wife's name and what's she like?"
Coleman replied, "Mrs. Coleman, and she likes me, Bub."
Kiner, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy broadcast Mets' games for the team's first 17 seasons. Nelson left in 1979; Murphy retired in 2003; Kiner was still going in 2004, working only part-time after suffering a stroke.
As a broadcaster, his thoughts seemed to detour between his brain and his mouth. Among the famous Kinerisms:
"On Father's Day, we again wish you all Happy Birthday."
"Solo homers usually come with no one on base."
"All of his saves have come in relief appearances"
"If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave.
"We'll be back after this word from Manufacturers Hangover."
Occasionally he produced a gem. Describing a wide-ranging center fielder, he said, "Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water. The other third is covered by Garry Maddox."
Kiner and Nancy Chaffee divorced in 1968. They had three children: sons Michael, who played briefly in the Mets' farm system, and Scott and daughter Kathryn, known as K.C. Nancy Chaffee later married sportscaster Jack Whitaker and died in 2002. Kiner married again in 1969; he gives his second wife's name only as Barbara. When they divorced in 1980, he claimed, many items of baseball memorabilia disappeared with her. In 1982 he married DiAnn Shugart, a businesswoman in the Palm Springs area. She died of cancer on March 22, 2004, at age 70.
Baseball writers elected Ralph Kiner to the Hall of Fame in 1975, his fifteenth and last year on the ballot. He squeaked in with just one vote more than the 75 percent required for election.
Many fans and analysts have questioned whether Kiner deserves the honor, since he hit "only" 369 home runs and played just 10 seasons. When Kiner retired in 1955, however, he ranked sixth on the career home run list, just ahead of Joe DiMaggio and Johnny Mize. Fifty seasons and many sluggers later, he was 57th in 2004. Before the 2004 season, he still ranked sixth in home run percentage; he hit homers in 7.09 percent of his at bats. Ahead of him were Mark McGwire, Ruth and three active players - Barry Bonds, Jim Thome and Sammy Sosa - whose percentages will likely drop as they get older. He stood 27th on the all-time list with a .946 on-base plus slugging percentage. There is no doubt how he ranked when he was active: The Sporting News chose him for its major league all-star team four times in five years from 1947 through 1951. Bill James noted, "Musial, Williams, DiMaggio and Kiner - those were the greatest outfielders of this period."
Major league statistics from the Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia, Total Baseball (Fifth Edition) and SABR's Home Run Encyclopedia. Minor League statistics from The Sporting News.
Contemporary sources include The Sporting News, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.
Kiner put his byline on two ghostwritten memoirs: Kiner's Korner, with Joe Gergen (Arbor House, 1987) and Baseball Forever, with Danny Peary (Triumph Books, 2004).
Peter Golenbock, Wrigleyville (St. Martin's Press, 1996)
Hank Greenberg (Ira Berkow, ed.), The Story of My Life (Times Books, 1989)
David J. Halberstam, Sports on New York Radio (Masters Press, 1999)
Bill James, The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (Villard Books, 1986)
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (The Free Press, 2001)
William R. Marshall, Baseball's Pivotal Era (The University Press of Kentucky, 1999)
Murray Polner, Branch Rickey (New American Library, 1982)
Frederick Turner, When The Boys Came Back (Henry Holt and Co., 1996)