Baseball Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner, who lead the National League in home runs seven straight years with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late forties and early fifties, and then went on to a distinguished broadcasting career with the New York Mets, died Thursday at his home in Rancho Mirage, California of natural causes at 91.
Kiner hit 369 home runs in a 10-year career that would have been longer had he not been forced to retire at 33 because of a back ailment. (His relatively short career may account for why it took 15 years for him to be selected for the Hall.) Ralph joined the 50+ Club twice, hitting 51 homers in 1947, 54 in 1949. In three other seasons he hit 40 or more. He hit a home run every 14.1 at bats during his career, placing him sixth in the right-handers’ Most Likely to Go Yard list.
Kiner was delighted to be able to live his dream of becoming a Major League baseball star. But his team for seven of his 10 years in the bigs had little more than Ralph going for it. In those seven years the Pirates finished last or next to last five times. The team was only above .500 one time, .539 in 1948, while Ralph was going long more than anyone in the National League.
Ralph’s 1952 Pirates finished last with a record of 42-112, a dismal .273 won-lost percentage. They are considered, even with Ralph’s contributions, to be one of the worst teams in the history of Major League ball. In fact, an incident after this horrendous year led to one of the best known Ralph Kiner anecdotes. For the 1953 season, Pirates GM Branch Rickey cut Kiner’s salary from $90,000 to $70,000 (GMs could do that sort of thing back then). When Kiner objected, after all he had led the league in home runs yet again, Rickey replied, “Son. We could have finished last without you.”
His experience with the hapless Pirates certainly prepared Kiner for his early years as a Mets broadcaster. Kiner was present at the Mets creation and broadcast full time from game one through 2006, when he switched to doing the occasional television appearance. In their first year, 1962, the Mets were horrendous. They put up a record of 40-120 for a .250 won-lost percentage, even worse than Kiner’s 1952 Pirates. The experience produced a humorous book by Jimmy Breslin, the title of which is a question anyone who saw the 1962 Mets might ask: Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?
“Ralph Kiner was one of the greatest sluggers in National League history, leading the Senior Circuit in home runs in each of the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career,” Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said Thursday. “His consistent power and patience in the heart of the Pirates lineup made him a member of our All-Century Team and, in many respects, a player ahead of his time.”
Well, yes. In that lineup he would have needed patience. His power production is the more remarkable as there was almost never anyone hitting behind him to protect him. The wonder was he ever saw a good pitch to hit. He was like most Major League baseball players of his day, neither buffed nor particularly big. My Sports Encyclopedia: Baseball stat book lists him at 6-1 and 195 pounds. He was living proof that you can go long without going pharmaceutical.
Kiner was born in Santa Rita, New Mexico, but was raised in Alhambra, California. His father died when he was four, and he was raised by his mother, a nurse. Kiner was a high school baseball star, and then signed with the Pirates for a $3,000 bonus. Real money in the day. After two seasons in the minors, Kiner entered the Navy and became a pilot. He made the Pirates in 1946, leading the NL with just 23 home runs. The next season he caught everyone’s eye, hitting 51 homers. But watching Kiner blasts leave the park was about all Pittsburgh fans could enjoy that year, as the Pirates lost 92 games and finished last, 32 games off the pace set by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Things got better for Kiner’s Mets, but not for his Pirates.
Kiner, a natural story-teller with a soothing delivery, was a popular announcer during his long broadcasting career and was considered by players and fans alike as one of the game’s true gentlemen.
R.I.P. Ralph Kiner. A slugger and a fine man.