This annotated week in baseball history: Oct. 24-Oct. 30, 1922by Richard Barbieri
October 28, 2010
On October 27, 1922 Ralph Kiner was born. As with many Hall of Famers from before his time, Richard knows only the basics of Kiner’s career. This week he looks back to learn more.
If you thought—and you did, didn’t you?—that I had abandoned my “Better Know a Hall of Famer” series, you were, of course, incorrect; I just forgot about it. But it is back now, and this week we look at the life and times of Ralph Kiner. Kiner is a rare figure in baseball: a Hall of Famer despite playing in fewer than 1500 games and a man who broadcast games for nearly half a century. Perhaps most impressively of all, at age 87 Kiner is still broadcasting.
Kiner was born in New Mexico in 1922, making him younger than his native state, but not by much. Kiner actually grew up in California, and by 1941 he had made it into the minor leagues, and the following season he hit 14 home runs for the Albany Senators of the Eastern League. (That doesn’t sound like much, but the Eastern League was hell on hitters. Kiner led the league with his 14 homers, and was one of only three men to reach double digits. The league’s leading hitter only batted .322.)
Of course, like many young players—doubtless including some of Kiner’s Eastern League teammates and opponents—his career was interrupted by the Second World War. Kiner returned to the Pirates organization for the 1946 season and debuted for the Pirates that season. Early hype promised that Kiner could “throw like DiMaggio” and “run like a deer,” statements belied by the Pirates watching Kiner in center field his rookie season and playing him in left exclusively thereafter, to say nothing of his career 22 stolen bases.
One part of the hype proved true, and that was Kiner’s hitting ability. Despite making his major league debut without having played a competitive, meaningful game in three years, Kiner led the league with 23 home runs. His .247 average likely cost him some of the acclaim he deserved—he finished thirtieth in MVP voting that year, just ahead of the immortal Peanuts Lowrey—but he made sure the low average would not be a problem again the next season.
That year, Kiner exploded onto the scene, batting .313 with 51 home runs and 127 RBI. Kiner—along with Johnny Mize, who also hit 51 that year—became the first National Leaguer to top 50 home runs since Hack Wilson in 1930. After that season, and until Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire began hitting their performance-enhanced bombs, only Willie Mays and George Foster joined Kiner as National Leaguers to hit 50 or more home runs.
|Ralph Kiner during his broadcasting days (Icon/SMI)|
For Kiner, this was only the beginning of showing off his power. He would proceed to lead the National League in home runs—counting his first two seasons—for seven years, hitting 37 or more homers every year after his initial season. Kiner hit almost 300 home runs in that seven-year period, including 54 in 1949. For good measure, he also led the league in walks and slugging percentage that season, all while batting .310.
However, Kiner never finished higher than fourth in the MVP during his glory years, owing primarily to the truly awful Pittsburgh Pirates teams for which he toiled. In ’49, for example, Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement stat values Kiner at more than two and a half times as valuable as his closest teammate.
While Kiner continued to put up MVP-caliber numbers, his teammates continued to cancel out all his good work and then some, bottoming out with a gruesome 42-112 season in 1952. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Pirates began the age-old tradition of blaming their best player because he couldn’t do everything right, rather than the other twenty-four guys who couldn’t do anything right.
Branch Rickey—who was typically quite a lot smarter than this—went so far as to claim that a team of eight Ralph Kiners in the American Association (Triple-A at the time) would finish last, which is patently insane. In part, Rickey’s sentiments came from the unwillingness of the Pirates’ ownership to trade Kiner, who was beginning to suffer injury problems.
Rickey finally shipped Kiner out in the midst of the 1953 season and—in his very limited defense—was correct that Kiner essentially was finished as a player. (Rickey is also supposed to have told Kiner, who was demanding a salary increase, “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you.”)
Kiner played fewer than 400 games the remainder of his career and was just a shadow of the hitter he was in Pittsburgh. Injuries forced him to retire at age 32, having played fewer than 1500 games, but he still belted 369 home runs.
After a year broadcasting with the Chicago White Sox, Kiner moved into the broadcasting booth for the expansion Mets with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson. Perhaps Mets’ management, knowing what kind of team they were running out in the early days of the franchise, figured Kiner’s Pittsburgh experience would give him a strong perspective.
Whatever the reason for his hiring, Kiner—who earned his place in the Hall of Fame in 1975, after 15 tries—developed into a New York broadcasting legend. He still broadcasts occasional Met games today, though he no longer hosts his trademark “Kiner’s Korner,” named for the spot in Pittsburgh—neé Greenburg Gardens—where many of Kiner’s home runs went.
Kiner’s Korner was for many years an institution, despite the malapropos-prone Kiner running the show. Among other things, he is supposed to have introduced the show as “Kiner’s Korner, with your host, Ralph Korner” and reported that the Mets were “winless in the month of Atlanta.”
Kiner’s Korner was also the source of my all-time favorite Choo Choo Coleman story, when Kiner asked the Mets’ catcher, “What’s your wife's name and what’s she like?” Coleman, missing the point entirely, replied, “My wife’s name is Mrs. Coleman, and she likes me, bub.” Well, naturally.
If Kiner returns to the broadcast booth next year, it will be his fiftieth season behind the microphone, and his eighth decade involved in professional baseball. That is quite a life.
Questions, comments and thinly veiled threats can be mailed to Richard on the back of a twenty dollar bill or e-mailed to him at RichardBarbieri@yahoo.com