“I try to hit the ball as hard as I can every time I swing.” – Ralph Kiner, Pittsburgh Pirates slugger
Home-run hitters, Kiner liked to say, drive Cadillacs. Kiner crushed big-league pitching. He didn’t drive a Chevy.
No one hit the long ball like Kiner did in the years following World War II. He led the National League in homers every season from 1946 through 1952. Twice, the right-handed hitter ripped more than 50.
“(Ralph) Kiner can wipe out your lead with one swing.” – Warren Spahn
Kiner, born Oct. 27, 1922, in Santa Rita, New Mexico, grew up in Alhambra, Calf.. He could play ball just about every day in the warm, sunny climate. Scouts began to notice this lanky, athletic prospect. Kiner signed with the Pirates after graduating from Alhambra High.
The Pirates assigned Kiner to the Class D Eastern League in 1941. Two years later, they promoted him to the organization’s Toronto farm club. By then, the U.S. Navy also wanted him. Kiner spent the war flying planes assigned to anti-submarine patrols.
Being a pilot challenged Kiner both mentally and physically, he said in a November 2009 article on ESPN.com. “You grow up fast when you are in a war,” he said. Kiner gained some maturity and 20 pounds, mostly muscle.
In 1946, Kiner reported for spring training. He blasted 13 home runs in 30 games. The left-fielder was ready. He led the N.L. in homers that season with 23. (Kiner played in 144 games in ’46. Johnny Mize, who broke a wrist and was limited to just 101 games, finished second with 22. Kiner’s tally was the lowest league-leading total since Hack Wilson hit 21 in 1926 for the Cubs.)
The next year, Kiner walloped 51 (and tied Mize). He hit 40 home runs in 1948 (again, he tied Mize) and belted a career-high 54 in 1949. Kiner was the first National Leaguer to enjoy two 50-homer seasons.
Many of Kiner’s round-trippers sailed over the left- and left-center-field fences at Forbes Field. The Pirates had shortened the distances from home plate to the fences upon Hank Greenberg’s arrival in 1947. They cut the left-field foul line from 365 feet to 335 and the left-center power alley from 406 to 376. Fans dubbed the spot “Greenberg Gardens.” Sportswriters began calling it “Kiner’s Korner.”
Big Ralph again topped the N.L. in homers in 1950 (47), 1951 (42) and 1952 (37). Fans loved Kiner’s long-ball heroics, and the Pirates paid him top dollar ($90,000 at one point). The Pirates, though, rarely contended for a pennant. During Kiner run of home-run crowns, the Pirates ended up last four times.
Branch Rickey, hired in 1950 to run the club, blamed most of the problems on Kiner. The guy can’t run, throw or play defense, Rickey complained. At one point, Rickey cut Kiner’s salary to $75,000. “We can finish last without you,” Rickey told his ballplayer.
Finally, in June of 1953, Rickey dealt Kiner to the Cubs in a 10-player deal. The trade proved Rickey right. Pittsburgh kept finishing last, in ’53, 1954 and 1955.
Kiner’s career last only a few more seasons. He played 117 games for Chicago that first year and belted 28 homers after hitting seven in Pittsburgh. He hit 22 in ’54 and was dealt to the Cleveland Indians. Kiner hit 18 homers in ’55, his last year. Back injuries forced him to retire at the age of 32. He left the game with 369 home runs over his 10 seasons. At the time, he was sixth on the all-time list.
Beyond the playing field, Kiner is famous for a few other things. For one, he dated some famous Hollywood starlets, including Elizabeth Taylor. Later, he married tennis star Nancy Chafee. The couple built a house in Palm Springs and palled around Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz and the like.
Of course, Kiner also did a famous turn as a broadcaster. He called New York Mets games for decades. Fans know him for his “Kiner-isms,” humorous malapropos. Here is a sampling:
“On Father’s Day, we again wish you all a Happy Birthday.”
“All of his saves have come in relief appearances.”
“Hello, everybody, welcome to Kiner’s Korner. I’m Ralph Korner.”
“The Hall of Fame ceremonies are on the 31st and 32nd of July.”
“All of the Mets road wins against the Dodgers this year occurred at Dodger Stadium.”
You get the idea. Kiner didn’t win many awards for his broadcasting. He did, though, get voted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. He had been on the ballot since 1960, so his was not a slam-dunk case. Kiner never won an MVP, and his career batting average was just .279.
However, he did walk a lot (at least 100 times in six different seasons) and finished with an impressive .398 career on-base percentage. Kiner led the lead in slugging three times and in OPS and OPS+ three times. His short career may look more impressive in retrospect than it did decades ago.
Kiner, beloved in Pittsburgh as a player and in New York City as a broadcaster, died Feb. 6, 2014, in Rancho Mirage, Calif., at the age of 91.