Kiner cornered the market on home runs

Seven-time NL home run king remembered for prodigious long-ball totals

February 06, 2014
Hall of Fame Left Fielder Ralph Kiner was elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1975. (NBHOF Library)

Every time Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner stepped to the plate, he was thinking about hitting a home run. That may be why he accomplished the feat once every 14.1 at bats – a number topped by only five men in baseball history.

Kiner passed away Feb. 6, 2014 at the age of 91. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and he was considered the game’s greatest home run hitter during the years directly following World War II.

Born Oct. 27, 1922, in Santa Rita, N.M., Kiner was raised in California by his mother after his father passed away when Kiner was four years old. He was signed by the Pirates in 1941 and later served as a Navy pilot, interrupting his minor league service from 1943-1945.

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By 1946, Kiner had earned an invitation to the Pirates big league camp and made the team, hitting a National League-best 23 home runs as a rookie. But because he hit just .247 that year, Kiner had not yet established himself at the big league level.

In 1947, the Pirates acquired future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg from the Tigers – and Greenberg took Kiner under his wing.

 “Don’t send this boy out. He’s got a great swing, he’s very determined, and he’s going to make it,” said Greenberg when Kiner was struggling and speculation abounded that Kiner would be sent back to the minors.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was when they got Hank Greenberg,” Kiner said. “He didn’t change my swing, but he did tell me something that was very important – and that was to move up on the plate. After that, they couldn’t pitch me inside and that way I could hit home runs.”

Kiner played only 10 seasons of major league baseball before back problems ended his career, but it was enough time for him to establish himself as one of the greatest sluggers of all time. He was elected to six All-Star Games and led or tied for the National League lead in home runs in his first seven seasons in baseball – a record that has never been approached.

“Ralph Kiner can wipe out your lead with one swing,” Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn once said.

More than five millions fans paid see mostly losing Pirates teams from 1947 to 1950, largely because of Kiner, who played the majority of his career in Pittsburgh. He was traded to the Cubs during the 1953 season and remained in Chicago through 1954, then played for the Indians in 1955 before retiring. He became the first player to hit 50-plus home runs in two seasons in the National League and retired with the sixth-most home runs in big league history.

Kiner finished in the top seven in the Most Valuable Player voting four consecutive years (1947-50), and the Sporting News named him Player of the Year in 1950.

He finished with 369 home runs, 1,015 RBIs, 1,451 hits and a .279 career batting average. He walked 100 or more times in six seasons.

“I would have played in a lot more games if my back injury had happened in 1975 instead of 1955, because medicine was so much better then,” Kiner said.

But Kiner didn’t lack for job offers after his playing days. Following his retirement, Kiner became the general manager for the Sand Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League and went on to broadcast play-by-play for the Mets. He called Mets games for 52 seasons starting in 1962 and became a beloved figure on the New York sports scene.

Kiner is survived by two sons: Ralph Michael Kiner and Scott McPherran Kiner; three daughters: Kathryn Chaffee Freeman, Tracey Jansen and Kimberlee Manzoni; and 12 grandchildren.