Published: Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, 3:33 p.m.
Ralph Kiner, a Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who was among Major League Baseball's top post-war sluggers before moving on to a long broadcasting career with the New York Mets, died Thursday in his Rancho Mirage, Calif., home. He was 91.
He died of natural causes, according to statement from the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The right-handed hitting Kiner, a big man for his time at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, won or shared the National League home run title during his first seven seasons with the Pirates starting in 1946 after serving as a Navy pilot in World War II.
“All of us at the Pittsburgh Pirates have heavy hearts upon learning of Ralph Kiner's passing,” club president Frank Coonelly said. “Ralph was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Pirates uniform and was a tireless ambassador for the game of baseball. He was a treasured member of the Pittsburgh community during his seven years with the Pirates.”
Kiner was traded to the Chicago Cubs in June 1953, literally changing uniforms on a day the Pirates played the Cubs at Forbes Field. He also played with the Cleveland Indians before retiring after the 1955 season because of back problems. In 1962, he began working as a broadcaster for the expansion Mets and continued doing occasional work until shortly before his death.
“Ralph Kiner was one of the greatest sluggers in National League history,” 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.”
Ralph McPherran Kiner was born Oct. 27, 1922. A six-time All-Star, he batted a modest .279 during his relatively brief 10-year career and was not fast or gifted defensively. He was all about power and production, belting 369 home runs and driving in 1,015 runs. He ranks sixth all time in fewest at-bats per home run, yet he struck out 100 or more times in a season just once, as a rookie. In 1947, Kiner hit eight home runs in a record four straight multi-homer games. He did all of this with little help, playing mostly for bad teams.
“It kind of fascinated me how he could hit as well as he did when every team was pitching around him,” said Kiner's former teammate and roommate, shortstop Dick Groat. “We didn't have any thunder. He was the only one who could put a big hurt on someone.”
It wasn't enough. The Pirates finished last or next to last five times in Kiner's seven full seasons with the club. When he traded Kiner and his high salary in a 10-player deal the season after the Pirates lost a franchise-record 112 games, cost-conscious general manager Branch Rickey famously told him, “We finished last with you, and we can finish last without you.” Which they did.
Pirates fans hated the trade. For many, Kiner was the only reason to come to the ballpark. From 1949 through '51, the Pirates finished sixth or lower in the eight-team National League yet ranked second, third and fourth in attendance.
Kiner was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975 in his 15th and final year of eligibility, and the Pirates retired his No. 4 in 1987. A sculpture of Kiner's powerful hands gripping a bat is on display at PNC Park.
Based on his short career and poor teams, some baseball observers questioned Kiner's Hall of Fame credentials. But many disagree with that.
“He's in the Hall of Fame, and he belongs,” said former teammate Joe Garagiola, who himself had a long broadcasting career. “I don't want to hear we didn't do this and we didn't do that. You didn't want this guy to beat you.”
Garagiola added, “The biggest tribute a player can get is when the other team is having its meeting, they say, ‘All right, who's the one guy we don't want to beat us?' On our ballclub there was no doubt.”
Kiner was mentored by another Hall of Fame slugger, Hank Greenberg, who came to the Pirates for his final season in 1947 after a 12-year career in Detroit. Kiner, in his second year, and Greenberg became fast friends, and Greenberg spent a lot of time schooling his young protégé. “He used to talk about how Greenberg influenced his hitting,” Garagiola said.
Kiner called Greenberg, “The best thing that ever happened to me.”
Many of Kiner's home runs would sail into the short left-field porch at Forbes Field known as Greenberg Gardens, which then became Kiner's Korner.
Kiner supposedly uttered the oft-quoted line, “Singles hitters drive Fords. Home run hitters drive Cadillacs,” although New York Times columnist Arthur Daley reported it differently. Noting how Kiner challenged defensive shifts, Daley quoted Kiner as saying, “Power hitters who slice to the opposite field ride around in Model T Fords. Power hitters who pull the ball ride around in Cadillacs.”
In 1962, Kiner became a member of the broadcasting crew of the expansion Mets, teaming with Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy, and hosted a popular postgame show, Kiner's Korner. The Mets were terrible. Kiner said he knew that wouldn't be a problem “because I have a lot of experience with losing.”
He was famous for his unintentionally humorous malapropisms (“If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave.”). Tim McCarver, Kiner's broadcast partner for 16 seasons with the Mets, said Kiner frequently mispronounced his name, calling him “McArthur” or “McCarthy” and once forgetting it altogether. But Kiner also possessed vast knowledge of baseball history. He wrote two books about his life in the game.
“For seven decades, he was kind of all things to all people,” McCarver said. “He was a home run hitter. He was a young broadcaster and then an older broadcaster. It was a marvelous life. You talk about continuity. And he was such charming man in every way.”
Kiner was affable and well liked as a player and broadcaster. “The nicest man in the world,” Groat said. “An absolute prince.”
Kiner was aware of his talents — he had several salary disputes with Rickey — but he also could be humble, “a modest guy, with the ability he had,” Garagiola said. Coming off a subpar 1954 season with the Cubs, Kiner shocked the baseball world by requesting a 40 percent pay cut from his new team, the Indians. Commissioner Ford Frick voided the request, saying it was too much.
Kiner was an avid golfer and led a Hollywood lifestyle before his marriage to tennis star Nancy Chaffee in 1951. He dated actresses Janet Leigh, who he met on the set of the film “Angels in the Outfield,” and Elizabeth Taylor. Kiner and Chaffee, the first of his four wives, divorced in 1968, and his marriage to Barbara Kiner ended in 1980. Kiner's third wife, Di Ann Kiner, died in 2004. Kiner is survived by his fourth wife Ann, and three children by Chaffee — sons Michael and Scott, and a daughter, Kathryn Freeman.
Kiner was born in the copper mining town of Santa Rita, N.M. When he was 4, his father, Ralph Maclin Kiner, a steam-shovel operator, died, and Kiner and his mother, Beatrice, a nurse, moved to Alhambra, Calif. Kiner grew up idolizing Babe Ruth and became a star baseball player and also played fast-pitch softball. He signed out of high school with the Pirates for $3,000 in 1940 but enlisted in the Navy soon after Pearl Harbor and learned to fly. He served from 1942 to '45, hunting submarines in the South Pacific.
After he signed, Kiner played for a minor league team in Albany, Ga., where his manager was Frankie Frisch, the former St. Louis Cardinals' star second baseman.
“He isn't ready for the big leagues yet,” Frisch said of Kiner then, “but he can hit the ball seven miles.”
Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BCohn_Trib.
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