June 17, 2010

Great Pirates In History: Ralph Kiner

In each of the past 18 losing seasons, the Pirates have had one or two players whose standout performances were wasted. In an earlier post I looked back on the best seasons of 2000-2009.

Incredibly, the Pirates went through an even worse stretch from 1946-53 in which they won an average of 62 games a year despite having undoubtedly the best slugger in baseball - Ralph Kiner.

Today's Post-Gazette refers to Pedro Alvarez as "the second coming of Ralph Kiner." I can hardly think of a more unfair comparison. After missing most of two seasons to serve in World War II, Kiner made his major league debut at the age of 23 and proceeded to lead the league in home runs for his first seven straight seasons. It's one of the most impressive feats of power hitting in history, and one that won't be repeated by Alvarez or anyone else.

A three sport star in high school, Kiner was signed at age 18 and reported to spring training in 1941. Major league baseball only went as far west as St. Louis in those days, so the '41 Pirates were the first major league club he had seen. The '41 White Sox were the second, and he went 3-for-5 with a home run against them in his first spring training game.

Kiner was optioned to the Pirates top minor league affiliate, the formidably named Albany Lawmakers, and started all season hitting .279 with a team high 11 home runs. In '42 he returned to Albany and hit .257 with 14 home runs.

Promoted to the Pirates' new affiliate in Toronto in 1943, Kiner was hitting just .236 with two home runs when he was called to the Navy in June. He missed the rest of 1943 and all of 1944. I would say his return was eagerly awaited, but no Pittsburgh newspaper mentioned his name throughout the 1944 and 1945 seasons.

With the end of the war, Kiner returned to spring training in 1946 and began to show his prodigious power, with ten spring home runs including a 440 foot walk off on March 26. The Post-Gazette reported that he "hits a ball longer and more consistently than either Vince DiMaggio or Johnny Rizzo." Good to hear!

Home runs were really rare in 1946, but Kiner's rookie year was a success as he led the league with 23 of them. He finished fifth in RBI with 81, a real accomplishment on a 63-91 seventh place team. It was the worst year he would have as a big leaguer.

In 1947, the slugger returned with 51 home runs and 127 RBI, scored 118 runs and slugged .639 with a .417 OBP. He almost singlehandedly drew a then-record 1.3 million fans to Forbes Field as the team dropped to 62-92.

Now an established star at age 25, Kiner returned in 1948 and for the only time in his career, singlehandedly led the Pirates to a winning season. He had 40 home runs; Wally Westlake was second on the team with 17. He drove in 123; Danny Murtaugh was second with 71. He walked 112 times; second best was 61. Thee Pirates went 83-71. They began September 1.5 games out of first, giving the fans a taste of a pennant race. Attendance totals at Forbes Field rose to second in the league. This is what would happen again if a modern Pirates team put together a similar season.

The Pirates' left fielder had his finest season in 1949, hitting .310 with 54 home runs and 127 RBI. He slugged .658 and walked 117 times, scoring 116 runs. He hit 18 more home runs than anyone else in the league. Unfortunately the Pirates starting infield combined for 13 home runs while the pitching was last in the league, helping the team to a 71-83 finish.

With Kiner now signed for $65,000 a year, 1950 brought more of the same - 112 runs, 47 homers (11 more than anyone else in the league), 118 RBI, 122 walks. The Pirates finished last in the NL in wins yet third in attendance, and it is not hard to figure out who people were paying to see.

In 1951, Kiner got on base more than ever and led the league in runs, home runs, walks, on base percentage and slugging percentage. The Pirates went 64-90. The movie "Angels in the Outfield" came out, featuring the undeniable premise that at that point it would take divine intervention for Pittsburgh to field a winning team.

Kiner was married in Santa Barbara that October and bought a new desert home in Palm Springs. Yet he could do nothing about his professional life. There was no free agency; he could only return to the Pirates year after year.

For 1952, the six time defending home run champion had the audacity to demand a two-year contract. Pirates general manager Branch Rickey refused, and Kiner was signed only when Rickey stepped aside allowing team president John Galbreath to negotiate a deal. Rickey never forgave him and began publicly attempting to trade his slugger.

The '52 Pirates were a total laughingstock, going 42-112. Kiner had 37 more runs, 21 more homers, 28 more RBI and 60 more walks than anyone else on the team. He did this while publicly feuding with Rickey and while receiving two death threats during the season, including one which attempted to extort $6500 from him.

Throughout the offseason and the beginning of the '53 season, Rickey continued to try to trade Kiner, famously saying the Pirates "could finish last without him." Bizarrely, he publicly demeaned his star, saying that an American Association team with eight Ralph Kiners would have a losing record.

"I would like to make a few requests of Santa Claus," fan Henry Novak wrote to the Post-Gazette that December. "Please bring Branch Rickey a shiny new plank so he can jump from the Pirate ship that he sank...If Rickey trades Kiner, wrap Branch and his cigars up pretty and drop him in Great Bear Lake going home."

Finally in June 1953, Kiner was dumped to the Cubs in a ten-player deal, one of the sort that was only made in those days by Branch Rickey. For the seven time defending home run champ, Rickey's two other best hitters and his second best starting pitcher, he received a veritable All-Star cast of scrubs. Here's what they did for the Pirates:

Bob Addis (three at bats, zero hits)
Toby Atwell (four seasons, .250, nine home runs)
George Freese (one season, .257, three home runs)
Gene Hermanski (one season, .177, one home run)
Bob Schultz (one season, 0-2, 8.20 ERA)
Preston Ward (four seasons, .240, 21 home runs)

Rickey got his wish and finished last without Ralph Kiner.

Kiner's power has been called overrated; the charge is that he hit too many of his home runs into a favorable corner of Forbes Field. Yet 1948 is the only year when he wasn't the league's top slugger in road games. His 23 road home runs in 1947 tied the NL record; his 25 in 1949 broke it. Surely he was helped when the left field wall was moved in from 365 to 335 feet after his rookie year - but 335 down the line is hardly a short porch.

Finally, part of athletic greatness is taking advantage of whatever circumstances one plays in. If he played in the dead ball era, Kiner would have led the league in RBI by hitting doubles and triples. In the low scoring 1960s, he would have walked even more and led the league in runs. And in the 1970s and later, he would have been able to DH long after his back prevented him from playing in the field.

Bill James wrote in 1988, "Ralph Kiner was, in terms of an established ability at a given moment, the second-greatest home run hitter of all time. Only Ruth dominated the home run hitting business the way Kiner did in his best seasons." I thought by now he would be behind Barry Bonds in that category - far from it. Bonds led the league in home runs twice, eight years apart. James's statement is still true today.

Kiner was rightfully enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1975. He was the best Pirate never to play in a postseason, and is truly a great Pirate in history.


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