Ralph Kiner had a rare talent. He knew how to hold his crowds captive. As a baseball player, Kiner fascinated them in the visual and physical sense of the game. The Pittsburgh Pirates could be trailing 8-1 in the ninth inning and a Forbes Field crowd would stay until the final out. They didn’t want to miss a chance of seeing slugger Ralph Kiner stepping to the plate.
As an announcer for the New York Mets — although some would argue that in the traditional sense he wasn’t just an announcer — Kiner captivated the audience by his nuanced explanations of hitting and his great storytelling.
Kiner died Thursday, Feb. 6, at age 91.
He was a champion who left quite a legacy behind. “He was a great teammate,” former Pirates right-hander Bob Friend, 83, said, “All the players liked him. He was just a great guy. … Two players I saw hit the biggest power home runs ever? One was Ralph Kiner and the other was Willie Stargell. They hit those towering home runs. Just pure, home run hitters”.
Home runs? Kiner had 369 of them. The Hall-of-Famer tied or led the league in home runs during all seven seasons with the Pirates — including 54 in 1949 — even while playing half his games at spacious Forbes Field. Kiner averaged a home run every 7.1 at bats, second-highest all-time behind Babe Ruth.
By 1952, his output made him $90,000 in annual salary, the highest in the league then. Pirates General Manager Branch Rickey decided the figure should be cut by 25 percent. Kiner, after a three-week holdout in spring training, ended up taking a 15 percent pay cut and played for $76,500.
That spring, Kiner wrote, “A baseball player on the trading block is like a prize steer waiting to be sold to the highest bidder.” Three months after the Pirates resigned him, they traded him to the Chicago Cubs in a 10-player deal that included $100,000 in cash coming to Pittsburgh. The deal was made and fans were heartbroken.
He played two more full seasons and retired after he’d played 10 years because of his back injury.
Kiner’s short career meant he had to wait nearly 20 years to earn Hall of Fame induction. He got into the Hall during his final year of eligibility on the baseball writers’ ballot.
In 1975, he was inducted into Hall of Fame. “Inside, I’m emotionally high,” he told UPI. “But outside, I probably seem calm. That’s because I guess I’ve faced a lot of 3-2 counts with bases loaded.”
For more photos of Ralph Kiner as a Pirate and beyond, visit the Post-Gazette’s photo gallery.