Thursday, February 6, 2014

RIP Ralph Kiner

Even in a brief career, Kiner was one of the best power hitters of all-time
Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame slugger and longtime broadcaster, died today. He was 91.

Though Kiner's playing career spanned only ten seasons (1946-1955) because military service delayed its start and a bad back cut it short, he left his mark as one of the greatest sluggers the game has ever seen. During that time he was the fifth most valuable player in baseball behind Stan Musial, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, and Pee Wee Reese--all Hall of Famers. Kiner was the top home run hitter during that period, outhomering the next closest guy (Musial) by 80. Kiner was also third in runs scored and third in RBI despite playing on poor teams for much of his career (only twice was he on a winning ballclub). In that time-frame only Ted Williams walked more.

Hell, Kiner averaged 37 home runs, 101 RBI, 97 runs and 101 walks per season for his career. Not many players can say that.

Kiner's prodigious power was evident from the start. He smacked 23 home runs as a 23 year-old rookie in 1946, enough to lead the National League and start a record streak of seven straight home run titles. He also led the league in AB/HR ratio, something he would do seven times in a row as well.

But Kiner was not a finished product when he arrived in the Show. He showed good plate discipline by walking 74 times, but like most rookies he had trouble making consistent contact, an issue reflected in his low batting average (.247, almost 20 points below the league average of .266) and high strikeout total. In fact, his 109 whiffs were far and away the most in the Senior Circuit that year--nobody else had more than 86. Kiner was blessed with raw power, but he needed to polish his skills to become not just a slugger, but a hitter.

Under the tutelage of teammate and future Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, Kiner honed his craft and emerged as one of baseball's most dominant offensive forces in 1947. He walked 17 more times (98) than he struck out (81) and his batting line jumped to .313/.417/.639, giving him the highest slugging percentage in baseball as well as the league's best OPS (1.055) and OPS+ (173).

But what made Kiner special was the long ball. Learning from Greenberg, a four-time home run champion who hit as many as 58 in a single season, helped Kiner reach his full power potential. He cleared the fences 51 times in 1947 to share the major league lead with Johnny Mize and rack up 361 total bases--most in the bigs. Kiner crushed 28 of those home runs at home--Forbes Field--where he was aided by a short left field porch. Originally dubbed "Greenberg Gardens" by the press, it was quickly renamed "Kiner's Korner" after Greenberg retired following his one year stint with the Pirates. Two decades later, Kiner's postgame show would be named that as well.

With the help of Forbes Field's friendly confines, Kiner was baseball's top home run hitter in each of the next five seasons:

1948: 40 HR, 31/9 Home/Road
1949: 54 HR, 29/25 Home/Road
1950: 47 HR, 27/20 Home/Road
1951: 42 HR, 26/16 Home/Road
1952: 37 HR, 22/15 Home/Road

His string of six straight major league home run crowns is a record, even if he did share a tie in three of those years (with Mize in the first two and Hank Sauer in the last). His five consecutive seasons with at least 40 home runs, equaled by Duke Snider from 1953-1957, stood as a National League record until 2003, when Sammy Sosa reached 40 homers for the sixth straight season.

In 1953 Kiner got off to a slow start, and on June 4th he was traded along with three other players to the Chicago Cubs for six players and $150,000 ($1.3 million in today's money). Pittsburgh's GM at the time, Branch Rickey, reportedly told Kiner that the Pirates, who had lost 112 games and finished last the year before, would have no problem finishing last without him.

That seemed to light a fire under Kiner. He socked 28 home runs over the season's final four months and reached his usual benchmarks--100 walks, 100 runs, and 116 RBI, all for the last time. He was also named to the All-Star team for the sixth and final time. But for the first time since World War II the National League had a new home run king. It was Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves, who bashed 47 home runs in his sophomore season at the tender age of 21. Six players (including Mathews) outdid Kiner's total of 35 that year, marking the end of his home run reign. He swatted just 22 the next year and tailed off to 18 with Cleveland in an injury-plagued 1955.

Though he was just 32 years old at season's end, Kiner called it quits. His home run totals had declined every year since 1949 and he'd played a career-low 113 games in '55, easily the worst season of his career. When Kiner retired, his 369 home runs ranked sixth all-time. His 14.1 AB/HR ratio was second only to Babe Ruth. Even now, it's still the sixth best mark of all-time, trailing only Mark McGwire, Ruth, Barry Bonds, Jim Thome, and Ryan Howard.

Because Kiner's brilliance was short-lived, it took him a while to get elected into the Hall of Fame. He wasn't inducted until his final year of eligibility in 1975, 20 years after his final game. Kiner barely made it in too, receiving just one more vote than he needed to clear the 75 percent threshold. Writers were probably reluctant to vote him in right away because of his low counting numbers, unimpressive batting average (.279) and zero MVP awards and World Series appearances. His poor defense in left field and lackluster baserunning didn't help his case much, either, but in the end his magnificent peak was deemed spectacular enough to merit a plaque in Cooperstown.

After his playing days were over, Kiner became a broadcaster for the Chicago White Sox in 1961. Chicago wasn't half bad that year: they won 86 games with a roster that featured notables such as Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, Roy Sievers, and Al Smith, plus Billy Pierce and Early Wynn in the rotation. But the White Sox finished a staggering 23 games behind the New York Yankees, who of course had Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chasing Babe Ruth's home run record that summer, plus a stellar supporting cast of Elston Howard, Yogi Berra, and Whitey Ford.

The following season Kiner, along with Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy, began broadcasting games for the New York Mets, then in their inaugural season. The Mets were terrible in their early years, losing 120 in their MLB debut and exceeding 100 losses four times in the five years after that. That's what made their 100-win season and World Series championship in 1969 so unexpected, so miraculous. Just the year before, they'd dropped 89 games and finished second to last in the National League. Kiner helped call the '69 Fall Classic, which saw the Mets upset a powerhouse Baltimore Orioles team in five games.

Kiner continued calling Mets games for the rest of his life* even as Bell's palsy affected his speech. He was inducted into the organization's Hall of Fame in 1984 for his work behind the microphone and was honored with Ralph Kiner Night at Shea Stadium in 2007. In 2013, his final season, he was the oldest active announcer in the major leagues, and only Vin Scully and Jaime Jarrin were more tenured.

*Fittingly enough, the Mets were horrible at the beginning of his announcing career and bad at the end. They've endured five straight losing seasons and haven't won a World Series since 1986, which only happened because Calvin Schiraldi couldn't put them away in Game 6.

Kiner spent 53 years in the booth in all, captivating fans with his trademark home run call and by occasionally mispronouncing people's names. But his signature quote came from his playing days, when he declared that "home run hitters drive Cadillacs and singles hitters drive Fords."

Based on Kiner's track record, I'd say he was born to drive Cadillacs.

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