Kiner, Ralph McPherran

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KINER, Ralph McPherran

(b. 27 October 1922 in Santa Rita, New Mexico), professional baseball player and sports broadcaster, Hall of Famer, and the only player to lead his league or tie for leadership in home runs seven years in a row.

Kiner was the sole child of Ralph Macklin Kiner, a baker and steam shovel operator, and Beatrice Grayson, a registered nurse. Kiner's father died when he was four, and he and his mother moved to Alhambra, California, east of Los Angeles, where his mother secured a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad. Growing up during the Great Depression, Kiner attended Fremont Grammar School and held a magazine delivery route to earn extra money. His love for baseball, however, led him to concoct an elaborate scheme. Rather than going door-to-door delivering magazines, Kiner discovered he could make more money mowing lawns and still have time to play baseball with his friends. The system worked, until his mother found the accruing magazines buried in the backyard. The foiled plan earned him a six-month stint at Long Beach Military School. He went on to attend Alhambra High School and Pasadena Junior College (later Pasadena City College).

Actively sought by the New York Yankees, Kiner was only eighteen when Hollis "Sloppy" Thurston, a scout for the Pittsburgh Pirates, successfully signed him, sealing the deal with a novel $3,000 bonus offer. In 1941 Kiner reported to the Pirates spring training camp in San Bernardino, California. He made his professional baseball debut on 23 April 1941, starting as a left fielder for New York's Eastern League Class A Albany Senators (in the 1940s "A" was the third-highest minor-league level in baseball). As Kiner later told the Albany Times Union, however, playing in a lower-class league didn't make the game easy. "It was a really tough league," he remarked in June 2000. "It was a pitcher's league, and my second year I led the league in home runs with fourteen." The club won the 1942 Eastern League pennant and, after spending two seasons in Albany, Kiner was promoted to Toronto, Canada's AAA team in the International League.

Kiner played forty-three games in 1943 before being called up by the navy on a World War II enlistment. U.S. Navy Air Cadet Kiner began his military career on 8 June 1943. He served in training outfits at Saint Mary's College, Corpus Christi, Texas, and California Poly Tech in San Francisco, before becoming a commissioned officer. He served as a bomber pilot in the Pacific Theater from 1 July 1945 to 19 November 1945.

When Kiner returned to U.S. civilian life and baseball he moved up to the majors, winning a berth with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He played his first postwar game on 16 April 1946 before a St. Louis crowd of 14,000, going one for four in a 6–4 Pirates win over the Cardinals. Two days later, Kiner got his first major-league home run off Howie Pollet. In his rookie season, he belted twenty-three homers to beat Johnny Mize of the New York Giants for the National League (NL) home-run title, becoming the first NL rookie in forty years to top the conference in home runs. From 1946 to 1952, Kiner's first seven years in the majors, the six-foot, two-inch, 195-pound outfielder led the league or tied for leadership in home runs, the only player to do so for seven years in a row.

In 1947 the Steel City franchise obtained Hank Greenberg from the Detroit Tigers. Kiner attributed his continued hitting success to Greenberg's guidance. Greenberg adjusted the right-handed Kiner's batting stance and tutored him in a finer judgment of the strike zone. By moving his batting position closer to the plate and placing his feet twenty-seven to twenty-eight inches apart, Kiner was able to take a six-inch stride into the ball. The result was fifty-one home runs for 1947. On 13 October 1951, with Greenberg as his best man, Kiner married the tennis star Nancy Chaffee in Santa Barbara, California. They had three children.

The post–World War II Pirates were a struggling second-division squad. Although Kiner was only a fair fielder, his keen ability to slug home runs made him the team's star. The author Bob Smizik noted, "Ralph Kiner drew enough people to Forbes Field during the grim years after World War II to enable the franchise to survive." His team-mate Frankie Gustine said, "It was amazing. If Ralph batted in the eighth it seemed like the whole place would get up and leave. But if there was a chance he would bat in the ninth, no one left."

Still, the Pittsburgh general manager Branch Rickey viewed Kiner as a one-dimensional player. Rickey's dislike for Kiner dated to the player's bachelor days, when he squired Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, and other Hollywood starlets. Kiner further irked Rickey by working with the Players Association and demanding a high salary. In heated contract negotiations Rickey told Kiner that "the Pirates could finish last without him as easily as with him." Finally on 4 June 1953, a day Kiner called "one of the darkest moments of my life," Rickey sent Kiner, along with Joe Garagiola, Howie Pollet, and George Metkovich, to the Chicago Cubs for Toby Atwell, Bob Schultz, Preston Ward, George Freese, Bob Addis, Gene Hermanski, and $100,000.

During the 1953 season in Chicago, Kiner injured his back. The following year he was traded on 16 November 1954 to the Cleveland Indians for Sam Jones, Gale Wade, and $60,000. Still nagged by injury, he was released in October 1955. That same month Kiner became the general manager of the San Diego Padres, then in the Pacific Coast League. Five years later Kiner, Greenberg, and other business associates tried unsuccessfully to buy a West Coast expansion club from the American League. He jumped from the front office to the broadcast booth in 1961, joining Bill Veeck's Chicago White Sox. In 1962 he moved to an expansion club, the New York Mets, where he initially served as a play-by-play announcer. He continued his broadcasting association with the team into the 2000 season.

Kiner and his first wife divorced in 1968, and he married Barbara Ann Batcheldor on 6 March 1969. They had two children during nearly twelve years together, but divorced in 1981. He was married for the third time on 5 December 1982 to DiAnn Shugart.

Kiner was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame by a narrow margin on 18 August 1975, his fifteenth and final year of eligibility. He needed 272 votes to be elected; he got 273. On 19 September 1987, in an evening ballpark ceremony, the Pittsburgh Pirates officially retired Kiner's number "4."

Kiner was a one-man home-run hitting crew. For every 100 at bats, he averaged 7.1 home runs, a percentage second only to Babe Ruth's. Over his ten-year playing career, Kiner averaged .279, with 37 home runs and over 100 runs batted in (RBIs) a season. He belted 369 career home runs and 1,015 RBIs. He led the NL in slugging percentage three times (1947, 1949, and 1951) and in bases on balls three times (1949, 1951, and 1952). He was the only player to hit home runs in three consecutive All-Star games (1949, 1950, and 1951), and was the first NL player to seek a $100,000 salary. Perhaps most enduringly, he was baseball's greatest home-run producer for seven years.

Kiner and Joe Gergen cowrote Kiner's Korner: At Bat and on the Air—My Forty Years in Baseball (1987), in which Kiner discusses both his playing career and his years in broadcasting. Biographical entries on Kiner can be found in Michael L. LaBlanc, ed., Professional Sports Team Histories: Baseball (1994); Donald Dewey and Nicholas Acocella, The Biographical History of Baseball (1995); and John C. Skipper, A Biographical Dictionary of the Baseball Hall of Fame (2000). See also Al Stump, "Mr. Home Run," Sport (June 1952); Marino Amoruso, "Ralph Kiner," Sport Collectors Digest (3 Feb. 1984); and Douglas T. Branch, "Kiner Got His Start in Albany," Albany Times Union (25 June 2000).

John Vorperian