Ralph Kiner achieved 'Fame' as a slugger
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From the broadcast booth, Ralph Kiner spent five decades delighting generations of Mets fans, developing into the avuncular voice that became a part of the franchise's fabric.
This was how Kiner was mostly remembered Thursday as news spread of his passing at the age of 91.
But to the generation that actually watched Kiner play, it was what he did in the batter's box that still resonates, even years after his decade as one of the game's feared sluggers.
"He was all the offense the Pirates had,'' said Hank Allen, a former big-leaguer and longtime Astros scout. "He was the only draw. Everybody talked about him.''
Before he ever set foot in a broadcast booth, before he lent his voice to the fledgling Mets franchise, before he charmed his audiences with his "Kinerisms,'' Kiner smashed 369 homers in 10 seasons during a Hall of Fame career spent mostly as an outfielder for the woeful Pirates.
That's how Allen remembered the slugger, as the only star in an era when the Pirates struggled and a bleacher seat at Forbes Field cost 77 cents.
To this day, Allen, 73, considers a T-shirt his sister gave him when he was 13 one of the best gifts of his life. It read "Ralph Kiner, Home Run King.''
"I never took that thing off,'' said Allen, whose brothers Dick (who hit 351 home runs himself) and Ron also made it to the majors. "I wouldn't let my mother wash it. I wore that shirt proudly.''
Kiner's playing career was hardly forgotten. After all, in his final year of eligibility in 1975, he earned a place in Cooperstown. But over time, perhaps as a function of his remarkable longevity in the broadcast booth, Kiner's touch for recounting history obscured his penchant for making history.
As a rookie with the Pirates in 1946, Kiner slugged 23 homers, tying the franchise record set by Johnny Rizzo in 1938. Kiner led the NL in homers in each of his first seven seasons, averaging 42 per year, and he did it with style.
"He hit the highest home runs I've ever seen,'' longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully told SNY Thursday.
In 1947, Pirates ownership altered the dimensions of cavernous Forbes Field, installing a bullpen in leftfield for the benefit of aging slugger Hank Greenberg. It was nicknamed "Greenberg Gardens" and reduced the expanse in left to roughly the standard dimensions of today's ballparks -- 335 feet down the line and 376 in the alley.
But it was Kiner -- a righthanded pull hitter -- who took advantage. He hit 51 home runs that season. And in perhaps his most productive year, he had 54 homers along with 127 RBIs in 1949.
By then, "Greenberg Gardens" had become more famously known as "Kiner's Korner." Scully recalled that Kiner deposited his fair share of homers into the area.
"But after traveling a mile high," he said.
Back injuries forced Kiner to retire at 32 in 1955, but his 369 homers ranked sixth on the all-time list at the time of his retirement. Kiner slugged a homer once every 14.11 at-bats, a ratio that at the time was bested only by Babe Ruth.
Long after he played his final game, Kiner's knowledge of hitting remained sharp.
Former Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda recalled battling a slump in September 1969. It was the days before hitting coaches. So for advice, Swoboda turned to Kiner.
"I asked him to come and feed balls through the pitching machine,'' Swoboda said. "We talked for about an hour. He gave me tips on holding the bat. That night I had the greatest night of my career.''
Steve Carlton struck out 19 for the Cardinals that night, but the Mets emerged as 4-3 winners, with all their runs coming on two homers by Swoboda.