R.I.P. Ralph Kiner

Ralph McPherran Kiner (October 27, 1922 – February 6, 2014)

The day I shook the hand of Ralph Kiner.

Ralph KinerRalph McPherran Kiner (October 27, 1922 – February 6, 2014) was a Major League Baseball slugging outfielder whose injury shortened career spanned just ten years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Indians from 1946 through 1955. After retirement he became the voice of the New York Mets from the team’s start until his death. Though injuries cut short what promised to be a glamourous career, Kiner’s tremendous slugging outpaced all National League contemporaries between the years 1946 and 1952.

Though never a household word equal to the likes of Ruth, Mantle, Maris or Aaron, he was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, albeit by a single vote in his thirteenth year of eligibility; and the Pittsburgh Pirates, belatedly perhaps, retired his uniform number 4 in 1987. The Sporting News placed him at number 90 on its 1999 list of “The 100 Greatest Baseball Players.

No, when we talk about baseballs greats, this six-time All Star (1948-1953) is seldom, if ever in the conversation, even though he finished in the top ten in MVP voting for five straight seasons (1947-1951). However, that he played for the baseball yawners Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs for most of his career didn’t help his public recognition level. Then, in the last season of his career, 1955, he managed to be included in a trade from the Cubs to the again pennant seeking Cleveland Indians (except for a ridiculous over the shoulder catch by an ‘unnamed’ center fielder, they would have won it all in ’54). I, for one, remember Ralph Kiner in 1955.

I had the great honor (I didn’t know how much of an honor at the time) to shake hands with Ralph Kiner between games of a September 1955 Cleveland Indians vs. Chicago White Sox double-header. It was Kiner’s only season with the Indians and was to be his last as a player. My Dad and I slipped down to the railing along the third base line between games (security was a lot more relaxed in those days). Kiner was leaning on a bat not more than 10 feet from us. My Dad yelled, “Nice game, Ralph!” referring to his game winning heroics in the first game. Kiner heard him, turned, smiled, and walked over to us. “Thanks,” he said, and reached out to shake our hands. I can still remember my small, eight year old hand being held in the hand of a pleasant giant whose towering figure completely blocked out the late afternoon sun.

The Indians had won the first game (5-3) off the arm of Bob Lemon, who I remember picked Minnie Minoso off first base to end the first inning (argument ensuing). But, more importantly, with two out and the Indians down 3-2 in the bottom of the 4th, Kiner pitch-hit for left-fielder Gene Woodling with the bases loaded. He walked to tie the game with his first RBI of the day. In the 6th, he doubled off the left field wall to drive in both the winning and insurance RBI’s.  Mike ‘Big Bear’ Garcia, then won the second game for the Indians by the same score, with the help of homers by Al Smith and Al Rosen, but Kiner did not play. Indian’s wins that day put them ahead of the Yankees by a half game in the won column and my Dad and I went home feeling pretty good.

When I look back on it, that was one of the biggest days of baseball in my life. I got to shake the hand of one of baseballs mightiest sluggers, and was privileged to see two of the Indian’s “Big Four” pitchers win a game (The other two being Early Wynn and Bob “Never a Free Autograph” Feller. Those four arms, to this day, are said  to be the best starting rotation ever assembled in Major League history). To top it off, Ray Narleski came in to finish both games and threw a total of five shutout innings; not to mention that Chicago had the likes of Minoso, Fox, Lollar, and Kell. Yep, a pretty good day. But, little did we know that Kiner’s season and career was nearly at an end due to his back, and the lack of his bat over the last the days of season, was, arguably, the reason the ’55 Pennant flew in New York and not Cleveland.

Here’s an It’sAboutThe Money.net excerpt from an article called Ralph Kiner and the 1955 Pennant Race that includes that particular double-header I saw as a boy in Cleveland:

On September 4, 1955, the Indians … started the day a half a game behind the Yankees. Playing the White Sox at home, the team was down, 3-0, heading into the bottom of the fourth. With the bases loaded and two runs already in, Kiner … pinch hit for Woodling. … He worked a walk to tie the game. Later in the sixth inning, he hit a two-out double to drive in the go-ahead two runs. Again, his heroics left the team a half a game in front of the standings.

On September 10, Kiner started and went two for five with a homer,  two runs scored and an RBI in a game the Indians won by three runs. They were a game and a half ahead in the standings at that point. The homer was Kiner’s 18th of the season and the final homer of his career. He hit it off Ellis Kinder of the Red Sox.

Sadly, Ralph Kiner was pretty much finished at that point. He only had one more hit the rest of the way and was unable to play in eight of the last eleven games. Without Kiner, the Indians won both games of a double-header on September 13 against the Washington Senators to go up by two games.

After those two wins, the Indians lost four games in a row and six of their last nine games. Meanwhile, the Yankees won ten of their last twelve games and blew by the Indians to not only erase the two game deficit but won the American League by three games.

The way the 1955 Yankees finished that season, perhaps it would not have made a difference if Ralph Kiner had been healthy down the stretch. But the Indians only scored ten runs in those six losses and perhaps a healthy Kiner could have made a difference. We will never know.

The Yankees went on to lose [the] World Series to the Dodgers and the Indians went home. Cleveland released Ralph Kiner on October 10, 1955 and Kiner’s short but brilliant career was over never reaching the Promised Land.

Finally, as ObitOfTheDay points out:

Coincidentally Mr. Kiner died on Babe Ruth’s birthday. Mr. Ruth was the only person to hit home runs more often than Mr. Kiner (11.76 at-bats per home run vs. 14.11) until the sluggers of the 1990s.

photo credit: Super-Nerd via photopin cc

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