At the Dapper Dan Dinner and Sports Auction last Thursday, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said the chance to come to a historic franchise was one of the reasons he chose to take the job in Pittsburgh. On the same day a reminder of that storied history came with the passing of one of the greatest players ever to pull on a Bucco uniform.
Ralph Kiner. Just to speak the name sets off an echo ringing down the years.
The great slugger was 91 when he died at his home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., generations removed from the seven seasons he spent with the Pirates from 1946 to 1952. But what seasons he had. Today there is hardly a Pirates fan who doesn’t hear Kiner’s name and think of greatness.
Not for the Pirates themselves. In those years, the team finished above .500 only once. In five of those seven seasons, the Bucs finished last or next-to-last in the league, but fans had a reason to keep believing and that reason was Ralph Kiner.
He was the master of the long ball, hitting a club record 54 home runs in 1949. Overall he hit 301 homers for the Pirates, the second most of anybody. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, his 7.1 ratio of home runs per 100 at-bats trails only Mark McGwire, Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds among retired players. He was admitted to the Hall of Fame in 1975.
Pirates fans will recognize some familiar notes in their history — that their team has periodically had its ups and downs, that great players have been more or less a constant in its varied fortunes and that controversy about trades is not new. Ralph Kiner was traded to the Chicago Cubs in 1953 and to the Cleveland Indians in 1955, then a back injury cut short his career. He went on to spend a half-century as a broadcaster with the New York Mets.
Having done his work well, Mr. Hurdle, named as the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year, now presides over a more successful chapter in Pittsburgh Pirates history, but the tradition he embraced owes much to Ralph Kiner.