Bob Smizik: Ralph Kiner is Pirates' greatest star

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Former Pirates slugger Ralph Kiner died yesterday in California. He was 91. To many Pittsburghers that’s not much of a story. To many, he’s just a blurry name from the distant past. Truth be known, his death is a bigger story in New York City, where he gained new fame, respect and love for decades as an announcer with the Mets.

There probably won’t be much written about Kiner in Pittsburgh today or much talk about him on the radio. His last season with the Pirates was 61 years ago.

So let me tell you a little bit about Ralph Kiner because I knew him the way some of you knew Clemente and some of you knew Stargell and some of you knew Bonds. I knew him first as a little kid. He was in left field when I went to my first Pirates game.

Pittsburgh has had better baseball players than Kiner. It has never had a bigger star.

Ralph Kiner did something that neither Roberto Clemente nor Willie Stargell nor Barry Bonds nor Andrew McCutchen nor any Pirates could do with any amount of consistency. He made people buy baseball tickets. In the 1940s and early 1950s, people didn’t go to see the Pirates, who were almost always awful, as much as they went to see Kiner.

Some history: From 1930 to 1940, the Pirates had seven winning seasons and only once drew more than 500,000 to Forbes Field. Their best attendance in the first six years of the 1940s was 604,694 in 1945.

In 1946, Kiner’s rookie season, when he led the National League in home runs, the attendance 749,962, the highest it had been since the team went to the World Series in 1927 and set what was an attendance record of 869,720.

The next four years, as Kiner became a Pittsburgh phenomenon, the attendance figures were: 1.28 million, 1.52 million, 1.50 million, 1.17 million. In those years, the Pirates finished seventh, fourth, sixth and eighth. Kiner was the whole show.

It’s not a tall tale, but the truth: No matter how bad the Pirates were and no matter how lopsided the score was, almost everyone stayed in their seat until Kiner had his last at bat. When that happened, people went home.

Kiner was Pittsburgh royalty. Baseball was the true national pastime when he joined the Pirates. The Steelers were an afterthought. Pittsburgh fell in love with Kiner, a handsome, well-spoken, well-mannered Californian, who took to celebrity but never abused it. In the off-season he dated movie stars. The New York Daily News yesterday ran a photo of a dashing Kiner, in tuxedo, squiring Elizabeth Taylor. He also dated Janet Leigh, another film star of the day.

Later in his Pirates career, he married American tennis star Nancy Chaffee. The Pittsburgh media treated it like a royal wedding.

Kiner wasn’t just a story for the sports pages in Pittsburgh. He was a story for the front page, for the society page. He even had his own newspaper column in the Pittsburgh Press -- Kiner’s Liners. We hung on his every word, never dreaming he wasn’t writing them.

Why was Kiner so big?

The answer: Home runs. He didn’t just lead the league as a rookie, he led it for the first seven years of his career, which is something not even Babe Ruth had done. In the ten years before 1947, the average home run total for the National League leader was 31. In 1947, Kiner hit 51. He followed that with 40 and 54.

How good was 54 home runs? It was not topped in the National League -- not by Willie Mays, not by Hank Aaron, not by Mike Schmidt -- until 1998, when Mark McGwire hit 70, and we all know what that was about.

All those home run titles raised Kiner’s salary to $100,000, an almost unheard-of amount at the time. The legendary general manager Branch Rickey did not take well to paying such a salary and, as the story goes, told Kiner: "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you."

Kiner was traded to the Chicago Cubs in June 1953, the season after the Pirates lost 112 games. The town was in shock. It would have been like trading Clemente 15 years later. The Pirates got nothing of value in return and Kiner, hampered by a bad back, never was a star again. His last season was 1955.

He was one of the first athletes to turn to broadcasting. He worked for the Chicago White Sox in 1961 and then joined the expansion Mets in 1962 teaming with Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy. He was beloved in New York for the classy guy he always was. He was a student of the game, particularly knowledgeable about hitting.

But he was best-known for his malaprops. He called Gary Carter "Gary Cooper" and his later broadcast partner Tim McCarver "Tim MacArthur." His post-game show, where he interviewed the star of the game, was called Kiner’s Korner and he once called himself Ralph Korner.

Most famously, he once said, "If Casey Stengel were alive today, he’d be spinning in his grave."

Ralph McPherran Kiner is sixth all-time in home runs per at bat. Among retired players not of the steroid era, he is second -- trailing only Ruth. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1975.

Pittsburgh will never see another like him.

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