2006-05-12 / Sports

Legendary Kiner Becomes Storyteller in New Autobiography

By John Buro

He has given his life to this game and, in return, the game has more than given back. Ralph Kiner is 83 now and still, very much, an icon to those who recall either his home run prowess [he played with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians from 1946-55], a broadcasting career which has spanned 40 years or his post-game show, Kiner's Korner , which was once, despite the host's many malaprops, among the longest-running programs in New York.

" Baseball Forever: Reflections on 60 Years in the Game " [co-authored with Danny Peary, with an introduction by Tom Seaver, Triumph Books, 240 pps] may be the most diverse book ever published because Kiner's social circles extended far beyond the baseball diamond.

He led the National League with 23 HRs as a Pirate rookie in 1946 -the lowest total for a league leader since 1921 and the team's first such champion since 1902- and would have, surely, won the Rookie of the Year Award had it existed.

The following season, as Jackie Robinson busted through the color barrier, Kiner tied the New York Giants' Johnny Mize for the home run title with 51 apiece.

Before the start of the '47 season, the Pirates purchased slugging first baseman Hank Greenberg -who had topped the American League with 44 bombs a year earlier- from the Detroit Tigers. Pittsburgh promptly reduced the distance in leftfield at Forbes Field by 30', to 335', and the left-center power alley from 406 to 355 feet, thereby creating 'Greenberg Gardens' [this was made possible by the installation of a 30' x 200' double bullpen].

However, the move favored the Pittsburgh outfielder even more and, subsequently, the shortened porch signaled the birth of 'Kiner's Korner'. During a four-game stretch from September 10-12, Kiner blasted a ML record eight homers to temporarily forge past Mize.

The two greats, tied again in 1948, with 40 HRs. But, after the 36 year-old Mize was dealt to the New York Yankees in 1949, the home run crown belonged solely to Kiner for the next three years. Then, in 1952, the Cubs' Hank Sauer's 37 dingers created another tie.

Along the way, the Pirates' star established a host of records -some of which would stand for the next half-century.

Kiner blasted 16 homers in September, 1949 to finish at 54 -two shy of Hack Wilson's NL record. That would be the majors' highest single-season total from 1939 to 1960, and the most a National League player would hit between 1931 and 1997; this achievement also enabled Kiner to become the first player in league history to twice hit 50 or more.

During August and September 1947, he twice hit five homers over two consecutive games, which was another first. The former included home runs in four consecutive at-bats, which spanned two games.

Two years later, he would again swat five in two games.

In 1948, Kiner homered each Sunday for eight successive weeks during May and June. In all, he blasted 17 HRs in 38 such games.

In June 1950, the slow-footed outfielder hit for the cycle during a 16-11 win at Brooklyn.

He added a second round-tripper, and totaled a career-best eight RBI, which was, finally, equaled by Jason Bay in a 10-9 loss to the Cubs on September 19, 2003.

Although Kiner would continue to impress, Pittsburgh would finish no higher than fourth in the eight-team league. By 1950, he had become the quickest to reach 200 HRs [2,537 at bats], surpassing Babe Ruth by a mere 43 official appearances; in May 1953 -a span of just 7-1/3 seasons-, he had hit his 300th round-tripper.

Kiner was scoring away from the diamond, too. He had realized the importance of work relations and, on August 21, teamed with fellow MLB Player Representative Allie Reynolds to hire labor leader John Norman Lewis [for a nominal fee of $15,000] to provide legal advice for players during their negotiations with owners.

Even after Kiner's ailing back forced an early retirement [at the age of 33], he remains the only player ever to lead in homers for seven consecutive years. From 1946-55, the six-time All-Star hit 369 HRs, and averaged better than 100 RBI per season. Kiner averaged 7.1 homers per 100 official at-bats which have only been bettered by Ruth and Mark McGwire.

He endured a 20-year wait for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, and, with votes on 273 of 362 ballots [75.41%] in 1975 -had made it in by a single vote.

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