Kiner displayed prodigious power with Pirates
Hall of Famer, who died at 91, hit 301 home runs while playing for Bucs
Ralph McPherran Kiner, very simply, made post-World War II baseball matter in Pittsburgh.
Very little else mattered about those 1946-1952 Pirates, who regularly lost 90-plus games of a 154-game schedule and finished 30-plus games behind in the National League more than once during that span.
But whenever the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Kiner approached home plate twirling a couple of bats overhead, Forbes Field came alive. Regardless of the score -- and, most days, it was lopsided -- fans would refuse to leave until Kiner's last at-bat.
And when Kiner had taken his last swing, the place would empty.
With Kiner as the magnet, bad Pirates teams drew more than a million fans each season from 1947 to 1950. Those were the first million-plus gates in franchise history.
The biggest gate attraction in Pirates history on Thursday ascended to a higher gate, crossing the Pearly Gates upon his death at 91 years old in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
"All of us at the Pittsburgh Pirates have heavy hearts upon learning of Ralph Kiner's passing," Pirates club president Frank Coonelly said in a statement. "Ralph was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Pirates uniform and was a tireless ambassador for the game of baseball. He was a treasured member of the Pittsburgh community during his seven years with the Pirates. Our heartfelt sympathies, thoughts and prayers go out to his children, grandchildren, other family members and many friends. He will be missed by all of us at the Pirates organization."
Sixty years after his final day in a Pirates uniform, Kiner remains a baseball icon in Steel City, an idol by osmosis to players generations removed from his career.
"RIP Ralph Kiner, one of the greatest baseball men of all time," Jameson Taillon, a 22-year-old pitching prospect, said via Twitter.
RIP Ralph Kiner, one of the greatest baseball men of all time! #legend— Jameson Taillon (@JTaillon19) February 6, 2014
It may be difficult for fans of the modern game, so overrun with exceptional talent, to fully appreciate to the extent Kiner stood out in post-war baseball. Babe Ruth is credited with saving the game from its dead-ball and Black Sox scandal stupor, and Kiner was as instrumental as the country was recovering from "the war to end all wars."
He led the NL in home runs in each of his seven full seasons with the Pirates, totaling 294 from 1946-52. In mid-1953, Kiner was dealt to the Chicago Cubs by general manager Branch Rickey as the centerpiece of a 10-player trade, and he concluded his career in 1955 with the Indians.
But in those final 2 1/2 seasons, Kiner added only 68 more home runs, preserving his legacy with the Pirates -- whose cap, naturally, he wore into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975. The Bucs retired his No. 4 uniform in 1987 -- when Kiner was in the midst of his lengthy second career in the broadcast booth of the New York Mets.
In 1949, Kiner reached his peak of 54 home runs -- 18 more than anyone else in the NL (Stan Musial). That same season, he drew 117 walks while striking out only 61 times. No other 50-plus home man in baseball history -- and it has been done 42 other times -- has put up those sets of numbers.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.